Rajasthan is the oldest settled region of India and home to one of the oldest civilized places on Earth. Some of its cities and kingdoms have roots stretching back to antiquity. Moreover, for well over a thousand years it has stood at the crossroads of the Hindu east and the Muslim west. For all of these reasons Rajasthan was historically one of the most highly coveted and fought over territories in Asia. As a result the castles, fortified palaces and walled cities of Rajasthan are among the largest and strongest anywhere. Aside from the Chittorgarh Fortress, which is covered separately, three of the greatest are the Kumbhalgarh Fort, the Mehrangarh Fort, and the enormous Jaisalmer Fort.
Rajasthan has been the landward gateway into India from the west since time immemorial. Part of the ancient Indus civilization, Rajasthan is not only one of the world’s oldest inhabited areas, it was one of the first major centers of trade in Asia east of Mesopotamia. Unfortunately, because it provided the best landward route into India between the Himalayas and the Arabian Sea, Rajasthan has also been the primary highway for nomadic invaders from Central Asia into the Subcontinent since Alexander the Great arrived in the 4th century BC.
On the positive side, because of its position on the frontier between India and Central Asia, Rajasthan was at the heart of many nations in ancient times, including the Maurya Empire, the Indo-Scythian Empire, the Gupta Empire and the Gurjar Empire. Rajasthan was home to various imperial capitals on more than one occasion. However, by the Middle Ages, Islam was making serious inroads into northwest India, and the region began to break up into smaller realms. This led to the beginning of the construction of massive fortresses in Rajasthan.
One of the earliest and most important of these was Jaisalmer Fort. Founded 12th century, Jaisalmer Fort was constructed to support and protect trade between India, the Middle East and Central Asia. Jaisalmer immediately became a strategic prize fought over by various regional rulers, eventually came under the control of the Delhi Sultanate. During the later Middle Ages, the burgeoning population and the political fractiousness of Rajasthan prompted the construction of even more fortresses, such as the Kumbhalgarh and Mehrangarh Forts in the 15th century.
The last major incursion from Central Asia into India took place in the 16th century under the Mughals. A descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan, the Mughal Emperor Akbar was as ambitious, but perhaps less violent and more cunning, than his predeccesors. Many of his conquests in Rajasthan were through marriages and treaties. The great forts became imperial possessions, and trade in the region flourished as never before. However, with the arrival of the Europeans and the strengthening of seabourne trade, the center of power and wealth shifted to the coasts, and the great age of Rajasthans kingdoms and castles came to an end.
Jaisalmer Fort is staggeringly huge. As big as a walled city, it did in fact once serve as home to Jaisalmer’s population, and many still live within the fortress today. Encompassing an entire hill, Jaisalmer Fort has two completely separate concentric wall systems, a lower outer wall and a much higher inner wall. Nearly a hundred towers and bastions protect the two levels. Four massive gates provide access. The highlight of the city is the sprawling palace complex on the eastern side, which served as the royal residence of Rajasthan’s rulers on more than one occasion.
Mehranghar Fort is one of the most unique and impressive in India, and one of the tallest in the world. Also built on a hilltop, Mehranghar is not nearly as large as Jaisalmer. But what it lacks in area it more than makes up for in height. The walls are well over 100 feet tall round almost the entire perimeter, and more than sixty feet thick, possibly making Mehranghar the most impenetrable pre-gunpowder fortification on the planet. One end of the fort is completely taken up by a single, massive keep-palace, which is now to one of the best museums in India.
Kumbhalgarh Fort is another of Rajasthan’s wonders, this one for its great outer wall. Running for more than twenty miles, the Kumbhalgarh wall is one of the longest anywhere. Though not as high as its its counterparts at Jaisalmer and Mehranghar, Kumbhalgarh’s fortifications run along a series of hilltops and boast magnificent, bulbous round towers at regular intervals. The fort is anchored by a beautiful palace-fort which crowns the highest hill.
Jaisalmer Fort absolutely dominates the southwest district of Jaisalmer, a little over three hundred miles west of Delhi. Because of its residents, the fortress itself is an open site. The palace is open daily from 9:00am-5:00pm (closed duringlunch). Admission is RS10. Mehranghar Fort towers over the center of the old city of Jodhpur, approximately 250 miles southwest of Delhi. The fort is open daily from 9:00am-5:00pm. Admission is RS50. Kumbhalgarh Fort is located close to the southern end of Rajasthan, approximately 350 miles southwest of Delhi. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.rajasthantourism.gov.in (official tourism website of Rajasthan).
Thanks to the long centuries of interaction with the Muslim world and the military engineering expertise of the west, Rajasthan is home to an impressive number of other mind-blowing castles, even more than in neighboring Maharastra. After the above three, the next most impressive are arguably the Lohagad Fort, the Ranthambore Fort and Taragarh Fort.