Do you feel that Rajasthan has been recycled once too often? That the three big Js — Jaipur, Jodhpur and even remote Jaisalmer — have become more overexposed than Britney Spears’ navel? Then discover the unpublicised rugged appeal of Kumbhalgarh.

A two-and-a-half-hour drive from Udaipur, Kumbhalgarh rises like a clenched fist in the face of the sky. Perched at over 6,233 ft above sea level at the tail end of the Aravalli Range in Mewar, the fort affords sweeping views of the dusty plains of Marwar. Built in the 15th century by Rana Kumbha, who is said to have established 32 of the 84 major fortifications in Mewar, Kumbhalgarh is the Schwarzenegger of Rajasthani forts, even more impressive than the more well-known Chittorgarh.

Standing on the ramparts of Kumbhalgarh, I looked down at the massive 20-foot-thick encircling outer wall which snakes over the hills for 36 km and is pierced by seven gates. As an exemplar of exclusory masonry, it is billed as being second only to the Great Wall of China. Where sentries once patrolled, energetic tourists now undertake the 2-day trek along Kumbhalgarh’s perimeter wall, said my guide, young Mahipal Singh.

What did they build all those forts for, I wondered. And the answer, written in the wind, was simple: Because in those days they didn’t have the equivalent of TV game shows as a stimulus to social and economic activity.

So when idle evenings stretched out long and dull with nothing to fill them, and the twin fears of recession and unemployment slithered like lizards out of crevasses in the sun-baked rock, the enterprising local ruler would up and find a suitable promontory, preferably one with a clear field of fire and a company’s own water supply to last out an extended siege, and decide to build a fort on it to kick-start the sluggish economy and give people something to do and talk about.

Once the fort was ready, palaces, temples, bazaars and barracks would spring up within its protective embrace; Kumbhalgarh Fort itself has no less than 365 temples, besides several palaces. It was a building contractor’s dream come true.

The Kumbhalgarh Fort

Things to See & Do

Basically, there are three things to see and do in Kumbhalgarh: the fort, the fort and the fort. Even today, though deserted and sorely defaced, Kumbhalgarh Fort remains the mainstay of the neighbourhood’s tourism economy. True, 50 km away there are the Jain Temples at Ranakpur, with their exquisite carvings and forests of stone pillars (1,444 of them); a Sunset Point (6 km) where you can go and watch a fine example of the world’s biggest optical illusion whereby the rising horizon of the rotating earth masquerades as the sinking of the sun; and a 578-sq-km wildlife sanctuary which invites exploration by jeep or horseback. But the fort is still Kumbhalgarh’s star attraction.

The Fort
The ceaseless wind seemed to whisper the legends of Kumbhalgarh. How it was captured only once, and that too by a treacherous poisoning of its water supply. How on another occasion, a young woman, a flower-seller, was suborned to show the enemy the way in by strewing tell-tale petals along a secret path. The plot was foiled, and the unfortunate flower girl was bricked up alive in the outer wall, her fate a deterrent to future subversives. Mahipal pointed out a small, white painted outline of a woman on the wall which commemorates the site of the execution.

Jeep safari in around Kumbhalgarh
Jeep safari in around Kumbhalgarh

The Rani’s Loo
We climbed precipitous stairs and mazed through corridors, courtyards and pavilions, labyrinthine as whispered conspiracies. Oof-oh! The toilet is locked, exclaimed Mahipal, pushing against a door.

I assured him that I didn’t need to go. Not for you, this is the rani’s toilet, explained Mahipal. He fetched a caretaker with a key and we entered the sanctum sanitarium where the queen and her favoured ladies-in-waiting performed their morning ablutions.

The domed chamber was airy and light, with four squatties arranged in a semicircle so that the rani and her confidantes could congregationally ease themselves of the satiety of courtly burdens. Where’s the flush? I wanted to know. Mahipal pointed down the aperture to a 100-foot drop. No flush; pigs, he said succinctly. Better than Sanifresh, I agreed. Unfortunately, neither Sanifresh nor scavenging pigs have been proof against the vandals whose handiwork is everywhere.

Graffiti on the Walls
The Taliban would have been proud of them. AJIT + VIDYA, RAJESH HEART PINKY, YAHOOO! BITU (CLASS XII). The graffiti is drawn, painted, gouged on every available surface; it were as if ancient plaster and ageless stone had burst into a virulent rash. What the Taliban did by jhatka in Bamiyan, our own homegrown vandals are accomplishing by halal: Towering ramparts and impregnable battlements that have withstood the march of time and marauding armies are succumbing to the more insidious and protracted attentions of Ajit, Rajesh, Bitu (Class XII) and Co.

Why do they do it? I asked myself. Because they’re terrified of anything that was there before they were born, and will remain long after they’ve gone; they’re terrified of their own smallness, I answered myself. If they’re not stopped, soon there will be nothing left here, said Mahipal, shaking his head in helpless anger. He’s right; it will be the final overthrow of this fort, and all that it once stood for.

But there’s hope yet. They’re talking about making Kumbhalgarh a heritage site under corporate stewardship. And the new custodians of Kumbhalgarh could perhaps take a tip from their predecessors who had a tried and tested way of dealing with security threats and other anti-socials. Future vandals watch out. Like that ill-fated florist of yore, you too could become wall flowers, preserved forever as part of a legacy you sought to destroy. And Rana Kumbha would have the last laugh.

Where To Stay & Eat

There are three great places to stay: the Aodhi, the Aodhi and the Aodhi. Part of the HRH Group, Aodhi Hotel (Tel: 02954-242341-46; Tariff: 6,000- 7,000) is an enchanting retreat. It has a pool, and offers horse riding. Club Mahindra Fort Kumbhalgarh (Mob: 09672723444; Tariff: 4,500-5,400) is a luxury hotel with a swimming pool and gym. Its tented options are also quite opulent. The food at Aodhi’s Chokha Restaurant is so-so. When ordering, keep it simple: tikka kebabs, seasonal sabzi, dal, rotis, raita. If you must do ‘conti’, stick to cutlets, cheese omelettes and sandwiches. Club Mahindra does a decent buffet.

Around Kumbhalgarh

Kumbhalgarh Sanctuary (4 km) 
The jeep safari to the sanctuary is a bone-rattling affair. Check out the crocodile farm and the birdlife at the Thandi Beri Lake here. Horse riding is arranged by the hotel on request.
Entry fee: Indians 10, foreigners 80; Timings: Sunrise to sunset, open daily

Ranakpur (50 km)
Take the opportunity to explore the amazing Jain Temple complex in glittering white marble here. The complex is reputed for the 1,444 intricately carved supporting pillars, of which no two are alike. Ranakpur also boasts two excellent hotels.