Fortress, Feathers & Fabled waters
Neemrana Fort is a two and a half hour journey from Delhi. You must go, everyone urged in the middle of an enervating, sluggish monsoon, it’s only 122 kilometres away.
As it happens in India, time and distance were mere numbers. We passed the Haldirams on the Delhi-Jaipur Highway and immediately slowed to a crawl as groups of orange-robed Kanwarias trudged along the barely-etched edges of the National Highway. The Kanwarias (faith travelers who are followers of Shiva) were on their way home after collecting holy water from the Ganges; their trudge back to their villages had to end with precision on the Amavasya, when the moon is invisible in the night sky.
Our driver would have followed the primary rule of the Indian Highways (Might is Always Right) and honked the pedestrians off the path, but the Kanwarias are often intoxicated, in very large numbers, and prone to violence. A week ago this highway had been cordoned off as they pelted stones at all the buses that crossed the area after one Kanwaria, (who sustained minor injuries) was hit by a bus. So we followed the group at a walking pace, the driver flooring the accelerator whenever a break was visible. It didn’t help that the Delhi-Jaipur highway was also flooded.
It took us four hours to finally reach Neemrana.
As we zoomed past the Rajasthan State pillars and turned into the road to Neemrana, it was like entering another world. There were narrow village roads, a climb up a small hill and there it was; Neemrana’s massive fortress gates, with the many-levelled domed balconies and open rooftops, the graceful curve of the building spreading over a sprawling plateau covering 25 acres. Built in 1464 AD, the Neemrana Fort-Palace was once inhabited by the descendants of Prithviraj Chauhan III, but a local chieftain Nimola Meo, gave Neemrana its name. The fort still overlooks the sprawling valley with a rustic village and acres of open land, framed by the billion year old Aravalli ranges.
Tea was being served on many of the open balconies, and all at once, we were surrounded by the chirps and flaps of the feathered guests. A rose-ringed parakeet goose-stepped up to the wrought-iron chairs painted in sky-blue. A purple sunbird sucked on a spiky flaming-red flower. A beautiful laughing dove gracefully skittered over the cannon before flying away. Then, as if this colourful menagerie was not welcome enough, there was the gentle rumble of thunder as an iridescent peacock unfolded his plumes in the distance, shaded by leafy bush.
The property of this stepped palace is spread over ten levels, rewarding the intrepid explorer with serendipitous views. The steps were sometimes wet and often smelt of mold (it was the monsoon after all!) Opposite Jharoka Mahal was a palace still being renovated; when we opened the door, beyond the mildew, there was a fluttering of dark wings. The picturesque names of the palaces evoke the romance of a bygone era: there is the Chandra Mahal (Palace of the Moon), Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors), Badal Mahal (Palace of Clouds) and Adi Mahal (Primordial Palace), as well as the Kailash Burj (Himalayan Turret) and Ambar Burj (Sky Turret). The whole fort seems, at times, to be a large Hara Mahal (Shiva's Palace), for Shivlings and stone snakes, as well as other manifestations of Shiva, can be found in many courtyards’ hidden nooks and crannies.
Stepwell at Neemrana
There is a picturesque 18th century stepwell nearby, best accessed by camel-cart. Our camel, Sikandar, looked as imperious as his name, but our first impressions were quickly compromised by the steady plop of poop that he subjected us to as we sat directly behind his ever-shifting tail. He clopped through a village road so genial that the villagers, either sipping tea seated on small charpoys or milling around a marketplace, called out to our group repeatedly with friendly greetings.
The stepwell had a grand entrance with ancient steps that meandered nine stories below the ground. Historically, this was used as a caravanserai by tired travellers, and in this landscape, it is still possible to still imagine caravans pulled by camels like Sikander, wending a slow path past the fort in the far distance. A young boy appeared, offering his services as our tour-guide. He walked by our side without waiting for our answer, introducing himself as Raju or Ranjit or perhaps Ranju, swallowing his name in a murmur as he led us down the steep stairway steadily skipping ahead as we put one uncertain foot in front of another. He turned back briefly to explain that he would much rather do this than go to school and we looked at each other balefully until we realised that it was a weekend, so we weren’t collaborating with his truancy.
Raju had a flair for the dramatic. His grimy white shirt flapped over his unzipped shorts as he positioned himself at the edge of the stepwell, framed by the murky green water below. He spoke breathlessly: “Father, son push, take son two, push, mother push, father jump.” As the foreigners in our group stared wide-eyed, he explained in calmer Hindi that this was a most popular spot for suicides, with star-crossed lovers being the most numerous. He walked us back to the top of the stepwell and showed us where a friend of his, just last month, had dangled from a ledge and had to be helped to safety-- apparently, this was a popular spot for school children to play in. He picked up a rock and dropped it into the pool from the top, encouraging us to do the same, and listen to the delayed plops, so far, far below.
In that slightly damp monsoon breeze that flitted over the stepwell as he spoke, it was easy to conjure up the beautiful women of the harem, led by the three queens, all bedecked in the aquamarines and emeralds and burnt sienna under the desert sun, coming down to this stepwell to bathe. Raju’s stories were unlike the stories associated with this stepwell in tourist brochures, but infinitely more entertaining. As he spoke, an aged shepherd stopped by with his flock of sheep, artistically posing for a picture against the faraway Neemrana fort, then held out a silent palm for compensation.
As we paid Raju for our entertainment and he urged us, with great sincerity, to return again. I wondered whether he would still be there should we go back; the bright lights of the larger cities usually draw such entrepreneurial raconteurs like magnets.
The evening brought a dusky peace in which a Rajasthani troupe performed amidst the glow of Victorian lamps and ancient fiery torches doused in fuel. The sun descended into the hills as the sharp turrets blurred their edges against the darkening sky. Sitting under one of those artful chattris that curved in masonic grace to provide relief from the elements, time came to a standstill. One could imagine sinking into silks that rustled with the whiff of attar, while the heartbeat of the dhol called out to the tintinnabulating ghungroos in an ancient dance. An adult black kite wheeled overhead in concentric circles, before disappearing as a smudge into the ancient hills.