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Travelogues

Forest Forts of Rajasthan


Shailendra Yashwant visits the forts of Rajasthan, wanting to preserve the history, culture and natural history of this amazing state of India, where the past breathes through the stones of monuments and forts.

The bird hovered above us for a bit before diving below to vanish in the undergrowth. I could see it clearly, the pale-cream, spotted underbelly and black tail band contrasting sharply against the azure sky. Just before I lost sight of the slender hunter I made out its greyish head. It was a kestrel. Falco tinnuculus and its kin had obviously been hunting here long before the ramparts of the 40 km. long wall of the imposing Kumbhalgarh Fort on which I stood, had been built. History and natural history combined to overwhelm me. I was happy to be alive.

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This was the birthplace of Maharana Pratap and I found myself wondering what he must have thought of the Aravalli foothills in whose protective shadow I now stood. Around the fort stood 13 peaks, protected by seven gates and walls, each further studded by strategic watchtowers. I felt humbled by the sheer grandeur of my surroundings. Generals and soldiers must have taken the same tortuous paths through rugged forested terrain to reach Arait Pol, Hulla Pol, Hanuman Pol and the other defensive points that are now mere curiosities but once helped repulse invaders. The Badal Mahal Palace with its turquoise and cream-white interiors must have reverberated to the sound of music and the laughter of dancing girls in the presence of royalty. Only brick, mortar and legend now remained. As I gazed at the walls I was swept by their history.

Below me stretched a surprisingly dense forest comprising hills and valleys now protected as the unique Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. There was a pack of wolves somewhere deep in the forest below me and I was hungry to explore their wild home. With luck I might even see the elusive panther.

 

The Badal Mahal Palace with its turquoise and cream-white interiors must have reverberated to the sound of music and the laughter of dancing girls in the presence of royalty. Only brick, mortar and legend now remained. As I gazed at the walls I was swept by their history.

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For eight days, I had driven relentlessly through the forests of eastern Rajasthan, in the process visiting ten long-forgotten battle-scarred forts set amidst splendid woods. But Kumbhalgarh quite literally takes oneís breath away. Built atop magnificent hill tracts that reach more than 1,000 metres up towards the sky and divide the erstwhile Mewar and Marwah regions, these valleys and ravines have seen historic battles in the days of the great Rajput clans. Today it is the site of yet another struggle, one that seeks to protect the fabulous natural heritage of a state being dispossessed of its green mantle faster than ever before in its chequered antiquity.

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Kumbhalgarh: Exploring a Wild Haven

Lalit Singh Ranawat, the Warden of the sanctuary, shifted into four-wheel drive before we plunged into the forest by way of one of the five kachcha tracks that cut through the forest. A Grey Jungle Fowl fluttered away from us and Ranawat proudly informed me that his sanctuary is probably the last secure home in the desert region for the endangered Indian wolf Canis lupus. As we lost altitude, forests of bamboo, khirni and siris gave way to ber, dhok, kanju, khair and gular. Summer had yet to set in but already the forest had taken on the colour of mud and earth. I entered a dun-coloured mansion where plants and animals had learned to turn adversity to advantage. Only the very hardy survived here where water was scarce for most of the year.

We stopped awhile to observe a pair of Grey Hornbills that flapped noisily away when a langur swung discourteously onto their tree. When we reached chhoti odhi, literally small hunting-hide, I was informed that in times past, hundreds of tigers, panthers and other mammals fell prey here to the rulers of Ganerao. There are no tigers left alive in Kumbhalgarh any longer. From within the confines of the odhi, visitors still manage to see leopard, sloth bear, sambar and numerous other birds and animals that arrive in search of water, fodder and shelter.

For all the tiger blood that was spilt however, everyone acknowledges that it was only thanks to the maharajas of yesteryear that forests such as this survive today. Around their shikargahs Rajasthan lies ruined, wasted in chasing delusions of development. The once contiguous forest tracts running through the states of Alwar, Jaipur, Karauli, Dholpur, Kota, Bundi, Tonk and Udaipur are long gone. Most water sources are damaged and polluted. Forts and palaces remain, most built in the thickest forests and best-watered destinations. And from these verdant regions flows sweet water, a gift from posterity to modern Rajasthan.

Of course, the forts themselves lie in varying stages of ruin and neglect, without wardens, caretakers or funds. Hopefully this situation is going to be improved. Salauddin Ahmad, a history aficionado who has risen through the bureaucracy to be appointed Secretary, Forests, Government of Rajasthan, wants to restore the forest forts of Rajasthan. He recognises that each such structure is a potential battlement from where poachers can be countered, even as Rajasthanís proud history is enshrined. He wants help from wildlifers to revive these ancient structures. Already the retinue of drug addicts and vandals who usually make forgotten ruins their base everywhere has been cleared out. Walls marked by graffiti are being cleaned. A listing is being made of antiquities that could be stolen by crooked antique collectors. Ahmad has also started the process of consultations with other wings of government to see how coordination with them might help achieve a common objective.

Interestingly, the Rajasthan Forest Department welcomes tourists to these historic sites, provided they are willing to savour the forests and their forts with help from minimalist facilities. In Ahmadís words: ďNature can be celebrated and history remembered without the soft luxuries to which the very rich have become accustomed.Ē

I readily agree. I had never slept so well, nor found myself so fulfilled as when the gentle calls of owls and jackals came to me over the dusk at Kumbhalgarh. As the darkness settled, my thoughts went back to Rana Fateh Singh who invested huge sums of money and resources to rebuild the battlements and their water tanks and channels in the 19th century. And when I woke from a deep and comfortable sleep it was to the sound of peacocks and kingfishers. I neither wanted nor needed any reminder of the city in the heart of Rajasthanís wild places.


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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.