With so many of Rajasthan’s fortresses so strikingly designed, so spectacularly adorned, and so adapted to their sites (typically the highest hill around), it can often be hard to keep in mind that they weren’t built to entertain us as tourists. To maximize our understanding of them and our experiences in visiting, we should remember that they were built in very different times and by very different cultures from our own; different even from the culture of modern India.
These forts are from eras when the rulers regularly made war upon each other and so had their homes and towns designed and heavily fortified to defend against enemies.
And the forts are from eras when their surrounding towns and farms were ruled by royalty and nobles with near-absolute powers, when those rulers could impose heavy taxes on the farmers and others beneath them to fund such spectacular structures and sumptuous ways of life. The craftsmanship is often almost unbelievably intricate and beautiful.
I confess to personally being fascinated by these astonishing edifices, and I never get jaded from visiting them, learning their history, imagining what it must have been like to have lived in them, and exploring their many levels and the variety of living spaces. Good guidebooks can help in understanding each fort’s past and its unique features, and so can well written historical fiction that brings to life the culture of the times. (I like to think my own novels fall into that latter category!)
Following are several forts that are my personal favorites, though some won’t appear on “top ten” lists for tourists. These forts were designed (as were many European and Middle Eastern castles) primarily for protection and defense against invading armies, so they are not the less well-defended palaces that were intended more as luxurious homes for rulers in more peaceful times.
Some are well-known, huge, dramatic forts often visited by tour groups: Amber, Chittorgarh, Jodhpur, and Jaisalmer. Others are still large and impressive but less well-known, such as Kumbhalgarh. Some are smaller, but interesting: Khejarla (now a heritage hotel), Palaitha, and those on hilltops above Samode palace hotel. And one – Mangarh – is fictional, but still interesting and impressive!
In Alphabetical Order:
Amber (better pronounced as “Amer”) – Possibly the most touristed fortress palace in Rajasthan, but well worth the visit. Many visitors take advantage of the elephant rides up to the fort. It’s enjoyable to wander through the rooms and courtyards even without a guide. The hall of mirrors and other ornamented areas are beautiful.
Bikanir – Less visited than some of the other forts on the tourist routes, the city’s Junagarh fort is on a plain rather than a hilltop, relying on the vast surrounding desert for much of its protection (it’s now surrounded by a city, of course). The palace within and its museum are well worth visiting.
Bundi – I discuss this palace and its fortress on the hill above in more detail in a separate posting. A bit out of the way for many travelers, but interesting, particularly for the hilly setting.
Chittorgarh – I also cover this fort in another post and essay on this web site. The largest in Rajasthan, it’s extremely impressive for being on a 3 ½ mile long table rock, with battlements encompassing the entire perimeter.
Jaisalmer – On a large rock outcropping in the desert and built of a tawny colored stone, picturesque Jaisalmer became prosperous through its location on caravan routes. The city was originally contained within the extensive walls but now extends beyond. Wealthy traders built mansions in the city ornamented with profusions of intricately carved stone. Camel rides in the sand dunes can be readily arranged, as can tours to desert villages.
Jodhpur – Dominating the large city from a rocky ridge, the palace areas of the massive Meherangarh (“Majestic”) Fort contain a museum well worth visiting. Looking out over the surrounding area, it’s obvious why the old part of Jodhpur has been called the “Blue City,” due to the many blue painted houses of Brahmins. The dramatic view of the towering fort from a distance is one of the most evocative sights in Rajasthan.
Khejarla –The fort, around 400 years old and now converted into a heritage hotel complete with a swimming pool hugging huge boulders, is interesting architecturally and attractively remodeled while retaining a feel of past centuries. On a small isolated rocky hill, it overlooks its village, about ten miles north of the highway between Jodhpur and Beawar. Visitors speak of enjoying the walk around the village, usually trailed by local children. The hotel is sometimes a venue for weddings, some of which can be seen on YouTube.
Kumbhalgarh – Sprawling over remote hills and overlooking a major wildlife sanctuary, the fort is one of the largest in Rajasthan, and it was one of the best-defended. Guides refer to the thick, winding walls, 37 kilometers long, as the longest in India, earning them the title (at least locally) of “The Great Wall of India.” The central part of the fort encompasses a village and a number of temples. Views from the ramparts looking out over the forested hills are spectacular.
Mangarh – On a well defended rocky ridge at the foot of the Aravalli range, the fort dominates the picturesque small town of the same name. The oldest section is at the very top of the ridge and was said to house a great treasure trove, guarded by Bhil tribals. Additions to the fort were built below over the centuries by various rulers. The palace portion on the lower levels has a hall of mirrors, a pillared durbar hall, courtyards, and rooms illuminated by numerous stained glass windows. Although not on any tourist route and regrettably impractical to visit in person, the fortress is well detailed in the hunt for hidden wealth depicted in my historical novels India Treasures and India Fortunes.
Neemrana – Fallen into ruins for many years, but now renovated as a large heritage hotel-resort, the 15th century fort-palace is off the main highway NH 48 between New Delhi and Jaipur. Sprawling over a hillside on many levels, it’s often a venue for conferences and weddings because of its picturesque atmosphere, many rooms and amenities, and its relative closeness to Delhi. Numerous photos are available on the hotel web site.
Palaitha – This somewhat smaller, privately owned fortress overlooks the flood plain of the nearby Kali Sindh river. Visible from NH 27, the busy highway eastward from Kota. I’ve been fortunate to stay in it as a friend of the family (most of whom live in nearby Kota), and to have it and its history explained in detail. The clan is a prominent branch of the Hada Rajputs who also ruled Kota and Bundi, and the head of Palaitha sat at the right hand of the Maharaja of Kota during formal durbars.
Samode – This palace hotel in a hilly setting 40 km north of Jaipur is noted for its gorgeous, detailed wall and ceiling frescoes and mirror work. The approach is through the adjacent large village and several charming arched gateways. Three small forts are above on the hilltops, excellent examples of defensive structures. The fort nearest to the palace offers an outstanding view, if you feel like a steep but relatively short hike. The palace and forts were used for some of the filming in the 1984 HBO TV series, The Far Pavilions.