A local guide at Kumbhalgarh Fort in Rajasthan, India, leads ME to WE travellers on an adventure in history.
By Katie Hewitt
Photography by Sara Cornthwaite
Salim Khan stands 30 feet tall atop the imposing rampart that’s protected Kumbhalgarh Fort for centuries. The man himself, a slight 43-year-old, accounts for just under six of those feet, but right now he is a giant. He watches the wall stretch out and shrink like a railroad track disappearing on the horizon before winding back around into view, enclosing the fort grounds. The distance, hazy with late-afternoon sun and dust, looks like a painted movie set, all blue sky, white clouds and bits of castle climbing a mountain ridge. The wall itself is a feat of manual labour so impossible that it seems unreal.
Salim is a local guide for ME to WE Trips , escorting guests along the second-longest wall in the world, a 36-kilometre stone perimeter eclipsed only by the Great Wall of China. Built in the 15th century, it surrounds Kumbhalgarh Fort, a Mewari castle carved into Rajasthan’s Aravalli Mountains. Geography provided a natural barricade that made enemy breach unlikely and construction unforgiving, says Salim. The wall took 15 years to complete—by hand. Horses, camels and elephants were used to move construction materials. He offers these dates, distances and details eagerly and without pause.
“I know very well about this place,” Salim says. “Because I am born here.”
Salim shares his birthplace with Maharana Pratap, a 16th-century Rajput King of Mewar, known for thwarting attacks from the enemy Mughal Empire. One among a small population to have been born inside the fort, Salim is a descendant of its original inhabitants. Six centuries ago, Kumbhalgarh was a kingdom of 15,000 people, where imported tigers roamed for the Maharana’s amusement and elephants were his preferred mode of transportation. When the royal family moved to Udaipur in the 19th century, the court diminished. Today, only a small tin-roofed enclave lingers for the remaining 400 residents, including Salim’s own home, a nook in the vast stone fortress.
When Salim earned his guide licence 10 years ago, “it was very quiet,” he says. For a while, he watched his castle crumble, with parts in need of restoration. In 2013, the fort was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, unlocking more resources for what is now a global tourist hub. Though other guides travel in to accommodate the crowds, they don’t have the same history in their bones. Salim is one of only two guides who were born here.
Visitors come from all over India and all over the world to see Salim, the wall and the panoramic vistas of the Aravalli Mountains. He leads strangers through the 600-year-old fortress and its grounds, swinging from the vines of banyan trees and weaving baskets out of the leaves of trees called the “Flame of the Forest,” all the while rattling off historic facts and identifying local wildlife. He’s a walking encyclopedia, and a proud host.
WE asked Salim about his favourite spots to take ME to WE travellers when they visit the fort as guests in his home.
The Nine Gates of Kumbhalgarh
Cross through the fortified main gates, their doors fitted with spikes to deter enemies on the backs of elephants. Walk along the wall built 15 feet across, big enough for eight cavalrymen to ride abreast, and count the number of archways you pass under as you climb to the top. Pass through the oldest gate, now in ruins, to reach the fort’s exterior. From there, Salim will take you on a nature hike through Kumbhalgarh Forest, the king’s former hunting grounds and now a wildlife reserve.
The Flame that Never Dies
Inside the fort is a temple dedicated to Durga, the goddess of power, as old as the fort itself. In the temple is a flame watched by the same family for generations, burning for more than 600 years. Slip off your shoes and step inside the glowing walls to receive a blessing from Geeta Bai—she’s guarded the flame for the past 50 years. She took over watch from her mother-in-law, who took it over from her mother-in-law before. Women who marry into the family adopt this sacred responsibility, an eternal offering to Durga.
A Palace in the Clouds
“My very favourite place is the top,” says Salim. Affectionately called the Cloud Palace for its unobstructed views, the peak of the fort is also known as the crown atop the kingdom, more than one thousand feet above sea level. Breathe the mountain air and take in the splendour of the Mewar landscape, including the Aravalli Mountain Range, one of India’s oldest geological formations.
Echoes in the Queen’s Chambers
Herein lies a place of respite for ancient royalty. Fortress folklore says you can hear the ghosts of queens past if you close your eyes and listen closely. Whisper beside the stone walls and hear the echo reach the domed ceiling. Wait to hear the queen respond.
The Oldest Temple
The fort once contained 360 temples—300 Jain and 60 Hindu, says Salim. “Only 102 remain standing. The others fell down.”
From a vantage point along the 45-minute walk to the top, Salim will stop and point out a temple in the distance, separate from the rest. This Jain temple was built in the 2nd century B.C., Salim shares, and engulfed by the fort thousands of years later. Ancient history is re-lived by each new traveller who watches the shadows change in the setting sun.
Salim will wait for you here, he says. “I look forward to meeting you.”