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‘The Forts of Rajasthan’ review: Sonar Kella and other forts

The allure of Rajasthan has inspired many to write books on this desert State, which has one of the world’s richest lineage of forts. Where The Forts of Rajasthan carves out its niche is the virtual tour it offers readers during a pandemic complete with photographs and illustrations.

Written lucidly, the book recreates the aura of bygone times, tracing the history of the State and its people — bringing to life the Mughals and the Rajputs, the Sultanate and the Marathas and of course the British.

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Palace intrigues

The compelling narrative is of Rajput bravery and also their disunity, which made them seek the Mughal umbrella of security, often entangling themselves with the palace intrigues of the Mughals.

According to the authors, Rajasthan’s story goes beyond that of the Rajputs, embracing the Bhils and the Meenas who were brave soldiers and hardy agriculturists. They were said to be the original builders of fortifications at Ranthambore and Amber. The loyalty of Bhil archers to Maharana Pratap, perceived to be the symbol of lifelong resistance against the Mughals, against Akbar is notable.

Rajasthan also displays India’s gift of assimilation, with some of the most famous Mughals like Jehangir and Shah Jahan being born of Rajput princesses. The book highlights how this blend of cultures was transmitted to the arts and architecture. The amalgam, according to the authors, came from many sources — invaders crossing the Hindu Kush, Sultanate armies marching to the Deccan, and from trading routes too.

Each fort has a tale to tell. The book unravels the history of each fort and the battles it has witnessed, the sieges it has withstood or surrendered to. The stories of Udaipur, Chittorgarh and Kumbhalgarh are fascinating. One cannot step into Chittorgarh without thinking of Padmini, Allauddin Khilji, Akbar’s siege, the legendary battle of Haldighati, Rana Pratap, his mount Chetak, and Jauhar.

Chittorgarh has not only been part of folklore, but had also inspired a French composer, Albert Roussel, to write an opera-ballet, Padmavati after a visit to this fort, say the authors. The gigantic fort of Kumbhalgarh is named after Kumbha and is also the birthplace of Rana Pratap. It encompassed entire villages within its walls, providing support services like iron-forging for weaponry, upkeep of horses, cattle-rearing and of course farming.

Miniature paintings

Ajmer, known mostly for its Dargah, so captivated a former French Prime Minister that he is believed to have expressed a desire to spend his last days here, according to a citation on the wall of the Government Circuit House in Ajmer, from Kingdoms of Yesterday by Sir Arthur Lothian, the then Chief Commissioner of Ajmer. The writers not only narrate the history of the places, they also discuss the various schools of painting which surfaced during those times and are prevalent to this day, like the Bundi school of painting or the more famous Bani Thani, and engineering marvels including underground furnaces, boiler tanks and heating systems.

Jaigarh’s foundry was established in 1587, where much of the Mughal battlegear for campaigns in Balkh, Bukhara and Kandahar were made. According to the book, the world’s biggest cannon on wheels is here.

It ends with Jaisalmer and Sonar Kella, the golden fortress, which is bound to touch a special chord with Bengalis, many of whom find the State synonymous with Satyajit Ray’s eponymous movie spun around his famous sleuth, Felu da. The immersive experience of Forts of Rajasthan makes it a must-read book.

The Forts of Rajasthan; Rita Sharma & Vijai Sharma, Rupa, ₹995.

The reviewer is an independent journalist based in Kolkata.


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