September 18, 2013

Stories of a Historical Theatre: Nagaur Fort, Rajasthan

A few months ago, I had the opportunity of interacting with a superlatively talented Australian water-color artist, Jason Roberts via Instagram; even a cursory look at his blog is sufficient to gauge the beauty of his works. Having noticed one of my IG posts about Rajasthan and whose nuances he has so exquisitely captured in his own paintings, we began talking and the subject turned to Nagaur, which is about 135km from Jodhpur. Frankly speaking, apart from the fact that my mother once lived and studied there and that Liz Hurley had a rather lavish sangeet [musical] celebrations at the Nagaur's Ahhichatragarh  fort, I did not know much else. However, Jason's descriptions about the fort and his experiences at the annual Nagaur cattle fair  enchanted me - and it so happened that my various meanderings in Rajasthan few weeks ago coincidentally brought me to Nagaur.

As towns go, I could not help thinking that Nagaur represented the quintessential small Rajasthani town; the Nagaur fort, on the other hand, is an entirely different and distinct affair. Initially, having seen only interior shots of the fort, I was somehow anticipating an imposing, looming presence, much the way Jodhpur's Meherangarh fort dominates and indeed, defines Jodhpur's skyline. The Nagore fort however is tucked inside the town; it is only when you enter the premises that you realise its scope and that it indeed is a formidable presence in itself.

Aerial image of Nagaur fort taken from Rajesh Bedi's book, Rajasthan: Under the Desert Sky

We visited on a blisteringly hot August afternoon and yet, the heat and the lancet-sharp sunlight eventually could not deter us from appreciating the fort in its full splendor. The moment we entered the fort complex via the gardens, I at once felt far removed from the world beyond. I must add that I do not always feel this way in all historical structures and places; at times, so overloaded are they with excesses of modern-day tourism that they are reduced to parodies of their original selves or other times, they are mired in so much neglect and decay that it is impossible to grasp the grand and exciting structures they had once been. Nagaur fort too had been prey to the latter and it is gentle, thoughtful and careful restoration in the past few years that has led to Nagaur fort being the emblem of romance and history that it is today.

As we roamed through the complex with an informative guide in tow, it was not difficult to flesh the fort into the personality that it once was. Here, a hundred niches became ablaze with individual diyas during the night, the earth having swallowed the nocturnal sky in its midst; there, Akbar had once stayed in this mahal [chambers] Inside this arched pavilion, you were in the heart of the fort and surrounded by numerous fountains, pools, and water-channels in which fort denizens swam and frolicked. Thanks to assiduous water harvesting techniques, the fort was able to enjoy the pleasures of water despite being in so conspicously arid environment.

Pavilion of Arches


As we wandered from the outside garden of filigree marble beauty, symmetrical arches, and paint-play of shadows into the chambers, we experienced both a relief from the heat as well as admittance to an interior garden of sorts. In the silence and coolth, as we admired the gorgeously detailed ceilings, the simultaneously functional and aesthetic water-fountains, and the minimalist elegance of the arches and niches, I could not help but admire the effort invested in the restoration of the fort and which made it one of the twenty nominees for the Agha Khan award for Architechure as well as being the recipient of other conservation efforts. These efforts have been responsible for the re-presentation of the Nagaur fort, highlighting it as an architectural and historical landmark as well as restablishing its context in contemporary times; for instance, it plays stage to the World Sufi Spirit festival, its nocturnal avatar lending the fort with yet another performative dimension. 

Dancing Ceiling

The Green Room

In one of the queen's chambers, every inch of the wall was covered with paintings documenting the minituaie of their daily life; what they performed within the walls was mirror-reflected upon those very surfaces. For them, it was like living with family photographs: familiar and loved. For us, the amateur historian attempting to fill empty rooms with headful of stories, they were valuable glimpses into their lives, making it easier for the rooms to be a theatre in which we could imagine dialogues, monologues, and discussions reverberating in the origami of dust and light and shadows.

Alas, we had only a hour to spare for the fort visit and it was time to bid farewell; as we walked towards the gate, which would lead us out of the fort and into the everyday burly of the world, I turned around - and glimpsed this sight below:

Many centuries ago, the fort inhabitants must have glanced up to witness this very same sight - and here I was, studying the same sky, the eagles surveying me from above; the people had changed, the structure had not. It struck me how crucial it is that we view historical buildings in continuum with our present, rather than seeing them as fossils. On our way to Nagaur, we had stopped in the town of Sujangarh and wended our way through the arteries of the older part. We passed by many a traditional haveli, with doors, windows, and facade replete - only to encounter ugly, empty wounds in which a haveli had been demolished and a plastic, hollow toybox of a mall replacing it. Would these havelis that I admired be still standing there if I were to return in a year's time? I fear that I may not see them again. If we can figure out how to make these structures relevant to our contemporary lives, we can simply integrate them into the matrix of stories, rather than erasing them away altogether until future generations would not even know that they existed in the first place.


  1. I will return to read every word posted here... the pics have stumped me for the moment. you are awesome priyanka

    1. Suzy, you are too kind...and not to mention, awesome yourself! *hug*

  2. Beautiful words and pictures in a thought provoking post. How much truth there is in so much of what you say here. I dread going to 'popular tourist destinations' precisely because of what you mention and yet there are always exceptions in this marvellous country. (How I wish an organization would take care of all the beautiful old homes of Bangalore). Thank you also for the link to Jason Roberts blog.
    I few months ago after I finished reading Dalrymple's astounding City of Djinns, I also looked through his artist wife Olivia Fraser's marvellous website of her paintings based on miniatures from Rajasthan. She gives them a contemporary twist. What you said in your last paragraph reminded me of her work. When we use our culture and our past in our art,whatever the art may be, the rewards seem to be enormous.


    1. Priya, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment; before writing this post, I originally intended it to be a romantic ode to the fort. However, as I started to write and researched more, I realised that this post warranted more than just that: an ode. I thought of how painstakingly the fort has been restored to its olden days (all private efforts, mind you) - and yet not at the cost of sacrificing its enchanted, secret garden quality. I do sincerely hope that a similar approach is taken to various other tourist 'hotspots' in our country.

      I loved Olivia Fraser's works in City of Djinns and yes her miniature paintings are equally wonderful. What you say in context to her work really should encapsulate the spirit of our times: there are so many riches in diverse cultures across the world and what terrific combinations will be produced when combined with contemporary technologies and beliefs?:)I am all for globalisation but once again, not at the cost of diluting cultural heterogeneity.

      Looks like I should be writing a post about those thoughts given the length of my comment;)


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