The story of Jaipur city begins with the magnificent medieval fort of Amber, just outside its city limits. Amber and the royal city of Jaipur built in the eighteenth century are a wonderful introduction to the desert kingdoms of Rajasthan. Lured by the romance and charm of these cities, many will yearn to see the more distant castles and palaces of Bundi, Bikaner, and Jaisalmer. They all have a special beauty concealed within their landscape (for they have been created out of local stone) and majestically embrace the hillside, jealously protecting their sand-dunes and barren dominion. They forts are so well camouflaged that their tall towers are barely visible from afar and their serene appearance gives no hint of the splendour and wealth to be found within the palace walls.
A lovely wooded road runs north of Jaipur (11 kilometers away), winding around the low hills and suddenly, quite unexpectedly, the fortified palace of Amber looms into view. It stands on a high terraced plateau at the foot of the south-west face of the Jaigarh Fort hill overlooking the Maota lake. The location is superb, surrounded as it is by low hills covered only with scrub and bushes, their ragged crests silhouetted against a never-ending line of fort walls and watch-towers. The history of this site goes back several centuries. It was inhabited by the Susawat Minas and then in AD 1106 the Kachhwaha clan occupied this territory when they moved away from central India.
The Kachhwaha claim their descent from Kush, the second son of Ram, the hero king of the epic poem Ramayana. Their divine descent is traced from the solar race or surya vamsha, and its fiery insignia appears on their banners and royal decrees.
The clan grew in strength and increased heir territorial control, and when Babur, the first of the Mughal rulers, staked his claim to the throne of Delhi the fortunes of the Kachhwahas changed dramatically. Bihari Mal, or Bihar Mal, made an alliance with Babur in 1527 and was appointed a mansabdar (a title which denoted a feudal relationship in which he could govern the territory and in turn offer a specified number of horses and horsemen for the emperors service whenever required). His daughter, Jodha-bai, was given to Akbar in marriage, and after the birth of an heir, Jahangir, the Hindu wife exercised great influence over the emperor. His son Bhagwan Das (Bhagwant Das) was selected as a high ranking commander in Akbar's imperial army. Bhagwan Das's adopted son Man Singh I became Akbar's most trusted friend and general in the army (with successful campaigns in Bihar and Bengal), and was also given the premier title of Raja or King. It was this powerful Man Singh I and his successors (like Jai Singh I) who built the palace and fort of Amber.
Amber (pronounced ambear) is divided from the name of the goddess Amba and was at one time called Ambavati. It remained the seat of power for the Kachhwaha family from the twelfth century till 1728 when the city of Jaipur was built. At the foot of the fort, on the northern side, is the Maota Lake with a garden (best seen from the palace windows from above) called Dil-e-Aram (which brings restful tranquility to the heart), which has two pretty pavilions, and the Archaeological Museum. Beside it is a car park where elephants can be hired to take you up a serpentine road to the palace apartments the royal way.
At the top an arched gateway, Suraj Pol, the sun gate, leads into the Jaleb Chowk. On all sides of the square are shops selling colorful moundfuls of snacks and (tacky) souvenirs. On the west side, opposite the Suraj Pol, is the Chand Pol or the moon gate which leads to a number of ancient temples and palaces. On the south-western side is a steep fight of stairs that leads to the Shri Shila Devi Temple or Kali Mata Mandir, containing an idol of the goddess brought to Amber from Bengal by Man Singh I after his campaign there in 1604. The shrine is still a popular place of worship.
The temple is looked after by a family of priests from Bengal, and it is from this illustrious family that the architect of the city of Jaipur was born centuries later. The temple is in worship and the deity is still held in great esteem by the royal family of Jaipur. There are several accounts of worship in the temple. The most intriguing one comes to us from Bishop Heber who visited Amber palace in 1825 and saw goat sacrifice in the temple:
The guide told us on our way back that the tradition was that, in ancient times, a man was sacrificed here every day; that the custom was laid aside till Jye Singh had a frightful dream, in which the destroying power appeared to him and asked him why her image was suffered to be dry? The Raja, afraid to disobey, was reluctant to fulfill the tradition to its ancient extent of horror, took council and substituted a goat for the human victim...
Beside the temple staircase