I was sitting in a tiny motel under an array of tube lights, on edge of the road in Gola ka baans, when a couple of middle aged men arrived on their bicycles. Motel had just one long table, so they joined on the other end as I was trying to finish my meal. After few minutes of talking among themselves, suddenly one of them noticed me checking my phone.
“You don’t seem to be from here. Are you guest at someone’s place here?” asked the seemingly oldest man of the group, in his rough heavy voice as he inhaled his local smoke joint and blew it off in air.
I kept silent. I didn’t know how would a local react if I say “I’m attempting to enter the fort in a couple of minutes”. I was scared. So, I thought, may be talking about it could reduce the fear a bit. Or, may be he could tell me how to do it. I voiced my thoughts and started explaining why I was there and what I wanted to do.
“Have you gone nuts? Just last week a man was found dead near the fort. However, finding people dead around Bhangarh is no surprise. You can come with me. I live a few kilometres from here, and you can stay with me in night. Come back in morning and see whatever you want (in the fort). These are just stories. What if there are some animals? Don’t be stupid!” he said in strong voice of disagreement, compressing his big-grey-eyebrows in to his wrinkled forehead. “Someone explain him.”
Now, whole group of five joined in the conversation. Another guy, who could speak English and was a respected member in the group, started explaining “The fort was built in 16th century. So, none of us really know what is in there. Someone called Bhagwan Das got it built and then after many years, it was suddenly abandoned. All are stories. Some talk of black magic, some talk of curse. You are an engineer, perhaps a man of logics-facts-experiments, I believe. We are small, illiterate people. I know, whatever we say right now, is not going to impress you. I personally do not believe there is anything there. But, I never thought about going there in night, either. And I believe, not many even in this village did that. There are stories we are told by elders since our childhood, so, we cared less about repeating the fate of the dead of those stories. As he said (pointing towards the older man) people die regularly here. More often, the cause is not known. But, I’ll be honest. No one knows, what they are saying when they talk about the place. I know the guards there. I was involved in repairs a couple of years ago, I used to do welding then. If you want to get in, take along something, may be a bottle, and tell them you are my friend. They will help” he said in his utter calmness and smile. “This is your life. You are more sensible than any of us. You have family waiting back at home. I’m not sure they even know you are doing this – because they would have never sent you here, then. Think. This is your decision. We are here to offer all the guidance you need. We want you to be safe, and work for country.”
The review of the plan was mixed. I was asked to make the final call as the group was ready to set off after their tea and samosa. I was done with my dinner, the night was getting breezy, it was close to 8.00 pm already, and I was confused. I decided to stay. The group left with final words “Remember, you were warned!” The motel closed down in couple more minutes, and there was no one on the road now.
Three kilometres away from Bhangarh, I was looking for a liquor shop in the middle of the night, to purchase a bottle of whiskey! Since I had never got an alcoholic drink ever before, I was blank when the seller asked what brand I wanted. I stood still, he kept waiting. Perhaps, he was thinking I was already too drunk to name. And he started giving options “Blender, McDowell, Royal Stag, DSP, Aristocrat… ?”
We kept looking at each other. “Which one is cheapest and doesn’t taste bad?”
After some probing, we agreed on DSP. 250 rupees (USD ~4.00) for a big bottle of whiskey. That was expensive, I thought. My dinner costed one-fourth the amount. But, that was the small amount to be paid, for the big adventure.
I was back on the road to Bhangarh, and it was obscurely dark now. There were some lights flickering behind my back, but absolutely nothing in front. Few eyes were shining under the light of my headlamp. Those were dogs’. They were jumping in excitement, barking, trying to grab a piece of flesh off me and I had nowhere to run. After a couple of stones thrown at them, they ran away and I decided to walk rest of alleyway with a thick cane. There are a lot of abandoned houses on the way to Bhangarh. Daytime was still a bit lively, but, it was dead in the night.
As I was getting closer, I heard sounds of loud music with drums. Coming from far, very far distance. It was echoing everywhere. The sound of music appeared to be coming from the direction I was moving. Stories tell Bhangarh comes alive in the night. People have claimed to hear loud music from the fort. Was I another one added to that list? My heart was racing. After hours of gruelling struggle in my head, I reached the gate of Bhangarh. It was locked. Faint sound of music was still audible; now direction was not known. It was everywhere.
Apparently, there were few who noticed my headlamp from far, and they were charging at me from other end of the fort. The two dogs on the other side of steel bars alerted the guards – they had an intruder. Quickly, the priest from the temple and other guards joined and asked me to leave, denying to answer any of my questions.
I had a quick conversation with Dattaram (one of the guards, name changed) and explained to him what I needed. The door to the epic graveyard was open now. Some inexplicable exchanges later, they agreed to let me in.
“We can not allow you to enter the main fort. No one has permission for that. You can see around the ruins, but, you will stay with us all the time. Leave whatever you have – bag, camera, phone – here on the gate. But, why did you come alone?”
“Would you have allowed if I had come with a bunch of drunk friends in a jeep?”
All of us laughed and continued talking, which was more friendly now. They offered me a drink, but, I made one on my own. The honey water. The night was cloudy, warm, humid and now silent. With three big aluminium torches, three of us began the walk with the two dogs towards the ruins. The dogs were friendly, but, they were walking way too close – often brushing their body across my bare legs every other minute which was eerie. The night was so silent, that I had to stop walking and breathing frequently to hear other sounds properly. As soon as we reached the outer ruins of small houses, both the dogs ran away in dark – back towards the temple. At first, I was happy that they ran away. But, a few seconds later I thought “Why did they run away?”
As guards were sharing their creepy experiences in these ruins, and spotting tiger once, I suddenly saw a few shadows at a far distance on my right, under my flashlight. I stopped, called for guards to follow me, and quickly ran towards those people. A few tens of metres in, I realized, I could hear the sound of just my footsteps. I looked back at once, “I missed them. Yes!” I called softly for their names, but no one answered, so I continued towards the place where I saw those people. Those were dark shadows, that were not moving. Half walls, made of stacked rocks. Those were not people, but half walls, almost the size of a human.
I kept following that trail, and it leads me to the market, near the infamous Dancer’s Haveli. Stories talk about how the city comes alive in the night, people are there in the market at night and music is being played in dancer’s haveli. All I could find was dead silence and some very frightening feeling. I could feel my heartbeat in the throat, I was drowning in sweat, gut was constantly telling me to go back and search for the guards, but I wanted to continue to walk.
During the day, in ruins opposite to Modo-ki-haveli, I heard people talking, even when no one was there. So, I decided to visit there again and check – what was that. I was still by myself, and now I didn’t want to be spotted by guards for as long as possible. I turned off my torch and was walking in dark. A couple bumps on rocks, falls in bushes, scratched face on hanging roots of trees, glasses falling on ground thrice and 10 minutes later, I reached Modo-ki-haveli. A deep breath and I began walking inside the haveli opposite to it, very slowly, making no sound – ensuring nothing goes unnoticed. I heard nothing. I turned on the torch for a couple of seconds and looked around. The place was far less scary in dark than with the lights on. And it was much cooler than anywhere else, with an uncommon breeze. I was almost shivering.
As I turned around to walk outside, the sounds began. I could hear someone talking in very low-hissing voice. One of the sounds appeared to be of a woman, which was louder. But, what were they trying to say, was still beyond my understanding. The sound was so faint, that I had to stop breathing to dig my ear deep to hear it. I called again if anyone was there – but, no one answered.
Now breathing heavy, scared, with an austere feeling that I might die, I quickly turned my flashlight on and started running towards the market. I didn’t look back this time, just kept running straight towards the market; I thought I’ll find the guards somewhere around there. I was still looking for them while walking through the infamous market, but they were not visible. The market looks pretty okay in the night, but not the havelis following that. Almost all of them were much cooler than outside, none had a roof, and nothing was visible even under my flashlight. In a couple of minutes, I was at the gate of The Fort.
Bhangarh Fort was standing tall, in all its might, on the other side of the bars and it was nothing less than a jaw-dropping nightmare. The banyan trees spread all around the walkway, the huge gate, the broken walls and oddly stacked rocks. It had everything to make me think over and over about “Remember! You were warned.” I could no longer stop thinking about that. All the stories I had read before coming here, the conversations I had since morning and words of guards were flashing in my head like a movie looped in fast forward. I could see rabbits running on the ground, monkeys jumping on trees, snakes crawling, things flying past my eyes and back of the head – that were not there. I was actually hallucinating in panic and crashed on the ground for a minute or two (or maybe more?) to relax, gain my senses back and decide what to do next. The gate had a huge lock, so, it was not possible to enter the fort. The gate is at least 20 ft high, and I did not want to break in.
After recuperating, I decided to walk back to the main gate. It was a struggle. I was feeling like throwing up, I could feel my heart beating in my head, all my senses were in the super-alert zone. While walking back, I saw a domed structure. Thinking it as a temple, I removed my shoes and walked in to check. Did I miss that during the day? It was very small, damp, smelling of a dead rat, and everything inside was dark – with some black sesame seeds and red coloured powder strategically placed on a corner. The corner had some drawing on the wall as well. I quickly stepped back and put on my shoes only half and continued to walk towards the outer ruins.
I am an atheist, but, I was praying to all gods inside of my head to see guards on next corner. But, tonight, I seemed to have no luck. A couple of minutes later and few metres out of the main market, unexpectedly light flashed in my eyes and I was blindsided.
“There you are! We were looking for you for past two hours. Where were you? We were so scared if something has happened to you.”
They were mad at me and I was smiling in relief. Probably, that made them angrier, that’s why they continued to scold a couple more minutes. But, did they actually mean two hours, or was that just frame of speech? I was lost for just half an hour, I told myself.
“What’s the time?”
“Half past midnight. We have to sleep as well, and your circus is not ending. 10 minutes you had said. Where are you staying? Sirsa Devi?”
The sound of loud music was coming from Sirsadevi Temple, almost seven kilometres walk away from Bhangarh. They had some rituals going on, and there was no more music as we approached the main gate.
“I have a hotel booked in Dausa, so now I will run back.”
I spent a couple more minutes with guards, where I explained what all I did inside, collected my stuff and headed out of the gate. Here, the mathematics was not fitting well. My estimate calculations were telling me, I spent close to 40 minutes on my own – away from guards. But, the clock said – we started our walk at 10.15 pm, we walked together for a couple of minutes and then got separated. I saw them again after 12.30 am. So, the clock said I was lost for 1 hour and 45 minutes. I kept repeating my calculations throughout my way back and answer stayed the same. Four years later, I still do not know how long did I actually spend there.
The highway was dark. Darker than you can ever imagine. There was no light whatsoever. I had limited water in my bag, and I was 30 km away from my hotel.
“So, if I keep moving at a decent pace, I will reach Dausa at break of dawn. Not too bad. I will sleep for a few hours, will head to Alwar, then Sariska Tiger Safari and reach Jaipur by night. Cool!”
I tightened the strap of my Camelbak and started to run on the only reflective section of the road. The White Line on the left side of the road. I used to run on the white line, and wherever it was missing, I used to walk. Two kilometres in, I was struggling to focus on the run. In my head, I was still petrified in fear, almost hallucinating, heart had not stopped racing in past 5 hours, and those hissing voices had found abode in my ears. I could not stop thinking about it. I kept walking slowly for an hour when I suddenly felt sole of my shoe was breaking from the toe. I could feel something inside.
I stopped, seated myself on distance marker and removed my left shoe. As soon as I untied the laces, and pulled down the heel to take my foot out, something rushed out of the shoe and fled away. Under my toe, there was a slimy crushed tail, that smelled ridiculous. My shoe had a lizard inside! The lizard had fled away, leaving the tail behind. I was walking for hours with a lizard in my shoe. WHAT!!???
I threw up. A couple of times. Bursting into tears, I didn’t want to do this anymore. I wished, either I must have died in Bhangarh or should have gone with those dinnertime peers or should have never come here. I was warned! But, that was no place to stop. I was out of the water and I was still good 20 km away. I was never going to make it. Half a kilometre later, I turned left from Andhi and saw a couple of vehicles moving towards me. I should not point my flashlight in their face, so, I pointed the flash at myself instead as I waved.
A grey-haired guy, dressed in a white t-shirt, waving while lighting himself in middle of nowhere on the darkest possible road. I didn’t realize how scary could that sight be for someone driving on that road. No one stopped! I kept walking at a miserable pace, when I saw a jeep parked on road, with someone sleeping inside it. As I flashed my light inside, the man woke up quickly and asked if I wanted to go somewhere.
“Dausa. How much will you charge?”
“Don’t worry. Come in, I’ll drop you.”
I jumped in the jeep, and he started the engine. Instead of going straight, he turned left inside an open ground and parked in front of his home.
“Will you have something?”
“Maybe a glass of water. But, please do quickly I am really tired and I have to reach Dausa.”
He went inside. His son came out, with a glass of water, and a plate of rice with some dal. I was shocked. He, then, came out with a glass of milk/lassi while eating same rice and dal, and seated himself on driving seat.
“Could you please tell how much do you charge? And I can’t take this from you …” I reiterated in unrest while handing him the rice plate.
“You look nice man. Give whatever you feel is okay.”
“Come on, please tell me. I have a limited budget.”
“2500 will be okay.”
I blew out all the water in my mouth laughing. This was not happening. I bargained for a while, and he slashed no further than 1200. I alighted, thanked for water and continued to walk with my right hand stretched out. This was getting miserable with every moment. In my head, I was still trying to figure out, what was scarier – walking inside Bhangarh Fort, where I was scared of some invisible ghosts, or walking on a highway in the middle of the night, where I was scared of humans I could see.
Suddenly, a white Omni stopped next to me. The glass dropped, and a man with a grey beard, black long hair, glasses and white kurta, was peeping out from the driver’s seat
“Where will you go?”
“Come in. We are going there, we can drop you.”
White Omni. A big man with long black hair driving, in middle of the night, offering a ride to a stranger in the middle of nowhere. He is going exactly the same place where I am. This could not get any weirder. Until he opened the door. Inside, an old man was sitting on the right, and a young boy, in his late teens, on left. On his left, there was a child, sleeping. In front, other than the driver, a lady was sitting who was peeping back. The young boy had a big creepy grin on his face, and before I could think whether or not to board the car, he pulled me in and slammed the door.
The car was now moving fast on the highway, the old man and the boy were staring at me continuously. The boy had a fixed creepy grin, which was way too discomforting. I had forgotten everything about Bhangarh, and now was praying to get out of the vehicle alive. Suddenly the driver took off the highway, saying he has to visit somewhere quickly and pick one more person up, and then they will continue. At 3 am, seriously? He parked the car in front of a huge lit tent, got down and ran away in hurry, leaving us behind.
The lady in front turned back and smiled. This was getting unbearable, I thought of getting down and running away, but I didn’t know where was I. To check, I took out my phone, and turned to Google maps to know where was I. No signals! Soon, the driver returned with another man, over six feet tall, dressed in a kurta, dhoti, huge turban with a thick bamboo cane in his hand. He entered and seated himself next to the old man on my right. Now, we were seven in the car – I was trapped in a car, with a sleeping child (who was kidnapped?) and five creepy humans. The boy on the opposite was still looking at me and smiling when the woman in front asked a couple of questions – starting with my name and what I do
“My name? My name is Aman. Aman Singh. I work with Rajasthan Police and was here for the survey. And I will have to submit my report tomorrow morning. I was sending them my location just now, they keep regular track of where I am and what I do” I spoke hesitantly while randomly tapping on google maps screen of my phone, pretending, if they do any harm to me, they can not escape. “I am staying at a hotel, where I still work part-time” pretending that I am a local and know of the road and Dausa.
I kept talking, making random stories and the boy kept looking at me – with the constant grin. Soon, we reached Dausa, and the man dressed in white got down and ran away. I open the door from my end as well to get out, but, the driver stopped me. “I’ll drop you further in.”
The man in white returned, said something to the driver, seated himself back in, and we continued. I could see the police outside. This white-dressed man was speaking to police. Bloody hell. Am I caught? Is police involved with them too? Should I call out to them for help? Before I could think any further, the driver raced the car further in dark streets of Dausa. I was helpless, could not speak anything and in my head I was sure, my end was near. The guy was still looking at me and smiling. A few minutes later, the driver stopped the car in front of Dausa Railway Station.
“Your hotel is right across this street. I think you can walk. 20 rupees should be enough.”
That’s it? No one is killing me? The people in front were a couple, the kid sleeping at the back was their son. The tall man in the white dress was the brother of the woman, who went outside to check for buses and was supposed to take back the car. The family was travelling to Mahakumbh in Allahabad. The old man was a mere passenger, like me, who lived in Dausa. From Railway Station, they were supposed to catch the train now.
What about the laughing Buddha, I mean the smiling boy? We walked near the railway station and found a hawker selling parathas with the pickle. We seated ourselves there and began eating when the smiling boy finally remarked – he was a police services aspirant. In a couple of hours, on this Sunday morning, he had to take written exam in nearby Central School. He was supposed to follow the same process that got me, Aman Singh, the job. He had tons of questions to ask on how to prepare, kind of questions asked in the exam-interview-physical exam, and he was continuously smiling to show respect and get his questions answered. I had blown up. I knew of NDA selection process, so, to continue the lie, I recited the same process and sneaked away. I still feel sorry for messing with that kid and sincerely hope, he cracked his exam and now serving for Rajasthan Police Services. My intention was just self-defence, to manufacture a lie to random people, who looked dangerous to me.
Bhangarh was a journey, which is hard to put in words. By now, I hope you know what I mean. I can not explain how a colour red looks, to someone who has never seen any. Same are experiences, you can not explain them what you truly felt unless they are in your shoes – with a lizard inside them. Alive! Bhangarh will continue to stay a special place for me for many reasons. It was my first near-death experience. On top of that, it was my first exploration conquering my limits.
Despite all these experiences, I strongly believe and propagate, Bhangarh is not haunted and should be treated with equal respect as any other historic monument. It is an architectural marvel lost in time and need to be left the way it is, with no superficial repairs and constructions. Bhangarh has a legend which has survived over four centuries, that means, it is here to stay. Some sections of ruins are uncommonly colder; yes I heard voices there; I still do not know where I lost that one hour; I still do not know if black magic is real; I still do not know what people are doing when they leave those scary red murals on walls with saffron, sesame seeds, flowers and god knows what, next to it; I still do not know what’s there inside of that burrow; I still do not know why so many people die there; I still do not know if all those were hallucinations or reality (remember, I had not slept the last night and I ran close to 70 km and then had a bad meal); I still do not know why whenever I close my eyes in some dark place, I see myself standing at the gate of the fort – as if a part of me was left there, that night. All I know is I was there, I experienced certain things – out of which I can explain a few, and can just smile on most.
Now, this is the moment of truth. If you look at the old pictures of Bhangarh closely, they do look scary. An abandoned fort, with so much of overgrowth of trees and bushes over centuries, half walls that look like humans from far and the rule of ASI, which is valid for just any other monument, that no one is allowed to enter at night due to security reasons, is bound to become word of mouth when people visit such places after listening to well-crafted stories of their peers. The overgrown banyan trees do look scary and when they mix with ruins, it is a perfect disaster. Historians say, the Fort lost its battle against Mughals and later was left abandoned due to the shortage of water when king moved to Jaipur.
Moreover, Bhangarh is virtually a part of Sariska Tiger Reserve. Thus, tigers, hyenas, chitals and jackals visit the vicinities of fort often, and there have been a few cases when tigers have been killed a couple of kilometres away by villagers. Monkeys flee away from the fort in the night. Dogs ran away as well. Is the active wildlife of the region a reason behind such behaviour of animals? Or, they can sense what we easily miss out on? Closing the access to Bhangarh Fort is more of a necessity rather than forcefully imposed restriction for the security of visitors. No place would want to be known as a graveyard for tourists.
So many people die there. Do people learn with time, that legend of Bhangarh could be a perfect spot to kill someone and death to be declared super-natural? Locals claim, more than 80% of deaths go unreported. Fiction of one generation becomes a legend or historic fairy-tale for next. Was Bhangarh one such plot of fiction of medieval times, which was adapted as a reality and portrayed in its current form by prophets with shallow knowledge? I am no archaeologist, or historian, or philosopher. I’m not even a researcher, journalist, writer or filmmaker. I am just a curious man, who loves to run the places. Until February 2013, I didn’t even know Bhangarh existed. It was the search of the finish line of my dream project, The Taj Mahal Marathon (which was blown up), that took me there. I read a few stories about the place before visiting there, but I was not carrying pre-conceptualized notions or stories with me when I visited in March 2013. This, now, surprises me when I see a few cross-linkages between my experiences and some of the others’ – who visited at different times, had never met me and I am writing these in 2017.
In conclusion, I would urge my every reader to visit this beautiful place with a completely open mindset. Not as a place which is infamous for being haunted for centuries, but a place which was crafted by many artisans with so much of love and craft reflected in carvings in temples and some sections of the fort. If you abandon your room for a decade, that will look haunted. So, is Bhangarh Fort. Having said this, I will never dare again to visit the place in the night.
Om Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.
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Note: Here are some of the old pictures of Bhangarh that does make it look haunted even during the day. All the above pictures are property of Archeological Survey of India and have been taken from their website.