Kumbhalgarh Fort

Two of the items on my list of places to visit in Rajasthan were Kumbhalgarh Fort and the Jain temple at Ranakpur. Both of these were doable in a single day trip from Udaipur, arranged by my hotel.

It took about two hours for Jabar, my chauffeur and guide for the day, to drive us out to Kumbhalgarh. On the way we passed through the Aravalli region, where the scenery reminded me of California: hills of red-brown rock and scree, scattered trees, green irrigated fields in the valley. We passed the Banas River, and stopped to see a cattle-powered water wheel in action.

Cattle with painted horns turn the lever which brings up water from the well behind

This was all reasonably interesting, but only a teaser for the main show, Kumbhalgarh. I was worried that after covering most of Rajasthan, I might be all forted out and unable to appreciate it, but I needn’t have worried. Kumbhalgarh is absolutely stonking.

It’s not like a regular castle that you might visit in the UK, that’s just in one place, you have a look around for a bit, then leave. The walls of Kumbhalgarh are enormous, stretching for 22 miles around the countryside. Inside there are over 300 ancient Hindu and Jain temples in various states of preservation, as well as farmland and several villages. The place we’d arrived at was just one entrance, with a palace and several temples clustered around it. The scale of the thing is unbelievable.

A tiny bit of Kumbhalgarh Fort, Rajasthan

From the entrance, the wall climbs up an even higher hill, on which sits the Kumbha Mahal, or palace. Looking from here, back down along the wall which snakes away to the horizon, and over the nearer temples and villages, you get a sense of the massiveness of the fort. No photograph could convey that. So I tried to do the opposite: make it look as small as possible.

Tilt-shift photography is a technique in which the camera lens is tilted relative to the subject, to exaggerate the blur in the near and far distance, away from the focal point. Normal landscape photographs are always fully in focus, because it’s all so far away, the difference in distance between the nearer and farther parts of the landscape is negligible. So when a landscape photograph has parts out of focus, it tricks the brain into thinking the photograph must be of something very close up, and small. The technique is used to take photographs of real, large things, like massive forts, and make them look like tiny, impossibly detailed models.

I don’t have the equipment for proper tilt-shift, but my camera does have a fake tilt-shift mode, which replicates it by digitally adding the blur across the top and bottom of the photograph. It’s not very good, as it assumes that everything at the same vertical level is at the same distance, and also the blur isn’t increased smoothly: you can see distinct bands where it changes. But it still looks quite cool. Here’s the view from the top of the palace:

A tiny model I made of Kumbhalgarh Fort

The sounds that wafted up to the palace from the village were exactly what you’d expect to hear from a castle full of peasants: clanging, animals, shouting. Forget history lessons about life in medieval castles. You can see it for real at Kumbhalgarh.

Wandering about the palace rooms, I met a woman who said, “shoes off, come, come,” gesturing to a room, into which she disappeared. The old guide dilemma: it’s probably something interesting, so I want to go, but I don’t want to be obligated to anyone for showing it to me. So I wandered around a bit, looking at other things, until I’d left a sufficient gap after her invitation, then nonchalantly went through the door. It turned out not to be an interesting view or palace room. It was pitch-black chamber, converted into a Hindu shrine. Before I had a chance to stop her, the woman had dabbed red dye on my forehead and gone forward to worship the shrine. Another encounter with medieval India: squatting in the dark, a flickering flame, oil and incense and ignorance.

Me, after a questionably consensual religious experience

There’s a whole bunch of temples around the entrance area, mostly Hindu and a few Jain. Taken as a group they’re interesting to wander around, but nothing special individually, or worth writing or posting photographs of. But after reaching the furthest ones (and most visitors didn’t seem to bother going even this far) I spotted a curious-looking ruin about half a mile further on into the scrubby countryside.

It was the remains of a small Jain temple, just a few sculptured pillars standing on an outcrop of rock. Up close, it was obviously Indian: the voluptuous, provocatively-posed goddesses the giveaway feature. More on that in the next post, about Ranakpur. But from a distance, doesn’t it look Greek? You imagine stumbling across something like this in the hills of Arcadia.

NOT a Greek ruin

I headed back along the main wall towards the entrance. A man coming the other way stopped and asked me how far it went. I think he was intending to walk to the end and back. I said it was 36km and 2 days’ walk around the whole perimeter. He looked stunned, turned to his wife, following behind, and gestured at her to turn around and go back. They weren’t prepared to camp out overnight.

I tried another photography experiment: stereographic pairs, a technique I was a bit obsessed with at the age of about 12. You take two photographs of the same scene, a few inches apart horizontally. Then you view them next to each other, crossing your eyes so the two images are superimposed. They combine to form one 3D image, like a Magic Eye picture, but with the actual textures, not a meaningless pattern. It’s really cool when it works. Kumbhalgarh was perfect because there are so many interesting objects at different distances. I’ll have to play about with them when I get home and maybe post a few then.

For the time being, here’s a boring 2D picture of the palace and walls atop the hill:

Kumbha Mahal, Kumbhalgarh Fort, Rajasthan

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