On the eastern fringe of the Thar Desert, JODHPUR, dubbed “the Blue City” after the colour-wash of its old town houses, huddles below the mighty Mehrangarh Fort, the most spectacular citadel in Rajasthan, which dominates the cityscape from atop its huge sandstone plinth.
Blue originally denoted a high-caste Brahmin residence, resulting from the addition of indigo to lime-based whitewash, which was thought to protect buildings from insects, and to keep them cool in summer. Over time the colour caught on – there’s now even a blue-wash mosque on the road from the Jalori Gate, west of the fort.
The bazaars of the old city, with different areas assigned to different trades, radiate out from the 1910 Sardar Market with its tall clock tower, a distinctive local landmark marking the centre of town. Most of the ramparts on the south side of the old city have been dismantled, leaving Jalori Gate and Sojati Gate looking rather forlorn as gates without a wall.
Jodhpur was once the most important town of Marwar, the largest princely state in Rajputana, and now has a population of around a million. Most people stay just long enough to visit the fort, though there’s plenty to justify a longer visit. Getting lost in the blue maze of the old city you’ll stumble across Muslim tie-dyers, puppet-makers and traditional spice markets, while Jodhpur’s famed cubic roofscape, best viewed at sunset, is a photographer’s dream.
The kingdom of Marwar came into existence in 1381 when Rao Chanda, chief of the Rathore Rajput clan, seized the fort of Mandor from its former rulers, the Parihars. In 1459, the Rathore chief Rao Jodha moved from the exposed site at Mandor to a massive steep-sided escarpment, naming his new capital Jodhpur, after himself. His high barricaded fort proved virtually impregnable, and the city soon amassed great wealth from trade. The Mughals were keen to take over Jodhpur, and Akbar got his hands on the city in 1561, but he eventuallly allowed Marwar to keep its internal independence so long as the Rathore maharajas allied themselves to him.
In the eighteenth century, Marwar, Mewar (Udaipur) and Jaipur sealed a triple alliance to retain their independence against the Mughals, though the three states were as often at each other’s throats as they were allied together. At the end of the century, maharaja Man Singh found himself under pressure from the expanding Maratha empire to his south, so in 1818 he turned for help to a new power, the British. Under the terms of his deal with them – not unlike Marwar’s old arrangement with the Mughals – the kingdom retained its internal independence, but had to pay the East India Company an annual tribute equivalent to the one previously enforced by the Marathas.
The last but one maharaja before Independence, Umaid Singh, is commemorated by the immense Umaid Bhawan Palace. In 1930 he agreed in principle with the British to incorporate Marwar into an independent India. Despite the loss of official status, his descendants retain much of their wealth, alongside a great deal of influence and genuine respect in Jodhpur.