Saturday, December 31, 2011

Umm...Happy New Year 2012?

Margazhi in Madras: It's Pouring Freaks!

(Published on on 30 December, 2011, retrieved from

The December music season is a bane when you’re growing up in Madras. People groan out complicated aa-aas you don’t understand, and the naadaswaram winds its way through your brain.
But then, you go away, return with a foreign degree, some dollars or pounds in your bank account, go back away to cushy jobs in Delhi or Mumbai, and then wind up back in your hometown, a returning  Madrasi, trying to forge links with your past. And then, the Margazhiseason, with its aalaaps and veenas and violins and bells becomes the most important cultural event in your annual calendar.
And so it was that my first December back home, having missed a good half of the season thanks to the Chennai International Film Festival, I braved a looming viral fever, a vandalised car, and a forecast cyclone to take myself on a rickety scooter to the sabhas.
I was in a forgiving mood, and promised myself not to hush any rasikas who saw fit to send out voluble indications of their pleasure. I could have taken one, maybe two, kinds of concert-disrupters. However, I was to reacquaint myself with six sub-genres on the same day.
The Sabha Hoppers
They’re professionals who have ticked, circled and marked all the concerts they want to attend part or the whole of, cross-referencing newspaper announcements against sabha booklets and sponsors’ handouts. Even so, they find themselves in a conundrum.

“I’m so glad you came here!” one wearer-of-ear-muffs-in-the-print-of-army-fatigues will tell another excitedly, “I thought you might go to Academy instead!”

“No, no, I’ve heard Sowmya four times already this season. So, I came here. Today’s okay. But tomorrow is the real problem. T M Krishna, O S Arun, Sanjay, Vijay Siva, everyone is singing! Enge pordhune theriyale! (I’ve no clue where to go!)”

The spouse of one of the ladies will intervene, with a knowing smile at his counterpart, who will join him in revelling in a rare moment of intellectual superiority over the wives. “Maami, best thing, you stay at the Krishna concert up to the varnam. His execution is beautiful. Then, you go straight to O S Arun. That starts half an hour later, so he would not have reached the varnam yet. Then you go to Sanjay –avan definite-aa extend-pannuvaan, so no problem. (He’ll definitely exceed the concert time.) Vijay Siva is singing day after tomorrow also, so you forget that.”

As the women marvel at the pragmatism of his solution, with scant regard for the dedicated listeners they will intrude on as they bumble their way into the middle of a concert and search out the best seats to observe the contortions of the singer’s face from, Spouse 2 will seek a share of the limelight. “But, the problem is, they don’t know how to organise...Neyveli Santhanagopalan and T N Seshagopalan are singing on the same day. Same way, Kadri Gopalnath and Flute Ramani are giving concerts at the same time. Different sabhas!”

Yeah, as opposed to an all-Madras, all-musician jugalbandhi, the reluctant eavesdropper thinks.

“In the middle of this, youngsters are also coming up. Every year, they find a new sensation. First, it was Sikkil Gurucharan, then Abhishek Raghuram, now Trichur Brothers...,” his wife will nod furiously.
“Listen to me, maami, youngsters-ellam vittudungo (forget about the youngsters),” Spouse 1 is back, “We must focus on the people who are in their seventies and eighties only, because we don’t know how long they will be with us. Where is MS now? DKP? MLV? Bhimsen Joshi?”
“I heard Bhimsen Joshi in Music Academy! What a concert that was!” his wife chimes in.
Maama, your point is correct,” acknowledges Maami 1, and then adds firmly, “But I have an argument. What about GNB? He died so young! Balamurali is still singing, and better than he did when he was 60 also. If we had left all the youngsters, we would never have heard GNB. Death is one thing you cannot predict.”
Silence as the two couples contemplate morbid deaths for young sensations and aged doyens alike. Silence as you envision gory deaths for the two couples.
Child-in-Law Hunters
As you’re keeping the beat with your fingers, you feel a steady gaze on your hands. You turn to see a lady frowning and nodding appreciatively, as she scrutinises the correctness of your taalam.
She smiles up at you. “Do you know music?”
“I learn.”
“For how long?”
“On and off, since I turned 20. So quite a while now.”
“How old are you? You look only 22-23.”
“I tell everyone I’m 22-23.”
“But how old are you, actually?”
“I’m asking for a reason,” she says, leaning in conspiratorially, “See, I have a son who’s...why am I telling you, let me talk to your mother! Or, you give your father my husband’s number. My son is very handsome. He’s interested in music also.”
“But, maami...”
“What’s your nakshatram? Swathi, Rohini and Magham won’t suit him.”
“Oh. Rohini.”
“How sad. I was just thinking you’ll be perfect for him. He doesn’t mind someone over 25 also. Are you over 25? Anyway, it doesn’t matter now. But maybe I can tell someone else. Are you over 25?”
“I’m 37, maami.”
“WHAT!!!! 37-aa? Why didn’t you get married? Problem-aa? In your horoscope? Do you have sevvai dosham or something?”
The Raagam Detectives
Some men bring the newspaper, while their wives carry their sabha schedules.
Others bring the Sudoku and Crossword pages, while their wives hold their notation books.
A lot of people tell me their most annoying experience is hearing the wives tear madly through the notation books, trying to identify araagam.
I’ve never had that experience.
I do know, though, that I would find the susurrus of pages infinitely preferable to the off-key aalaaps of maamis trying to identifyraagams.
This is how it usually happens.
One of the men will apologetically lean forward to ask, “Maami, do you know which raagam this is?”
“I think it’s Revathy,” she will say, with a frown, “No, no, no, could it be Nalinakaanthi? One minute.” She screws up her face, and leads her hand towards the heavens as she takes off into a creaky aalaap that will somehow aid the identification of the raagam the musician is singing tunefully on stage. She shakes her head and distorts her features as if someone’s waterboarding her in tamarind juice. “Mmm-hmm, neither. Wait, wait, please wait. One second.” Another creaky aalaap. “I can’t tell,” she concedes, finally. But intrigued, she waves away the man’s reluctant apology, and asks the woman next to her. “Maami, do you know which raagam this is? It’s not Revathy or Nalinakaanthi.”
“Are you sure? It sounds like Nalinakaanthi.”
Two creaky aalaaps in different tunes.
The Spoilt NRI-Parents
“Thank God I came on time for this. Yesterday, we got 50 minutes late!”
“Why, were you coming from somewhere else?”
“No, no, traffic!”
“Traffic is very bad. And the roads also.”
Payyan vera car vangi koduthuttaanaa...(Now that my son’s gone and bought me a car)” – this, I haven’t managed to slot into boast, whine, or angst – “Parking is a problem too.”
“Why don’t you just take an auto and come?”
Aiyayyo! We pay the driver 8000 per month! As it is, aa-oon-na he takes leave” – I’m not sure how ‘aa-oon-naa’ can be translated, it seems to be onomatopoeia for the slightest affliction; but I’ve never heard anyone say ‘aa-oon’ when slightly afflicted – “On top of that, you’re suggesting we start taking autos in front of his eyes! That fellow has so much gall, he’ll ask me to take an auto everyday while he puts on the AC and sleeps in the car!”
The Saliva Lords: Nawaabs-in-Disguise
There’s appreciation, and then there’s playing to the gallery.
Every few bars of a song, you’ll hear, “Wah, wah!” “Besh, besh!” and most frequently, “Plchchchch!”
The last sound is usually what I hiss out when I’m ticked off, but it seems to be sabhaspeak for the highest honour a flawless execution of music can aspire to – a complete loss for words that can be lauded only by saliva bubbling against one’s teeth. Unfortunately, my hisses of ticked-offness sound the same, and hence draw looks of kinship from the saliva-lauders.
You could turn and smile tightly. But having elicited a response from one member of the gallery, the saliva-lauder will keep it up.
You could ignore them. But the true-blue saliva-lauder will make louder and louder spittle-sounds, till you finally turn and smile tightly, whereupon s/he will continue to make his or her wet appreciation felt at that certified volume.
The Recorders
Those ancestors of mine who are still alive tell me some sneaky rasikas used to bring in tape recorders and pirate music back in the day.
Now, when CDs and streaming and downloads abound, their descendants carry on the tradition of recording live music.
Every now and then, the light of a mobile phone screen distracts you, and you notice angry red waves darting across the cheap white screen. You look coldly at their phones, and then at their faces, but both beam at you till you give up.
And then there are others who document their experience in a whole different way. They stand up and noisily click pictures of the musician, and then spend a few minutes trying to make the image their mobile phone wallpaper. If you show the slightest interest in the process, even to rebuke, your arm will be at the receiving end of a rude jab by a gnarled finger.
“Excuse me, I want to make this image my screen photo. You are a youngster. Do it for me!”
You’ll find the more agile – or more artistic – keepers of this hobby crawling roundabout your feet, trying to find the perfect angle for the grainy photograph. Usually, they dig a knee into your foot, and then spend a minute trying to apologise, before poking you and touching their hands to their eyes, as if to beg your forgiveness. They wait for you to reciprocate.
And so it was that when I finally returned to the car park, and explained that I had body pain to several maamas who (rather ungallantly, I thought) expected anyone sans gray hair to help push their scooters out, I decided I’d content myself with television concerts – the glares of those are easier to endure.

The Flavours of Rajasthan

(Published in, on December 19, 2011, retrieved from

A desert kingdom that is legendary for its royal hunting expeditions doesn’t seem likely to be a ghas-phus paradise. However, several communities in Rajasthan are strictly vegetarian, and the aroma of their delectable recipes can rival the meat cuisines of princely feasts.
Cooked in pure ghee, and fashioned from an innovative blend of ingredients, typical Rajasthani fare can often be a gustatory experiment that takes some getting used to.

From an analytical perspective, some of these dishes, which use desert berries, dry fruits, and regional spices in combination with particular kinds of pulses and flour, are testimony to the people’s ability to survive drought-like conditions in the arid land, as well as long sieges on forts in its more fertile areas.

Several of its foods can be stored for months on end, and many can be prepared and eaten without heating. Perhaps because of the scarcity of water, most Rajasthani dishes complement spice with sweetness.

Another consequence of the scarcity of water is the strange substitution of the more readily available but expensive ghee, clarified butter, milk and buttermilk in arid regions such as Jaisalmer, Barmer and Bikaner. Many of the foods borrowed from the cuisines of Punjab, Haryana, Sindh and Gujarat have been adapted to suit the agriculture and climate of Rajasthan.

The Rajasthani thaali comprises a serving of cereal-based food – usually bajre ki roti (made from millet), missi roti (made from gram and whole wheat) or rice – along with several gravies and sweets. 

What’s Cooking for Lunch?

Aside from chapaati and puris, the main wheat-based dish in Rajasthan is dal-baati, a Marwari staple. Usually eaten with the sweet churma, this unique and rather filling preparation is a tandoori meal made from whole wheat. The wheat dumpling can be plain, but is usually stuffed with vegetables, and baked slowly over a coal fire. The side dish is made from urad dal and rajma beans, soaked in a gravy of tomatoes, onions and yoghurt. Both the dumpling and the dal taste strongly of ghee. The meal isn’t quite complete unless it’s taken with churma, a delicacy made by crumbling nuts, sugar and ground wheat, and cooking them in ghee and jaggery.

Another popular lunchtime preparation is rabri. Eaten both hot and cold, it is made by mixing bajre ki roti in buttermilk and allowing it to ferment for a few hours. After the mixture is cooked, yoghurt is added, and the dish is garnished with jeera and onions. A sweet variant is also eaten as a cold dessert.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Rajasthani cuisine is the combination of seemingly incongruous ingredients to make gravy dishes. For instance, Jodhpur is famous for a spicy curry using, of all things, gulab jamun! If you walk into a shop that sells sweets and savouries in the city, and ask for gulab jamun, don’t be surprised if the seller asks you whether you want it raw or cooked.

The gulab jamuns used for the sabzi are made by mixing flour with mashed potatoes, paneer and condiments such as cinnamon, garlic, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, coriander powder and several shades of chilli powder. The gravy contains spices, onions, and tomatoes with a yoghurt base. It is cooked in ghee, and garnished with cashew nuts and a dollop of butter. A non-connoisseur could easily mistake the preparation for kadhi.

For the orthodox vegetarians, the traditional Rajasthani speciality gatte ki sabzi (made from gram flour – besan) is a great option, as it is prepared without using onions or garlic. The base here is yoghurt, and the gravy tastes mildly of tomatoes and spices. The gattas are rolled into long, thin tubes, and then cut down to pieces about two inches in length.

If You’re Looking for Something Light...

As the weather turns colder, the namkeen shops get busy making the hot snack mirchi bada. Served either plain, or with bread in the same manner as Mumbai’s vada pav, the mirchi bada has a long chilli running through its core, and is stuffed with potato, sliced chillies and spices in besan. Slurp it up with chutney or tomato sauce!

For those who can’t handle too much spice, boondi is the ideal snack. Available in both sweet and savoury form, these tiny balls of besan are often used to make raita.

Tickle Your Sweet Tooth

From mawa from Alwar to malpoa from Pushkar, every district of Rajasthan – including the desert region – has something sinfully coated in ghee and sugar to tempt the foodie.

Mawa is available in burfi and halwa form, with differences both in texture and taste. Several varieties of mawa can be bought in Jaipur, while Jodhpur is the place to taste dil khushaal, also known as dal badam chakki. Dil khushaal is made of almond, mawa and gram flour, with tons of ghee and sugar.

Gujia, which is rather similar to the pekadiya of Bihar, is a fried dumpling made from maida and stuffed with khoya, dry fruit, coconut and suji. It is pleated on the sides, and looks quite like the samosa.

As long as you have no cavities and no cholesterol problems, you should try imarti (also called jaangri in some parts of India), which resembles the jalebi in appearance. Made from urad dal and saffron, and swimming in sugar syrup, it was part of the royal thaali and is believed to have been offered to visiting Mughals by the Rajputs.

The signature sweet dish of Rajasthan is ghevar, the cream-coated crispy delicacy eaten by women to break their fast on Teej. The filigreed base, moulded such that the ends rise slightly to bank the sides and the hole in the centre, is filled with either malai or mawa, garnished with nuts, dry fruits and rose petals. Laapsi and sukhdi are wheat-flour based sweets, served at weddings.

Jhajhariya offers further evidence of the desert-dwellers’ ability to improvise when water and firewood are scarce. Made from corn, milk, dry fruits, and, of course, ghee and sugar, this sweet dish can be stored for months without refrigeration. The trickiest step is roasting the juicy corn in ghee till it turns dry. Once the preparation is complete, it can be served both hot and cold.

Rajbhog – The Food of the Kings

It is a tradition in Rajasthan that game animals and birds are cooked and eaten by hunting parties. And since royals went on shikar fairly often, wild boar, hare and fowl found their way to the Rajbhog.

Khud Khargosh, made of rabbit meat, was typically prepared during summer. The skinned animal would be stuffed with spices, enveloped in dough and soaked in layers of mud-soaked cloth, before being cooked.

Wild boar spare ribs (bhansla) are used to make sula, a preparation of morsels of meat marinated in gravy containing yoghurt, spices and sour berries. Wild boar meat is also pickled to make saanth ro achaar.

From the Mughals, Rajputs adopted the technique of cooking meat in curd. Known as safed maans, it remains popular, especially among Western tourists. It is usually served with almonds, cashew nuts and coconut.

The Rajbhog also contains a soup and sweets. The soup is made of a yoghurt or milk base, flavoured with spices, and distinctive for its choices of vegetable – jackfruit, aubergine, and okra.

What You Should NOT Miss

Whatever gastronomic delights you indulge in, in Rajasthan, there are four dishes you shouldn’t skip – ker sangri, kadhi, lassi and kulfi.

Ker sangri is possibly the tastiest dish one could conjure up from two ingredients – desert berries and beans. Apparently, a terrible famine struck Jaisalmer and Barmer hundreds of years ago, and these were the only two plants to survive it. What’s more, the people who stumbled upon them found that the spicy dish made out of these legumes went with just about everything, from rice to roti to yoghurt to pickle. Ker sangri is a staple at weddings even today.

Typical of the Marwar region, kadhi – locally known as khatta – is an essential component of most meals in a Rajasthani household. It sounds simple enough – besan dumplings in a yoghurt base. But the dumplings can’t be defined by a single flavour – made as they are from several varieties of seeds (fenugreek, coriander, fennel and cumin), spices (ginger, cinnamon, chillies and cloves) and crushed curry leaves. This dish is best eaten hot with plain rice, to truly savour its taste. The Rajasthani version is different from the kadhi served in other parts of North India, and in Pakistan. Here, it tastes a little sweeter and thinner.

Punjab may stake its claim on lassi, but the sweet lassi of Rajasthan is a blessing in the unforgiving summer. The creamy saffron-flavoured version is popular in Jodhpur, and the more adventurous may want to opt for the bhang lassi or bhang thandai in Jaisalmer, which has a ‘government authorised’ licensed shop that offers mild and medium versions for women, and medium and strong for men.

If you’re on a diet, you may opt for chaas (buttermilk) instead, which doesn’t have as much malai and contains salt instead of sugar.

The creamy kulfi of Jaipur is a must-have. If you don’t care for sticky hands and a race against time to eat your melting kulfi in the hot sun, you should probably opt for thick wads of the dessert on a plate, rather than lick it off a stick. The fact that it is served on Palmyra palm leaves adds to its charm, and seemingly to its taste.

If you want a tasty souvenir from your trip, the ideal snack to carry back home to friends and family is aloo bhujia from Bikaner.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Presenting Sherlock and Mycroft, the Layman’s Brothers

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, on 31 December, 2011, retrieved from

Cast: Robert Downey Junior, Jude Law, Jared Harris, Stephen Fry, Paul Anderson, Noomi Rapace, Kelly Reilly, Rachel McAdams
Director: Guy Ritchie
Rating: 3 stars
More and more these days, I find myself wondering whether films are being dumbed-down in the interest of box office returns. And A Game of Shadows, the second edition of Guy Ritchie’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, only reiterates that notion. Ritchie’s Tarantinoesque tactic of saying more by what he doesn’t show takes a backseat here.
It was obvious from the 2009 film that the makers did not expect viewers to be in the least familiar with Holmes’ cases. Irene Adler’s role was simplified into the-one-that-got-away, not professionally, but romantically. Professor Moriarty was introduced, elucidated, and contextualised.
Those who like both Arthur Conan Doyle and Guy Ritchie willingly divorced the two versions, and enjoyed the slow-mo and sepia tones. But whereas Sherlock Homes was stylised, A Game of Shadows is swashbuckling. It’s predictable and implausible by turns; sometimes, simultaneously.  While I wouldn’t say it fails to entertain, it doesn’t have the gripping quality that made its predecessor likeable, for all its flaws.
If the first film was Robert Downey Junior’s space to say, “Look, ladies and gentlemen, I have shed the flab”, this one lets him announce, “Look, boys and girls, I do the best wide-eyed-duh-looks in Hollywood barring Michael Richards, even when I’m playing a detective whose pipe Mensa can’t smoke.” Mixed up in the growing-up tale of Jude Law’s Dr. Watson, who gets considerably more screen time arriving at non-elementary inferences here, is an attempt to portray the human side of Holmes, as if to tell us, “Hey, look, we didn’t entirely waste Robert Downey Junior here.”
But if one thinks he was wasted, one ought to spare a thought for Stephen Fry, who plays Mycroft. Fans of Actor Fry and Writer Fry will be sorely disappointed at the poor use he has been put to. I mean, this is the guy whose take on his homosexuality is: “As I was being born...I looked up at my mother and said ‘that's the last time I’m going up one of those’.” And here, he references his own and the Holmes brothers’ sexual orientation by making cracks about how he can nearly comprehend affections for someone of Mary Watson’s gender, as he struts about naked, in a sequence that reminded me unfavourably of Austin Powers.
The script seeks to bolster its infantile gags with kitschy humour; but the actors themselves sound embarrassed to be mouthing lines like, “It’s so overt, it’s covert” and “Why would I want anything with a mind of its own bobbing between my legs?” Worse, a scene where Watson and Holmes tuck into hedgehog goulash is killed when Watson makes Holmes explain a one-liner, so that everyone will understand.
It gets so bad that,  at one point, you begin to hope all the clarification is to enable the...umm, intellectually challenged to salvage something from a film with a complicated plot; but then the characters go on to show us the ropes, weave by weave too. In fact, more time is spent on illumination than deduction in this action drama.
Which brings me to the action – we’re used to the anachronisms, so I’ll think of the machine guns and modern typewriters as a device. But what remains unforgiveable is the denigration of Mycroft to a Sherlock henchman, especially when this Sherlock is outsmarted several times by Moriarty. And when action-hero Sherlock tries to be opium-aided-zen Sherlock, it is ridiculously incongruous.
The pandering to those in the audience who’re not sure whether Sherlock was a character, or a poison downed by Socrates, continues into the last scene. While the disguise is enjoyable, one feels it would have worked better as the first scene of a sequel, if there’s going to be one.
Comparing the two Ritchie films, everything that was true of Sherlock Holmes stands – mesmerising art direction, lovely music by Hans Zimmer – and there’s the additional draw of awe-inducing cinematography. But I wonder whether a film, especially one from the Guy Ritchie stable, is well-made if I’m listing its pros and cons.
The Final Verdict: Game of Shadows is not a bad movie in that it keeps you engaged for more than 2 hours; but it probably ought not to have been a Sherlock Holmes movie.

The Forts of Rajasthan (Part 3)

(Published in as 'The Sentinels of Rajasthan, Part 3', retrieved from

I'd written about Bala Quila and Amer Fort here, and about Mehrangarh Fort here. In the final edition of this series on the forts of Rajasthan, here's a look at Sonar Quila - which I've wanted to visit ever since I saw Ray's film - and Chittaurgarh Fort, quite a city in itself.

Sonar Quila

The sunlight in Jaisalmer filters through moody clouds, to bounce off the honey-gold walls of what looks like a gigantic sand castle – the Sonar Quila, or Jaisalmer Fort, turned into a household name in the 1970s, when it became the focal point of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda movie Shonar Kella (The Golden Fortress).

Built by the Bhatti ruler Jaisala – the man who founded Jaisalmer – in 1156 on the Trikuta Hills, this fort is the second oldest in Rajasthan. Standing at a height of 80 metres, it encompasses an entire village, several temples and a few ostentatious havelis. If you’ve already seen the other forts, filled with the breathtaking results of patient craftsmanship, the ordinariness of the interior of Sonar Quila can be a surprise. A tacky board commemorating the visits of the erstwhile royal family and Amitabh Bachchan to the fortress sits wearily against the ticket counter. Guides beg desperately for business, in the lean season before or after the annual desert fair.

As one looks for the promised ‘combination of Rajput and Islamic architectural styles’, though, one realises that the dignity of the fort lies in its lack of ornament. Its huge ramparts have defended it against repeated attacks over the last millennium, and its paved pathways stubbornly resist wear, even as gutters eat into them and footsteps pound them.

The fort, whose only claims to architectural finesse are relief work on the terrace slabs and an elaborately carved Jain temple, protects everything within it, and that’s all it has to do. It is cleverly constructed, with three layers of walls. The outermost, made of stone blocks, binds the rubble that makes up the hill. The second crawls across the entire hill, folding itself around the fort. The innermost walls, obscured by the second layer, gave soldiers a vantage point to hurl their weapons, rocks and boiling water and oil at enemies, who would get trapped between the two lower walls. The only attacker who captured the fort was Alauddin Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, and he could only hold it for nine years.

The importance of the fort to the erstwhile Kingdom of Jaisalmer is evident – the statue of Gangaur Mata, the deity taken out of an annual procession during the Gangaur Festival, is housed in the fort.

Sonar Quila once held the entire population of Jaisalmer, and even today, it is estimated that a quarter of the city’s residents live within its walls.

At the bottom of the fort is a 'Government Licensed Bhaang Shop', where women are given a choice between light and medium bhaang, and men between medium and strong bhaang. We went with the medium. I'd recommend that, however feminist or macho you are. It kicks in about an hour into consumption - if you've had bhaang milkshake - and a little sooner if you've had the biscuit. Yes, I tried both. 

Now, the rest of this article is history.

Chittaurgarh Fort

This edifice, spread across seven hundred acres, is believed to be the oldest and largest fortress in India, if not in Asia. The troubled history that saw three infamous jauhars, and several violent battles between the Mughals and Rajputs, dates back to the seventh century.
It was the capital of Mewar from the eighth to the sixteenth centuries, and it was the home of the poet-saint Mirabai. Yet, its fame largely draws from the story of Rani Padmini, whose celebrated beauty would cost her her life.

The queen lived, like all others of her time and beyond, in a secluded palace, and observed strict purdah. Only her husband, Rana Ratan Singh, was allowed to look at her face and hair. And it may have stayed that way if the Rana hadn’t thrown a bard out of his court, on suspicion of being a sorcerer, in 1303.

One day, when Alauddin Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, was out on a hunt, the bard began to sing a particularly plaintive song. Khilji found his way to the source of the music, and asked him to join his court. The singer replied that his voice was not the most desirable thing the Sultan could take back with him. He then described the beauty of Rani Padmini, relying either on his alleged magical powers or kitchen gossip.

Determined to see Rani Padmini’s face for himself, Khilji called on the Rana. The Rana cordially welcomed him into his court, and Alauddin Khilji’s stay at the fort took on the sheen of a diplomatic visit that would end in a declaration of mutual friendship and support. As Khilji was about to leave, he pleaded with the Rana for a glimpse of the Rani.

Unwilling to disappoint a guest, and yet reluctant to break a custom, the Rana finally hit upon a solution. He told the Sultan he could see a reflection of the Rani in a mirror. But he was not to turn back to look directly at her. The Rana’s code of honour would require him to chop off Khilji’s head if he attempted to. Khilji agreed to the condition. The Rana held up a polished mirror, placed at such an angle that the Rani could not be seen directly even if the Sultan swung round. But Khilji’s sight of the reflection of the queen had quite the same effect as a direct encounter. He thanked the Rana profusely for his graciousness, and took his leave.

As the Rana accompanied him to the gateway, the Sultan hugged him, stabbed him, and had his soldiers bundle the Rana onto a horse, before speeding away with the kidnapped ruler, as his confused, terrified subjects looked on. Alauddin Khilji then sent word to Chittaurgarh to say that he would only release the Rana if Rani Padmini agreed to move into the Sultan’s palace. Such a ransom demand had never been made, and the court was horrified.

But, on the advice of the ministers, Rani Padmini consented, adding a clause – that she should arrive at the Sultan’s palace in royal decorum, accompanied by fifty ladies-in-waiting. The delighted Sultan agreed, and the Rana mourned his own gullibility. As the procession of palanquins arrived, and the Rana burned with shame, the Sultan went out to receive the queen. To his shock, fifty armed warriors leapt out of the palanquins and ambushed his soldiers. The Sultan fled into his palace, and the Rajput warriors rescued Rana Ratan Singh.

The enraged Alauddin Khilji retaliated with a massive attack on Chittaur Fort. As the Rana’s army suffered reversals, and grim news bulletins came from the battlefield, Rani Padmini gathered the women of the palace around her and committed jauhar before the invading army could ransack the palace. Ironically, the Rana’s army beat back Khilji, and the victorious king arrived jubilantly at the doors of his palace, only to be greeted by the sight of his wife’s ashes. Another version of the story says Alauddin Khilji was the victor, and held the fort till it was recaptured by Hammir Singh in 1326.

The fort stayed with the Rajputs till the sixteenth century. In 1535, Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat, attacked the fort. As his army swept through the defences of Chittaur, Rani Karnavati led the women of the palace in jauhar. Again, the battle ended in Pyrrhic victory for the Rajputs. The Mughals would ultimately capture the fort in 1568, when Akbar attacked. The invasion resulted in the third jauhar in Chittaur. That was to mark the end of Chittaur’s reign as the capital of Mewar. The Ranas of Mewar ruled from Udaipur, the city to which the infant heir was smuggled away in safety during a siege.

It is in honour of these jauhars, and the bravery of the Rajput warriors, that the Jauhar Mela is held every year in Chittaurgarh. The princely families across Rajasthan take part in the procession.

Fortunately though, the history of this fort is not entirely morbid. This solid structure, with its seven gateways, topped by watchtowers and guarded by iron-spiked doors, was to become the culture capital of the kingdom under the rule of Rana Kumbha (1433-68). It was Rana Kumbha who remodelled the palace where Rani Padmini had immolated herself. A patron of the arts and an accomplished artist himself, he had the exterior walls etched with sculptured bands and embossed with flower heads. The inner walls were studded with precious stones. He invited musicians, intellectuals and poets to stay in his court.

Rana Kumbha fought his share of wars too. He beat back the Sultans of Malwa and Gujarat in 1440, and celebrated his victory by building the 120-foot high Vijaya Stambha, of which nearly every inch is carved with sculptures of Hindu Gods, and scenes from war.

There are two temples within the fort. One is the Kalika Mata Temple, whose original structure is believed to have been built in the eighth century for the Sun God. In the fourteenth century, it was converted into a Kali Temple. 

The other one is the shrine of Mirabai. The place where she worshipped Lord Krishna, close to the Rana Kumbha Palace, has been commemorated by a temple. 

The Forts of Rajasthan (Part 2)

(Published in as 'The Sentinels of Rajasthan, Part 2', retrieved from

A few weeks ago, I'd written a piece on Bala Quila and Amer Fort here. The next in the series is the majestic Mehrangarh Fort of Jodhpur, a grand structure where sturdiness meets aesthetic.

Mehrangarh Fort

As one drives into Jodhpur, the first thing that catches the eye is a startlingly huge, stark structure, its pink-and-yellow facade rising majestically against a sky that is the same shade of vivid blue as the tiny houses clustered around the hillock where the fort is mounted.
Built in the fifteenth century, Mehrangarh is one of the largest forts in India. Since its foundation stone was laid by Rao Jodha in 1459, the fort has seen several structural modifications, and artistic additions.

Tourists are sent up to the highest level of the fort by lift, and work their way through the courtyards to the base of the fort. The museum tour begins with a collection of howdahs, used by Rajas for riding elephants. The oldest of these carriers, made of wood encased in thick embossed silver polished foil, dates back to the eighteenth century.

The ornate centrepiece in the room is a grand palanquin brought back to the fort by Raja Abhay Singh as war bounty after defeating Sarbuland Khan, the Governor of Gujarat, at Mahadol in 1730. The gilt-domed palanquin has intricately carved woodwork, painted in the Gujarati style. The eaves of its canopy are moulded from beaten, cast and cut iron.

The museum also has a collection of royal cradles, musical instruments, furniture and miniatures. The armoury is a tourist favourite for its collection of legendary swords – those of Akbar the Great, Timur the Lame, and Rao Jodha.

As one stares in wonder at the carved panels, latticed windows and filigreed panes of the walls, seemingly more elaborate on each level on the upward spiral, one is startled by an ugly reminder of the violence of the times the fort has seen – holes in a wall near the second gate, Dedh Kamgra Pol, where a cannonball broke into the fortress.

The management of the fort has recently opened an aerial ‘zip’ tour – those who register are strapped on to a cable and literally swung from one end of the fort to the other. While a board says people of ages from 10 to 80 are eligible for the ride, one may want to take a look at the small print.

The less adventurous may want to wander around the Chokhelao Garden – the two-hundred year-old pleasure garden has been restored to what the renovators claim is its original glory. The upper terrace has flower beds, from which bright blossoms glow in the afternoon sun. On the lower terrace is the Mehtab Bagh (Moonlight Garden), where white chandni and kamini flowers, meant for night viewing, huddle close in the heat. The paintings placed strategically in the garden depict rather kitschy scenes – music and dance performances, lovers making eyes at each other under the shade of trees, outdoor darbars, and giggling women. Now, a restaurant on the uppermost terrace, with a view of the garden, ramparts and city beyond, offers moonlit dinners.

The fort is home to some of the most opulent indulgences of the kings who lived in it – the Phool Mahal (Palace of Flowers) built for Abhay Singh (1724-49) has a ceiling fashioned out of gold filigree work and mirrors. The walls are covered with an eccentric mix of panels, personifying the Hindustani classical raags in their various moods, depicting Gods and Goddesses in their various avatars, and royals as they go about various stately tasks, not the least of which involves sniffing at roses. With its stained glass windows, latticed screens, flamboyant ceiling and dramatic colours, this is believed to be the grandest room in the fort.

An equally capricious creation was commissioned by Takhat Singh (1843-73), the last ruler of Jodhpur to live in Mehrangarh. Known rather unimaginatively as Takhat Vilas, this bedchamber is decorated from floor to ceiling with paintings. Even the wooden panels on the ceiling are painted and inlaid. From beams on the roof hang balls made of lacquer. The floor has been painted to look like a carpet. The art on the walls ranges from Rajput miniature to Madhubani painting to the portrait of a European woman. One can’t be blamed for thinking the room looks a little bit like a joint project of Leonardo da Vinci, Reza Abbasi and Picasso.

Yet another stunning room is the Moti Mahal (The Pearl Palace) which is one of the oldest surviving rooms in the fort, dating back to the sixteenth century. Built on the orders of Raja Sur Singh, its walls are polished with chunam and dotted with niches for lamps. The ceiling is wrought from gilt, with mirrors filling in the spaces. The room also has five sheltered alcoves, from which the queens would observe the proceedings at court, hidden from view.

The Sheesha Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) is very different in style from the Mughal-influenced one at the Amer Fort. The mirrors here are large rectangles and hexagons. The only tiny pieces are to be found embedded in the paintings adorning the walls.

There are several rather disturbing legends associated with Mehrangarh Fort. It is believed that when Rao Jodha wanted to build the fort, he had to force a hermit called Chiria Nathji – the Lord of the Birds – to move from his home on the hill. The furious ascetic cursed the land with drought. Jodha tried to appease him by building a house and a temple in the fort for his use, but the city suffered from a paucity of water nevertheless. Jodha then decided that burying a man alive would do the trick, and even more incredibly, found a willing victim. Jodha promised that his Royal House – the clan of Rathores – would look after the descendants of the man, Rajiya Bhambi. Apparently, his descendants continue to honour the 600- year old pact.

Another story has to do with the handprints that can still be seen at the seventh and final gateway to the fort complex. Apparently, the marks were made by the queens who committed sati on the pyre of Maharaja Man Singh in 1843.
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