I was silent and smiling as I moved out of Sariska Tiger Reserve with the forest ranger (behind the window) who was done with his shift and was heading back home now. We sat on the plank and began talking of tigers – tracking, naming process, best time of visit, their behaviour, relation with villagers and whole 12 year history of Sariska Tiger Reserve and Ranthambore. “Sariska is home to 9 tigers, leopards, hyenas, caracals, jackals, sambhars, nilgai, chinkara, langurs …”, a pack of deers crossed the road in jiffy “and yes, deers” he completed.
“Forest Reserve has fixed boundary for locals. But, animals know no boundaries. So, tigers, leopards, hyenas often visit villages to feed on the cattle, which is an easy hunt for them. There were 19 tigers here once, which was reduced to 0 as lot of them died, or should I say, killed by villagers or poached. More tigers were brought in from Ranthambore. I came with them and have been keeping a regular watch on them. All of them have GPS sensors connected, so it is easy to track them.”
A loud roar shook the whole landscape at once. “That is T22B. I saw him in the morning, after one week. He is oldest male tiger and super strong. Don’t worry, he is at least 2 km from here right now. But, if you are lucky, some day you may see him jumping across the road. That is quite a sight;. 14 feet from one toe to the other. One foreign tourist fainted last year, when she saw that” and we exploded in laughter. After missing three buses each in a row, we parted. He headed to Alwar and I continued my journey to Jaipur, to see my cousins.
Sariska Tiger Reserve occupies an area of 800 square kilometres (300 sq. miles). Bhangarh is roughly a part of tiger reserve and it is not uncommon to find them on hills of Bhangarh Fort.
Reaching Dausa on foot in middle of the day was tough. Bhangarh was still 30km away. I was in deep thoughts as I quickly had my lunch. I was about to finish, when cook of the restaurant came with manager and both seated themselves on opposite chairs.
“So, you’re going to Bhangarh. Whenever in doubt, ask for the way to Gola ka baans. That is closest village to Bhangarh Fort, just 3km away. My wife is from Gola and we visit there once every month…” and he continued to explain me the way through Google Maps. “Be back by dinner time” were last words of the manager as I left the hotel half past noon. I was a bit tired and heavy after the lunch.
In order to reach Gola Ka Baans, one first has to reach Sainthal Bypass. From there, one may choose to board a bus, fairly low frequency, or a jeep, that gives a real hard time to travel. Both cost the same. Other option, recommended, is to carry your own vehicle or hire one, which is easily available. Bypass was 5 km away from hotel, and Bhangarh was further 27 km from there. The day was really hot now, and I was being sandwiched between sun and hot sands.
Pigs, dogs, birds and passing vehicles staring at me were my only companions. With fairly warm water, I was in search of some water source, so I could replenish my supplies. I emptied the reservoir on my head, refilled it from a rare shop on the route and kept going at a faster pace now. Soon I reached Sainthal and then village Andhi. The road had no shade, was deserted with very little traffic, heat was sapping and soon after Andhi I had cramps in my right hamstring. I was under 10 km away from Gola, when I decided to board a jeep and rested myself on the roof. We were 24 people travelling in that 9 seater vehicle. I was being grilled on top with other five while rest were being roasted inside.
Gola is a fairly compact village compared to others on the way. Earmarked by some astonishing marble sculptures being carved out, village is not very clean and people are shy. They don’t speak much. That’s how whole of Rajasthan is. But, your every single movement is noticed silently. As I walked ahead of Gola, on the left I found a hoarding “Bhangarh – 3 km”. As soon as I took left, it exhibited fairly green but barren hills from far with a long straight road. There are quite a few houses on the way with little human life. A kilometre in, on left is the office of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) that has undertaken Bhangarh Fort as an ancient site. Next to gate, a hoarding was lying around that stated “Entering the borders of Bhangarh before sunrise and after sunset is strictly prohibited. Legal action would be taken against anybody who does not follow these instructions”. Little over a kilometre in, there’s a check post that’s set up to control the access by vehicles with suitable parking tickets, I believe. There was a makeshift hospital and a medical store as well, with all basic facilities required for few of common illnesses.
The moment I crossed the ASI office, a young boy followed me for a few meters and shouted “Fort? Here to see ghosts? Four guards are always there for security.” He kept moving forward, (un)dressed in his undergarments with clothes and towel in either hands.
“Yes! Only if they waited for me long enough.” I laughed. “What’s your say? You live here, have you ever seen anything?” To this he nodded and described some of the stories locals had about the place, popular ever since his father was born. Then he kept moving into the fields to do his business and I moved ahead. The temple of Sage Balu Nath on the top of the hill on right is visible from far and its visibility kept getting better as I moved. The location of the temple is unique, as if he’s still keeping an eye on every single movement. There have been various stories, about the place and the sage, that kept evolving in time like stem cell research, however, the plot, the characters and structure has stayed the same. The one story that has changed the least is “According to legend, the city of Bhangarh was cursed by the Guru Balu Nath. He allowed the construction of the town on one condition, ‘The moment the palace cast shadows on my place, the city shall be in ruins!’ When the descendant prince raised the height of palace by adding more floors, which eventually casted shadow on Balu Nath’s forbidden retreat, he cursed the town. Today, palace has two floors and ruins of the rest. Balu Nath is said to be buried in his grave inside temple to this day.”
There exists another myth. This is the legend of the Princess of Bhangarh, Ratnavati. She was believed to be the jewel of Rajasthan in those time. On her eighteenth birthday, she began to get offers of marriage from other regions (i.e. nobility). In the area lived a tantrik, a magician well versed in the occult, called Singhia, who was in love with the princess, but, knew that the match was impossible. One day, Singhia saw the princess’s maid in the market. He used his black magic on the oil she was purchasing, so that, upon touching it, the princess would surrender herself to him. The princess, however, seeing the tantrik enchanting the oil, foiled his plan by pouring it on the ground. As the oil struck the ground it turned into a boulder, which crushed Singhia. Dying, the tantrik cursed the palace with the death of all who dwelt in it. Following that, there was a battle between Bhangarh and Ajabgarh in which Princess Ratnavati perished with the kingdom. Legends says that there are ghosts in Bhangarh and that is why entry is prohibited for tourists in the fort after sunset and before sunrise. The locals believe that the princess Ratnavati has taken birth somewhere else, and that the fort and the empire of Bhangarh is waiting for her return to put an end to the curse.
Bhangarh – The devil’s playground
The moment I crossed the check post, there were eerie vibes of the place, crying out loud, a story that no one had understood. The place is extremely silent, that your own breathe and heartbeat begins to bother. 200 meters before the gate is marked as no access zone. On the right of the mark is an old well and temple that marks beginning of the ruins. These are the only structures in Bhangarh that are not as storied as every other brick behind those steel bars. Parking is roughly 500 meters before the main entrance. Light vehicles are often parked right outside that gate of the city, despite being clearly indicated that vehicles shouldn’t be accessed this close to protected monument.
Inches ahead through the gate, rooms of guards are visible on the either sides – well protected by steel bars, curtains and locks. A strong and long boundary corridors either sides of the city. The architecture of the outskirts of the city is well defined with over 30 feet structures that reflects adaptation similar to Rajputs and Chauhans. On the right side, ancient Hanuman temple with a single storeyed house is hard to miss. Moving further deep in the ruins, one witnesses a very organized structure of the city displaying tremendous planning and strength of engineering. The main passage to the palace is made entirely with stones and so are the houses on either sides.
If you look those ruins further close, you’d easily be able to distinguish between two different houses and rooms. Kitchen had always been an integral part of the room with the main furnace on one corner near entrance, allowing passage of smoke to move out. A common pattern is followed throughout the city with house varying from 1 room, to up to 3. Most of the houses look single storeyed, however, traces of stairs can be found almost on each of the destroyed structures. The taller structures were called havelis and belonged to the riches and devadasis.
I was the only one walking inside on the Saturday evening around 4pm. Gates of ruins close at 6, so I had two hours to explore as much as possible. As I moved further deep in the city, a passage tread through main market in front of Dancer’s Haveli leading the path to Bhangarh Palace. The palace begins on the foothill and it’s spanned to almost half of the hill with most of its structure hidden within the hill, out of reach of the visitors. A few believe Bhangarh fort holds a chamber full of gold underneath that has fumed those stories for long. “One who stays there after sunset has never returned dead or alive” is how people commonly know this place.
As I was exploring the city, and taking pictures, I saw a passage going further deep on my right towards two giant ruins. The one on right had no name, but left was engraved with “Modo ki Haveli”. Both were dark, burnt, rusted building made of rocks. As I was moving in Modo ki Haveli, I heard someone talking in hissing voice in the opposite building.
“Oh, I am not alone. I should speak with them” I said to myself as I moved in the opposite building. It was an open two storied burnt building with many rooms on all three sides. I was still hearing someone talking, but could not see anyone. “Hi! Is anyone here?”
No one answered. The voices stopped for a few seconds. I was looking for stairs when voices began again, slightly louder. I could not hear what exactly were the talks, but I knew someone was speaking. I ran out of the building, went on the backside – no one was there either. I ran back in, and there were no voices. I stayed there for 10 minutes, and throughout the time, hide and seek continued. I had no answer for this, a bit moved, I decided to continue my walk towards palace, with the first shock from the site. As I was trailing ahead, I kept on looking back at that weird building that was saying something I could not understand. And the fact that there was no one else around, did give me goosebumps. But, I thought – may be, it’s just me.
The fort has a three huge gates, only one is open to access. Temples on all three sides are believed to keep the palace blessed. The banyan trees on the walkway are really old and their overgrown prop roots give them a very scary appearance even in the day time. The fort, Gopinath temple on right, Rani Ratnavati’s palace on left and on walking further there is Someshwar Temple where queen used to offer here prayers to Lord Shiva, surrounds wide open green field. Temple also has pond that served as bathing grounds for the queen.
Gopinath temple has beautiful architecture with some of the nail-biting precision of sculptors. Gargoyles, ancient carvings, representation of old deities can be found on the walls outside. Inside, there is no idol of god! In the main temple area, broken carvings of Lord Ganesha are only blessed parts, if you can call one. Just as I was moving out, a mob of school students appeared out of nowhere who were excited to be there and wanted to get clicked. They were kids from nearby village on a small excursion to Bhangarh in evening. In daytime, fort is a good picnic spot will lush green open grounds and crazy number of langurs.
On the entrance to main fort campus, there is a tiny burrow in right which is said to be entrance to a hidden den. A few attempts to enter that cave were made in the past, before ASI declared that as restricted zone. Stories tell, that many years ago some people with a researcher tried accessing that cave, but they died. Some believe, all the treasure of the kingdom is still lying there preserved. But, no one knows the reality. Fort itself is very gloomy with beautiful architecture. There are many soggy corners that never receive any sunlight throughout the year, and stay uncommonly cold with scary feeling. Apparently, the fear of unknown comes to play.
The fort and the ground outside had many people, 50-60 in total, and most of them were set to leave as it was hot out there. By the time I reached the top of ruins, it was already 5pm. The fort closes at 6, and guards begin the evacuation process by 5.30pm. The top floor is all debris, as if something crashed on it and demolished everything. The condition make you believe, that first story of Guru Balu Nath, whose temple is visible on right hill, fits in the jigsaw. From the top, one can see whole mountain range which is a part of Sariska Tiger Reserve. Following the ridge, Tigers and Leopards, often enter the fort in summer, in search of water.
Meanwhile, as people were evacuating the fort, I decided to spend some more time in observing the debris. Bhangarh fort is guarded by a tall hill on West, so it gets dark very rapidly even before sunset. In excitement of exploration, I forgot which way I came upstairs. I was in near panic zone, when the clock hit 5.45 and I didn’t know the way to get down. The pathway I took upstairs was through many rooms and I had no memory of it. After struggle of nearly ten minutes, I found my way to second floor. I was walking through a really dark and cold walkway, and I was scared. I knew most of the people had left the fort and I was probably the only one in there. I took another wrong turn and I know I was in main balcony of the second the floor. On my right, I saw a weird mess of hindu rituals. Sindoor, long red and black cloth, black sesame seeds, turmeric powder (I presume through its yellow-orange color), marigold flowers and scented joss sticks with a lamp was spread around the wall. The wall had a black and yellow colored drawing that was hard to understand, but resembled Hanuman, the monkey god, or may be Bhairav. A picture of a man with hands in air and left knee lifted. I presumed Hanuman, because I didn’t want to think anything else. Bhairav is devil god of negative energies and known to be workshipped by practitioners of black magic.
My mother died on an uneventful evening of November in 2008 due to myocardial infarction (better known as cardiac arrest or severe heart attack – sudden death of heart muscles). Nights before she passed away, similar looking stuff was found on corner of our house everyday, which continued for a week. Instantly, for no reason I connected the dots to that event 5 years ago, and recalled the conversations surrounding her death – with elders, priests, and god knows who all. I am an atheist and do not believe in god, black magic, ghosts or devil. But, when you are alone and still psychologically recovering from a trauma that was impossible to bear, you fail to take an unbiased stand. I was confused, whether to go closer to check what exactly was that, or continue my way downstairs. I am brave and sincere, so, I did what any other human would have done there – continued my way downstairs saying “this is bullshit!”
In a jiffy, I was out of the fort and found a few young boys still resting there. The guard appeared from the main gate waving a long bamboo stick to shoo us away. I found a stick and joined the guard to shoo away the visitors. Supporting his abuses and rants, I initiated a conversation with and pretended to be a regular visitor. He lived there for over 30 years, so, of course he knew within seconds I was just another visitor. When I asked him about his experiences, he said “I have never seen anything. The repair work of fort was generally done in evening and early night hours and we had tough time keeping up with that. All people used to run away. They said – the city comes alive in night.” Exactly same were the stories I had heard from the guy in undergarments, who also mentioned that people claim to have listen to loud music from dancer’s haveli in night and sounds from the market outside.
The fort campus is full of rhesus macaques and langurs. Especially, Someshwar temple near Ratnavati’s palace, as there is a pond – where they play. Langurs in the picnic grounds feed on whatever they can steal from you. As sun was setting, and we were moving out while talking, monkeys followed us, through the gate. With approaching darkness, hundreds of them were flocking out of fort towards the city ruins – all at once. This was very weird and inexplicable sight for me, perhaps, a regular evening for the man dressed in white dhoti-kurta and a messed up turban on his dark-wrinked-skinny head with no hair.
Before, entering Bhangarh, I had stopped at ASI office for a while, where I met the ASI officer, who very openly shared the development and construction done in Bhangarh fort over past many years. A few of the sections are documented on ASI website, which can be found here. As I moved out of the city, a small boy, hardly seven-year-old hurried towards me with a glass of water. He was selling that for one rupee. My camelbak still had water, but I considered getting some more. Soon, his sister joined too and they had an elder brother too, near parking, who was selling cold beverages. As guard went back to the city, I began conversation with the elder brother in quickly fading light.
“Don’t they go to school? They are so young!”
He smiled. “You must be kidding! We don’t have enough money. We sell this, so we can procure dinner for us. My mother used to work, but she is sick now. So, we all have to work hard”
“He passed away five years ago. We live in nearby village, Ajabgarh. My father worked here. One day, he didn’t come home. He was found dead next afternoon on top of the fort, and his cycle was found around Sirsa devi Temple, a couple of kilometres away from Bhangarh. Sirsadevi Temple has dormitories. If you want, you can stay there tonight as there is no way to leave Gola Ka baans now. There are no buses or jeeps anymore.” My headlamp was lit now, and these kids left under the glow of a big flashlight the elder brother was carrying. I followed too. It was dark. Silent. Dead dark and silent. The sound of my shoes hitting the soft gravel was too loud. Every tiny sound, including my heartbeat was bothering me. Soon, I reached the ASI office, where the officer had left and two guards were there. The other two were at the fort, and these guys were supposed to join them shortly.
I came with a purpose. To enter the Bhangarh Fort in the night. I was already too scared by now, talking to different people and having seen some of the craziest crap in the ruins by myself. I was confused, was it worth the risk? Is the entry prohibited because of active wildlife, or Bhangarh actually holds some secret inside? Does the city really come alive in night? Are all those stories, spread across the globe for over a century, real? I just began to head towards ASI office, after finishing World’s most pathetic dinner, I heard sounds of loud music with drums. Coming from far, very far distance. It was echoing everywhere. Gola Ka baans residents are introverts and they don’t speak much. I was standing on the 3 km road that would take me to Bhangarh. The sound of music appeared to be coming from that direction. There was no light in sight as far I could see, apart from my head lamp. There were lot of lights, however, on my back. My heart was beating right in my throat, and I stood still outside ASI office. Frozen. Anticipating all that could go wrong. I was confused, petrified, tired, hungry, and half blind.
This was one of the defining moments of my life. What should I do? Catch some of the important pictures I took during the visit in the gallery below, while I pen down what happened next. One thing I assure, since I am writing this blog, I didn’t die!