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.
For size, strength and sheer physical presence, few sights in India can rival Jodhpur’s mighty Mehrangarh Fort, a great mass of impregnable masonry whose soaring, windowless walls appear to have grown directly out of the enormous rock outcrop on which it stands. The walk up to the fort from the old city is pretty steep, but you can reach the entrance by taxi or auto along the road from Nagauri Gate. The outstanding audio tour takes about two hours to complete.
You enter the fort through Jai Pol (or Jey Pol), the first of the fort’s seven defensive gates. The sixth of the seven gates, Loha Pol, has a sharp right-angle turn and sharper iron spikes to hinder the ascent of charging enemy elephants. On the wall just inside it you can see the handprints of Maharaja Man Singh’s widows, placed there in 1843 as they left the palace to commit sati on his funeral pyre – the last mass sati by wives of a Marwari maharaja.
Beyond the final gate, the Suraj Pol, lies the Coronation Courtyard (Shangar Chowk), where maharajas are crowned on a special marble throne. Looking up from the courtyard, you can see the fantastic jali (lattice) work that almost entirely covers the surrounding sandstone walls. The adjoining apartments now serve as a museum showcasing solid silver howdahs (elephant seats), palanquins and assorted armaments including Akbar’s own sword. Upstairs are some fine miniature paintings of the Marwari school.
The most elaborate of the royal apartments, the magnificent 1724 Phool Mahal (Flower Palace), with its jewel-like stained-glass windows and gold filigree ceiling, was used as a venue for dancing, music and poetry recitals. The nearby Takhat Vilas was created by nineteenth-century Maharaja Takhat Singh, its ceiling hung with huge Christmas tree balls. In the Jhanki Mahal, or Queen’s Palace, there’s a colourful array of cradles of former rulers. The Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace) was used for councils of state. The five alcoves in the wall opposite the entrance are in fact concealed balconies where the maharaja’s wives could listen in secretly on the proceedings.
Beyond the Moti Mahal is the Zenana, or women’s quarters. From here, you descend to the Temple of Chamunda, the city’s oldest temple, dedicated to Jodhpur’s patron goddess, an incarnation of Durga.