Once upon a Fort (Part 1)

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The Architect rose as the King entered the empty tent that was erected for visitors, inside the fort. Though the Architect had constructed special reception centers decorated with frescos, the King had decided against entertaining guests there until he deemed fit.  The Architect’s own camp was almost empty. His men had started leaving the camp some days ago, slowly, one group after the other, looking forward to, and at the same time despising the long journey back to their homes and their wives.

“I am pleased with your design and construction of the fortress, Architect!”

“I am honoured, Majesty”, the Architect murmured, bowing low to the king.

“The Chief Minister and General take care of these things. However, I hear that you insistently requested to speak with me?”

“Yes, Majesty”

“I care very little for such impudence, young man. What is it?”

The Architect lifted his averted eyes, a quiet smile played around his mouth. “I waited many days to meet you. Because what I want to share with you cannot be spoken, only shown. And what I show must be for your eyes only, else it would be futile.”

Intrigued, the King sat himself down on the diwan.

“Go on”

“I have built fortresses for many a Southern King. Their mighty armies do not discount their fears- and those are rightful fears. In most cases, the enemy lies within, not beyond, for the greatest of kings have been murdered, not in the battlefield but in their beds.”

A shadow crossed the King’s impassive face.

“What is your point?”

“The value of a Kingdom is measured by the life that beats in its King’s chest.”

The King gave the briefest of nods, which caused his body guards to exit the tent.

“I have created two escape routes for you from within this fortress, and it is my duty to show these to you, before I leave. They are for your use, should your life be in peril, because of an unfaithful friend or a greater foe, which is very unlikely under your powerful reign” said the Architect.

The King’s eyes gleamed.

“You will show them to me now”img-20160902-wa0011

*********

“I am delighted with your work, young man!” the King exclaimed, as the Architect showed him the second escape route. He removed a large diamond studded ring from his forefinger and handed it to the Architect, “I want you to keep this, and you will construct every fort that I commission from today!”

“You are very generous, Majesty” the Architect bowed low again.

The Architect and the King were now by the well, within the fort. It was large, empty and deep, with stone steps leading to the bottom.

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“I see you have timed the construction well. The rains approach and the well will fill in a few days”

“Yes, and the well is at considerable distance from the third darwaza and I have given it watch guards, should anybody try to poison the source of water for the fortress.”

The Architect took a step closer to the King. Before the Architect knew it, the King had unsheathed his sword.

The Architect’s passive face betrayed no emotion.

“Lord, here is the last route you should take, should all else fail”

The King was taken aback.

“There is one more?”

“Yes, Lord. My men know the escapes I showed you. They created those. These are not mere escapes. These are two entry points into the castle as well, hidden though they are. My men are trustworthy, but are men after all. But this last one- this one was designed by me. And the man who laboured for this particular route sleeps beneath the floor of the well. I killed him with my own hands and buried him”

The King’s sharp, kohl lined eyes looked at the Architect’s own with appreciation.

“Lead me to it”

The men climbed down the steps to the floor of the well. The Architect felt the blocks of stone with his hands, one at a time, as he walked around the perimeter. He gestured to the King when he found the right rock. When the King touched it, the ingenuity amazed him- it was cold granite, unlike the other warm, sun soaked stones, yet it looked pale brown like the others.

The Architect effortlessly pushed the rock inside a few inches until he heard a click, and then he moved it to the right. There were discreet abrasions that enabled him to claw his fingers and pull or move the rock.

The men lunged themselves up. The King saw steep steps leading into the darkness above.

“There are 162 such steps. They lead into the palace of your concubines, by the river”

“The last place a King would expect to be found during war”

“Where arrangements can be made should there be need for escape” concluded the Architect

“What about the water from the well? Would it not rise?”

“It will rise, but it will not beyond the seventh step.” They had reached the seventh step where the wall had provision to hold a flame-torch, a bowl of oil and some matches.

The men walked through the tunnel, and after a few minutes they could smell and hear the river. The Architect released a trap door and saw the King’s triumphant face in the sliver of sunlight that entered the tunnel.

“We will return now” announced the King, and the Architect shut the trap door enveloping them both in darkness once again.

**********

(To be Continued)

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W-Warangal Fort

*Failed attempt to complete the A-Z Challenge 2016

In the middle of a sweltering state is a treasure trove of history- that is Warangal for you.

At 150 kms away from Hyderabad is this (once) glorious capital. It was later rampaged by Muslim invaders and all that remain now are ruins.

Warangal was first ruled by the Yadavas, and was later by the Kakatiya Dynasty. The kingdom flourished under the latter. To give you an idea about how prosperous the kingdom was, and how advanced these kings were back in the 12 th century, I’m describing the fort for you.

The Warangal fort was built in the centre of three concentric levels of fortifications. The first exterior defence was a wall, this had a diameter of 2.5 kms. There was a deep trench in front of this wall that had to be filled with dirt or mud before it could be surmounted. This surrounded a moat, the width of which was around 150 feet. Invaders would have to swim across this, keeping an eye out for the crocodiles. Finally there was a wall made of stone. This wall was around 1.2 kms in diameter, and the fort, which also served as the capital city was located within this embankment.

Such an impenetrable fort was eyed by the sultanate of Delhi and was laid siege during the rule of King Pratapa Rudra II. After 6 months of constant battle, both parties agreed to a truce.  Pratapa Rudra could retain his kingship and land, and in reparation he had to surrender all the wealth his dynasty had accumulated over all these years. When the Sultanate general left Warangal, it is said that he carried the loot on the backs of 2000 camels, back to Delhi.

2000 camels. Somewhere on the back of one of those camels was the controversial Koh-i-noor diamond, which now glints from the British Queen Mother’s crown.

But our story does not stop there. Pratapa Rudra was asked to pay an annual tribute to the Sultanate which he failed to, twice.. The first time he failed, he was warned with an army on the doors of his capital. The second time he failed- (Reading about him, I am pretty certain it was his insubordination that caused this) a bigger army, led by Mohammed bin Tughlaq, by now well-versed with the workings of the fort and its battlements, forced its way into the capital. Every structure that had any religious symbolism on it (in this case-almost all structures) was destroyed. The four gateways- unique looking and free standing now, were spared because they were adorned with neutral figures. This archway is now the symbol of the Telegana tourism department, and a visitor will see replicas of these in the main streets of Hyderabad. Pratapa Rudra was taken captive, and was being transported to Delhi when he killed himself in the banks of the river Godavari en route.

Enough of History, though.

Warangal, an unsung little town, took my breath away. The fort stands ruined, but the air weighs heavy with pride. If you stood there and listened hard, they would tell you tales of a dynasty that did not need a king at one juncture- Queen Rudramadevi, who ruled before Pratapa Rudra II, could have taught us a thing or two about empowerment. The winds would sing praises about a king who refused to succumb to men of another land, and inevitably lost his life in the process. And if you listen carefully, you might also hear a stifled wail- at how unfair the past and the present have been. It is truly unfortunate that we decided to visit a city so glorious because we had nothing else to do- and not because it was spoken about with reverence, or given the respect it deserves.

 

Lakshadweep

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The first place that N and I visited after the wedding was Lakshadweep. We had a couple of places in mind, the common factors amongst all these were that they were economical, not commercial/ touristy and by the beach. We had a well deserved break. Lakshadweep was just the perfect getaway- this was further cemented by the fact that no mobile networks other than BSNL work there.

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Image Source- Internet

Given that there were no direct flight routes from Chennai, we had to fly to Cochin and switch to another Air India flight to Lakshadweep. One cannot just fly into Lakshadweep. It involves obtaining a permit from the island prior to landing, and we had this facilitated by an agent. The view was amazing! The archipelago is a sight to behold, from air.

There are some islands that are off limits, and few that non-Indian nationals can stay in. The Ministry of Tourism has complete monopoly and should they know that you stay in a home stay (like we did, in Agatti island) they will not allow access to water sport in the main islands (Kadmat, Bangaram, Minicoy)

Long walks along the length of the island was what we did every day. We would fill our tummies with fresh sea food, walk around the little island, hire a jetty and travel to the neighbouring islands, come back, eat, lounge on the beach, eat and sleep. It was the most relaxing vacation, ever! The beaches there were some of the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. From the main road, which is like the spine of the island, we could see the coast on either side. And there were waves lashing the coast on both sides!

These islands are known for their coral reefs. How could we not scuba dive! We did two dives with our trainer (who regaled us with tales of finding ship wrecks beneath the oceans) and till date, the memory of that first practice dive is what I cherish the most. Words cannot describe the beauty of the ocean floor. Fishes of every imaginable colour, size, shape and dimension swam by, shoals and shoals of them, twisting from our grasps. I run out of adjectives to describe the corals- colourful rock like creatures that popped small craters open when we snapped our fingers close to them. I must mention the sea anemones here! Sticky, prickly jelly like tentacles swished around our fingers as we tried to touch them; and pretty clown fish swam around them blinking at us, unable to see the smiles beneath our masks.

Too soon, it was time to leave. As we were saying our good byes, we chatted up with the son of the man who owned our homestay. This young man’s ambition was to join the CISF.

‘But why on earth would you want to leave this amazing island?!!’ we asked him, with shock.

‘But what is there here.. it is just the beach and the island and the homestay. There is nothing to do here!’

What we wouldn’t have given to trade places with him!

ABC Challenge #20: T for Taboo

Note- I believed I had posted this before I posted ‘U’. Anyway that is Airtel 3G internet stick for you.

Taboo. This word brings alive memories of a National Geographic show where the crew would tour the world and bring to the audience crazy ideas/ rituals/ practices followed by fellow human beings across distant lands. Nothing, technically, is taboo, when it has been done over the ages. And when you have watched your own parents follow similar practices, it doesn’t really seem very strange. Though you might question the whole logic behind it (there would be some, in some rusty corner of the activity; it would have been layered with myth after myth, over the years) you would just go on with it simply to appease your folks at home. There are some ideas which are super taboo that Nat Geo forgot to cover. These are prevalent in India, some specific ones- in my community/household.
From the day a girl is born, she is raised to be decent marriage material. ‘If you don’t study well, you won’t get a good job, and then who will marry you?’(Not- study well, because YOU need a job to support yourself) , ‘Learn to cook, after you get married you will need to cook for a whole family’ (Not, does cooking interest you? There is so much to learn and it can be so much fun!), ‘ If your brother asks for a toy, give it! You will need to sacrifice so much more after your marriage!’ (Not- giving is love. Give, so it makes you happy)
She must stick to safe professions. After all, who would want to arrange a marriage with a girl who is an astronaut or archaeologist or wildlife researcher? (Women in these professions don’t marry and don’t procreate, apparently)
Travelling on your own? Are you mad? No!
Travelling with just another girl for company? So unsafe- No way!
Travelling with a boy? Oh god, who would marry you after that?!!
You could get away with being mean, selfish or just plain evil. But. If you, by any chance, happen to not be a virgin…That will be the end of any dreams of a decent marriage that you might be harbouring (there, everything boils down to the M word)
If reading all this makes you think, damn, it must be really sad being born a girl in this part of the world- bang on! In some remote places, the female child is only taboo.
Well, it is difficult. But we still manage to trudge on. Looking pretty, with a smile on the face. A thousand dreams shattered, ten thousand others left undreamed. But we will always hope 🙂 That, thankfully, isn’t taboo yet.

Rishikesh!!

This was a trip that happened in November 2013. This article was published in a magazine named Mesmeric in February 2014. But how can we let the story be without posting it on the blog, I say!

We had been planning a trip to Rishikesh ever since a friend extolled the various adventure sports the hilly town offered. Fortunately or not, the adventure began the moment we stepped off the Dehradun Express onto the tiny, quaint Haridwar railway station. It was 5 am, and we felt invisible wave after wave of chill welcome us, numbing us to the bones. We watched our breaths form wisps of vapour as we spoke, and felt, with astonishment, scalding hot tea cool quicker than it took to make it.

The ride to Rishikesh  was uneventful, with none of us falling out of the rickety rickshaw that we had hired for the 30 minute long journey. My first impression of Rishikesh was how early the town awoke. It was barely 6 am, and freezing, yet we watched on as crowds fearlessly dipped into the Ganges, going about their daily ablutions. We stood on the shore, watching the sun rise over the river, the rays pushing the mist away with supreme effort. And as we gaped, the warmth enveloped us, bringing the smiles back to our faces. We breakfasted on hot parathas and bhatures before being transported to our camp site, where we would stay for the following three days. The camp was nestled amidst a valley, between mountains, a river flowing through the flat land, with a little bridge over it. Just like pictures we once drew in art class in school, like a friend rightly pointed.

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Day 1 was reserved for settling in and acclimatization. Cheered by the warmth, we enthusiastically agreed to a trek to a waterfall, which did not look too frightening until we slid into the pool. The cold water shocked us, and our howls were drowned (literally) by the whoosh and patter of the waterfall. Rocks surrounded us, with trees and shrubs growing on any surface that would allow existence. As we slipped and swallowed mouthfuls of sweet, virgin water, and held hands and dunked our heads into the pool at the count of three, we laughed, like we hadn’t, in a long while. Our laughter must have made us seem like a bunch of juvenile school kids- but at that moment, I must say, that was exactly how we felt.

Our guide egged us into another trek that evening, after we had eaten our lunch and had enough time to look around and befriend the dogs in the camp. As we walked further into the forest, the trail slipping in and out of sight, covered by undergrowth, he terrorized us with tales of bears and leopards lurking in the mountains. By the time it was 5 pm, by when the sun had set, we were back to our shivering selves- out of cold or fear, we knew not. We were surprised with a bonfire in the camp, with a boy-band from the town playing Bollywood music in their shiny guitars that reflected the light from the fires. Urged by the musicians, we sang and danced, as our voices and claps unshackled old inhibitions, and got us grinning like children once again.

The adventure sport arena is well seasoned in Rishikesh. Every street has a kiosk offering every mountain adventure sport that one can imagine- from rafting to kayaking, from rock climbing to the ultimate adrenalin rush- bungee jumping. And that was just what we set out to do on our second day at the camp.

We headed to India’s highest Bungee jump point (boasts of a height of 83 meters) and were briefed about the sport.  The jump cost Rs 2500 plus a lot of courage from our part. From the beginning until I leaped, I was given just one piece of advice- Never, ever look before you leap. I vividly remember walking down the little bridge to the jump station, where my feet were harnessed, and I had rope-gear around my torso. A Swiss instructor who introduced herself as Martina briefed me about the jump, but I only remember a lot of butterflies fluttering in my stomach, and causing me a lot of fright. ‘Just jump right?’ I asked, finally, and she nodded with a thumbs up. I penguin-walked to the dive board, fixing my eyes only on the only view I was allowed- a mountain a few hundred meters away. ‘Three,  two, one…BUNGEE’ the team yelled and I jumped without a second thought. In slow motion I watched the mountain as I went down, details of the vegetation which I can still vividly remember. I was waiting for the jerk in my feet, my breath locked in my chest, when I was suddenly buoyed up by air pressure.  Gravity won, and as I floated down, I was buoyed up once again. By now I was able to breathe and let out my first whoop- I had never felt more alive! Many happy yells later, I found myself dangling above the river, face first, and was pulled down and released by the support staff. One more item checked off my bucket list!

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The next day dawned with the promise of the second best sport (In my opinion) that Rishikesh boasted of- Rafting on the Ganges. Apparently, this was where the ‘Dar kea age jeet hai’ Mountain Dew advertisement was shot. We were told that we could choose the distance- 9 kms, 14 kms or 26 kms. We unanimously agreed on the 26 kms long option, and were promptly introduced to Kalyan Negi, our instructor for the next couple of hours. We were given lifejackets and helmets, and briefed about the safety precautions that we had to keep in mind. Kalyan assumed that it was his prime responsibility to push us to our extremes, and the first command he gave us was that we jump off the raft, holding onto a single rope that he aptly called the ‘life line’. The next sentence he uttered was ‘Are you jumping or do I push you in?’ and we instantly knew it was going to be a crazy ride ahead. So in we jumped, and were pulled back in,

as we approached the rapids. Incidentally, the rapids are named and classified into grades according to how dangerous they are. We hit 9 such rapids, and it was never smooth sailing! After being drenched, nearly drowned, escaping a whirlpool, jumping into the river a few more times and laughing and yelling ourselves hoarse, we sullenly watched the ride come to a close.  All good things, like they, always need to come to an end!

As we reached our camp and lazed around, having packed our belongings, waiting for our cab to take us back into the town, we reminisced about how much prodding some of us needed to book tickets for this trip. Office, deliverables, leaves, clients, targets- third party issues which we might not even remember in a few years’ time might have kept us away from such a memorable experience- had we allowed them to. We quietly sat on the riverbank, watching birds we had never laid eyes on in the city, as the conversation trickled away, and quiet set in. As I type this, I still hear the music of birdsong and the river’s gurgle, forever fresh in my ears.

.Photo Credits- Yuvaraj

Oh and here is my crazy jump video- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rq2PbslAbZc