The Kumbhalgarh Fort, located in the Rajsamand district of Rajasthan, about 84 km away from Udaipur, is a striking example of Rajput military architecture. This fort is well known for its spectacularly long protective wall, running up to a length of 36 km! The wall is believed to be the second longest in the world, after the Great Wall of China. The fort played a crucial role in the political history of the kingdom of Mewar, and stories and legends from its past are still a source of pride and glory for the people of the region.
The presently standing structure was built by Rana Kumbha (r. 1433-1468 CE) of the Sisodia Rajput clan of Mewar in the 15th century CE. However, the strategic value of the site goes much beyond Rana Kumbha’s time. Known as Macchindrapur, this site is believed to have been the seat of the Mauryan ruler Samprati as early as the 2nd or 3rd century BCE. However, it was Rana Kumbha who truly exploited the defensive potential of this site and built a fortress here. The construction of the fort took 15 years and was completed in 1458 CE. Rana Kumbha accomplished the task with the help of his chief architect Mandana, who was said to have been an authority in the field of architecture. Mandana is credited with the writing of numerous valuable works on Vastukala, the most pathbreaking among which is the Rajavallabhavastusastram.
Every great fort is associated with undying legends. Amongst the many fables associated with Kumbhalgarh, the most popular is the one linked to its inception. Legends and oral traditions are dynamic by nature. The legend of Kumbhalgarh too, therefore, has multiple versions. One of the narratives recounts the story of a sage whose sacrifice enabled this formidable fort to come into being. It is said that Rana Kumbha faced many difficulties during the initial phase of building the fort. The ongoing constructions were continually disrupted by a mysterious force. The workers would build a wall all day long only to find it demolished overnight. The worried king sought the advice of a sage who explained that the disruptions were caused by a curse that could be warded off only by a voluntary sacrifice. Some accounts remember this sage as Mer Baba. When the king couldn’t find a person who would volunteer to be sacrificed for this purpose, the sage offered to give up his own life. Consequently, he was beheaded at the site. The eerie tale further recounts that the headless body of the sage walked for another kilometre and finally fell at a place on top of the hill. It is believed that the king’s palace was built where the body fell. The site where the head dropped was memorialized by a gate known as the Bhairon Pol. A shrine near the Bhairon Pol, dedicated to the sage, is venerated by visitors till today.
The kingdom of Mewar greatly prospered under Rana Kumbha who was not only a great warrior but also a patron of art and culture. Soon after his accession to the throne, Rana Kumbha undertook several military campaigns to expand the territorial limits of Mewar. Not only did he considerably expand his dominions, but he also successfully defended his kingdom against powers such as Mahmud Khilji of Malwa, Sultan Ahmed Shah II of Gujarat and Rao Jodha of Marwar. Rana Kumbha is credited with having built 32 forts in the kingdom of Mewar out of which Kumbhalgarh was one of the mightiest.
Although Chittorgarh was the capital of Mewar, it was Kumbhalgarh, tucked away amidst hills and forests, that acted as a place of refuge for the royalty during invasions. King Udai Singh II (r. 1540-1572 CE) was brought here and hidden as an infant when his uncle Banbir killed his father Maharana Vikramaditya Singh and usurped the throne. The legend of the courageous midwife Panna Dai, who sacrificed her own son to save prince Udai’s life, is recounted in association with this event. After spending some years in disguise, Udai Singh II was finally coronated in Kumbhalgarh in 1540 CE. Chittorgarh, the capital of Mewar, fell to the Mughals in 1567 CE. Thereafter, Udai Singh II shifted the capital to the city of Udaipur (founded in 1559 CE).
The son of Udai Singh II, the illustrious Maharana Pratap (r. 1572-1597 CE), was born in Kumbhalgarh. The Mughal Emperor Akbar left no stone unturned to further his control over Mewar. Failing to make sufficient headway through war, he sent several peace-missions to the kingdom. Maharana Pratap, however, staunchly refused to submit to Akbar and spent a majority of his lifetime fighting the Mughal Emperor. He was defeated by Akbar in the Battle of Haldighati in 1576 CE. Soon after, Kumbhalgarh was captured by Akbar’s general Shahbaz Khan. Maharana Pratap, however, regained control of most of his territories, including Kumbhalgarh, after winning the battle of Dewair in 1582 CE.
Continuous wars greatly ravaged the kingdom of Mewar and Rana Amar Singh I (r. 1597-1620 CE), the son of Maharana Pratap, succumbed to Mughal pressure and entered into a treaty with Emperor Jahangir in 1615 CE. Amar Singh I’s reign was marked by remarkable peace and friendliness between Mewar and the Mughals. Aurangzeb, however, clashed with Mewar several times during the reign of Maharana Raj Singh I (r. 1652–1680) and Maharana Jai Singh (r. 1680–98). Finally, a treaty between Jai Singh and Aurangzeb made the Mughals withdraw their forces from Mewar.
The state of Mewar witnessed Maratha incursions in the 18th century CE. To deal with these, Maharana Bhim Singh (r. 1818–1828 CE) signed a treaty with the British East India Company in 1818, whereby Mewar accepted British suzerainty and came to be known as the Princely State of Udaipur.
The Kumbhalgarh fort, built on the Aravalli hills and strategically located amidst 13 elevated mountain peaks, is surrounded by the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. The protective lining of hills and the deep forest cover made the fortress both inaccessible and invisible to the eye of invaders. The strategic location of the citadel provides a panoramic view of the entire region. The seemingly never-ending walls of the fort snake along the natural contours of the landscape in a zigzag fashion.
Built over an uneven terrain, the fortifications of Kumbhalgarh were so designed that successive gateways led to the core citadel area known as Katargarh or the ruler’s enclosure. The fort has seven gateways: Arait Pol, Hulla Pol, Hanuman Pol, Ram Pol, Bhairon Pol, Nimboo Pol and Paghda Pol. While Arait Pol and Hulla Pol acted as the outer gateways to the structure, the Hanuman Pol was the first main gateway to the fort. This gate is so called because of a statue of Hanuman that was installed in front of it by Rana Kumbha in 1458 CE. Ram Pol is the second main entry. The rest of the gateways are closer to Katargarh. Apart from the main gateways, several small gates or baris are present at regular intervals of the fortifications.
The rounded bastions of the fort give a formidable character to the fortress. These are uniquely shaped to prevent the enemy from scaling them with ladders. The wide ramparts of the fort are said to have accommodated up to eight horsemen riding side by side! An impressive looking bastion, Tara Burj, built out of rubble and brick, was used as a watch tower. An area inside the fort, known as Top Khana, displays several cannons from the medieval era.
Katargarh enclosed three important royal palaces: the Kumbha Mahal, Jhalia ka Malia, the birthplace of Maharana Pratap and the Badal Mahal. The Kumbha Mahal or Rana Kumbha’s palace is a simple two-storied austere structure, now in ruins. While, Rana Kumbha spent lavishly on building the fortifications of Kumbhalgarh, his own palace was a rather simple and functional structure. The birth place of Maharana Pratap is a structure built in rubble and plastered finely with lime. Also known as Jhalia ka Malia or the palace of queen Jhalia, one of the rooms of this structure is believed to have been the place where Maharana Pratap was born. The Badal Mahal or Palace of Clouds is the highest point of the fort complex. Built in the 19th century by Maharana Fateh Singh (r. 1884-1930 CE), it is a gorgeous double-storied structure divided into the Zenana Mahal (for the women) and the Mardana Mahal (for men). While the Zenana Mahal has beautiful jalis or lattice work, the Mardana Mahal is embellished with eye-catching paintings. A central courtyard connecting the different rooms of the palace has windows which provide breath-taking views of the hills and the floating clouds.
The protected and isolated nature of the site of Kumbhalgarh made it an ideal spot for hermits and recluses. In fact, it is believed that the spiritual significance of this site predates its military and strategic importance. The fort complex is said to be home to more than 360 temples, both Hindu and Jain, scattered over a vast area. The many beautiful Jain shrines present in Kumbhalgarh show that Rana Kumbha patronised Jainism. Owing to the uneven terrain of the site, most of the temples here are built on high plinths. The Mamadeo temple had stone slabs on which Rana Kumbha got the history of his reign inscribed. Ironically, this was also the very place where his son Udai Singh I (r. 1468–1473) assassinated him and came to be known by the epithet hatyara.
The Golera group of temples are structures with domical ceilings and exquisite carvings of various deities such as Jain Tirthankaras and river goddesses. The Bawan Devri temple, called so because of the 52 deities that it houses, is a beautiful structure that stands out with its multiple shikaras. The Neelkanth Mahadev temple has a rectangular plan and flaunts 26 sturdy carved stone pillars. It houses a stone lingam within it. The Parsva Natha temple, located close to the Neelkanth Mahadev temple, is built on a high stone plinth and is crowned with both a shikhara and a domical roof. The Ganesh temple, the Vedi temple and Lakshmi Narayan temple are some of the other prominent structures.
The Kumbhalgarh fort complex also houses ingenuous water systems that made it immune to long sieges. These water systems were crucial for the inhabitants of the fort as the site did not contain any natural water bodies. There are around 10 dams and 20 baoris (step-wells) located mostly at the lower reaches of the fort. While Langan Baori is the most prominent stepwell, the biggest dam is called Bavda Bund.
After Independence, Kumbhalgarh became a protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India. The well-known “Kumbhalgarh inscription” describing Rana Kumbha’s reign, initially located inside the fort complex, is now housed at the Government Museum, City Palace, Udaipur. Kumbhalgarh was declared as a World Heritage Site in 2013.
The historic fort of Kumbhalgarh continues to draw significant attention from tourists, both from within the country and beyond. The artistic legacy of Rana Kumbha is taken forward by the annual Kumbhalgarh Festival, organised by Rajasthan Tourism, as a meeting ground of artists from all over the country.