Warrior Caste to Tourist Attraction: The Controversy of Rajasthan's Underground Tunnels
There are a surprising number of underground tunnels in the world, but one of the most mysterious examples is the underground tunnels of Rajasthan, India. According to historians, these tunnels are a series of subterranean structures built by the Rajputs, a Hindu warrior caste that ruled the region from the 8th to the 18th century.
In their prime, these tunnels were often used as a means of escape and protection during times of war and siege. However, some people question the legitimacy of these ancient tunnels. Below, we’ll share some more about the history of these tunnels, as well as the controversy behind them.
Valor and Chivalry: The Rajputs of Northwestern India
The Rajputs are a legendary Hindu warrior caste hailing from the northwestern region of India, known for their unyielding valor and chivalry. Their rich history left an indelible mark on the culture and politics of the region, and can be traced back to the 8th century.
These fearless fighters were often called upon to defend their kingdoms and people against invaders, earning a reputation for their martial skills and bravery. But they were not just warriors - they also had a code of honor that emphasized loyalty, valor, and the protection of women and children.
During the medieval period, the Rajputs established a number of independent kingdoms that fiercely competed with each other and with the powerful Mughal Empire and the British Raj. Many Rajput kings and princes were patrons of the arts, and the region of Rajasthan is home to a wealth of beautiful palaces, forts, and temples that stand as a testament to their legacy.
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An illustration from the anonymous 16th century Portuguese codex now at the Biblioteca Casanatense, in Rome. It depicts Rajputs from the Sultanate of Gujarat in northwestern India. (Public Domain)
Today, the Rajputs are considered to be one of the highest Hindu castes, although they actually vary greatly in status, from royal lineages to simple cultivators. They are known for their strong sense of community and tradition, and work hard to preserve their customs, rituals, and way of life for future generations to admire.
An Engineering Masterpiece: The Design of the Tunnels
The fascinating underground tunnels of Rajasthan were likely built sometime around the 8th century AD when the Rajputs conquered the region. The goal of these tunnels was to provide a secret passage to safety in times of emergency, though they also connected various buildings and were also used to store food, water, and other supplies.
Many historians boast about the impressiveness of this complex tunnel system. The tunnels were built with a sophisticated ventilation system and are said to have been able to accommodate thousands of people at a time. They were also equipped with secret chambers, trapdoors, and escape routes to thwart invaders.
Inside the tunnel of Amber Fort. (Vssun/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Upon entering the tunnels of Rajasthan, visitors quickly notice its intricate design filled with carvings, sculptures, and intricate geometric patterns. The tunnels are also known for their architectural features beyond step-wells including arched entries and pillared halls. The engineering and construction techniques used to build the tunnels are studied heavily by both historians and engineers worldwide. Rajput workers who built the tunnels prioritized strengthening the tunnel’s foundation so it could withstand heat waves, high humidity, and monsoons in addition to designing the tunnels to conserve water and prevent evaporation.
A Long Way Down: The Stepwells of Rajasthan
Many of the tunnels were built as “stepwells,” subterranean structures designed to provide access to water during seasons of drought. These stepwells, also called “Baoli” or “Vav” in Hindi, allowed people to access water through underground aquifers. To picture the structure of a step-well, imagine a deep, dark well with long flights of steps leading to the bottom. These wells were typically so deep that they spanned multiple stories, requiring you to traverse several flights of stairs to reach the water.
At times, people would gather in these stepwells for religious and ceremonial rituals by the water. They were also frequently used as places to cool down during the hot summer months, and were typically built near palaces and forts for easy access.
Chand Baori, a stunning stepwell of Rajastan. (Chainwit/ CC BY-SA 4.0)
The most famous stepwell in Rajasthan is Chand Baori, which is considered one of the largest and most beautiful stepwells in India. It is also considered one of the oldest, dating back to the 8th century during the reign of the Rajput king Chanda of the Nikumbh dynasty. Chand Baori is approximately 98 feet deep and has 13 flights of stairs on each side to reach the water level. According to historians, Chand Baori was once dedicated to the Hindu god of water, Varuna, who was worshipped there during religious ceremonies.
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The Controversy of Rajasthan: Fact or Fiction?
What’s a history lesson without a bit of conspiracy? Interestingly enough, there is actually some controversy surrounding the existence of the Rajasthan tunnels. According to some, the history of the Rajasthan tunnels is actually unproven. There is questioning over the authenticity of the tunnels and their creation by Rajputs in the 8th century, which has led some to believe they are actually a modern creation built in the 20th century as a tourist attraction.
While some experts and historians believe that the tunnels were built by the Rajputs as a means of escape and protection during times of war and siege, others argue that there is little historical evidence to support this claim. They argue that there is no mention of such tunnels in historical records or accounts and that the idea of underground tunnels in Rajasthan is a recent invention. They also point out that the construction of such tunnels would have been highly unlikely given the geological conditions of the region and the technology available at the time.
Additionally, there have been reports of some parts of the tunnels being artificially created or modified for tourism purposes, which could also be part of the controversy around their authenticity. Ultimately, the existence of the underground tunnels in Rajasthan is a topic of debate among experts, and it's not entirely clear whether they were built by the Rajputs or not.
Ancient Architecture or Tourist Trap? You Decide
Today, many of these tunnels are open to the public and can be visited as tourist attractions. Whether you believe in the controversy of the Rajasthan tunnels or not, the fact remains that they’re still an incredible creation of engineering and an important example of Rajasthani architectural heritage. If you ever find yourself in Rajasthan, be sure to check out these fascinating historical tunnels for yourself. Perhaps you’ll discover more about them than you bargained for.
Top image: Amber Fort seen from the bank of Maotha Lake, Jaigarh Fort on the hills in the background, and a tunnel runs between the two. Source: Jakub Hałun/CC BY-SA 4.0
By Lex Leigh
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