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by Anuradha Shankar

We stand at the edge of a huge clearing. At one end is a temple, an ancient one, built centuries ago, broken but re-built time and again. All around us are fragments of carved stones. They once adorned temples built around the clearing, and are now waiting to be replaced and returned to at least a shadow of their former glory. The clearing itself is not empty. There are remnants of a huge platform, and some smaller ones. Each one had a role to play in history – a history I have grown up hearing, which has brought me all this way. The story is stuff that legends are made of, and I wanted to see for myself what it felt like to stand at a place where thousands and thousands of women had sacrificed their lives, and the lives of their families, for their honour, and for the honour of their clan. As I stand there, oblivious to the tourists who throng the place, I can’t help but feel the devastation and the sadness that lingers on, centuries after the events have taken place. We are at Chittorgarh, also called Chittaur, in Rajasthan, one of the oldest and biggest forts in India. It was once the bastion of the Mewar Rajputs and was ruled by various kings famed for their courage, but more than them, it is the story of their women that dwells in people’s hearts even today….. Not just one woman, but many. There are some whose names we know, and many whose we don’t, but each one of them attained immortality in the hearts and minds of Indians. This is the story of some of these women…..

The incomparable queen

Padmini was the queen of Rana Ratan Singh, who ruled Chittaur around 1303 AD. She was rumored to be among the most beautiful women in the world. The rumor reached the ears of Sultan Allaudin Khilji, who then ruled Delhi. He attacked Chittaur at once, hoping to add Padmini to his harem. Chittaur however was invincible, and Khilji found himself at the losing end, so he resorted to trickery. He convinced Ratan Singh that all he wanted was a glimpse of the beautiful queen, and that he would leave immediately. The kind hearted Rana agreed, and an ingenious system of mirrors was designed so that Khilji could see Padmini’s reflection in a mirror without setting his eyes on her directly. (The Rajput women were never allowed to be seen by men!) Khilji had no intention of leaving empty handed. He captured the Rana who, with true Rajput hospitality, had gone to the fort entrance to send him off. The queen however, wasn’t just beautiful. She also had brains. She agreed to go to the Sultan, but instead sent her guards in disguise, who succeeded in releasing the Rana. However, by now, the Sultan’s army was at the gates of Chittaur, and defeat was imminent.

Even as the men prepared for one last stand against the invaders, the women and children prepared for their own last stand – they decided to immolate themselves rather than fall into the hands of the Sultan’s men who were sure to defile them. So it was that the queen led all her women and their families to a funeral pyre lit on a platform in the huge clearing. Each one jumped in, and thus was recorded the first ‘jauhar’ of Chittaur. With their families dead, and nothing more to lose, the men of Chittaur embarked on a suicide mission- called the saka – to fight to their last breath. This they did with valour unheard of, and when at last, the troops of the Sultan entered the fort, all they found was masses and masses of ash! It is said that Khilji was so angry, that he almost completely razed the fort.

Thus ended the story of Padmini, the queen forever associated with the fort of Chittaur, but there were other women to come after her, and leave their names on the pages of Chittaur’s history.

The poetess-Saint

Amidst stories of war and death is another story – that of a young girl who came to Chittaur in the 1500s as a bride. She was married to the prince, but refused to accept him as her husband. She was mentally wed to Lord Krishna and her life was dedicated to Him. She spent her time singing songs in praise of the Lord, and talked to Him as if He was present in flesh and blood. This was Meera – the poetess-saint, whose songs on Krishna are sung across the country even today. Her attitude was never appreciated, and after her husband was killed in war, the situation only worsened. She was continually troubled and insulted, until at last, she decided to leave Chittaur and go to the land of her Lord – Mathura and Brindavan. With the departure of Meera, Chittaur seemed to lose its greatness. The locals till today believe that it was Chittaur’s treatment of Meera that instigated the ultimate defeat and destruction of the once-invincible fort!

The second Jauhar

Years passed, and once again Chittaur was invaded – this time by the Shah of Gujarat, in 1535. The Rajputs were not strong enough, and Queen Karnavati this time decided to take matters into her own hands. She sent an emissary to Humayun, the new Mughal ruler of Delhi, with a fragment of her sari as a ‘Rakhi’ – a thread tied by a woman to her brother, which binds them together. When a woman ties a Rakhi to her brother, he promises to protect her, and it was this protection that Rani Karnavati asked for, from Humayun. Most of Humayun’s supporters were against his going to help a Rajput on the grounds of religion. It took Humayun some time to convince them, but he marched towards Chittaur to help the queen. However, the argument had delayed him by just a day. Sensing defeat at the hands of the enemy and disappointed at the lack of response from Delhi, the queen had taken the path of her ancestor. The funeral pyre had been lit again in the huge clearing near the temple, and the queen had entered it along with all her women. Humayun was too late to save them, and it is said that he felt deeply for not being able to protect his sister. It is said that he continued to wage war against the Shah, and eventually succeeded in defeating him.

The ultimate sacrifice

The Rajputs were now dwindling. There were just a few who had escaped the wars, and none had the stature and power of their ancestors. Petty jealousies and greed ruled many of the scions of the dynasty. One such scion was Banbir, who killed his brother in order to become the king. Drunk with power, he attempted to kill the crown prince Udai Singh, then an infant. News travels fast, but bad news faster, and the prince’s nurse heard of the impending calamity. A quick thinking and courageous woman, she bundled the prince into a basket of flowers, handed it to a maid and asked her to carry it out of the fort. She then placed her own son dressed in the prince’s clothes on the royal bed, and waited for the traitor. Intent on saving the prince, she watched as her son was killed, cremated him, and then walked out of the fort, taking the prince to safety. History tells us that her name was Panna Dai (Dai means nursemaid), but that is all we know of the woman who gave up her own son to protect the prince.

And a third time!

Chittaur’s fortunes were declining. The year was 1567 and this time, it was Akbar, Humayun’s son, who invaded Chittaur, in an attempt to bring the land of Mewar under his rule. By this time, it was apparent to all that the fort was no longer invincible, and it was time to move. This time, the prince was convinced to escape and find another place to establish his kingdom, while the rest of the army turned once again towards the last resort – Jauhar and saka. Once again, (thankfully, for the last time), the women ascended the pyre and the men fought with a vengeance, earning the reluctant admiration of Akbar himself. Akbar won the fort, but never ruled it. He took back with him some of the most beautiful things in the fort – its door, a huge drum, and such other things – as mementos of the war, but he never ruled over the fort, which was soon abandoned, and slipped into the misty realm of history.

The stories are not new to me. I have grown up with them. But standing at the edge of that clearing seems to make them seem more real. On one side is the temple dedicated to the Lord of destruction – Shiva – undoubtedly a fit location for such a temple. On the other side, a little farther away, I can see the spire of the temple of Krishna – the protector – where Meera spent her days in prayer. I can almost imagine the massive funeral pyre and the tongues of flames eagerly lapping up the human sacrifice, of cries rending the air, and the complete stillness at the end, the ground covered in ashes. I can’t help wondering about these women – women who had jumped into the fire, who had been ready to give up everything for what they believed, who sacrificed not just themselves, but their nearest and dearest ones, for the cause they believed in. What kind of women were these? Was it bravery or escapism of the extreme kind? What would have been their thoughts? Ballads have been written about these women, but I know that I will never know the answers to my questions. As we move towards the other parts of the fort, I turn back one last time, for one last look, committing every inch to memory. The women surely deserve that.

If You Go:

Nearest Airport : Maharana Prarap Airport, Udaipur – 90 Km
Nearest Railway Station: Chittaurgarh, connected to Delhi and Jaipur
Distances: Chittorgarh is 113 Km from Udaipur, 372 Km from Jaipur and 182 Km from Ajmer.
The best way to visit Chittorgarh is by day trip from Udaipur. The journey takes about 2 hours each way, and it is possible to cover the fort in a few hours. There isn’t much else to see except the fort, so staying over is not necessary, though there are plenty of hotels around. Vehicles are allowed inside the fort, so all you have to do is take a ticket and drive around. Make sure to take a complete round of the fort apart from just the usual ruins which are part of the tourist circuit. It takes less than an hour, but it gets you away from the crowd, and is worth every minute!


All photos by Anuradha Shankar.

Contributor's Bio:

A home maker and budding travel writer, Anuradha lives in India and loves to travel with her family. Taking every opportunity to explore known and unknown destinations, she writes about her travels on her blog, A Wandering Mind. Her greatest desire is to visit every corner of her beautiful country.