In a bygone era, castles were deemed fortified residences, while palaces were opulent but non-fortified royal residences. On the other hand, a fort was not a residence, but a defensive post meant for military purposes only. However, Junagarh Fort in Bikaner, Rajasthan, was all three rolled into one. It was the fortified residence of the descendants of Bika Rao the founder of Bikaner; a grandiose palace of the royal family until 1902 and a formidable fort that remained unconquered.
Before Bikaner, there was Jangaldesh, a domain of Jat clans. Bika Rao, the estranged but valiant son of Rao Jodha of Jodhpur, subdued the clans and founded Bikaner in 1488. He was a king with no riches to build an extravagant palace for himself. So, he built a modest fort in Rati Ghati, and it was home to the royal family until 1589 when Raja Rai Singh, the sixth ruler of Bikaner, built a new fort called Chintamani Durg (Philosopher’s stone). This was later christened Junagarh (meaning old) Fort when the royal family moved to nearby Lalgarh Palace.
The red sandstone Junagarh Fort is an iconic motif of Bikaner; an architectural stunner. It is a maze of palaces or mahals, courtyards, gardens, temples, official halls and private chambers. It is believed that there are scientific, aesthetic and pragmatic reasons for the way the fort was built. Here are a few masterstrokes:
Unlike other forts in Rajasthan which were built on higher ground for security reasons, Junagarh Fort was built on flat land. It remains the only fort that was unconquered. The Royals had water-tight safety measures put in place.
The enemy would have had to cross a 15-30 feet wide and 20-25 feet deep moat, brimming with crocodiles, to enter the fort. Even if he had managed to hoodwink the crocs, he would have had to scale a 40’ high and 14’ wide compound wall. Still, he wouldn’t have made it to the inner courtyards for he would’ve been an easy target for any of the watchers at the 37 bastions built on the wall.
The fort has two high-security entrances with seven gates, each two-storeyed high and with iron spikes placed at the height of an elephant head. In olden days, wars were fought on elephant backs, and the pachyderms used their heads to storm the gates. The iron spikes helped thwart their efforts.
Inside, the fort is a confusing web of winding pathways, staircases and many doors. They were built narrow and low to restrict the enemy’s movements. Only one person at a time could ascend the stairs that too with his body bent, hands to his side and head held low. A position not conducive for a swift attack. The claustrophobic staircases and low doorways were built for two reasons: 1. To delay the enemy’s onslaught and advancement towards the royal chambers. 2. Every time someone crossed the threshold they had to lower their head which was considered a mark of respect to the king.
Junagarh Fort is built of red sandstone which gives it its striking colour. However, yellow sandstone has also been used extensively. Not a random choice, but one with a specific function.
Junagarh Fort (1,63,119 sq. yards) was built by 16 generations over four centuries. It is an amalgamation of Rajput, Mughal, Gujarati, western and revivalist Rajput styles of architecture. It is a five-storied fort with 39 palaces within its premise. There are also nine temples and shrines, gardens, stables for horses and elephants, armouries and barracks and even an old jail for errant royals. These structures are woven together by pillars and porches, corridors and balconies, doors and windows.
It is a complex framework built by different kings with distinct tastes at different time periods. Ideally, this should’ve resulted in a mish-mash-styled fort given the varied dispositions of the kings. Instead, this grand fort presents a unified edifice. The uniformity was achieved by using red stone at the lower levels of the fort and yellow sandstone for the upper levels. They jacketed the disparate elements with a homogeneous wrapper
The fort is dotted with functional design elements. For example, the long ramp that leads to the courtyard on the first floor enabled royals to ride their horses right into the courtyard without having to dismount on the ground floor. The V-shaped ridges on the floor of the ramp prevented the horses from slipping on the slope as they trotted up. And the inbuilt gaps between the ridges allowed for the smooth flow of water down the when the ramp was cleaned or when it rained.
Beating the heat
Bikaner is in a desert. Scorching heat comes with the territory. But inside every room in Junagarh Fort, the temperature is always cooler than it is outside. The rooms come with a double roof made of an ornate wooden ceiling above which is a concrete ceiling. And the gap between the two allows to control the heat from outside and cool the rooms inside.
Stone jalis were used as sunlight and windbreakers. The small perforations of the jalis increase the speed of air passing through it and also reduce direct sunlight, thereby keeping the rooms cool.
The jalis also served as a veil for the women of the royal family who observed the purdah system adopted from the Mughal culture. While women got a honeycomb view of the world through the jalis, they were unseen by the people outside.
The private chambers of the king and his chief queen show a unique and efficient arrangement. The royal couple had separate rooms with three adjoining windows. Closed windows would mean that the king was spending time with his concubines, whereas open windows was an indication of the King’s desire to spend the night with his queen.
One would expect the King to sleep in a rather high king-sized bed. However, in Junagarh Fort, the king’s bed is hardly two feet from the floor and narrow in size. The reason being, a low bed, eliminates the possibility of an attacker hiding under it. It would also allow the king to jump out of his bed swiftly in case of a surprise attack. The bed could also be turned into a swinging bed by hanging it in the ceiling like a jhoola – to help destress the King.
Illumination of a kind
Junagarh Fort was built long before the arrival of electricity. However, the Royals found a way to light their rooms after dusk. They covered the walls with intricately carved niches for candles and lamps. Mirrors and coloured glass were embedded on the walls throughout the room to reflect the light from the lamps and brighten up the room. The mirrors also enabled the king to spot an intruder quickly.
One of the most beautiful mahals in Junagarh Fort is the Badal Mahal or Hall of Clouds. It was the “me space” or “the den” of Maharaja Sardar Singh who was a music enthusiast. He played the Veena and loved singing Raag Megh (the raaga of rains) but was hard-pressed for motivation or inspiration in the arid desert. So, he built Badal Mahal, a music room, and simulated rain and clouds so he could be creatively stimulated to sing his favourite raagas.
Blue skies and white clouds are painted on the walls. The room is also fitted with a natural cooling system which includes a trough, with a slit at the bottom, built into the wall. The slit can be opened or closed with the help of a knob. The trough would be filled with water, and the slot at the bottom would be opened to allow the water to flow out in thin sheets and onto the floor. Two men would operate the pankha (hand-operated fan) fitted to the ceiling. This would cool the entire room and the Maharaja, who would be sitting on a raised platform, would then sing to his heart’s content listening to the gentle sound of gurgling water.
Even after many centuries, Junagarh Fort stands tall and speaks for itself. And when brick and mortar does that you know it is but art.