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Chittaurgarh is 3 hours (115km/71 miles) from Udaipur and covers 280 hectares (700 acres), making it a rather long day trip (it takes around 2 hr. to explore), but it's well worth it if you're armed with information and a good imagination (both of which can be supplied by a good guide; ask your hotel for recommendations). Thrusting 180m (590 ft.) into the sky, the fort houses a number of monuments and memorials, but with much of it in ruins, its primary importance lies in its evocative history. The fort has witnessed some of the bloodiest battles in history, and songs recording the valor and sacrifice of its inhabitants are still sung today.

Built in the 7th century, it remained the capital of Mewar until 1568, when the capital shifted to Udaipur. During this time Chittaurgarh was ravaged three times, but the story of the first sacking that took place in 1303 during the reign of Rana Ratan Singh is perhaps the most romantic.

Chittaurgarh returned to Rajput rule in 1326 and the Mewar enjoyed 2 centuries of prosperity before it was again laid siege to, this time by Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. To save the life of the Rajput heir Udai Singh, his nursemaid Panna Dai sacrificed her own infant son, leaving him as a decoy for the murderous sultan and spiriting the tiny heir away to Kumbhalgarh Fort. The women and children of Chittaurgarh committed jauhar (mass ritual suicide) while their men died in battle.

When, at the age of 13, Udai was reinstated at Chittaurgarh, he searched in earnest for a new site for the capital, building Udaipur on the shores of Lake Pichola. Eight years later, the Mughal emperor Akbar, trying to contain the arrogance of Udai Singh -- who poured such contempt on Jai (of Jaipur) Singh's collaboration with the emperor -- attacked Chittaurgarh. This time 30,000 Rajput lives were lost, and the women and children again flung themselves on the flames rather than be captured by the Muslims. Chittaurgarh was given back to the Rajputs in 1616, much of it in ruins, but by this time the royal family was comfortably ensconced in Udaipur, and the fort was never lived in again.

The fort is approached through seven massive pols, or gates -- look for the chhatri (cenotaph) of the chivalrous Jaimal and his cousin Kala near Bhairon Pol. Jaimal was seriously wounded defending Chittaur against Emperor Akbar but he refused to give up and was carried back into battle on the shoulders of Kala, where both were slain. At Ram Pol is a memorial to Phatta who, at 16, having lost his father in battle and witnessed the deaths of his sword-wielding mother and young wife on the battlefield, led his saffron-robed men to certain death while the women of the fort yet again ended their lives by committing jauhar.

As you enter the final pol, you will see Shingara Chauri Mandir, a typically adorned Jain temple, and the crumbling 15th-century palace built by Rana Kumbha up ahead. Under the palace lies a series of cellars where Padmini reputedly committed jauhar. Rana Kumbha was one of the Mewar's most powerful rulers: In addition to the palace, he built nearby Khumba Shyam Temple, dedicated to Varah (an incarnation of Vishnu), as well as Meera Temple, dedicated to the poet and princess Meera, whose devotion to Krishna reputedly saved her from being poisoned. (Incidentally, Krishna is usually depicted as blue as a result of the poison he consumed, thereby saving the world.) Within the cenotaph in front of the temple is a carved figure of five human bodies with one head -- in a rare overture to tolerance, this supposedly demonstrates caste equality. Farther south lies Kumbha's Vijay Stambh (Tower of Victory) -- a lavishly ornamented tower built by Maharana Kumbha to commemorate his victory over the combined forces of Malwa and Gujarat.

Other sites of interest are Padmini's Palace, where the sultan Allauddin Khilji gazed upon Padmini's reflection in the lotus pond; Kirti Stambh, a 12th-century tower ornamented with figures, dedicated to the first Jain tirthankara; Fateh Prakash Palace, built for the maharana during the 1920s and housing a dry archaeological museum (small fee; Sat-Thurs 10am-4:30pm); and Kalika Mata Temple, originally built as a Sun Temple by Bappa Rawal in the 8th century but rebuilt during the 14th century and dedicated to Kali, goddess of power and valor. Some of the best views are from Gaumukh (Cow's Mouth) Reservoir, so-called because the spring water trickles through a stone carving of a cow's mouth.

Note: You can get here by train from Udaipur, but it's a late-night trip, departing at 9:40pm and arriving 2 hours later, so you would have to overnight, and perhaps consider moving on to Jaipur the following evening (on the same connecting train). Accommodations in Chittor are limited, with no luxury options. If you have to overnight, the best option is Pratap Palace (tel. 01472/24-0099; Rs 1,500-Rs 4,500 double); the priciest rooms have A/C units with tubs in the attached bathrooms.

Battling for a Glimpse of Beauty

It is said that the rapacious sultan Allauddin Khilji laid siege to the fort because he had become obsessed with tales of the legendary beauty of the Maharana (or Rana) Ratan Singh's queen, Rani Padmini. He promised to withdraw, provided Singh allow him an opportunity to lay eyes on her -- an outrageous demand considering that a strange man's gaze was tantamount to the defilement of a Rajput royal woman. But in the spirit of compromise, Singh reluctantly agreed to present him with her reflection in the lotus pond that lay below the palace's women's quarters. The sultan used this opportunity to betray the king, ambushing and capturing him on his departure. The next day a bereft Padmini sent word to the sultan that she would give herself to him in return for her husband and the withdrawal of his troops. She then descended through the seven pols (gates), surrounded by what appeared to be her maids-of-honor -- Singh's troops, disguised as women. Singh was rescued from the sultan's camp, but the ensuing battle cost the lives of some 7,000 of Singh's men -- a crippling loss. When it was clear that the Rajputs would be defeated, the funeral pyres were lit, and Padmini and 13,000 women and children committed jauhar, flinging themselves onto the flames, after which the last of Singh's men went to meet certain death below the ramparts.