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The Bird’s Nest fortress built by Jodha of Mandore at Jodhpur

Posted in Architecture, Historical articles, History on Friday, 10 August 2012

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This edited article about Jodhpur originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 762 published on 21st August 1976.

“Here you shall found a city,” the yogi told the Rajah. “But first you must build a fortress on that peak above us.”

Today, the true yogi is hard to find, because so many are no more than beggars, hoping to live comfortably on the charity of good-natured passers-by. But in the year 1459, a yogi commanded universal respect, even from such a prince as Jodha, ruler of what was then the state of Marwar. Jodha was one of the legendary Rajput warriors of India, men with traditions that combined the chivalry of King Arthur’s knights with the single-mindedness of the Japanese samurai. As a race, they claimed divine descent from the god Rama, and their trade was war.

Jodha listened to the yogi, a hermit who had made himself a cell out of a crack in the sheer rock of a peak known as ‘The Bird’s Nest’, and finally agreed to build the fort. The Rajah was 31 at the time, and, in spite of his chain mail, might well have been taken for a girl at first glance, for like most Rajputs of royal blood, he had very large, dark eyes and surprisingly small hands and feet. But his slight appearance was deceptive, for Jodha had spent his life fighting in the savage feuds that split the Rajput clans. It is possible that he was not all that influenced by the hermit’s advice and it was simply that his trained soldier’s eye had already registered the fact that ‘The Bird’s Nest’ would prove an excellent position for a fort. Whatever the reason, he gave orders that one should be built without delay.

Named after its founder, the fort of Jodhpur was an ambitious fortification of sandstone and, in accordance with the blood-thirsty custom of the day, one of the workmen, a man named Rajia Bambi, was buried beneath the foundations. This human sacrifice was considered essential if the good luck of the building was to be assured.

Sacrifice or not, Jodha’s fort got off to a bad start, for it was recorded that when planning the area to be enclosed, the Rajah chanced to include a spot that the holy man had earmarked for his own use. The furious yogi promptly announced that the fort’s future inhabitants should have good cause to remember his displeasure, for all the water drawn from wells inside its walls should be so brackish as to be almost undrinkable. Indeed, the water was found to be so bad that supplies had to be raised from a small lake at the foot of the rock, which was to prove a considerable disadvantage in time of siege.

The story of the yogi’s curse may be true but it seems more likely that it was invented to explain the poor quality of the wells. The great rulers of ancient India had an odd weakness for planning major building projects without first checking on the water supplies, and it is more likely that Jodha simply forgot to sample his before he started work. Rajput princes, as Sons of the Sun, officially could do no wrong, so doubtless some tactful courtier decided to explain his master’s oversight by inventing a supernatural reason for the poor water.

Having built his fort and overseen the beginnings of his city, Jadha made the place his capital. He must have felt satisfied that it would remain in his family, for when he died, he left no fewer than fourteen sons to carry on his line. But in 1679 Jodhpur was sacked by the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb, and the defeat so shocked the Rajputs that they decided to put aside their endless private feuds and join forces to throw out the Mohammedan invaders of their lands. But Jodhpur was to pass from the Mohammedans to the Mahrattas and then, in 1818, to the British. The great days of the Rajputs may have passed, but right up to modern times, stern warrior-fathers still clung to the old ways enough to greet any son who returned home after a defeat in battle with the question: “Why are you still alive?” For, traditionally, a Rajput conquered or died on the battle-field.

Today, the city of Jodhpur, 380 miles south-west of Delhi, still looks amazingly untouched by time. Standing on its sandstone hill, rose-pink in the fierce Indian sunlight and surrounded by 35,000 square miles of desert sand, the great fortress is an impressive sight. The walls are almost 6 miles in circumference, 30 feet high and pierced by seven great gates. As is usual with Indian fortresses, the space within the walls is filled with a tight-packed mass of barracks, temples and armouries, divided by streets so narrow that it is almost possible to touch the buildings on both sides as one walks along. But the building that catches a visitor’s eye is the citadel, which served in the past as a castle keep but which now contains a series of apartments that form the royal palace. Here are kept an incredible collection of jewels, for when a queen or princess died, her ornaments were stored away and her successor was given treasures of her own, so that the family heirlooms grew steadily over the years.

As a contrast to Jodhpur’s rugged walls, many of the buildings they hide seem as delicate as lace, for the local craftsmen have always been proud of their ability to pierce sandstone screens and window frames into fantastic patterns. One stares at the extraordinary height of the gates in the walls and wonders why they were built that way until someone points out that riding elephants had to pass through them, complete with the howdah in which the passengers sat.

The great fort and palace of Jodhpur are relics of the past, but visitors who look down from the walls get an unmatched view of the future. Several hundred feet below lies the bustling city, an important centre of modern Rajasthan, with a population of nearly 250,000. From the complex of houses, factories and temples, stretch not only fine roads and a railway line but also a tree-lined highway that connects with a busy airport.

The once parched countryside around the city produces good crops of beans, maize and mustard, for it is served by a major irrigation scheme that was launched during the 1950s. But the prosperity of Jodhpur depends mainly on several engineering works and the massive railway workshops. Lighter industries concentrate on the manufacture of bicycles, brassware and the dyeing of textiles of all kinds. The airport brings in a steadily increasing number of tourists who are eager to study a piece of living history and admire the trim-figured Rajputs, many of whom still wear the famous tight-fitting riding breeches-cum-trousers that have become world-famous among riders as jodhpuris, or jodhpurs.

Little noticed today is a strip of land known as Rajbagh, the Garden of Raj. It is the land given by Jodha to the relatives of Rajia Bambi as compensation for having buried him beneath the foundations of Jodhpur’s fort. It has kept the humble workman’s name alive down the centuries, but it is a distinction that the unfortunate man could well have done without.

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