Local guides describe it as the second longest, continuous wall in the world after the Great Wall of China. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site that circumscribes hundreds of ancient temples, palaces, and endangered wildlife within its ramparts. In spite of these superlatives, the impressive bastions of the Kumbhalgarh Fort border on obscurity in tourism-saturated Rajasthan. Eighty kilometres north of Udaipur, cresting the peaks of the Aravallis, this fort is one of 32 built in the fifteenth century by Maharana Kumbha, the Rajput ruler of the Mewar kingdom.
If the fortress can inspire awe even in these jaded times, it must have been a really formidable sight for a medieval traveller. After traversing a landscape punctuated by wild forests and lakes, it suddenly materialises, crowning the summit of a hill. It is the highest elevation in Rajasthan, after Mount Abu, with a thick wall encircling it like a python.
It’s evident that the Maharana’s aesthetic sensibility favoured unabashedly big, bold, and beautiful structures. Ram Pol, the fort’s main gateway towers overhead, the palaces are perched at lofty heights, and even the footrests of the Indian-style toilets inside are so wide apart that a grown man would have to strain to squat comfortably. But nowhere is his personal style more flamboyantly displayed than the crenellated ramparts that weave whimsically through remote Aravalli forests for an astonishing 36 kilometres. They wind around the rim of the hilltop enclosing a large expanse of wooded hillside. Outside this perimeter, plunging down the hill into the deep valley below, are the dense jungles of Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, where wolves, leopards, and panthers reign.
The Archaeological Survey of India has restored 15 km of the original wall, and in an ill-considered moment of enthusiasm I decided to walk this stretch with a guide. The wall begins at Ram Pol. Then as it wanders off into the surrounding wilderness, the fort disappears from view. The wall is supported by nearly 30-foot-high boulder-shaped buttresses; it varies in thickness from 15 to 25 feet and historical accounts claim that eight horsemen could ride it astride.
I think about the many fantastic walls that rulers have had constructed on Earth to physically delineate their borders. The Great Wall of China runs along the south of the vast country, while Hadrian’s Wall cuts across England, defining the fringes of the erstwhile Roman Empire. Giant walls have served multiple purposes— monitoring border activities, protecting vast realms, and intimidating and thwarting enemies. But building such a large protective boundary around a single fort was unheard of. The massive wall at Kumbhalgarh took nearly a century to construct and made the fort virtually impregnable.
Understandably, the proud and prickly neighbours of the Kingdom of Mewar might have viewed the fortification as a direct affront. So when news of an impossible fortress reached Emperor Akbar in India’s north, he likely felt the need to prove a point. Forces from Delhi, Amer, Gujarat, and Marwar, however, failed to penetrate the bastion and had to allegedly enlist a traitor to poison the fort’s internal water supply. It is believed that Akbar later returned the fort to its rulers.
So technically, the wall has never been vanquished. I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of the poor soldiers ordered to find a chink in the stony facade lined with arrow-slits and (now disengaged) booby traps. Viewed from the outside, the wall appears well-nigh impossible: It looks impossible to reach without modern transport systems, impossible to breach, and is impossibly awe-inspiring.
The masons who built Kumbhalgarh’s ramparts, which is shorn of the symmetry we expect of modern boundaries, did not take the easy route. It embraces every bump, pit, plummeting valley, and cliff face along the way. Walking along the manic path, I had spectacular views and unique perspectives of the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. But my favourite part remains the walk on the whimsical, stone-paved stretch with its sharp, 90-degree turns, as well as wide, sweeping bends. In parts, there is a steep 60-degree incline, alleviated only by giant steps that I could climb one at a time. I stopped often, ostensibly to savour the breathtaking views, but actually catching my breath.
It’s possible to complete the 15-kilometre circuit in the span of one day—if you have above-average fitness levels. But I was wheezing by the time I reached the four-kilometre mark, so I decided to throw in the towel and head back. Several shortcuts from the wall to the fort lead through the hillside. You have to hike through the undergrowth and this is where my guide really came in handy. The two of us made our way back following a half-hidden, narrow trail, which I’d never have found myself.
There are an estimated 360 Hindu and Jain temples within the periphery of the wall. We passed several of these ornate monuments while walking through the woods. Most of them were shut, protected by big, rusty locks and standing undisturbed and forgotten, not unlike Kumbhalgarh itself. As the sun began to sink, we emerged from a copse and in the distance, could see the garrison again. The sky had turned a luminous pink and in its soft glow, the fortress wore an ethereal aura.
Kumbhalgarh is 80 km from Udaipur. The fort is open to tourists throughout the year, but the best time to visit is after the monsoon when the hillsides are awash with green. There’s a light-and-sound show in Hindi every evening, after which the fort remains floodlit for 15 minutes, looking dazzling under the inky sky (daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; entry₹10; light-and-sound show daily 7.30 p.m.; entry ₹75 weekday, ₹100 weekend). Every January, the Rajasamand district administration organises an annual heritage walk along the fort’s ramparts (www.kumbhalgarhfortwalk.com).
For the more adventurous, early winter is a good time to undertake the Kumbhalgarh-Ranakpur trek through the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. This is a moderately easy, downhill trek that can be done in 3-4 hours. All hotels in Kumbhalgarh arrange guides for day trips; you can also enquire near the Kumbhalgarh Fort ticket counter (approx.₹400 per day).