Jodhpur in Rajasthan is also called 'Blue City' as well as 'Sun City'. One wonders how a place with scanty rainfall and hardly any water body came to known as Blue City. But with a peep into its hoary past, everything falls in place.
Like all major Rajasthani cities, Jodhpur is also studded with majestic forts and stunningly beautiful palaces. They include, Mehrangarh, Umaid Bhawan, Mandore Garden and Jaswant Thada, among others. None of which has lost its luster, even after monarchy coming to end years ago.
How the place got its name
The city was built by Maharaja Rao Jodha, the 15th Rathod ruler, in 1460. The biggest contribution of Maharaja Jodha is the massive Chintamani fort. The Maharaja shifted the capital of the kingdom from Mandore to Bhaucheera, to ensure better protection from enemy attacks.
Over time, Chintamani fort came to be known as Mehrangarh and was the seat of the 27 Rajput rulers of the Sun dynasty. However, after the 37th king of the dynasty, Umaid Singh (1903-47), built the Umaid Bhavan palace and shifted there, the glory days of Mehrangarh began to wane. The move to Umaid Bhavan signified a change of not only the architecture, but also the power structure of the land.
With India gaining Independence, the Rajput ruler of Jodhpur lost his income from tax collection, though he remained in possession of the massive forts and palaces. However, rising up to the occasion, the Maharaja struck a deal with the Taj Group of hotels. By leasing out a portion of the Umaid Bhavan palace as a luxury hotel, the Maharaja ensured a steady income for himself. The former ruler of Jodhpur continued to live in the remaining part of the palace.
A visit to Mehrangarh is best after nightfall, when it is illuminated with innumerable lights. Mehrangarh translates as the 'Palace of the Sun.' A narrow, winding path leads up a hill to fort, which majestically rises 410 feet above the city. The path uphill is always crowded, with people, cattle, horses, cycle-rickshaws and cars.
In and around
Spread out below the fort is the 'Blue city'. According to most popular local lore, the houses painted blue belonged to the Pasupathy Brahmins who sought refuge under the Maharaja. However, there is a different version which says that blue colour acted as a shield against the heat. Yet another view is that paint mixed with copper sulphate was applied on the buildings as a protection against termites.
Mehrangarh is now a busy tourist spot, with shops selling bangles and other colourful ware lining the paths. The typical smells of the land can also be felt here. But the overwhelming hue is red. Visitors are drawn to the fort not only by the bird's eye views from the ramparts but also adventure activities like zip line.
The fort stands tall in history for never having been conquered and first gate, Jayapol, signifies this unblemished record. There are six other gates for the fort, with names like Doodh Kangrapol, Fatehpol etc. Reminding visitors of the past, the Doodh Kangrapol bears several marks of cannon blasts.
Tourists heading past these gates hear strains of the Rajasthani welcome song by folk singers. Among the seven gates of Mehrangarh, the strongest is the Loh Pol - it has metal spikes to ward off an attack by trained battle elephants. In the ancient war techniques, elephants were used to force open fort gates. One can see palm prints of women who performed 'Sati' on both sides of this gate. In ancient times, all inmates of the palace, accompanied the women, performed the ritual ceremonially here. After making the imprint of their palm on the side of the gate, the women walked to the pyres of their husbands.
There are several other gory tales associated with Mehrangarh. When the Maharajah was shifting his capital, a hermitage existed at the place where the fort stands today. The sage who lived there objected to the building of the fort. But overruling the sage's objection, the Rajput king started the construction. An enraged sage uttered the curse of water shortage at the fort.
The remedy found to tide over the shocking curse also was terrible – human sacrifice, and a commoner named Raja Ram Meghwal was selected for the ritual. Soon, he met with a sad end, but Meghwal's name and his sacrifice have been etched on the walls of Mehrangarh.
Much blood has flowed in the fort as consequence of power struggles, love affairs and betrayals. While progeny proved to be killers in the case of Maharajas like Rao Ganga and Ajith Singh, the deaths of other noted personalities like Arya Samaj founder Swamy Dayanand Saraswathy is also related to the dark past of the fort.
An open courtyard served as the venue of coronation and related ceremonies. A marble throne and a dais where the coronation took place can still be seen. The most recent coronation was that of Maharaja Gaj Singh, who took over when he was aged just four years old.
There are several attractions at the fort, including a museum, Sheesh Mahal, Phool Mahal, Moti Mahal and Taqat Villa. The red-coloured buildings are meant for women and the white for men. The white structures have elaborate arches and more open spaces. They also are bigger in area. In contrast, the red buildings are designed to ensure privacy of the residents.
They were meant for the Rajput women, who revealed their face only to their sons and husband. The walls of the red buildings are elaborately carved with tiny openings for ventilation. There are around 250 different lattice designs on the walls, even though they may all look similar at one glance. The work is done neither on wood or any similar material, but sandstone. A thought flashes across any visitor, ''What beauty may be concealed behind such an attractive wall!''
History shows that Rajput kings respected not only the privacy of the women but their opinion too. For instance, the Maharaja arranged an area concealed behind a lattice partition above Moti Mahal, the royal court, where all the lords and chieftains of the kingdom assembled. The throne, adorned with a parasol, is placed on a higher platform than the rest of the seats. A red carpet spreads on the floor and the lords sat on cushions.
The overbearing colours in the royal court are red and gold, while silk and velvet decorations add to the grandeur. Each seat is placed according to the position of its occupant. Directly across the king sat the heir. The maharaja's brothers sat on his right, while the other princes sat on the left. However, to meet his subjects, the king chose an open space.
The museum within
The palace displays the influence of Mughal, Rajput, Persian and Chinese architecture. A fine example is the artwork on the palanquins. Peacock images adorn its various parts, while the palanquins meant for the king display representations of lion and the dragon.
The howdah used by the king and royal family is also decorated by intricate carvings and stunning artwork. Among the howdahs kept at the place is one gifted by Mughal emperor Shajahan to Maharaja Jaswant II. The howdas, built using wood, ivory and metals including gold, are decorated with silk and velvet upholstery. Toys made of ivory and camel bone can also be seen in the palace.
Several items in the museum reveal the Rajputs' preference for intoxication. Betel boxes, chuski – a vessel used to sip an opium-laced drink - and hookahs made of an alloy of copper, silver and zinc are displayed.
The chuski used by the Queen looks like a silver statue of a dancing girl at one glance with one raised hand in a 'mudra' pose. Tilt the statue a little and the intoxicating drink flows out.
Weapons used by the former rulers are kept at Daulat Khana, another section of the museum. It also displays miniature paintings, clothes with silk embroidery and carpets. Some armaments belonging to the Jodhpur royals are exhibited in Sileh Khana also. Interesting pieces include swords used by Akbar, Aurangazeb and Rao Jodha, the double-edged sword of Maharaja Ajith Singh, a cannon with a mouth of the crocodile, spears, a weapon that serves as a gun as well as knife, a scissor-shaped weapon, a variety of guns, rifles and pistols, shields decorated with gold and precious stones, body armour and several others. Scenes from films like 'Padmaavat' and 'Baahubali' flash across a visitor's mind.
Works of art
Adding to the beauty of the palace are the paintings, which adorn almost all the walls. The paintings are done on thick handmade paper using brushes made out of the hair of a squirrel’s tail. Only natural colours are used to bring the kings to life. Numerous miniature paintings can also be seen.
The venue of performing arts at the palace was Phool Mahal, built in the 18th century during the time of Maharaja Abhay Singh. It is believed that about 80 kg of gold went into the construction.
A variety of cradles are displayed at zenana, a part of the palace meant for women. There are tiny angels with musical instruments in the cradles. The windows of the zenana give a good view of the courtyard of the palace and the city beyond. Though visitors are allowed to see the cradles, they are not allowed into other private areas of the palace, except the bedroom of Maharaja Taqat Singh, the adopted son of Maharaja Mansingh. The royal retiring chamber displays a blend of Hindu-Mughal-European influences. Coloured shining globes hang from the wooden ceiling and paintings done in European style line the walls.
Numerous mighty cannons stand threateningly on the ramparts of the fort. But the sight can be best enjoyed best only from an aerial view. From the fort, one can see a cenotaph named Jaswant Thada at a distance. It is dubbed the 'Taj Mahal of Marwar.'
This was the venue for celebrations like Holi. Surrounding this wide, open space are the women’s quarters. The chief deity of the women in the palace was Gangur Devi, a form of Goddess Parvathy, who was propitiated to ensure the safety of their husbands and for finding a good groom. A silver idol of Gangur Devi is displayed at the museum along with typical Rajasthani attire.
Meanwhile, the royal family offered prayers at Sheesh Mahal, the palace of mirrors. The prayer room is elaborately decorated, but interestingly lacks idols of gods or other religious items. The light from the ornate lamps reflects brilliantly from the mirrors. One feels that the prayer room with its mirrors offers an opportunity for self-reflection.
However, sadly, reconstruction carried out on several occasions in the past has shrunk the Sheesh Mahal to one-sixth of its original size. The most disastrous reconstruction took place during World War II at the time of Maharaja Umaid Singh. The king, facing a financial crunch, was told by some holy man that a treasure lay hidden beneath the Sheesh Mahal. Believing the saint, the maharaja dug up the prayer room; but found nothing.
The path ahead leads to the temple of Goddess Chamundi. There is a belief that Mehrangarh fort remained unconquered due to the blessings of Chamundi. As a result, even today, any celebration in Jodhpur city ritualistically begins from Mehrangarh.