“Mehrangarh” meaning the “fort of the sun” is one of the grandest and most splendid forts of India. It was built in the 15th century CE, in the newly founded city of Jodhpur, by Rao Jodha. The Mehrangarh fort, unlike most of the significant historical structures of India, is not owned or managed by the Archaeological Survey of India, but is still under the control of the royal family of Jodhpur. The fort is counted among top tourist destinations of India and is well-known for its remarkable architecture, dazzling palaces, grand courtyards and an internationally acclaimed museum.
Legends say that the Rathore clan originated in Kanauj. The 12th century CE brought important political transformations in North India. The invasion of Muhammad Ghori disturbed the peace of the region and disrupted the existing balance of power. These developments forced the Rathore rulers to migrate westwards. Rao Siyaji (r.1226-1273 CE), the grandson of Jai Chandra of Kanauj, settled in the town of Pali, situated in the Marwar region of (present-day) Rajasthan. Thereafter, Rao Chunda (1383-1424 CE) established his capital at Mandore in Marwar.
Rao Jodha, the 15th ruler, shifted his base to a place 9 kilometres south of Mandore. This shift seems to have been inspired by strategic and military considerations. After the introduction of gunpowder and cannons into the Indian subcontinent, the nature of warfare here changed drastically. Therefore, the construction of a new fortified structure that could stand up to the military challenges of the time was felt. The site chosen for the fort was the rocky outcrop of a mountain, almost 125 metres high. The fort was christened as “Mehrangarh” after the term “mihir” meaning sun, as a tribute to this ancestral deity of the Rathores. Some historians even claim that “Mehrangarh” is, in fact, a later-day rendition of the original name of the fort, “Mihirgarh”. The city that grew at the base of the hill came to be known Jodhpur after its founder.
An interesting legend is associated with the origin of the fort. It is said that there once lived nobody but a lone hermit on the mountain where the king wanted the fort built. This hill was called Bhakurcheeria or the “Mountain of Birds” and the hermit was known as Cheeria Nathji or the Lord of Birds. When the king decided to move the hermit forcibly, he cursed the mountain to be water deficient forever. He said that any fort which would be built there would suffer from water scarcity. The worried king called for a voluntary human sacrifice to remedy the situation. When no one came forward, the local Raja Ram Meghwal offered his own life. He was then buried alive within the foundations of the fort. However, the local people still believe that every 3-4 years, the entire region suffers a scarcity of water due to the hermit’s curse!
The fort stands more than 400 feet above the skyline of Jodhpur and covers an area of almost 1200 acres. This colossal structure, around 500 metres wide and at places up to 120 feet high, seems to both stand out against, and blend into the surrounding rocky terrain. The rocky outcrop on which the fort stands, called Jodhpur Group-Malani Igneous Suite Contact, represents the last phase of igneous activity of the Precambrian age. Therefore, the fort has been declared a National Geological Monument. The arid land below the fort was converted into an ecologically restored zone called the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park (in 2006) and contains important volcanic and sandstone rock formations, and houses a rich variety of flora and fauna. The city wall surrounding the fort is around 10 kilometres long. The highest point of the fort offers a mesmerizing view of the city of Jodhpur and its characteristic blue-tinted houses (painted with a mixture of quicklime and indigo).
Although the foundations of the fort were laid in the 15th century CE, constructions and additions continued under various rulers over a period of almost 500 years. This coupled with the changing needs of the times, resulted in diverse architectural trends to be present in the fort. After, the foundation of the fort was laid by Rao Jodha, the first significant constructions were undertaken by Rao Maldeo (r. 1532-1562 CE) who strengthened the fortifications by building a strong keep wall at the core of the fort complex. Due to Marwar’s political association with the Mughals, considerable cultural exchange took place, a fact that is clearly visible in the architecture of the fort.
The fort has a total of seven gates: Jai Pol, Fateh Pol, Loha Pol, Amrita Pol, Doodkangra Pol, Gopal Pol and Bheru Pol. The fort is secured with cannons installed at all strategic junctures. Bhawani and Kilkila are some of the important ones. These large and heavy battlements were meant to overwhelm the enemy. The innermost gate, the Loha Pol, is an intriguing structure that contains the handprints of 15 queens who committed sati (or self-immolation) here. The marks, set in red stone, create an eerie atmosphere around this place.
The Mehrangarh fort, today, houses a museum that preserves a priceless collection of royal antiquities of Rajputana. The Museum consists of 7 Period Rooms, i.e., Phool Mahal, Sheesh Mahal, Takhat Vilas, Jhanki Mahal, Sardar Vilas, Moti Mahal and Dipak Mahal; and 6 Galleries namely, Howdah Gallery, Daulat Khana, Palanquin Gallery, Painting Gallery, Textile Gallery and Arms Gallery.
The Moti Mahal or Pearl Palace, constructed by Sawai Raja Sur Singh (1595-1619 CE), is one of the old and largest palaces of the fort complex. The palace is called so because of the lustrous pearl-like quality of its walls prepared from a mixture of sea shells and lime mortar. The interiors of this palace radiate with light passing through its colourful glass windows. The Sardar Vilas, located close to the Moti Mahal flaunts beautiful woodwork plated with gold. The Sheesh Mahal or Palace of Mirrors is an ornate structure that showcases exquisite mirror work interspersed with vibrant paintings of deities such as Brahma, Siva-Parvati, Krishna, Ganesh etc. This palace originally formed the sleeping chamber of Maharaja Ajit Singh (r. 1679-1724 CE). Dipak Mahal, also built by Ajit Singh, was the main administrative centre of the fort. The Phool Mahal or Flower Palace, one of the grandest palaces of Mehrangarh, was built by Maharaja Abhay Singh (r. 1724-1749 CE). This palace stands out because of its ornate ceiling with golden filigree work (depicting flowers and creepers), and beautiful paintings- especially the raga mala series depicting the personification of various ragas of Indian classical music.
The Takht Vilas, built in the 19th century CE, was the private chamber of Maharaja Takht Singh (r. 1843-1873 CE). The interiors of this palace, bedecked with intricate paintings from ceiling to the floor, are a treat for the eyes. These paintings depict a variety of themes ranging from Hindu gods and goddesses to Rajasthani folk tales. Certain aspects of the paintings such as facial expressions suggest assimilation of western stylistic elements. The Jhanki Mahal or “Palace of Glimpses”, also built during the reign of Takht Singh, was designed to enable royal women to view the proceedings of the royal court, through jaalis or screens and small windows, without being seen.
Some of the palaces have also been converted into galleries displaying a rare and invaluable collection of items from the royal past of Jodhpur. The Howdah Gallery displays a fine collection of elephant seats, the most notable among them being the silver howdah of Emperor Shah Jahan, gifted to Maharaja Jaswant Singh (r. 1638-1678 CE). The palanquin gallery displays palkis made of both wood and metal (such as gold and silver), and inlaid with precious stones. The Daulat Khana flaunts a precious collection of antiquities from both Rajput and Mughal times. The sword of Akbar is a prime exhibit here. The Sileh Khana or the arms gallery displays a formidable collection of weapons such as swords with expertly carved steel blades and ornate hilts, embellished shields, fine daggers and so on. The textile gallery showcases a unique exhibition of cloth architecture- royal paraphernalia consisting of tents, canopies, carpets, floor spreads etc. The painting gallery presents some of the best specimens of the Marwar school of miniature painting.
The construction of courtyards or chowks is a remarkable feature of this fort. The coronation ceremony to crown the ruler was conducted at the Shringar chowk. An important object here is a marble throne on which the ruler used to present himself to the public. The second courtyard or the Daulat Khana Chowk flaunts jharokhas with detailed latticework in sandstone. The Zenana Deorhi Chowk or Women’s Square showcases further intricate and impressive lattice work.
The Mehrangarh fort also houses a temple dedicated to Chamunda Devi, the tutelary deity of the Rathores.
The ripples of the rise of a powerful empire under the Mughals in North India were also felt in Marwar. The latter soon fell prey to the ambitions of the Mughals, who however, let the Rathores rule their territory as feudatories subservient to Delhi. The relationship between the Rathores and the Mughals over the centuries saw many ups and downs. It was Maharaja Udai Singh (r. 1583-1595), also endearingly known as Mota Raja, who first became a vassal of Akbar. The Rathores were also involved in constants feud with other Rajputs clans. Akbar inducted Udai Singh as a Mansabdar, strengthened his position among the warring clansmen, reinstated him at Mehrangarh and bestowed upon him the title of the “Raja of Marwar.” Udai Singh even gave his own daughter in marriage to Prince Salim (later Emperor Jahangir) in order to cement his alliance with the Mughals further. His successor Sur Singh was instrumental in helping Jahangir subdue the state of Mewar. Subsequent rulers, Gaj Singh I (r. 1619-1638 CE) and Jaswant Singh continued serving the Mughals and assisted in numerous key campaigns of the Empire.
However, after the death of Jaswant Singh, Emperor Aurangzeb brought Marwar directly under Mughal administration. This was resisted by the Marwar minster Durgadas who helped build an alliance of Rajputs against Aurangzeb. After the death of Aurangzeb, Ajit Singh managed to regain the hereditary seat of Mehrangarh and several other adjoining forts. However, he too couldn’t hold his own against the Mughals for long and once again accepted Mughal suzerainty. He married his daughter Indra Kunwar to Farrukhsiyar and was also forced to hand over his son Abhai Singh to the Mughals. Maharaja Abhai Singh, during his reign, remained loyal to the Mughals.
During the 18th century another threat loomed large in the horizon of Rajputana. The continuous attacks by the Maratha armies of the Holkars and Scindias made Marwar bankrupt. Maharaja Man Singh of Marwar (r. 1803-1843 CE) sought help of the English and signed a Subsidiary Alliance in 1818 CE. Thereafter, he continued to rule his princely state as a subordinate ruler of the British. However, Man Singh is said to have come under the influence of Nath Yogis, a militant ascetic sect, and broken several provisions of the treaty. The British after subduing the Yogis were finally able to take control of Mehrangarh in 1839 CE. Under Maharaja Takht Singh, Marwar even provided forces to the British to quell the Uprising of 1857. Jaswant Singh II (r. 1873-1895 CE) shifted the royal residence from the Mehrangarh fort to the palaces of Rai ka Bagh and Ratnada, located on the outskirts of the city of Jodhpur. By this time, with the decline of the military importance of the fort, Mehrangarh was no longer deemed suitable as a residence for the royalty. However, the fort was not completely abandoned and continued to play an important role in the Marwar polity.
After independence, the Princely state of Jodhpur acceded to the Indian Union. Most of the principal historical monuments in the country were gradually nationalised thereafter. However, the Mehrangarh fort continued to remain under the control of the royal family of Jodhpur. After, the abolition of the privy purses of the royals in 1971, the guardians of Mehrangarh had to consider newer ways of maintaining their ancestral legacies. The Mehrangarh Museum Trust was established in 1972 under Gaj Singh II, the honorary Maharaja of Jodhpur, who donated nearly 15,000 items from his personal collection to the trust to create a museum within the fort. Under his leadership, the Mehrangarh fort emerged as a centre of scholarship, museology and sustainable conservation. India’s first professional museum store opened at the Mehrangarh fort in 1998. Today, the fort is also the venue for two renowned festivals, the International Folk festivals and the World Sacred Spirit Festival.
The Mehrangarh fort, even today, forms the fulcrum of the identity and pride of the people of the region. This architectural marvel is undoubtedly one of the best-preserved monuments of the country.