High & mighty

Recently added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Rajasthan’s hill forts are the crowning glory of a visit to this enigmatic region of North India. Gavin Thomas braves baking deserts, flatulent camels and tiger-riddled jungles in search of six stunning citadels.

“No tourists,” my driver cheerily informed me on the road up to Ranthambore Fort, have ever been eaten by a tiger – so far, at any rate.” Although, “best to be on the safe side”, he added, dropping me by the roadside, indicating the route up to the fort and suggesting it would be wise not to stray from the designated path – unless, of course, I had a particular desire to turn myself into big-cat chow.

It was a steep scramble, climbing six hundred roughly hewn stone steps trampled into lopsided angles by countless generations of feet. A huge swathe of tangled subtropical jungle – home to one of the world’s densest concentrations of tigers – gradually came into view.  The previous day I had seen one of the majestic big cats ambling along a track in Ranthambore National Park, while busloads of tourists snapped away in frenzied excitement. However, I soon realised that climbing up to Ranthambore Fort, brooding on its rocky hilltop and rarely visited by foreigners, was every bit as memorable as a close encounter with a tiger in the forest below.

The first things I noticed were the walls. Looking to either side, a massive circuit of sheer bastions extended as far as the eye could see: soaring ramparts and watchtowers snaked and looped across the craggy hills for almost five miles, switchbacking up and down impossibly steep gradients. In a land where incessant warfare was once an everyday fact of life, these massive defences offered valuable life insurance to thousands of people living within them – and made a clear statement that unexpected visitors were most definitely not welcome.

If the exterior was all bristling ramparts and military machismo, the interior of Ranthambore Fort was unexpectedly rustic, like some sprawling village with sandy lanes running between fields, scattered houses and shrines. A resident priest took me on a brief tour of the fort’s famous Ganesh temple while enumerating the many remarkable qualities of that much-loved elephant-headed god.

“And does the Lord Ganesh also protect his followers from tigers?” I asked.

“Of course,” replied the priest. “Even a tiger will never attack an elephant. Also,” he added, grinning at me with a mouthful of engagingly crooked teeth, “nowadays they prefer mainly the taste of tourists.”

World Heritage Status
Ranthambore is one of six hill forts – along with Chittorgarh, Amber, Jaisalmer, Kumbhalgarh and Gagron – in the North Indian state of Rajasthan recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status. Built upon outcrops of the rocky Aravalli Hills, the forts are remarkable examples of Indian military architecture combined with traditional Hindu culture. With vast bastions enclosing self-contained walled citadels, each fort is a massive monument to earlier and more turbulent times.

Life in medieval Rajasthan was not for the faint-hearted. Wedged between the all-conquering Delhi Sultanate to the east and the volatile border regions to the west, Rajasthan was for many centuries one of India’s most turbulent regions, fiercely contested and often bitterly fought over. Hard times called for hard men, and none came harder than the region’s ruling inhabitants, the legendary Rajputs, a fiercely independent Hindu warrior caste with a pronounced taste for death and glory married to an exaggerated and frequently suicidal sense of collective honour. Fighting to the death was a Rajput way of life for both soldiers and civilians, encapsulated by their notorious practice of jauhar. When the enemy was at the gates and could no longer be repelled, huge communal funeral pyres were constructed and set ablaze, and the womenfolk of any particular fort or town would put on their finest saris and fling themselves into the flames rather than fall into the clutches of the enemy. Afterwards, their menfolk would sally forth to face the enemy, fighting bitterly until every last one of them had fallen in battle.

It wasn’t all death and glory, however. When battles were not being fought a remarkably sophisticated culture took root within these citadels. Elaborate temples and magnificent palaces sprung up within the defences, while painters, poets and religious dreamers contributed to the region’s fecund artistic and cultural life – a distinctive blend of the militaristic and the mystical.

Desert Safari
There are no tigers in the desert fort of Jaisalmer – although rather a lot of camels. One of the most beautiful and imposing of the six UNESCO-listed forts, Jaisalmer originally grew rich from trade caravans crossing the surrounding Thar Desert. The modern city’s economy still rides on the back of the dromedary, even if the goods now being transported are no longer salt, spices and saris but combined tourists setting out into the Thar on one of the town’s ever-popular desert safaris.

To ride through the sandy hinterlands of Jaisalmer allows the modern visitor the illusion of something timeless, travelling quietly at the speed of a camel rather than a car, seeing Jaisalmer as traders and travellers saw it in centuries past: the honey-coloured fort a mirage-like smudge on the horizon, almost indistinguishable at a distance from the sands out of which it originally sprung.

Other insights (as I discovered about ten minutes after setting off on my own overnight safari) are also to be had, though rarely advertised by tour operators. The camel’s remarkable ability to simultaneously walk and empty its bowels, for example (beware that swishing and now rather smelly tail); or their Olympic-standard spitting abilities (although the ‘spit’ is not saliva but regurgitated stomach bile). Most of all, however, you quickly realise just how uncomfortable your average camel can be when one is obliged to sit on it for five or six hours at a stretch as it slowly pitches and rolls across the Thar, breaking wind lugubriously whilst gradually sandpapering the skin off your inner thighs, and pounding your unprotected legs, back and buttocks into a state of numbed paralysis.

Just as memorable – and certainly a lot less punishing on the posterior – is the fort itself. Inside the walls is one of Rajasthan’s most picture-perfect architectural showpieces: a fairytale streetscape of miniature squares and labyrinthine alleyways honeycombing between venerable sandstone buildings. Enormous turbans, coloured in various shades of pink, yellow and red, remain the headgear of choice, while shops and streetside stalls are piled high with rainbow-coloured patchwork tapestries and tie-dye fabrics, with the occasional cow staring incuriously on.

At the heart of the fort stands the sumptuous palace of the Maharawal ringed with assorted ornate havelis (Persian-style courtyard mansions) and a cluster of eye-poppingly ornate Jain temples, their sandstone pillars and domes whittled away by nameless master-masons into shapes of astonishing delicacy – statues layered upon statues, ringed with intricate friezes and vaults, resembling not so much solid stone as the incredible icing on some supersized wedding cake. If the fort’s sturdy outer walls were built to survive cannon fire, the interiors of these temples are so seemingly delicate that you fear the whole lot might be brought crashing down with a single over-enthusiastic sneeze.

Distinct Styles
Further hill forts await. Touristy Amber, on the outskirts of the city of Jaipur, has elephant rides and gorgeous palace interiors, including the fabulously mirrored Sheesh Mahal, walled with thousands of shards of glass. Rustic Kumbhalgarh is famed for its vast enclosing sweep of walls weaving for no less than 36km around the surrounding hills, like some Great Wall of Rajasthan. The remote and little-visited Gagron, meanwhile, has low-slung ramparts magically moated within the watery confluence of the Ahu and the Kali Sindh rivers. Chittorgarh is perhaps the most iconic of all Indian hill forts thanks to its long and – even by Rajasthani standards – unusually blood-soaked history, featuring three sieges and subsequent jauhars, during which tens of thousands of the city’s inhabitants perished either in the flames of the fort’s mass funeral pyres or at the hands of the enemy.

All six of the newly UNESCO-listed hill forts have their own distinct personality and atmosphere, tinged with the melancholy of former jauhars and graced by examples of Hindu and Jain architecture in all their flamboyant finery. From bustling Jaisalmer to the peaceful and virtually undiscovered ramparts of Gagron, UNESCO’s listing promises to protect what is already known, and to bring new visitors to places which are not.

Just watch out for the tigers. And, if you do decide to ride a camel, be sure to wear an extra pair of pants.

Visiting the Rajasthan hill forts
Rajasthan is one of India’s leading tourist destinations, and a tour of the UNESCO forts takes you on a more or less complete circuit of the state, making it easy to combine hill forts with visits to other leading attractions, including the Taj Mahal, just over the state border in Uttar Pradesh, and easily visited en route between Delhi and Jaipur. Travel by road can sometimes be slow, so it’s more fun – and often faster and more comfortable – to get around on Indian railways, which reach most corners of the state.

Delhi is the obvious starting point for any tour, served by regular Kenya Airways’ flights four times weekly from Nairobi. Regular express trains connect Delhi and Jaipur (4hr 30min), where you’ll find Amber Fort as well as the myriad attractions of Jaipur itself. From here it’s a short (2hr) train ride south to Sawai Madhopur and Ranthambore Fort.

The next fort on the circuit, Gagron, just outside the town of Jhalawar, is slightly trickier to reach, best visited by spending the night at Kota (1-2 hours from Sawai Madhopur by rail), home to an impressive palace-fort of its own, and then doing a day trip by bus or taxi to Jhalawar. The next fort, Chittorgarh, is another short hop from Kota by railway (2 hrs 30 min). From Chittorgarh, take a train to the beautiful lake city of Udaipur – well worth a day or two in its own right. Kumbhalgarh Fort can be easily visited as a day trip from here. Alternatively, hire a taxi and visit Kumbhalgarh then continue onto Jodhpur – home to yet another magnificent fortress – and spend a day or two there before catching the train across the Thar Desert to the last fort at Jaisalmer (6 hrs 30 min).

It’s a long train journey back from Jaisalmer to Delhi (16 hours) and well worth stopping off at the city of Bikaner, home to the superb Junagarh fort and other attractions, then continuing via the magical towns of Shekhawati, home to thousands of floridly painted havelis.

New listings
World Heritage Sites
Along with Rajasthan’s hill forts, a number of other new sites have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, including monuments in Qatar, Germany, Ukraine, North Korea and Iran. Several existing sites were also extended. New listings in Africa include Lewa Downs, the Namib Sand Sea and historic Agadez

1 Lewa Downs
Mount Kenya National Park and Natural Forest, the country’s oldest World Heritage Site, originally inscribed in 1997, has now been extended, with the adjacent Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (also known as Lewa Downs) being given listed status. Created in 1995, the conservancy is home to a remarkable diversity of wildlife, including the world’s largest population of Grevy’s zebra, all members of the Big Five and rare species such as sitatunga and rhino. In fact, 10 per cent of Kenya’s black rhino and 14 per cent of its white rhino are found here.

2 Namib Sand Sea
The world’s oldest desert (formed some 55–80 million years ago), covers an area of almost 12,000 square miles and is home to the planet’s second largest sand dunes, towering up to 300m in height and reaching lengths of over 30km. Spectacularly hued in colours ranging from bright orange to surreal pink, the coastal desert is unique in having an ecosystem heavily influenced by fog created by the collision of warm and cold offshore currents. Thick banks of fog roll across the dunes for over half the year, supporting a finely adapted ecosystem that is home to more endemic species than any other desert in the world.

3 Historic Centre of Agadez
The largest city in northern Niger, and gateway to the southern Sahara, Agadez developed in the 15th and 16th centuries at a major crossroads in the trans-Saharan caravan trade, becoming the region’s leading Tuareg city. The historic centre contains a remarkable collection of traditional mudbrick architecture, including the majestic Sultan’s Palace and Agadez Mosque, whose soaring 27m-high mudbrick minaret is the tallest such structure in the world. Sadly, political unrest resulting from Tuareg militia returning from the Libyan Revolution means that travel to Agadez is currently unsafe, although hopefully the UNESCO listing will help make this fascinating city accessible to foreign visitors again in the not too distant future.

A brief history of UNESCO Heritage
A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Site can be one of various things: a building or monument, or a landscape feature such as a forest, mountain or desert. As of mid-2013, 981 sites in 160 countries are listed, split between ‘cultural’ (759), ‘natural’ (193), and ‘mixed’ (29). Sites are nominated by their own countries for consideration by international experts and are only entered on the World Heritage List if they are deemed to be of ‘outstanding universal value’. Italy has the largest number of sites (49), followed by China (45) and Spain (44). Kenya currently boasts six, including the cultural monuments of Fort Jesus in Mombasa and Lamu Old Town along with natural wonders such as Lake Turkana National Park and Mount Kenya.

The origins of the scheme date back to 1954, when the Egyptian government’s decision to build the vast Aswan Dam threatened to submerge various major ancient monuments, including the world-famous temples of Abu Simbel. A successful campaign to save the temples was launched, leading to further international projects which helped safeguard other threatened sites such as Venice.

The official UNESCO World Heritage treaty was ratified in 1975 and the first sites selected in 1978, including the Galapagos Islands, Yellowstone National Park, the Rock Churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia and Senegal’s Île de Gorée. The six hill forts of Rajasthan – Chittorgarh, Kumbhalgarh, Ranthambore, Gagron, Amber and Jaisalmer – represent India’s thirtieth World Heritage Site, joining other iconic subcontinental masterpieces like the Taj Mahal.