Mehrangarh Fort | India | Living in Mexico

Mehrangarh Fort

Mehrangarh Fort dominates the city of Jodhpur. Glance up from any location and the eye is drawn to its looming walls. Built by Jodhpur's founder Rao Jodha in 1459, it has served as the seat of a line of Maharajas down through the centuries. The present-day Maharaja lives in a corner of the place; the bulk of the fort has been converted into a museum. Today, as in many stately English homes, the nobility can't afford the upkeep on their estates, so they make a deal with their governments to undertake management of them in exchange for allowing tourist access.

We hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the castle gate. He waited for us while we visited.

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Jodhpur is sometimes called "the Blue City," and in this image you can see why. The pastel color that the buildings are painted is called "Maharaja Blue."

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The fort contains several palaces, most of which are open to the public. We inspected some of them over several hours, but we easily could have spent days here.

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Absolute masters of their realms, the Maharajas amassed incredible wealth. They not only ruled what were called the Princely States, they owned them outright. When the British colonized India, they simply co-opted the Maharajas, allowing them relative freedom to rule in exchange for oaths of fealty. This arrangement was good for the British, who didn't have to lay siege to their forts, and it was good for the Maharajas, who were able to continue to grow wealthier without interference. The only group that did not benefit from the relationship was the 99.99% of the population whose labors mainly benefited the rulers.

After independence, the new Indian government stripped the Maharajas of their lands, but kept them happy with generous stipends sufficient to maintain their opulent lifestyles. Indian nobility became a prominent element of jet set society. Indira Ghandi cut off support payments in the mid-seventies, with the result that many of their estates became open to the public.

The Maharajas lived in opulence. This is a living room. I like the umbrella over the sofa, there so that dust doesn't fall on noble heads. I'm considering adding one to my place.

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A nineteenth-century Maharaja traveled in splendor in his gilded palanquin. This one required twelve men to carry it.

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The fort covered something on the order of five square kilometers, and was actually needed for defense. The walls, six meters thick, bear scars from cannon fire, but the fort never fell to invaders.

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Spiked iron gates prevented enemies from battering their way into the redoubt.

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Be-turbaned guards once manned the ramparts and protected the nobles. Today they doze in corners of the museums, preventing priceless artifacts from walking off with light-fingered visitors.

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The family mausoleum crowns a hilltop a kilometer form the fort. The Taj Mahal is certainly more spectacular, but I am impressed that in India, so many of these palaces were built to hold the remains of local rulers and their families.

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Many of India's monumental buildings are crumbling. Not Mehrangarh Fort. Walls look scrubbed and re-gilded. Brasswork gleams. Masonry is being re-pointed.

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The scaffold these workers are using is typical of Indian construction sites. Scary.

The scrupulous maintenance is for the benefit not only of western tourists, of which there are quite a few, but to preserve the patrimony of the Indian people. This young woman is one of a growing number of Indian tourists. She's wearing bluejeans.

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Mehrangarh Fort and its palaces are reminders of the grossly uneven distribution of wealth in India. I was shocked when I first experienced the economic gap between rich and poor in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. In India, the situation is worse. A short walk from the fort gates, we were confronted with beggars living on the streets of Jodhpur in conditions more squalid than any I have seen in Mexico.

But even here, the First World and its riches are arriving; perhaps lowly, perhaps unevenly, but inexorably. That we ran into so many middle-class Indians touring their country is a sign of progress. They were not here in 1947, at the dawn of independence.

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