On a leafy pond, tucked into a shady corner of Jodhpur's magnificent fifteenth century fortress, Mehrangarh, there stands a tiny temple. Exuding serenity it looks out over the outer walls of the fortress at the bustling old walled city of Jodhpur; that part of it washed blue by her pious Brahmins. Behind it the natural rock-face of Bhakurcheeria, the Mountain of Birds from which the fortress is hewn, rises a hundred and fifty feet high, giving way first to intimidating man-made battlements and then, suddenly, to exquisite palaces.
The temple was raised in honour of an old hermit called Cheeria Nathji, the Lord of the Birds, by the fifteenth Rathore ruler of Marwar, Rao Jodha, in 1459; the same year that he began the construction of Mehrangarh and laid the foundation of the city of Jodhpur.
Indeed, the story of Jodhpur begins with Cheeria Nathji, the city's first citizen who had lived here in contemplative isolation for many years when Jodha's masons shattered his tranquil world. Irate, he cursed the Rathore, "Jodha! May your citadel always suffer a scarcity of water!" A terrible curse anywhere, but in this harsh and inhospitable land, on the eastern extremities of the Great Indian Thar Desert, a land still called Marwar, The Land of Death, it heralded doom itself. The story of Jodha's City is as much a ballad of her kings and queens and warriors as it is a tale of the Jodhpuri's heroic struggle with, and victory over, the elements; her character shaped as much by the blood and passion of her protectors, the enterprise of her merchants and the sheer grit of her peasants, as by the hot sands lashing at her spirit.
For the story of the martial clan, the Rathores, who ruled Marwar from Jodhpur till the Merger of the Princely States with the Dominion of India in 1949, one must travel further back in time to the year 1194. It was in that year, thousands of miles away in eastern India that the Muslim invader, Mohammed Ghori, defeated the mighty Jaichand of Kanauj. It was Jaichand's great-grandson, Sheoji, who rode out to Marwar in 1226, eager for fresh battlefields and glory all his own. And it is Sheoji's descendants who proudly bear the name, Rathore.
In 1226 the principal cities of Marwar were Mandore, today a fifteen minute drive from Jodhpur and Pali, an hour's drive south; and it was the latter, a rich commercial centre, that Sheoji first conquered. Over the decades the Rathores expanded steadily but it was only in 1395, in the reign of their twelfth ruler, Rao Chunda, that they acquired - not conquered - Mandore.
Mandore is Marwar's most historic city. Today in ruins, it was the capital of many a great dynasty. Legend has it that Ravana, the Demon King of Lanka who defied Lord Rama himself, married a princess of Mandore, his favourite queen Mandodri. In 1292 the Parihar Rajputs lost Mandore to the Khilji Sultans of Delhi and after that the city remained with the Sultans of Delhi till 1395. In that year their Governor in Mandore, Aibak Khan, demanded fodder as well as the tax on grain, and this eventually proved to be his undoing. The Parihars, tired of this autocratic man, hatched a plan, which, in ingenuity matched the famous Trojan Horse, and in bravery far surpassed it. Five hundred Parihars smuggled themselves into the fortified city in a hundred cart-loads of grass. These carts were checked randomly and prodded with spears. Some men were pierced but they uttered not a sound and, in fact, even managed to wipe the blood off the spears as they were withdrawn. Then the Parihars fell upon the Muslims. Within an hour Mandore was once again in their hands but the victors realised that defending her was going to be an entirely different problem. It was then that someone suggested a marital alliance be arranged with the young Chunda. Thus did Mandore, the capital of Marwar, come to the Rathores in a dowry.
As the unchallenged rulers of Mandore, Sheoji's descendants were firmly established as the most powerful clan in the region. And it was left to Chunda's grandson, Rao Jodha, to secure a place for the Rathores in the annals of India by building one of her most spectacular forts and founding one of her most charming cities. The foundation of this fort was laid on 12 May 1459 by Jodha himself on rocky Bhakurcheeria, only six miles away from Mandore. Perhaps with Cheeria Nathji's curse ringing in his ears, Jodha had a young man buried alive in it to ensure the new site proved propitious. This man was Rajiya Bambi who was promised that his family and descendants would be looked after by the Rathores. It is a promise that has been honoured and Rajiya's descendants, who still live in Raj Bagh, Rajiya's Garden; the estate bequeathed to their ancestor by Jodha, continue to enjoy a special relationship with the Maharaja
Rao Jodha's citadel, on which he spent all of nine hundred thousand rupees, was very different from what his descendant, the present Maharaja of Jodhpur, Gaj Singh II, inherited four hundred and ninety three years later in 1952. It was much smaller and of the seven gates at present only one was built by Jodha himself. As the Rathores grew more powerful, Mehrangarh, at once a reflection of their glory and the basis of their strength, expanded. Almost every ruler left his mark and herein lies the fort's unique beauty, for it is today a magnificent blend of different reigns and ages, styles and influences, compulsions and dreams. Its towering battlements, a hundred and twenty feet high, and stone walls, in places six metres thick, testify to the might of Maldev (1532-1562) in whose reign the Rathores reached the zenith of their power. The palaces, extravagant edifices of peace and prosperity, whisper a thousand secrets; stories of machiavellian intrigues, dazzling riches and royal pleasures under the Mughal umbrella (1583-1739). The main gates, Fateh Pol and Jai Pol, sing of great victories, against the Mughals in 1707 and the Jaipur forces a hundred years later; while the ramparts, fiercly brandishing Maharaja Abhaya Singh's cannons (1724-1749), proudly proclaim these victories to the world.
Mehrangarh he built for his clansmen; for his subjects Jodha founded a city at the eastern base of Bhakurcheeria. A city he named simply, Jodhpur, Jodha's City. Though very much a part of his grand design, Jodhpur was not a planned city in the modern sense. The city's foundation is celebrated on 12 May as well, because Mehrangarh was really the seed from which she evolved and her growth was organic and closely related to the fortunes of her rulers. In 1459 there were no water bodies of consequence near Bhakurcheeria, and with the fort under construction the settlement was largely undefended. The water problem was successfully tackled by Jodha's queen Rani Jasmade who constructed a tank at the base of Mehrangarh, today called Rani Sar, The Queen's Lake. A year later another of Jodha's six wives built a baori or step-well in the city. However, it was only after the ragged lines of Bhakurcheeria assumed a definite shape of fortification that people gradually began to migrate to Jodhpur, the new seat of power and potential prosperity in the Thar.
Like other medieval cities of consequence, Jodhpur was originally a walled city too, and Jodha's walled Jodhpur had four Pols or gates, three of which still stand, though not in very good condition. In the north was the Bhagi Pol of which not a stone remains. In the south the Singh Pol, The Lion Gate, and in the south-east, the Bhomiaji Ki Ghati Ki Pol. The gateway to the east, the one most travelled by, was the Phoolelao Pol which is still in a fairly good state. Jodha's capital was small indeed, for these gates stand almost in the shadow of Bhakurcheeria. Today, from the newest parts of this ever expanding city, Mehrangarh is but a ghostly silhouette.
In tribute to the stability and prosperity of her founder's reign (1438-1488), Jodhpur outgrew her original walls within fifty years of his death. And in 1543 when Sher Shah, the Afghan who usurped the Mughal throne of Delhi for a few years, announced his intentions of invading Marwar, the then Rathore ruler, Rao Maldev, was compelled to complete the city's fortifications. His walls, which once again embraced Jodhpur, were twenty four thousand feet long, nine feet thick and forty feet high. He built six gates; Chand Pol, which faced west in honour of the Lunar God's ascent, was the first in that direction. The other five gates were named after the major Rathore forts they faced; Siwanchi Pol (Siwana) in the south, Jalori Pol (Jalore) in the south-east, Sojati Pol (Sojat) in the east, Mertia Pol (Merta) also in the east and Nagauri Pol (Nagaur) in the north-east. The gates and walls were simple and functional in design, the walls punctuated with platforms and towers for keeping watch and shooting.
Maldev's walls, formidable as Sher Shah found them, were not able to contain Jodhpur for long and except for Chand Pol and Mertia Pol, the other gates were shifted outwards again in the reigns of the brothers, Maharajas Abhaya Singh and Bakhta Singh (1724-1752). Today these gates stand repaired and painted, but unused because the walled section has merged with the new to make Jodhpur Rajasthan's second largest city. The walls themselves have vanished. Stone by stone they have been stripped to find their way into homes and shops and slums.
The old capital of Mandore was not entirely abandoned. Indeed, right up to 1873 Mandore is where the rulers of Marwar returned to their final rest. The Royal Cenotaphs, built in sandstone on the cremation sites, are impressive and elaborately carved, their unexpected grandeur lifting, momentarily, the tragic air of the public gardens and ruins around them. Surrounded by the hustle and bustle of modern civilization, as is the old city of Mandore, it is interesting to read here that sometimes as many as eighty ladies committed Sati; immolating themselves on their husband's funeral pyre. These included not only the queens but concubines and even maids and musicians. In 1895 the royal cremation site moved to a hill within half a mile of Mehrangarh, when Maharaja Sardar Singh (1895-1911) had his father, Maharaja Jaswant Singh II cremated there, fulfilling the latter's last wishes. The Jaswant Thada Memorial is a splendid shrine in shining white marble and is visible from the fort, and indeed from most parts of the city.
Mandore also has a unique, much visited and revered Hall of Heroes which, really a temple, houses larger than life statues of gods and folk heroes, including one of Lord Rama from whom the Rathores claim descent; and of Pabuji Rathore who died in the defence of a herd of cows in the fourteenth century.
With the birth of Mehrangarh and Jodhpur, the Rathores entered their Golden Age. Their conquests were prolific and the farsighted Jodha settled his brothers and sons in the new lands as the Thakurs or feudal lords. They were quickly absorbed into the social fabric of the country and all of Marwar was now ruled by the Rathore. In 1488 when Jodha died, Rathoree Raj, the Rule of the Rathores, had come of age.
Jodha was succeeded by his son Rao Satal who ruled for only four years but is remembered as one of Marwar's greatest martyrs and a shining exemplar of Rajput chivalry. For he died in 1492 rescuing a hundred and forty village maidens who had been abducted by Muslim invaders. Sadly, for it bespeaks a deterioration of martial spirit, he was the last Rathore ruler to die by the sword. Of the fifteen who preceded him nine died on the battlefield, of them six against Muslim armies; of the twenty one who followed, none.
Satal was the sixteenth Rathore chief. It was the nineteenth, Rao Maldev, who would stretch the Rathore frontiers to within fifty miles of Delhi. Maldev gave an early indication of the extraordinary talents that would propel him to the centre-stage of Indian history for a decade, when, in 1527, as the heir-apparent, he commanded the Rathore cavalry to the plain of Khanua, forty miles from Agra, against the Mughal invader Babur.
The Rajput Confederacy there was defeated and the Battle of Khanua all but established Babur as the Emperor of India. But the first Mughal emperor died only three years later, and taking advantage of the disorder in Delhi, Maldev, who succeeded his father in 1532, launched his clan into a decade of unrestrained expansion. By 1540 he held sway over more than a hundred thousand square miles of territory. Delhi was only fifty miles away and all of Rajputana had been subdued. It was the high noon of Rathoree Raj, the glory of that decade still exciting the imagination of the Rathore today. Alas! It would not last, for in the same year, a thousand miles away, there took place a series of events that would culminate in the invasion of Marwar.
It was in 1540 that Sher Shah the Afghan defeated Babur's son and successor, Humayun, who fled to Sind (now in Pakistan) after a brief halt in Marwar at Maldev's invitation. It is said that Maldev finally asked the exiled emperor to leave Marwar when reports of Mughal soldiers butchering cows trickled into Jodhpur. At any rate, Humayun left and Sher Shah, who had requested Maldev to capture him, was furious. In the winter of 1543 the Afghan brought his army of eighty thousand to Marwar. The Rathore army of fifty thousand was defeated in a close battle of sword and stratagem at Sumel, a village sixty miles north of Jodhpur. Sher Shah, exhausted after a long and hard-won campaign, and terribly relieved, exclaimed, "For a handful of millet I almost lost the throne of Hindustan!" This millet, a coarse grain, the staple diet of most of Marwar, is immortalised in the Jodhpur Coat-of-Arms. In the top left corner of the Arms there are three tiny ears of millet which remind the world of the day the Rathores almost captured the heart of Hindustan.
The defeat at Sumel lead to further ignominy; Jodhpur and Mehrangarh's first occupation. Maldev returned only after Sher Shah was killed in a freak accident a year later. And though he was able to recover most of Marwar he was never again more than a shadow of his former self.
Two years after he died, in 1564, the twenty-one-year-old Akbar, the third Mughal emperor, invaded Marwar and occupied Mehrangarh and Jodhpur again; the second occupation. This did not break the spirit of Maldev's son and successor, Rao Chandra Sen, Marwar's 'Forgotten Hero' who remained free and independent, for all it was worth, till he died in 1581. Two years after he died, his unpopular brother Udai Singh acceded to the Gadi or throne of Marwar with Akbar's blessings. Thus began the Mughal era in Marwar.
The Rathore chiefs now began to enjoy two separate identities. In Marwar they were royal, the rulers and the heads of their clan. In recognition of this the Emperor bestowed upon them the title of Raja or King and later of Maharaja or Great King. Their second identity emerged at the Mughal Court where they were Mansabdars or Officers of the Realm. It was in this, the more mundane capacity, that they amassed huge fortunes. These fortunes were hard won. In the next hundred years the Rathore rulers, all senior Mansabdars, travelled the length and breadth of the country. Gubernatorial and vice-regal posts, the command of armies and the grant of rich lands outside Marwar; the Rathore submission to the Mughals expanded their horizons beyond belief.
As the Mughal Empire presented the artisan with ample opportunity to create, so too did it provide the martial Rathore with campaign after campaign. Jodhpur and Mehrangarh too were enriched by the Mughal age. Pavilions, gardens, intricate water systems and above all, delicate palaces; two of which in Mehrangarh, Sur Singh's Moti Mahal, the Pearl Palace, and Abhaya Singh's Phool Mahal, The Palace of Flowers, are outstanding. But of course, the greatest monument born of the Rathore-Mughal union was the Taj Mahal. It was built by the Emperor Shah Jahan, Jahangir's son from his Rathore consort, Mani Bai, who was Udai Singh's daughter. Interestingly, the marble for the Taj was taken from the village of Makrana in Marwar, a three hour drive north from Jodhpur.
Somewhat emasculated by the Mughal umbrella, there appeared in the Rathores of this age a new softness, a subtle corruption. Jodha and Maldev, and all before them, god-fearing and hardy men, had raised impregnable battlements and lived austerely and proudly. Now the Rathore rulers, and indeed even their Thakurs, lived in luxurious palaces and havelis, consumed wines from Persia, surrounded themselves with poets and musicians and painters, and indulged themselves with large harems.
Despite this they remained amongst the finest warriors in the land. And in 1678, when Maharaja Jaswant Singh I died in Afghanistan and Aurangzeb invaded Marwar, the Rathores happily demonstrated to the world, perhaps even to themselves, that they could still fight. Jaswant Singh I died without an heir but two of his queens were pregnant and it was around the elder baby, Ajit Singh, born a few months later, that the clan now rallied, displaying a degree of resilience and loyalty unsurpassed in history.
This period, from 1678 to 1707, The Thirty Year Rathore War of Independence, is one of the most glorious chapters in the history of the clan and it produced its greatest hero, Durga Das Rathore. It was Durga Das, a Thakur, who protected the infant Ajit and challenged Aurangzeb for twenty five of those thirty years. The war of independence also produced a heroine, Gora Dai, Ajit's wet-nurse, who smuggled him out of Delhi in a basket when Aurangzeb had the Rathore haveli surrounded. She left behind her own child so that the Emperor's spies would continue to hear an infant's cry in the haveli.
By the turn of the seventeenth century Durga Das had recovered most of Marwar but Jodhpur itself was regained only a few days after Aurangzeb's death in 1707. Before entering their citadel Ajit Singh and Durga Das had Mehrangarh washed clean with sacred water from the River Ganga. And to commemorate their re-conquest the ecstatic Ajit built the Fateh Pol, the Gate of Victory in the fort which opens out into the walled city.
The Jodhpur Ajit Singh inherited in 1707 was very different from what his father had bequeathed to him thirty years before. Most of her temples had been destroyed by Aurangzeb's men. These Ajit repaired and built anew. Thus began the century that would bless the Rathore capital with prolific construction of the highest quality.
In the twilight of the Mughal era Maharaja Ajit Singh rose to great prominence and power in Delhi, placing on Shah Jahan's Peacock Throne as many as five puppet emperors. But he died in a most brutal and foul manner. In 1724 he was murdered by his second son Bakhta Singh as he lay asleep in his chamber in Mehrangarh. The motive in all likelihood was political ambition for he was granted the district of Nagaur soon after by his brother, the new Maharaja Abhaya Singh. The Rathores would take many years to recover from this monstrous act and when they finally did, it was too late.
Inspite of the turbulent times the eighteenth century in the history of Marwar is significant because it witnessed a strong revival of Hindu culture; somewhat neglected in the Mughal age; a mini renaissance, as it were.The rulers, Maharajas Abhaya Singh (1724-49), Bakhta Singh (1751-52), Bijaya Singh (1752-93) and Maan Singh (1803-43), none as powerful as Jodha and Maldev or as influential as Jaswant Singh I and Ajit Singh, were acutely conscious of this and patronised the arts and culture enthusiastically. Music, poetry, literature and formal debate flourished and theological study was encouraged. The Pustak Prakash, a historical library which still exists in Mehrangarh, was established; the Marwar School of Miniature Painting matured and Jodhpur was lavished with exquisite architecture. That this cultural flowering took place at all is remarkable because politically it was not the most stable of times.
Indeed, the power vacuum in Delhi with the fall of the Mughals was filled not by the Rajputs but by the Marathas from the south and the British from their base Calcutta in the east. The Rajput clans exhausted themselves in petty internecine warfare and were powerless against the crippling Maratha raids. Within the Rathore clan itself there was much dissent, with many of Marwar's principal Thakurs defying the Maharaja in open rebellion. Things came to such a pass in the second decade of the nineteenth century that Maharaja Maan Singh was forced to feign madness in his own citadel to protect himself. Finally, in desperation, he endorsed a treaty with The East India Company in Januaruy,1818. The Treaty forged what was clearly a subordinate alliance but did not intrude on the internal sovereignty of the Maharaja. But even this the martial Rathores squandered with their petty infighting.
Maharaja Maan Singh resisted British incursions for many years but in 1839 they occupied Mehrangarh and Jodhpur for five months and left behind a Resident Political Agent. Their actions were clearly in violation of the Treaty but the Rathores, bitterly divided, were not in any position to fight.
Two threads in the economic, social and political development of Marwar emerge after Maharaja Takhat Singh's (Maan Singh's successor) accession in 1843. The first of these was the gradual erosion of the Rathore's sovereignty, their further emasculation, and with it the ascendancy of the British, reflected in the growing influence of the Resident. The second was the positive aspect of Britain's rule in India; the stream of progress that brought to Marwar unprecedented peace and prosperity. Even the events of 1857, the Great Indian Uprising, failed to deflect this desert kingdom from her march to modernity.
Faithful to the Treaty, Takhat Singh sent soldiers to protect British garrisons and magnanimously afforded sanctuary to British women and children in Mehrangarh. It was not merely enlightened self-interest. As Takhat Singh himself said, " Rajputs, when they have sworn friendship with anybody, will not desert him to the last breath of their life".
The pace of modernisation quickened with the accession of Takhat's son, Jaswant Singh II, in 1873. Five years later Jaswant appointed his younger brother, Pratap Singh, the famous Sir P, as Prime Minister. The brothers made a fine and dynamic team and the next quarter of a century was an exciting time. Administrative re-organisation, a plethora of new laws, the birth of a police force, a state treasury, many, many schools and hospitals, roads and, most exciting of all, the railways...Jodhpur too outgrew her walls under the influence of British town-planners. Notable amongst the buildings that sprang up outside the walls were Sir Swinton Jacob's splendid Jubilee Courts to celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee and two new palaces for the Maharaja; the Raika Bagh Palace with its own little railway station and the red sandstone Ratanada Palace with its private race course, polo ground and pavilion.
It was now, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, that the equestrian Rathores took to polo, pig-sticking and horse-racing as fish to water. In the world of polo they became a force to reckon with and no visit to India for the Englishman was complete without "hunting the gallant boar on the sandy plains of Jodhpore..." It was then too that Sir Pratap designed his riding breeches which have become famous throughout the world as jodhpurs.
Three minority reigns followed that of Jaswant Singh II; those of his son Sardar Singh (1895-98-1911), grandson Sumer Singh (1911-16-1918) and younger grandson Umaid Singh (1918-1923) but with Sir Pratap Singh as the Regent (1895-98, 1911-1916 and 1918-1922)), Marwar's development remained top priority. In 1914 Pratap took the Rathore cavalry, The Jodhpur Lancers, to the First World War. After a three years of trench warfare in France they moved to the Middle East. There they covered themselves with glory. Indeed, their charge and capture of Haifa (now in Israel) in 1918 against Turkish machine gun fire, with quicksand and a river to negotiate, is regarded by many as the finest cavalry action ever in the history of warfare.
The Jodhpur Lancers would return to the Middle East in the Second World War to protect oil fields and pipelines.
Maharaja Sumer Singh died in 1918 and was succeeded by his younger brother, Umaid Singh. Jaswant Singh II's mission was now completed by him, and in grand style.
Whatever Umaid Singh built, from the huge Jawai Bandh Dam in southern Marwar, which fifty years later, is still one of Jodhpur's main sources of drinking water, to landing strips all over the state for emergency relief, and the modern Windham (now Mahatma Gandhi) Hospital which remains Jodhpur's biggest, was state-of-the-art and of the finest quality. And he built much. A prolific builder who changed the face of Marwar, he is remembered best however, quite unjustly but not surprisingly, for his magnificent palace, rivalling Mehrangarh in the east as Jodhpur's presiding deity. Built as a part of a comprehensive Famine Relief-Employment Generation programme launched by Umaid Singh in 1925 the Umaid Bhawan remains the grandest monument to Keynesian economics.
Maharaja Umaid Singh died in June,1947 and was succeeded by his twenty four year old elder son, Hanwant Singh.On the fifteenth of August the British departed and India became free. Like the other Princely States, Marwar-Jodhpur acceded to the Dominion of India on the three areas of Defense, Communications and Foreign Affairs. In all other respects Maharaja Hanwant Singh remained the sovereign ruler of Marwar.
This changed in 1949 when the Government of India in New Delhi chose to dishonour the Instruments of Accession and moved to merge the Princely States with the Dominion. The Merger of Marwar took place on 30 March 1949. On that day the desert kingdom merged with the other Princely States of Rajputana to form the new Indian state of Rajasthan. Individual Covenants with the rulers allowed them privy purses and a few privileges but they surrendered all their powers.
Three years later, in January, 1952, Maharaja Hanwant Singh died in a plane crash as he flew from constituency to constituency on the vote counting day of the Indian Republic's first General Elections. That night, as they brought his body back to his stunned capital, the results were announced. Of the thirty five Rajasthan State Legislative Assembly seats that made up the former kingdom of Marwar Hanwant Singh's candidates had emerged victorious in thirty one. Of the four parliamentary seats, his candidates won all.
The Maharaja had himself won both a State Assembly and Parliamentary seat, both from Jodhpur. The man he defeated in Jodhpur, Jai Narayan Vyas, fought a by-election a few months later from outside Marwar and was elected the Chief Minister of Rajasthan. An early indication of the convoluted path Indian politics was about to take.
On 12 May 1952, coincidentally
Jodhpur Foundation Day, Hanwant's son, the four-year-old Gaj Singh II,
was annointed Maharaja in a time honoured dynastic ritual. The ceremony
was performed by the Thakur of Bagri, descendant of Jodha's elder
brother Akhairaj, who celebrates his ancestor's noble renunciation in
Jodha's favour by annointing the forehead of the prince with his blood
after nicking his thumb with his sword.