Discovering Rajasthan

It is said that the history of the Indian state of Rajasthan is about 5000 years old. However

Archaeological evidence indicates that early humans lived along the banks of the Banas River and its tributaries some 100,000 years ago. The Indus (Harappan) and post-Indus civilizations (3rd–2nd millennium BCE) are traceable at Kalibangan in northern Rajasthan, as well as at Ahar and Gilund, both near the city of Udaipur in the south…..

The whole or parts of present-day Rajasthan were ruled by Bactrian (Indo-Greek) kings in the 2nd century bce, the Shaka satraps (Scythians) from the 2nd to the 4th century ce, the Gupta dynasty from the early 4th to the late 6th century, the Hephthalites (Hunas) in the 6th century, and Harsha (Harshavardhana), a Rajput ruler, in the early 7th century.


I am not here to debate the valiant and often romaticised history of Rajput clan. Nor am I an expert in all things related to history, art and culture. The sole purpose of this post to explore Rajasthan, or rather the capital city, as a novice traveller with an eye on history, architecture, art and culture – a context of a city that evolved as a major tourist destination depsite a history rooted deeply in war and politics.

The history of people is not merely a chronological arrangement of events & incidents, it is an analysis of development of society, its culture and changing panorama of the socio-economic conditions.

City of Jaipur

It is very difficult to step out of the mould of a tourist and the take the role of an explorer in the current time and pace of the world. Been there, done that, and most likely I will again fall back on it because its the easiest way to be in a new place and check it off your list. But let me try my best to take you on an exploration of Jaipur!

History of Rajasthan is full of many wars, and repeated attacks by enemies. Forts and walled cities are a result of this situation. The walled cities are developed by rulers at different places in Rajasthan, to accommodate the need of growing population of their city and provide safety and security to people and goods. The walled city depicted a very high order of city planning. The different components of walled cities i.e. Residences, Bazaars, religious places, Chowks, Streets & monuments are encircled by walls and protected by an all round moat, river or water flowing. Throughout Rajasthan, almost every fort has walled city near it. Traditional buildings of Rajasthan are the reflection of the life style of the local people. Typically, there are 4 styles of buildings in Rajasthan:

  • GADH or FORT -: palace built on highest level or top of the hill.
  • MAHAL OR PALACE -: palace built on ground level.
  • BAAG or GARDEN -: a place full of gardens for recreation purposes.
  • HAVELI -: traditional houses for employees or public.

According to UNESCO, the fort or Gadh is a testimony to the power of the Rajputs princely states, and hence built on highest level or top of the hill, enclosed all around with defensive walls covering around 20 kilometers length in perimeter. They are a shrine to cultural interchange between Princely Rajputs philosophies in fort planning with art and architecture and the varied cultural zones formed as a result of coalitions and other regional styles including Mughal architecture. Here’s a list of the ones that I have stepped my foot on to so far:

  1. Amer Fort, Jaipur
  2. Jaigarh Fort, Jaipur
  3. Nahalgarh Fort, Jaipur
  4. Jaisalmer Fort, Jaisalmer
  5. Kumbhalgarh Fort, Udaipur

Hill forts of Rajasthan

If I was a talented photographer, I would happily document a photblog excusively for this section alone. Since I am not, I will try to keep the history lesson to bare minimum, with just some of the key highlights that I found fascinating (and links for you all, if needed, to follow on the quest of knowledge)

Despite sounding like a military site, Amber Fort in reality is the residential palace prior to Jaipur comprising of lavish courtyards, ornate residences and opulent garden all within the limits of towering walls of sandstone and marble. With a footfall of 1.8 million tourists annually, Amber fort is the leading tourist spot within the Rajasthan tourism circuit. However, Amber is not the first fort built on this hill-top. An older palace known as the Kadimi Mahal was built by the Meenas, who are now classified as tribals, way back in 10th CE. Amber takes its name from Amba Mata, the goddess of earth and fertility for Meenas.

A recent discovery of a secret tunnel connecting Amber fort and Jaigarh fort has become a new highlight. However, because of the current pandemic, the tunnel has been closed for tourists for the moment. You can read about the experience in preparation for your next visit though!! Compared to Amber fort, Jaigarh fort is a strategic defence fortification system built around Amer fort and the city. As you step on to Jaigarh, you can forget abour ornate frescoes and get intrigued by the careful planning that has gone into planning and designing this system. The most interesting feature of the Jaigarh Fort (well beyond the expansive stretch of fort walls) is the world’s largest wheeled cannon – Jaivan! Cast in 1720, the 50-ton cannon was only fired once in its lifetimes, as part of testing and used 100kg of gunpowder for that single shot. We were informed that the shot was so loud, that all the gunners went deaf and the fort walls developed massive cracks. When the shot landed 35 kilometers away in a small village, it caused a crater depression and the shock wave caused a number of houses to collapse.

The recent renovations have added value to Nahalgarh fort as a sunset view point for Jaipur city and its pink afterglow. While the inital structure (barracks and two baoris) were built by Maharaj Sawai Jai Singh II, the founder of Jaipur, the main palace section was built by Sawai Madho Singh II in the later part of the 19th century since he was known to have a large number of concubines and queens. While the fort is built in a typical Rajput pattern, interestingly, the palace section of the fort boasts of an European flavor. The water system in the Nahargarh Fort forms an important part of its architecture. One can opt for the popular Nahargarh water heritage walk to gain a deeper understanding about a 300-year old water collection system.

Jaisalmer fort, also known as Sonar Quilla on account of the characteristic yellow sandstone walls that takes on a honey gold hue with sun’s rays. My personal introduction to the fort started with the popular Feluda series written by Satyajit Ray where the main plot was structured around the Golden Fortress and the sand dunes of Jaisalmer. The Jaisalmer Fort is also known as the world’s oldest and last remaining living forts since one-fourth of Jaisalmer’s population still resides within its walls. While in modern times the Jaisalmer Fort no longer serves as an impenetrable defense from invasion, it’s still a significant cultural and historic part of the Old City of Jaisalmer and can be best experienced on foot. As a heritage site, the desert fort has multiple stakeholders in its management including the ASI, local municipal authority, the royal family and local residents. However, the lack of integration has started showing its crack in the maintenance of this beautiful piece of history.

Constructed in 1156 AD, over 860 years ago, by the Bahti Rajput ruler (Rawal) Jaisal, the Jaisalmer fort and the citadel desert city was an important trading hub, strategically constructed on the crossroads of historic trading routes, including the Silk Road. While it remains a strategic focal point due to its proximity to Pakistan border, the trading value of the citadel city diminshed during the colonial rule.

After Jaisalmer fort, my definite favourite would be the Kumbhalgarh Fort in Udaipur. The fort has a unique place within the pages of history – the timeline of the fort from its early history till the conquest of Alauddin Khilji cannot be determined due to lack of documentation, yet it is known as the second largest wall after the Great Wall of China. Designed on a hilltop about 3600 feet above sea level, surrounded by a 36-kilometer long wall with seven guarded gates, the ‘Great wall of India’ boasts about 15 foot high frontal walls. Architect Mandan was the fort’s chief architect, and his method of construction was recorded in his book Rajvallabh, which he dedicated to King Rana Kumbha. Within the fort, there are over 360 temples, 300 of which are ancient Jain temples and the rest are Hindu shrines.

Palaces or Mahal play an equal role in capturing the cultural inheritance of Rajasthan. They usually serve as private residences of the royal family, showcasing a unique ethnic mix of Rajput and Mughal architecture. The popular ones are:

  1. City Palace, Jaipur
  2. Hawa Mahal, Jaipur
  3. Jal Mahal, Jaipur
  4. Amber Palace, Jaipur (included in Amber fort)

5. City Palace, Udaipur
6. Jag Niwas, Udaipur

The existential crisis of Havelis – Jaipur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer

Out of these four types of residential building, first three types Gadh, Mahal & Baag usually receive protection via heritage conservation and other methods; sometimes they are converted in to museums and sometimes used for commercial purposes such as heritage hotels. But since the havelis comes under general uses and private ownership, people often transform these havelis according to their need, without any consideration for heritage conservation and protection.

Despite the aristocratic appeal of a mansion, these traditional courtyard house known as Haveli can belong as a large family residences – from estate thakurs to traders, royal doctors, ministers and even royal priests, its size and aesthetics depending on the status of family. The influence of social structure and caste often influenced the design of these havelis. There was a marked difference between the havelis of the nobles and those of merchants and common people – A bigger land at strategic locations were given to important people like wealthy businessmen. For example, Natani Haveli in Jaipur was the residence of Bikharidas and Lunkaran Natani, who were known as the wealthiest salt dealers of the city. Currently, the haveli houses the first girls’ school of Jaipur, a temple and a police station along with official residence of the family. Patwon ki Haveli in Jaisalmer is another excellent example with its compound of five havelis built side by side by Guman Chand Patwa who was a famous dealer of textile and precious metals. Similarly, the number of courtyards also influenced the social standing. The number of clusters or wings also demonstrated the status of a family. On an average, havelis typically comprised of two clusters – the family cluster and the servant cluster.

The typical architecture of havelis comprised of marble flooring done with Aarish work which is an excellent forgery of white marble with a near mirror finish, pillars, intricate carvings or wall murals. But the most interesting and noteworthy part of the architecture is that each element of the design of a haveli takes the weather of Rajasthan into account. The closer-knit structures help to reduce exposed surface area of building to harsh sun and therefore heat gain of a building is reduced. The courtyard is an enclosed space from all four sides but is open to the sky allowing sunlight, air and water. Verandahs are partially-shaded open space placed on the ground floor.

Jharokhas are projected place for, shade, sun, and light, breeze located on the upper floors of the haveli. another important feature of these havelis are the openings. These openings are usually variable in sizes, and can range from a series of windows and shafts to finely carved stone Jalis, all designed with the purpose of allowing passage for cross-ventilation by minimizing the area of building surface exposed to sun. Almost all the traditional buildings in Rajasthan are constructed in different types of sandstone depending on local availability. Sandstone is a good insulator and a poor conductor. It reflects most of the sunlight, heats up slowly and allows little of that heat to pass through. During the day, the outer layer of stone gets heated and the heat is radiated to the immediate environment. At night, when the temperature drops, the stone radiates the heat stored during the day.

Like I said, tourism has always been dictated with the number of footfall. As you can see I clearly missed out on the Baag or the Gardens again! While the forts and palaces gain a popularity and notoriety in the form of destination weddings and pre-wedding photoshoots, its the general aspects of lifestyle and culture that often takes a larger hit. To learn more about how the havelis are slowly biting dust, you can read up the following:

Disclaimer: While I have visited both Jaipur and Jaisalmer in 2016, this time I wanted to explore Jaipur on a more “personal” level. So I opted for a heritage walk for this purpose. The nuggets of wisdom pointed out here can be experienced on a more in-depth level with Arv @JaipurThruMyLens. You can also undertake an immersive and unique experience of combining heritage with waterworks of Rajasthan with Heritage Water Walks.

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