A journey through the forts of Rajasthan

Many of the properties in the UNESCO World Heritage List are not just a single site, but they are actually a collection of several sites that share similar features and thus can be grouped together for the purposes of protection and management.

A good example of such serial sites is the Hill Forts of Rajasthan.

Rajasthan, a big state in India, is a land of desert, mountains and history. A particular feature of Rajasthan is the presence of several forts standing on the many hills around the State, in strategic positions. Six of these forts in Chittorgarh, Kumbhalgarh, Sawai Madhopur, Jhalawar, Jaipur, and Jaisalmer are included collectively since 2013 in the UNESCO World Heritage List as Hill forts of Rajasthan. The forts are an example of the power of the Rajput princely states that dominated the region from the 8th to the 18th centuries.

Rajasthan is a very big state and the six forts are hundreds of kilometers apart. I managed to visit only two of them, the Amer Fort in Jaipur and the fort in Jaisalmer, but I was really impressed by the majesty of those sites.

Amer Fort

Amer Fort, also known as Amber Fort, is located just outside the city of Jaipur. Jaipur is rich in history and there are plenty of other sites to visit, among which the Jantar Mantar, another UNESCO World Heritage site. I will talk more extensively about Jaipur in a dedicated post. For now I want to focus only on the fort.

The Amer fort was built around the end of the 16th century on a hill just above Maota Lake, which is also the main source of water for the fort. Right above the fort, on another hill, is Jaigarh Fort. The two forts are connected by an underground tunnel making them a single complex. The tunnel is still open and allows visitors to walk from one fort to the other without using the long and mountainous road. The Amer Fort can be easily reached from Jaipur. I went by auto-rickshaw, after negotiating for a reasonable price, and it took about 30 minutes from the city centre.

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Amer Fort overlooking Maota Lake. On the left, Jaigarh Fort can be seen in the background.
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The UNESCO inscription plaque.
Amber Fort
Amer Fort as it looks while approaching it from the north side.

Without entering too much into the architectural style of the fort, I can say that it is impressive. First of all, it’s massive. It is divided into four sections and each one has a gate and a courtyard. Because of the beauty of the decorations it is also called Amer Palace and it really deserves the definition.

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The gate to the palace, from the first courtyard.

Almost the entire fort can be visited and it can take quite a long time considering the extensive size of the building and the scorching heat of Rajasthan. It is an incredible place to explore. I tried to visit every single room trying to imagine how it could have been back then, during its glorious days. It was a memorable experience.

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Ganesh Pol. The entrance to the private palace of the Maharajas.
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Shees Mahal, the mirror palace.
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Cleaning women, trying to enjoy the feeble breeze while resting among the columns of Sattais Kacheri (27 Offices).
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View of Maota Lake from behind one of the many wonderfully decorated windows.
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The oldest part of the fort: the Palace of Man Singh I. In the center is the Baradari Pavillion, the meeting place of the queens of the royal family.
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Classic tourist photo, standing in front of the fort.

I really enjoyed my visit to Amer Fort. It’s an outstanding example of Rajasthani fort with ramparts, series of gates, cobbled paths and elements of Hindu style. It’s a place where one feels back in time and can’t stop admiring all the details and the decorations of the palace. It’s a place that, on its own, makes a visit to Jaipur absolutely worth it.

Jaisalmer Fort

Jaisalmer is an isolated relatively small town, which is located in heart of the Thar Desert. It can be reached by bus from every other major city in Rajasthan and by train from Jaipur, the capital of the state.

The most recognisable landmark of Jaisalmer is the Fort which stands on a hill in the centre of the town. The so-called Golden Fort, due to the colour of the yellow sandstone used for the walls.

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Jaisalmer fort seen from the edge of the city.

Jaisalmer Fort is considered to be one of the largest fortifications in the world and it is impressive when seen from the city. It was built around the middle of the 12th century, it’s been the theatre of many battles and it’s always been inhabited.

Jaisalmer Fort is completely different from Amer Fort because it’s part of the city and people still live inside the walls. From the city a road climbs up to the fort, passing through private residences, shops and restaurants. The fort therefore isn’t only a monument but it’s the city itself which in more recent times spread outside the walls.

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The fort as seen on the way approaching it.

The best way to explore the fort, which is free to visit as there is no entrance fee, is to wander around without destination and try to get lost among the narrow alleys and stairways. Inside the fort there are several large houses that used to be owned by merchants, called Havelis, a few Jain temples, a Royal Palace and lots of restaurants, some even with a rooftop terrace where to admire the city. It’s a beautiful place where to spend a few hours before and after the excursion to the desert, which is what every visitor of Jaisalmer goes there to experience.

Unfortunately, the unique feature of this fort, i.e. being part of the city itself, is causing serious problems to the integrity and stability of the hill on which the fort rests. The lack of proper water drainage infrastructure, the building of new roads and, generally, the uncontrolled construction activities reduced the effect of the original drainage system and are causing an increase of the vulnerability of the area. That is where being in the UNESCO World Heritage List might play an important role. Hopefully this status will guarantee the constant monitoring of the risks and an increased protection and conservation of such an important place.

Besides the fort, Jaisalmer is a popular tourist destination for excursions in the Thar Desert. I did it, I loved it and I absolutely advise anyone who goes to Jaisalmer to do it too. It’s such a cool experience to reach the edge of the desert on a 4×4 vehicle and then keep going on the back of a camel (a dromedary actually) and finally spend the night outside in the desert, with nothing more than a blanket and only the stars above your head. It’s a fantastic way to spend the night.

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Sunset at our night camp.
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Our guide making dinner in the traditional way of the desert people.
Thar Desert Jaisalmer
Sunrise over the dune of the Thar Desert.
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Amazing contrast between the colour of the sand and the sky in the early morning.
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On the way back to Jaisalmer.

The trip to Jaisalmer was a great experience, worth every minute of the long journey to get there and leave.

One more Fort: Mehrangarh Fort

In Rajasthan there are many more forts than the six inscribed in the UNESCO List. Many are in ruins, others don’t meet the criteria to be inscribed in the List, but there is one that, despite not being part of the UNESCO World Heritage List, is a masterpiece and deserves a special mention. It’s Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, one of the largest forts in all India.

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Mehrangarh Fort seen from a rooftop in the Blue City.

It stands above a hill in the city and can be seen from literally everywhere due to its size and position. Its outside massive appearance is balanced by the beauty of the inside, where intricate carvings cover part of the structure and several courtyards and terraces let the visitors admire Jodhpur, the blue city, from above. There are also a very informative museum and a Hindu temple inside the fort.

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One of the gates of Mehrangarh Fort.
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Beautiful decorations are found everywhere inside Mehrangarh Fort.
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A view of the Blue City from Mehrangarh Fort.

After visiting Mehrangarh Fort, I had a pleasant stroll through that part of Jodhpur that is called Blue City. It was definitely my favourite part of Jodhpur. It’s a picturesque area and it’s much more quiet then the rest of the busy city.

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Posing with local children eager to take pictures with foreigners.
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The walls of the Blue City are painted with a bright blue paint that gives the buildings a peaceful look.

Forts are something very common in Rajasthan. Nonetheless some of them are outstanding examples of eclectic architecture and elaborated cultures. They represent the power of the rulers of Rajasthan and so they weren’t only fortifications but also lively palaces, temples and urban centres. They lasted through centuries of battles and unmerciful weather. They are a treasure that we can still enjoy now and we must preserve for the future generations.

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