Chittorgarh Fort: A Tale of Sieges, Conquest and Singing Ecstasy
Chittorgarh Fort is a hill fort located in Chittorgarh (known also as Chittor), a city in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. Chittorgarh Fort is said to be the largest fort in Rajasthan, and is one of the largest in India. The fort’s colorful history stretches all the way back to the 7 th or 8 th century BC. Apart from the sieges that Chittorgarh Fort had to face, especially during the Medieval period, the fort was also home to a number of interesting characters, one of the most memorable being Mirabai (known also as Meera), a well-known female Hindu mystical poet. Today, Chittorgarh no longer serves a defensive purpose. Instead, it has been turned into a tourist attraction. Additionally, the cultural significance of the site has been recognized, and Chittorgarh Fort is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as one of the Hill Forts of Rajasthan.
Chittorgarh is a major city located in the southern part of Rajasthan, on the Berach River, a tributary of the Banas River. The city was once known as Chitrakut, and was named after Chitrangada Mori, a chieftain of the Rajputs. The city of Chittogarh was built at the foot of a hill, at the top of which is located Chittorgarh Fort, as the top of the hill is a strategic location for the construction of a defensive structure. Chitrangada Mori is generally credited as the man who established Chittorgarh Fort, either during the 7 th or 8 th century AD. Subsequently, the fort fell into the hands of Bappa Rawal, who founded the Mewar state. According to one version of the story, Bappa Rawal captured the fort from the Moris. Another version claims that the fort was given to Bappa Rawal as a dowry.
Chittorgarh Fort is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the Hill Forts of Rahasthan. (anjali04 / Adobe Stock)
The Legend of Padmini and the Siege of Chittorgarh Fort by Muslim Invaders
In the centuries that followed, Chittorgarh served as the capital of Mewar, and Chittorgarh Fort remained the stronghold of the city’s Rajput rulers. During the Medieval period, the fort was besieged on several occasions by Muslim invaders. In 1303, for instance, Chittorgarh Fort was besieged by Alauddin Khilji, the ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. According to one legend, Alauddin Khilji was motivated to besiege Chittorgarh Fort after hearing about the beauty of Padmini, the wife of Ratan Singh, the ruler of Mewar. The legend goes on to say that Alauddin Khilji travelled to Chittorgarh, and requested the king to let him have a look at his wife. Ratan Singh obliged, out of politeness, but having had a glance at Padmini, Alauddin Khilji was filled with an even greater desire to possess her. Therefore, when Ratan Singh accompanied his guest to the outer gate of the fort, as a gesture of courtesy, the sultan treacherously seized the king. He then sent a messenger to inform her that he would only release her husband if she agreed to enter his harem.
Using a ruse, however, Padmini succeeded in freeing her husband from Alauddin Khilji. The furious sultan attacked Chittorgarh Fort, but as his troops were not able to take the fort by force, he decided to besiege it instead. After some time, the defenders found that their supplies were depleted. Instead of surrendering, however, Ratan Singh and his men chose to launch a final attack on the besiegers, despite knowing that there was no chance of victory. Whilst the men perished on the battlefield, the women of the fort chose to commit jauhar, the practice of mass self-immolation, in order to avoid being captured by the sultan’s forces. Thus, the Siege of Chittorgarh in 1303 is known also as the First Jauhar of Chittorgarh.
Top: Legend has it that Alauddin Khilji was motivated to besiege Chittorgarh Fort after hearing of the beauty of Padmini. (Public domain)
Chittorgarh Fort: Backdrop for Continued Struggles Between Muslims and Hindus
The Muslims were not able to hold Chittorgarh Fort for long, and it was soon in the hands of the Rajputs once more. In fact, during the 15 th century, there was a revival of Hindu power in the region, and one of the men who contributed to this resurgence was Kumbha Singh, the ruler of Mewar. One of Kumbha Singh’s predecessors, Hammir Singh, had already liberated his kingdom from the Muslims in 1335. In the decades that followed, the rulers of Mewar were able to increase their power, so much so that they were considered a threat by neighboring Muslim rulers. Although attacks were launched on Mewar, the Muslims were not able to defeat Kumbha Singh. In order to protect his lands from external enemies, Kumbha Singh built many forts throughout Mewar, and much of Chittorgarh Fort that we see today was built during his reign.
After the 1567 Siege of Chittorgarh, the fort was taken by the Mughals. (Public domain)
The fortunes of the Rajput rulers of Mewar, however, was not to last, and Chittorgarh Fort was besieged once again in 1535. The attack was led by Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat, and the fort fell to the Muslims after a siege. The women of Chittorgarh Fort are said to have committed jauhar after the fort’s capture. Nevertheless, the Rajputs eventually regained control of the fort, and by the time of the third siege in 1567, Chittorgarh Fort was under the control of a Hindu ruler, Udai Singh II. During this third siege, Chittorgarh Fort was attacked by the Mughals, who were led by Akbar. Udai Singh was one of the few Rajput rulers who chose to defy the Mughals, which led to Akbar’s attack on Chittorgarh Fort. Udai Singh’s forces were not able to resist the Mughals, and the fort fell to the Muslims once again. Udai Singh, however, survived the siege, as he had fled with his family to the hills of Gogunda with his family.
Although Chittorgarh Fort had fallen, Udai Singh continued his fight against the Mughals. After Udai Singh’s death, the resistance was continued by his successor, Pratap Singh. The new ruler of Mewar made his descendants swear that they would “not sleep on beds, nor live in palaces, nor eat off metal utensils” until they were in possession of Chittorgarh Fort. Unfortunately for Pratap Singh’s descendants, they were unable to capture Chittorgarh Fort, and the Mughals managed to retain control of the fort for a long time. Thus, until the 20 th century, the rulers of Mewar continued to place a leaf platter under their regular utensils, and a reed mat under their beds, as a symbolic gesture indicating that they were still upholding their vows.
One of the most interesting characters associated with Chittorgarh Fort is Mirabai, a saint of the Bhakti Movement who was a passionate devotee of Lord Krishna, much to the dismay of her in-laws. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Mirabai and Her Eternal Love of Krishna
Chittorrgarh Fort saw many colorful characters throughout its long history, including those who defended it, and those who attacked it. One of the most interesting characters associated with Chittorgarh Fort, however, is Mirabai (known also as Meera), who lived during the 16 th century. Mirabai was born in 1498 at Merta, in Rajasthan’s Nagaur district. She was a Rajput, and belonged to the Rathore clan. At the age of six, Mirabai was given a figurine of Krishna (the eighth avatar of Vishnu) by her mother. It was from this early age that Mirabai’s devotion to the god began. At the age of 16, Mirabai married Bhoj Raj, the eldest son of Sangram Singh, the ruler of Mewar. The marriage had been arranged by Mirabai’s brother.
Through her marriage to the prince, Mirabai’s social status was greatly elevated. Nevertheless, Mirabai’s maintained her devotion to Krishna, which was a source of conflict between her and her new family as Mirabai refused to worship Durga, the family deity. In addition, she sang and danced in public temples, and socialized with everyone regardless of caste. This was considered unacceptable, as she was part of the ruling class.
Entrance to Vijay Stambh at Chittorgarh Fort, with a view of Mirabai Temple through the gate. (RealityImages / Adobe Stock)
Mirabai’s life at Chittorgarh Fort went from bad to worse. When her husband died, she refused to commit sati, the self-immolation of widows, a practice considered to be honorable by the Rajputs of that time. Later on, Mirabai’s father was killed in a battle against the Muslims from Afghanistan. Her father-in-law was also wounded in the same battle, and died the following year. As a consequence, the throne of Mewar went to a child, and Mirabai’s life at court was made miserable by the new ruler and his mother. Mirabai claims that two attempts on her life were made by her family, but she was miraculously saved on both occasions.
Eventually, Mirabai could no longer endure the harsh treatment at Chittorgarh Fort. After praying to Krishna, she left for good, embarking on a pilgrimage to Mathura, Vrindavana, and Dwarka. According to popular belief, Mirabai disappeared at the temple of Krishna at Dwarka. She is believed to have entered the temple’s sanctum in a state of singing ecstasy, after which its doors closed of their own accord. When the sanctum’s doors were opened again, only Mirabai’s sari was found, wrapped around the statue of Krishna, indicating her union with the god. Mirabai is thought to have composed between 200 and 1300 bhajans, or devotional songs, during her lifetime. She is revered as a saint in the tradition of the Bhakti Movement.
Meera Temple, at Chittorgarh Fort in Rajasthan, is where Mirabai is said to have prayed to Krishna. (Sujay25 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Architecture of Chittorgarh Fort
As mentioned earlier, Chittorgarh Fort is one of the largest forts in India. The fort occupies an area of about 2.8 km 2 (700 acres), and has a circumference of about 13 km (8.1 miles). When viewed from above, the fort has a layout that resembles a fish. There are seven massive gates that provide entry into Chittorgarh Fort, the main one being the Ram Gate, named in honor of Ram (the seventh avatar of Vishnu). Each of these gates were designed in such a way as to provide maximum protection to the fort’s defenders in the event of an attack. For example, notched parapets were built on top of the gates, so as to allow the defenders to safely fire at enemies from above. In addition, the gates are connected by a common road that runs inside the fort. This would have allowed the defenders to deploy their troops efficiently.
The monuments within the fort include temples, palaces, and towers, which may be associated with the Rajputs who once owned the fort. As an example, the Vijay Stambha, or Tower of Victory, was erected by Kumbha Singh. This monument was built to commemorate Kumbha Singh’s victory over Mahmud Khalji, the Muslim ruler of Malwa, at the Battle of Sarangpur in 1440. The Vijay Stambha is an imposing piece of architecture, rising to a height of 37.2 m (122 feet), and divided into nine storeys. The top of the tower provides a panoramic view of Chittorgarh, and may be reached after climbing 157 stairs. The uppermost level of the tower also contains a detailed genealogy of the rulers of Mewar, as well as their deeds. Apart from that, the tower is a good example of the religious pluralism and tolerance practiced by the Rajput rulers of Mewar. An image of Padmavati, a Jain goddess, can be found on the uppermost storey of the tower, whereas carvings of the word “Allah” in Arabic can be found on the tower’s third and eighth storeys.
The Vijay Stambha, or Tower of Victory, was erected by Rana Kumbha in the 1400s to commemorate his victory over the Sultan of Malwa. The Vijay Stambha is an imposing piece of architecture, rising to a height of 37.2 m (122 feet). (Public domain)
Other monuments at Chittorgarh Fort built during the reign of Kumbha Singh include the Rana Kumbha Palace and the Meera Temple. Although Kumbha Khan built extensively at Chittorgarh Fort, other rulers made their own contributions to the fort as well. For instance, close to the Kumbha Palace is the Fateh Prakash Palace. This monument was built during the 19 th century by Fateh Singh, the ruler of Udaipur and Mewar, and functions as a museum today. Another 19 th century building is the Padmini Palace. This structure, however, is a reconstruction of an older one. Across the Padmini Palace is the Kallika Mata Temple, which was built during the 14 th century. Originally, the site was occupied by a temple of the sun god, which was built during the 8 th century AD, but destroyed when the fort fell to Alauddin Khilji.
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Today, Chittorgarh Fort is no longer a defensive structure. The fort is no longer occupied by royalty either. Instead, it has been transformed into a tourist destination. In 2013, Chittorgarh Fort was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fort is part of a group called the Hill Forts of Rajasthan, which include six forts within the Indian state of Rajasthan. The five other forts that make up this World Heritage Site are Kumbhalgarh Fort (incidentally built by Kumhba Singh, and named in his honor), Ranthambore Fort (in Sawai Madhopur), Gagron Fort (in Jhalawar), Amer Fort (in Jaipur), and Jaisalmer Fort.
Top image: Chittorgarh Fort, in Rajasthan, has been the backdrop for centuries of power struggles. Source: Public domain
By Wu Mingren
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