Why would you bury a man (by himself) alive in the foundations of a fort or within one of the turrets (on horseback) if he had done nothing wrong to deserve the fate?
It was considered auspicious and guaranteed invincibility to the fort, or so go the legends. If true, it seemed to have worked for the Junagarh Fort in Bikaner, with its impressive record of never having been conquered. If you go digging in the foundations west of the fort, where a temple of Bhomiaji stands, you may find the fossils of a man who volunteered to be buried alive. It was a matter of Rajput pride to give up your life for this ‘cause,’ with the family being rewarded with land and money.
The fort, originally called Chintamani Durg, was built by Raja Rai Singh; work started on January 30, 1586 and finished in 1594. For three centuries after this, the rulers engaged in about nine battles with their cousins from Jodhpur state. A dispute between the two sides had been simmering since around 1491 when some family heirlooms, the Rathore symbols of power, were given away by Rao Jodha (founder of Jodhpur) to his son Rao Bika who founded Bikaner in 1465. Descendants of the latter always emerged victorious, and these heirlooms remain safe in Bikaner till date under the care of the Rao Bikaji Maharaja of Bikaner’s Heirloom, Insignias and Farmans Private Trust. One of these, a sandalwood throne dating back to 1212 is on display at the fort.
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Bikaner did not have a hill to build a fort on for greater security, but its design still gives it an imposing stature. Every generation following the founder made additions and alterations to the fort, but the surrounding moat always remained a dry one. A walk through the fort makes for fascinating sights:
• Imprints of hands of Satis: The period around 1200 – 1600 A.D. was a dark one for Rajput women in Rajasthan. Widows had either to lead lives of outcasts or in confinement, or were expected to immolate themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands. This act of committing Sati was preferred by women whose indoctrination since childhood taught them life without their husband was not worth living. As you enter the fort, you will see imprints of the hands of some of the women who committed Sati. The ones in marble are those of the last Sati – Kanwarani Deep Kanwar, wife of Maharaja Kumar Moti Singh on October 30, 1825, before the British outlawed this practice. Records show Rao Bika had eight Satis, with the largest entourage of 35 immolating themselves with Maharaja Zorawar Singh. Royalty at the time had many wives, mistresses and concubines and all often committed Sati, sometimes with maids and other female staff of the queens. In an unusual case, Sangram Singh Mandlawat, a faithful manservant of Maharaja Raj Singh, committed Sato.
• A Hidden Treasure: Cross the Suraj Prole (Sun Gate) and pause on the ramp or Khurra – it is believed Raja Rai Singh buried a treasure of gold and jewels under it for an emergency. All royal establishments are rife with such legends – should keep Indiana Jones busy for a long time.
• And the lights come on: In a visionary move much ahead of its time, Maharaja Dungar Singh engaged an English engineer Mr. Robinson to install electric power in the fort. And when the switch was flicked on, onlookers were left dazzled with powerful lamps and arc lights coming alive simultaneously, illuminating the whole fort. In 1914, Maharaja Ganga Singh installed the first elevator, imported from England, in Rajasthan.
• The Armoury: You cannot but help get impressed with the collection of arms, one of the finest in any fort in India. Swords, knives, daggers, shields, maces, armours, bows and arrows and guns used over the centuries are all on a well curated display. You will also see a World War I DH9-DE Haviland fighter plane. Actually, the British presented Maharaja Ganga Singh parts of two such shot down planes as souvenirs in return for combat services rendered during the war. Around 1985, Maharaja Karni Singh engaged craftsmen to take parts from both and put together one replica of the original. There is a stand with swords placed horizontally in it; the sharp edges face upwards and members of the Siddh community would perform stunts by walking on these. They do similar stuff on beds of nails and burning coal. Don’t try it!
Common caption: The Armoury
You need to spend at least a full day in this fort to really appreciate all that is on display. You have a collection of palanquins used by the royal ladies for transportation. The fort is dotted with temples, some open to public and others only for the royal family. The Badal Mahal or Cloud Palace has a blue ceiling with clouds and lightening painted on it – to give a feeling of coolness in the harsh, dry desert region. The Chini Burj has tiles made in China for the European market – the earliest sign of foreign influence in the interiors. One of the rooms has a 65 kilo silver door leading to it. A silver throne stands in the Karan Mahal and was used for ceremonial purposes. A swing known as Krishna Jhoola is used during Janmashtami to celebrate the birth of the Hindu God Krishna.
The beds for kings are interesting. Paranoid of being attacked even while asleep, these were made low to ensure no conspirators could hide underneath. The beds were shorter than the body so the feet are on the floor; should someone tie the king in his sleep, he could still stand up with the bed on his back and put up a fight. Question: If someone got so far as to tie the king, wouldn’t they have incapacitated him to fight at all? If yes, at least the king could have ordered more comfortable beds to sleep while he still could.
Useful Travel Info for Junagarh Fort
• Timings 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
• Guides are included in entry ticket. Audio guides are available at an extra charge. A sign reads, ‘Guides are paid servants of the trust.’
• Entry Fee: Indians – Rs. 20; Students and Children – Rs. 10; Foreigners – Rs. 150
• Camera fee: Still – Rs. 30; Video – Rs. 100
• There are separate cloak rooms and ticket counters for Indians and foreigners.
• ‘Luggage and pet dogs not allowed in the palaces’ reads a sign.
• The Prachin Café inside the fort serves Indian and Chinese cuisines besides sandwiches and beverages.
Something more for you to consider:
And do join us for a coffee at the Kunzum Travel Cafe in Hauz Khas Village in New Delhi, India.