360 Temples Encircled by 22 Miles of Wall

11th March 2020

Australia had banned travel, and BA and Ryan Air had cancelled all flights from Italy where Coronavirus deaths had risen by 36% to 631. Nadine Dorries, the Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health, had tested positive as had 15 people in Wales and 27 in Scotland.  El Salvador had banned mass rallies; the Lib Dems cancelled their Spring Conference and Sony had postponed the release of Peter Rabbit 2 following the similar decision of EMI /Universal made a week earlier regarding the new Bond film ‘No Time To Die’.

Quite.

Things had started to sound serious but the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival was going ahead and was well attended. Epatante had won the Champion Hurdle and Rachel Blackmore had won a stormer on Honeysuckle in the Mares’ Hurdle so things couldn’t be that bad back home.

We were enjoying another breakfast in the sun overlooking the step well when Divendra told us that he had asked them to make us tea with with lemon, honey and ginger  “… you must drink it…” It would help to protect us. Besides having realised that it always made sense to do as Divendra advised, our pochettes of camphor, mace and cardamom made for us by Narenndra in Fatehpur, had all but disintegrated. Added protection was welcome.

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The Aravalli Hills range for about 430 miles from Delhi to Gugarat and locally are proudly claimed to be the oldest ‘fold mountains’ in India. They harbour about 37 wildlife sanctuaries and game reserves as well as leopard and wildlife corridors.  Their rivers, flowing both north and south, provide essential water for large areas. The Jawai Dam, the biggest in Rajasthan, was financed by Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur and completed in 1957 by German engineers. It is fed by the Luni River and provides most of the water for Jodhpur City as well as surrounding villages. At ‘low tide’ catch crops are grown on the areas that are flooded after the monsoons.

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Not far from Jawai at the foot of the Aravalli Hills in the Pali district, surrounded by forest, is the Ranakpur Jain Temple, or rather three temples. The main one is Chaumukha Mandir – ‘Four Faced’. Its construction, involving nearly 2,800 workers, was started in 1439 and took about 50 years. It is huge, apparently covers 48,000 square feet, and is one of the largest and most significant of all Jain temples.  Flags fluttered from its 80 domes, marble elephants welcomed those arriving from all directions and a red carpet led up to the entrance.

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Once inside one cannot help being bowled over by the intricacy of the carving in the tons and tons of white marble. Wherever one stands there are avenues of pillars  disappearing in every direction like a lesson in perspective.

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There are said to be 1,444 pillars and 426 columns but it is also said that nobody has managed to count them. Each one is different. They support the domes and they lead to, and beyond, 29 halls that contain idols of serene beauty. It is cool and peaceful and awe inspiring.

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Manu negotiated the hairpin bends and narrow streets through agricultural hamlets with calm expertise as we climbed higher into the hills. It was obvious by the lack of interest on the locals’ faces that they were used to tourists. Water sauntered along irrigation channels and tumbled into pools. A guy sat on the shaft, with his ankles crossed, as his ox slowly circled, rotating a wheel that scooped water from a near-empty stream. The little buckets barely reached the pool. Both man and beast seemed deep in meditation.

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The Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary extends to about 230 square miles of wild, dramatic, largely inaccessible hills that are the undisturbed home to all sorts of rare animals including wolves; sloth bears; hyenas; chausingha  (antelope with four horns)  and leopards. Overlooking it, from its dramatic 4,600 ft perch, is the 15thC Kumbhalgarh Fort after which the sanctuary is named.

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From the car park The Fort looked a stiff climb and as impregnable as its history records. Once we had climbed up and through the Ram Pol (the main gate), Divendra made sure that we were plied with energy-giving chai to fire us to the top of the fort. It worked. We made it. It was spectacular.

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A fort is believed to have been built on the site in the 6thC but it was Rana Kumbha who was largely responsible for the one to be seen now although it has been added to by successive generations.  Roughly speaking, the Mewar ruled the area from the Aravalli south and the Marwar ruled the area further north and there was considerable to-ing and fro-ing and much shedding of blood. Kumbha was a Mewar and had 84 forts at his disposal of which he had built 32. Whenever the need arose he retreated to one of them. Kumbhalgarh after Chittorgarh, was the most important, and was only taken once when the Mughal Akbar combined forces with Amber and Marwar forces and managed to poison the drinking water.

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We zig zagged up through successive pol (gates) – there are 7 in the whole fort – to the very top – the Bada Mahal, built by Rana Fateh Singh. The fort was occupied until the late 19thC and although now empty there were delightful friezes, still in good condition, of elephants chomping through the jungle.

It was the views that I will never forget. The wall extends to 22 miles – the only longer wall in the world is the Great Wall of China – and in places it is wide enough for 8 horses abreast.  It snakes along the hill ridges into the hazey distance enclosing over 660 acres. Tanks were created for water storage of which the largest was 40ft deep and over 3 miles long. Crops were grown to feed those living within the confines.

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Then there are the temples. 360 of them – 300 Jain and 60 Hindu. No matter in which direction you look there are temples. Temples in clusters and temples sitting singly, majestically on the top of a hill, and there are more temples, over the brow, where you can’t see them even from the roof of the fort,

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Like all of our days in India, the day was too short and we had to leave. Manu had many more tight corners and hairpin bends to negotiate before we reached our next berth. As it happened even he was stumped by a particularly tight corner. By the time we had walked the final half mile the sun had set and the wind was whistling across the tops of the hills. It was chilly and time for a sharpener before supper.

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