Situated adjacent to the public park, its turrets pointing skywards, Junagarh
fort is a magnificent sight to behold. It was constructed between 1589 and 1594
by Raja Rai Singh, a general in the army of the Mughal emperor Akbar. It was in
1585 that an old extant Mughal farman (decree) refers to Rai Singh of Bikaner,
upon whom Akbar conferred the district of Bhatner. It was the next year that Rai
Singh ordered work on the 'great jewel of Bikaner', the Junagarh fort. Work
finally began in 1589 when the king sent instructions to that effect from his
camp at Burhanpur to his minister Karam Chand. Finished five years later, its
battlements jutted out proudly, although they were untested.
The Fort Premises
The fort has a 986 metre long wall, fortified by a long range of exquisite pavilions, 37 in all, silhouetted against the skyline. The palaces inside are ethereal, and comprise of royal public court buildings and intimate zenanas (women's quarters), for purdah (veil) decreed that women be hidden from sight of courtiers. Consequently, women walked behind stone screens carved by expert artisans of Barmer and Bikaner. Theirs was a closed world, and although women played an important part in the royal household, they played no role in the administration or politics of Bikaner.
The Interiors of the Fort
The fort is beautifully embellished with Rajput paintings, mirror-work, and lacquer-work. Lines of windows and balconies impart a harmonious domestic character to the austere strength of the structure. You need to take a recce of the fort and feel the atmosphere to get an idea of the indolent lifestyle of the Rajput royalty, in medieval times.The regalia and opulence of the palaces will take your breath away. The unique feature of Junagarh fort is that it is one of the few Rajasthani forts not constructed on a hilltop, or any raised surface but on plain land. This provided the fort with a natural camouflage as it blended into the sandy desert surrounding it, enabling it to remain unconquered for close to 400 years. In the fort you'll find raised platforms made of swords, on which the fakirs of Bikaner would dance. The Viceroy's wife, Lady Reading described the scene in 1922: "A wizard walked with bare feet on swords I could not touch, so sharp were their points. It was hopelessly uncanny, but wonderful and gorgeous." The fort also contains an excellent library of Persian manuscripts and ancient Sanskrit books and an impressive armoury. Nearby is a well over 450 feet deep.
The Main Fort Entrances
The fort has two entrances; the Karan Pol on the east and the Chand Pol on the west. As soon as you enter the Karan Pol, you come across the Sati Sthambs, a gory reminder to the practice of sati (a widow's self immolation on her husband's funeral pyre) prevalent among the Rajputs who preferred 'death before dishonour'. On the vertical slab which is the Sthamb are imprinted symbolic hands, a reminder of the royal ladies who committed sati. Some more sati symbols are found on the left side of the next gate, called the Daulat Pol. The practice of sati was mercifully abolished during Maharaja Sardar Singh's reign between 1851 and 1872.
Walking past Daulat Pol you run into Fateh Pol. Each of these gates provided a strong defence to the fort. The gates were fortified with heavy wooden doors with iron plating. A further precaution was taken to fit iron spikes into them to prevent an elephant charge in case of war. Suraj Pol or the Sun Gate used to be the main entrance before the other gateways were built. The Suraj Pol was built in 1593 in front of which in the courtyard lies the Joramal Temple. The other gates were constructed as an extension probably during the rule of Maharaja Gaj Singh. The Sun Gate is a common occurrence in Hindu fort architecture, the concept being to let the first rays of the sun enter the house. On entering the Suraj Pol, you come across the statues of Jaimal and Patta atop elephants, the guardians of the fort. The two were teenage generals in the army of Maharana Udai Singh of Mewar who fought heroically during the seizure of Chittor fort (see Chittor). The statues honouring Jaimal Rathore and Rawat Patta Sisodia were installed at the express instructions of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, so impressed was he with their bravado.
Main Fort EnterencesThe palaces within the precincts were all built by different rulers. The last portions to the fort were added very recently, when the new stately staircase was added by Maharaja Ganga Singh. The stone carvings of the fort and palaces are indeed exquisite.
Today it is around the fort that the city's civil, commercial and social life revolves; its broadest avenues fronts its entrance, and its rugged grace overshadows Bikaner's gardens and parks, its bazaars, theatres and buildings.
Daulat Pol also Known as Sati Pol
The literal meaning of Daulatpol is 'the gate of wealth' but do not waste your time looking for buried treasure here. The wealth they refer to is different - it is honour not money. As Rajput wives preferred death to dishonour, the practice was to burn oneself at the funeral pyre of one's husband. The practice was called Sati, and the Daulatpol pays homage to all the sati wives of Bikaner's soldiers fell in battle. The handprints you will see nearby bear a poignant reminder to this custom which was fortunately outlawed by the Britisher William Bentinck in 1829. But sati is still revered in many areas of rural Rajasthan, and that can be illustrated by the glorification of Roop Kanwar, the widow who committed sati as recently as 1987, at Deorala in Rajasthan. Clearly some habits die hard, and the Daulatpol is treated as a reverential site by many among the local populace of Bikaner.