A MATTER OF HONOR:
REVISITING RAJASTHAN’S GREAT FORT OF CHITTORGARH
By Gary Worthington
Of all the major fortresses of India, few can equal Chittorgarh in historical importance, legend, sheer size, or the impact it makes on visitors. A number of years ago I visited the fort for a third time with my wife, partly to ensure that some details in my story in my novel India Treasures were correct (fortunately, they were!).
The other reason for the visit was as background for an article in Traveler’s India magazine, which unfortunately ceased publication before my piece was printed. The following is based largely on that article.
Chittorgarh is a couple of hours northeast of the city of Udaipur by car or bus. As in earlier centuries, visitors still enter the fortress by way of the main entrance road on the west above the town, threading their way upward through the seven large gateways, and passing memorials to Jaimal and Patta, fallen heroes in the defense against the siege by the Mughal Emperor Akbar.
We could still feel the aura and power of this place that saw so many battles, so many acts of valor, so many deaths. The five hundred foot high, three mile long, boat-shaped rock is a dramatic sight from the surrounding plain at any time, but especially at sunset, when the serpentine, crenellated curtain walls and bastions along the rim turn a soft, rosy orange as they march into the distant haze.
Rajputs were the major caste of nobles and warriors in the region that is now Rajasthan, and the giant fortress was the capital of the Rajput ruler of Mewar and the seat of his Sisodia clan for around eight centuries. From early childhood, Rajputs of both sexes were raised hearing tales of their valiant ancestors, instilling in their very core the ideals of courage, honor, duty, and self-sacrifice: “A wall may fall, but a Rajput stands firm.” Chittorgarh has long been a symbol of Rajput courage due to the heroism of its defenders through the ages.
Yet, Chittorgarh did fall three times to tenacious Muslim invaders with huge armies, and each time its palaces, temples, and town were pillaged. The first sack of Chittor was in 1303 when the Sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khilji, allegedly obsessed with desire to possess the beautiful princess Padmini, besieged the fort. The second sack was in 1535 when Bahadur Shah of Gujarat blew the walls with explosive mines and defeated the Rajputs. The third and final sack came in February of 1568 when the Mughal Emperor Akbar took the fort after a lengthy siege.
Centuries later, Rajasthanis, especially Rajputs, still speak of those three battles with pride, and with admiration of the way the defenders faced their ends. In each of the sieges, the defense of Chittorgarh concluded with the rite of jouhar. When it became clear the battle was lost, the garrison’s remaining Rajputs built huge fires into which their women hurled themselves to avoid facing dishonor at the hands of the foreign conquerors. The men then ceremonially donned saffron robes and fought the attackers until all the Rajputs had perished.
I once asked a knowledgeable noble Rajput lady what motivated her ancestors to participate in such a seemingly terrifying rite as suicide by fire. Her matter-of-fact, six word response: “It was a matter of honor.”
But just how would a besieging army go about successfully assaulting Chittorgarh? The fortifications, around seven miles in total length, ring the entirety of the relatively flat top of the rocky hill. Although the bustling town of Chittor itself now sprawls on the adjacent plain, before Akbar’s siege it was within the fortress. The defenders, including the women and children of the town, would have been amply provisioned to resist for an extended period of time, as the fort has a number of sizable ponds or tanks which hold water year round, and ample space even to keep herds of sheep and goats and other animals.
I wrote a long tale about that siege in my historical novel India Treasures, and when I revisited Chittorgarh, I came in late February, the same time of year as Akbar’s final assault 434 years before. It was hot on the fort’s wall-walk flanking the Lakhota Bari, the small gate at the northern end that was a main target for Akbar’s artillery and engineers. The only relief from the heat came at the vertical slits piercing the crenellations of the upper walls, where a cool wind shot through from far out in the sky above the plain. I tried to imagine the defenders, one at each loophole, relishing that fresh breeze as they watched the enemy on the plain far below, waiting for a target to present itself, while trying to avoid being victims themselves. To me, the people down on the flatland appeared too tiny to make feasible targets for any but the most skilled of musketmen or archers.
There are legends about each siege, but we have the most specific historical details about Akbar’s, which began on October 20, 1567, and lasted four months. Akbar, then twenty-four years old, viewed Chittorgarh and the Rana of Mewar as leading symbols of resistance to his expanding empire, and he was determined to subdue them both. He brought 50,000 men to Chittorgarh, whose defenders numbered a mere 8,000. Akbar did not even try to have his army breach the main entrance, the huge Ram Pol, guarded by six consecutive subsidiary gateways through which the zig-zag approach road threads. Instead, the Emperor focused on the much smaller gates at the north and east, as well as on the bastion at the very southern tip. His artillerymen set up batteries to fire cannons at those three locations. He also had miners tunnel into the rocky hillside at those points to plant explosive charges. And his engineers supervised workmen who slowly constructed sabats: tunnels partly cut into the 45 degree slopes, and partly above ground, with thick, mud-covered sides and roofs of planks surmounted by battlements, snaking upward toward the fort’s walls hundreds of feet above.
The defenders on that walkway would have tried everything possible to slow construction of the tunnels and sabats, and it’s said that they did kill over a hundred of Akbar’s workmen each day. Meanwhile, the walls, the towers, and the Rajput garrison were frequently bombarded by Akbar’s huge cannons. Every day, vultures would have circled through skies that carried the odor of smoke from the funeral pyres as the defenders burned fallen friends and family, and as the fort’s own workers struggled to repair the latest damage to the stonework of the defenses.
When the sabats were at last completed and Akbar gave the command, his engineers used the structures’ protection to blast huge holes in the fort’s walls. Under complete cover, the Mughal warriors sped their horses and elephants upward through the covered corridors and charged directly into the Rajputs’ ferocious resistance. The Emperor’s historians record that Akbar watched from a battlement atop one of the sabats, often firing his musket at the defenders. After hours of fierce fighting, a sharpshooter’s bullet killed Jaimal Rathore, the fort’s commander. The Emperor himself was given credit for firing the shot, which is possible, since Akbar was reputedly an excellent marksman.
Jaimal’s death was an impetus for the Rajput defenders to begin the jouhar. With appropriate ceremony, the Rajput women, whose large numbers included nine queens and five princesses, and who took two infant royal sons with them, leaped into the flames. Their men, after hurriedly sharing their last beera or paan leaves—always presented upon taking leave—donned the saffron robes. Large bands of the enemy were now within the fort itself, and the defending warriors continued to resist, striving to kill as many invaders as possible until they themselves were inevitably overwhelmed and struck down.
As the smoke from the jouhar fires dissipated, Akbar’s jubilant conquering troops looted the fort and destroyed centuries-old temples and other buildings. Those defenders who remained, most of them probably non-Rajputs, were subjected to a massacre at Akbar’s orders—a stain on the Emperor’s reputation in future history books.
So Chittorgarh is, most of all, a symbol of courage and heroism. Future generations of Rajputs, when taking an oath, would often swear by “the sin of the slaughter of Chittor.”
Within the fortress still are numerous remnants of buildings reputedly destroyed during the sieges themselves or the pillaging that followed. As a casual visitor over four hundred years after Akbar’s victory, I was unable see any remaining evidence of the sabats below the outer walls, with the possible exception of stone rubble on the steep hillside at the northern end beneath the Lakhota Gate. However, along the top edge of the cliff at that spot, slightly lower than the base of the current, restored fortifications, are obvious ruins of earlier walls and gates, quite plausibly the remains of the defenses destroyed in Akbar’s assaults.
Despite subduing such a strategic and famous stronghold, Akbar accomplished only part of his aim. The ruler of Mewar, Rana Udai Singh, had gone elsewhere for safety. After losing Chittorgarh he established the new capital of Udaipur, on the shore of a beautiful artificial lake. His son and successor, the legendary Rana Pratap, continued to resist Akbar for two more decades, creating even more legends of Rajput valor.
For visitors, the fort has numerous attractions besides its impressive fortifications. The most intriguing and best known sight within the grounds is the exquisitely sculptured nine-storey Vijay Stambha, or Victory Tower, built in the late 15th century; almost as fascinating is the smaller 12th century Jain Kirti Stambha, or Tower of Fame. The local guides will gladly point out other major sights such as the Meera Temple, associated with the famous poetess-princess Mirabai; a replica of the princess Padmini’s little poolside palace; the Khumba Shyam Temple; the Sammidheshvara Temple; the Kalika Mata Temple; the small Gomukh Kund reservoir; the 15th century ruins of Rana Kumbha’s palace; and sites of the satis and the jouhars.