The sun had come up a bit early today. It was the rainy season after all and seemed that it would continue to pour especially at the Chittorgarh Fort. Pradeep Salve got up at his usual time of 6:30 am woken up like always by his old HMT steel alarm clock with an ugly snooze button made out of red plastic. He had a small stone house painted white with huge iron doors to keep the wind and rain at bay. He was a bit hesitant today and sat stiff cold upright on his bed. It seemed that he did not wish to start his day. Was it his year-long persistent depression that was keeping his spirits down? He looked on the other side of the room as his wife Shobha twisted and turned on the cot. His three daughters were sleeping merrily in the kitchen area on a soft mattress. They had no clue that the sun was up and the birds were out. Pradeep Salve tried to give a look of a man in control but his body felt weak. He turned his eyes towards the roshandan to take a peek at the sun.
Damn! Why did it have to rise today? Even with all this rain around, he would have to go to work and walk up the stone and dusty roads of Chittorgarh and trek right up to the fort all the way up to Kumbha Palace. This was his daily routine and he had maintained it relentlessly for 18 years. He was past his prime by now in his late 40s. Pradeep Salve was no more the man he used to be. Even his English which used to impress foreign travellers had gone rusty now. The value of the tips he received had dropped considerably and he was only able to entertain locals and Indian tourists who were very stingy with their money. Low income had driven Pradeep Salve into poverty. He had to even sell his Canon camera to pay his daughters school fees. The years of wear and tear had begun to show on his face as he tried to pick his body up to start the daily routine.
He woke his wife first who started making tea on the kerosene flame after her morning wash. The girls had an off today. It was a Sunday after all. They were allowed to sleep a bit longer. By now, the sun was beating down as Pradeep walked out of his white stone house to give the last night’s leftover chapati to the cows meandering on the road. They were happy to munch on the treat.
Pradeep had done his good deed of the day. “Dekh gaiya ko khana khilaya hun, bas good luck de de upar walla aaj koi bada client mil jaave.” Shobha said as she served tea and bread pakoda to her dear husband. “Money kahaan se laayeen ladkiyan ki fees bhi jama karni hei.” Salve looked disappointed as he tied the top two buttons of his black shirt. He was dressed modestly in cream colour trousers and dusty black sandals. To make him look professional, he had started wearing a pair of fake Ray-Ban glasses with gold rims and always carried a handkerchief in his breast pocket.
Rajasthan is dusty and hot most of the time, but today, it was raining. He would need his handkerchief even more today, firstly to wipe the seat of his Enfield motorbike which, like him, had gone frail and rusty. “Tu ghar par hei rehna aur God se pray karna.” Saying this, he got out of the house, started his motorbike and drove towards the narrow lanes of the city.
Chittor ka Kila was high aloft a hill where you could get a panoramic view of the city. Most forts in Rajasthan are on a height so that they can be well-protected. An enemy would have to climb up towards the fort if they had to fight and the army firing from top always had an advantage. The fort was perched at the top and there was a narrow steep road that took the traffic to the fort.
Today, there was pandemonium on the road. Being a Sunday, families and school kids alike were going to the fort for a picnic and to enjoy the roasted corn and soft drinks that were sold by the many hawkers in the fort area. Pradeep marched on but was constantly frustrated by other motorbikes and tempos that would not give him way. The noise and the trickling rain only added to his confusion and then suddenly, his mobile phone rang. “Pradeep ji client laya hun aapke liiyee hari hari party hei.” His trusted friend Gopal barked on the phone. “Kitne log hei? Full family?” Pradeep tried to drive the motorbike and talk at the same time. “No, no, only single man but big sahib from Delhi, an Indian man.” Gopal reassured him. “Theek hei, mein ata hei.” Pradeep felt a little at ease. He had managed to get a customer even before he reached the fort. This was good news after all. Feeding the nomadic cows outside his house finally seemed to have paid off.
It took him almost an hour to navigate the busy traffic leading up to the fort. He parked his bike at the usual place and took out his registered tour guide card. This was provided to all guides and issued by the government as a stamp of authenticity. After all, Pradeep had done this job for 18 long years. He had a memorised script that he would chant to all the tourists. Only with the firang clients, he tweaked it a bit and used his broken English to sound impactful. But as he recited his narrative and knowledge about the history of the Fort, the Victory Tower and the many temples of the area, his figures and dates would keep changing. He gave one date to one tourist and a contradictory date to another tourist. It is safe to say he was not too good with facts, but yes, he could pull a tale and tell a yarn with enthusiasm as he babbled about the heritage and the many kings that ruled the fort.
I saw him as he ran towards my car cleaning the rainwater from his face with his hanky. He paused in front of my car. “Sir, I am Pradeep. Yes, Pradeep Salve, your tour guide for Chittor Fort at your service, sir.” He saluted me and then opened the car door so that I could climb out to take a first look at the fort. I had arrived at the old fort before my guide. “You speak English salve ji. Good, I am happy.” I smiled at this short and weary man. “Sir, for you, I speak anything. Come, I hold your camera bag. I be your cameraman and guide, two in one today.” Pradeep bent over to grab my black camera bag. “Uff, very big sir.” He almost kept the bag down. For a short man, I could see this was going to be some task carrying the bag and explaining to me the history and heritage of the Fort which had almost frozen in time.
Yes, the Chittorgarh fort was a ruin which told stories of an unseen world. This mammoth relic was a sworn testimony of Rajput valour and the Rajputana courage. It was the martyr ground of many brave Rajput kings who had fought bravely against the armies of Mughal and other Muslim invaders. The famous story being that of Queen Padmini, the wife of Rana Ratan Singh. She was famous for her glowing looks and beauty and fell prey to the evil eyes of Alauddin Khalji. Khalji wanted her as his queen. He fought the army of Ratan Singh three times and finally killed Ratan Singh in battle along with many of his brave Rajput men. Hearing the news of their defeat in battle, Rani Padmini along with 1600 women who resided inside the fort committed Jauhar, an act of self-immolation. This was done to protect the dignity and honour of women whose men had been killed in battle. In fact, this city was also famous for the Sati Pratha.
“You see, sir, Rajput widows were not allowed to remarry and were asked to sit on a burning pyre and die with the dead body of their husbands. It was for honour, very Rajput tradition.” Salve tried to explain to me the nuances of the Sati ritual. “Bakwaas! What honour, yaar? There is no honour in burning and killing women, that too, in such a cruel way. If I burn you with a match, you will go flying on the road with pain.” I was upset at this crazy ritual. “You know, another Raja, Raja Ram Mohan Roy banned this ritual. This should have never been allowed to happen. It is so inhumane. Rajputs will do anything for their pride and talwar, even burn their own women.” I made my feeling clear on the issue.
I noticed that I was standing at an edge where you could have a great panoramic view of the city. “Bas, I have got my spot. Salve, camera kholo, time to do some shooting.” I started preparing my camera and mounting the zoom lens. As I fixed the tripod stand, Salve began to comb his hair. “Yes, Mr. Salve, you are the hero of my film today. It is through your eyes that people will see the splendour of these ancient ruins.” I took out a nipple mike from my bag and attached it to Salve’s shirt. After giving him some cues, I put him and in front of the camera. It was a close-up shoot. “Now, all you have to do is talk. Tell us about Chittorgarh and the many battles fought here.” I remarked as I got ready to shoot. Pradeep got busy cleaning his Ray-Ban for the take before the camera.
On cue, he started his historical story. “So you see, this was the Zenana side of the palace and on the left was the Zenana. Here unfolded the story of Panna Dai. She was the maid of Udai Singh II who became king of the Chittorgarh fort at the age of eight. Udai Singh had a bodyguard by the name of Panveer who wanted to kill Udai and take over the kingdom. He tried to hatch a conspiracy to kill Udai Singh. Panna Dai came to know of this intrigue and dressed her own son Panna in the clothes of Udai Singh. She then smuggled the young Udai Singh in a flower bucket out of the fort and, in turn, sacrificed the life of her son. Panna Dai’s sacrifice is still remembered to this day.” Pradeep was now in full flow as he narrated this ancient tale in a single breath. He spoke fast as words flew out of his mouth. “So, it is not the men but the women who should be saluted for their valour, guts and sacrifice. I salute the women of this fort city.” I said with enthusiasm as I zoomed in and out panning Pradeep Salve with my camera.
The brick walls on the ruined fort were falling apart. There was, however, an area of the palace that had been freshly washed and painted. “Sir, this is where the Rajput rajas would prefer the morning prayer and do their Surya Namaskar. Down there are the stables where seven horses of the Sun Gold were tied. They were very auspicious for us Rajputs” Salve pointed towards the horse stables, which now lay in ruins. Even the strength of the pillars was fading fast as they looked weak and sunken.
I decided to take some pictures of the underground tunnels that were used by the queens when they had to bath in the reservoir ponds built inside the fort. “The queens would have their bath in the talaab of the fort and then they would sit for hours on the balcony jharokhas doing their shringar.” Salve explained to me in a shrill tone. He could see that I was more interested in Rajput women rather then what their men did.
As we walked out of the fort, I saw a group of langurs run towards me. I panicked and held Pradeep’s shoulders. He, in turn, was quick to shoo the monkeys away. “See sir, today, I am three in one. I am also your bodyguard saving you from langurs.” He laughed away at his own joke. I was getting used to the stroll around this fort area which I was told to be 14 km in periphery.
“There used to be 70,000 people living inside the compound of the palace. Food would arrive from one central location as the palace was made of stone. Nothing grew inside the compound. That green water was the local talaab for common folks to take a dip in the hot afternoons.” Salve gave me some more gyan on the palace. “This place was attacked 26 times and only three times the Rajputs lost and three times Jauhar took place in this palace. Subsequent invasions left it broken including the walls and structure. Rest of its beauty faded away due to erosion and neglect.” Salve kept spinning his yarn as I sat under the shade of a tree sipping a nimbu pani. Common folks ate puri bhaji as kids played with wooden swords. There was a bicycle man selling wooden flutes. He was a hit with young kids as on the other side of the lawn, families thronged to get their hands on pink candy floss. This was the heartland of India as men walked with pagdi and dhotis clutching swords while women paraded in ghagra choli carrying their little ones.
“Sir, we go to the victory tower now. You shoot more film there.” Salve asked me to follow him and we trekked to the other side of the fort to see the victory tower. I started to place my tripod camera to get a better view of the victory tower, but as luck would have it, I was stopped by two local security guards. “Aap film nahi kar sakte. Permission, get permission.” They waved at me and asked me to stop. We pleaded for a while and tried to explain to them the finer points of videography but these guys wanted nothing to do with it.
We were pushed out from that place and I did get a bit agitated. “Sala Rajput pride, Rajput pride arroyo, I just wanted to capture the Victory Tower, but these guards are against filming here.” I said in frustration. “You see, the locals even pushed out the entire unit of Padmavati and stopped the filming. They don’t trust anyone who comes from outside. People are touchy here about the way their culture is ported to the world. Karni Sena, you know, they were the goons who stopped the film from being shot here.” Pradeep tried to give me a little background. I, for one, was familiar with the protests. The Rajputs had put up, even going to the extent of asking for a ban on the film. “Bade bhavuk log hein sir.” He tried to explain to me. What the hell, I had lost my chance to film the Victory Tower. “Chalo mandir dekh kar nikaltien hei.” I was getting cheesed off and was also exhausted by now. We had been going around the fort for some time now and I had heard all about its history from my most trusted Pradeep Salve, the local tour guide. The man had done his job and was a great help throughout the day. He had given me his best by not only posing for my camera but also saving me from langurs.
We walked back all the way towards my car as both of us decided to call it a day. I had got enough footage for my travel blog and had taken many cool snaps that reeked of Rajput heritage. “I will remember this fort more for the sacrifice and courage of Rajput women, don’t you think, Pradeep?” I turned to put the window pane up. “Yes sir, you have great observation.” Salve was pleased that I looked content with the outing and with his guidance.
I dropped him just after we had descended down the lanes into the flat planes of the city. As he opened the door of the car to bid me goodbye, I put a Rs 2000 note in his hand. “Sir, I have served you well today. Need to pay for daughter’s fees and I have three of them.” He looked hesitant. I understood that the man was needy and shoved another Rs 2000 note in his hand. “You have been my perfect guide today. Make sure you pay all their fees and God bless you all.” I thanked Pradeep and drove past him towards Udaipur.