India: Take to the Ramparts

 

Taragarh Fort is empty. The battlements stretch out across arid hills, they swoop and dive and peer stoically over the Rajasthani mountains in India. The blue homes of Bundi lie wedged in the valley below, but just beyond are the scrublands, the hidden waterfalls, and miles and miles of road. It is very easy to feel like you are at the top of the world, perched on this fort, feet braced against ancient sandstone. And it helps when there’s no one else around.

My friends and I have just made our way through Bundi palace. It is populated only by bats, monkeys, and one lonely photographer capturing the classic murals embedded deep in some quiet, dark halls. The click of sandals echoes against smooth palatial surfaces, and we must open and close noisy metal gates to keep the macaques from running amok indoors. Cobwebs claim the corners, guano slicks the steps. We begin to wonder how long ago people kept this castle.

Krishna dances with the gopis across the walls. Someone was here, long ago. Someone painted these pictures, and someone wanted them painted. People gathered at these walls and feasted in this palace, people walked the halls and climbed the stairs, slept in their beds and looked out at a dark, cloudless sky. People did all of these things once, but these days it’s just us and the ghosts.

In time, the quiet and the still grow too much and we make for the open air, climbing the hill beyond the palace to enter the fort. Brittle, dry brush lines the path and still more aggressive, seedy monkeys peer at us suspiciously from the slopes. Just outside the fort is a man renting sticks to fend off any tiny primate terrors. They are the royalty holding the throne in this era, and walking into the fort means invading their clever little fiefdom.

The fort, too, has seen better days, under better hands. The furry raja that now holds court high above the city has let nature retake much of this place. At first glance, looking over the high walls, at the water towers, at the ramparts and parapets, there is a feel of degradation, of entropy. Taragarh is slowly being swallowed back into the earth, as stones are reclaimed and grass seeps in through every crack. Few walk the battlements anymore, few peer from the crenels. This fort, this castle, belongs to the wild now.

And yet, it feels like it belongs to any who claim it. Paths reach out in every direction, great pools of water are housed in deep, cavernous stepwells. Field grass explodes across makeshift fields, thorny trees occlude pathways and footholds. There are no guides, nor any other people but for some local teenagers leading their own expeditions, like the orbits of distant planets. I separate from my friends and decide to find my own way. I pocket my compass and walk in any direction I desire.

There is disrepair and there are obstacles, but there is also clever construction and design that withstands the ages. I climb and fumble and perch, and sometimes I must scale a roof or scramble over rocks or pull myself onto the next path. Dust clings to my palms, my knees scuff and scratch. I walk down the steps to the wells and let my voice echo against the slope, I forge into every dark and cramped hall, I mount every obstacle and stair and perch. There is so much to see, so much to know, and I am free to explore. I find a tower to watch the sunset, to watch as the light fades over Bundi and this monument, this old house, this cracking and breaking and breathing thing. I direct my own passage, and I build new trails with every winding step.

I am a child again, and every blanket fort, every pillow tower, every ramshackle construction of cardboard and masking tape spills out before me. I am walking on history and I am walking on the ages; dirt and stone and brick move below my shoes. I am walking a living museum, greater than I could imagine, and I run so I can try to see it all, to understand its makers, to understand those who lived here. I am alone and I feel like I am resuscitating with my steps, that I am part of some resurrection through discovery. This place, its magnificence, its history, and all the hands that placed the stones, are waiting. They are quiet and patient. They need feet to walk their paths, and fingers to feel the brickwork, and mouths to do the telling.

About the Author: Michael Milne is a teacher and writer originally from Canada. He writes for Stupid Ugly Foreigner and can be reached on Facebook. He likes travel, karaoke, dragons, and ice cream sandwiches.

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