The forts of India are architectural marvels that tell us the exploits of brave warriors who once ruled this land. These standing sentinels hold within them memories as solid as the stones they are made of. Today they are the guardians of history and legacy – the ghosts of a time gone by.
Text & Photographs: Akul Tripathi
(Part-1 of a three-part series on the Forts of India)
They stand atop mountains, or in the middle of dense jungles, and sometimes by the shore; forlorn, deserted, and often dilapidated…in ruins. Once upon a time, they were eulogised and paeans composed to celebrate them — forts — the heart of mighty empires, the refuge of the masses, the blanket of comfort to all within them. Set in stone, they stood proud against anyone who would dare try and enter to cause harm. Zealously they guarded those who considered them their own.
As border outposts, or even large walled cities encircled with all manners of ingenious fortifications and security measures they were the state-of-the-art when it came to safety and defence. Today they are the guardians of history and legacy – the ghosts of a time gone by.
It would be hard to find a tale from childhood that did not include a fort as a main setting or a place where the characters would eventually return. The princes and kings, ministers and warriors — the protagonists of these fables that tell us the valour and heroism would go unsung without a good strong fort. From Hamlet to The Count of Monte Cristo, and from Prithviraj Chauhan to Rani of Jhansi, the visuals of forts as backdrop is perhaps the most enduring of images in the mind`s eye.
In several countries of the world where tourism and heritage are flaunted, cities still live within medieval fortifications. Castles and citadels hold pride of place in culture and daily conversations. Festivals are planned around them and the exploits of the heroes and sheroes are a part of numerous walking tours – both real and virtual.
Forts are architectural marvels. Their design, methods of construction, the materials that went into building them, even the site at which they were built, were given great thought. Extensive planning and sheer grit went into constructing them brick by brick as icons of reliability and strength. A more than cursory look at any fort will yield an understanding of the past of the area and its people as good, if not better, than any archive or written account. This still holds true, whether a fort is standing or lying in ruins…
Asirgarh – The Deccan’s deception
If this fort was to have an emotion, it would be drama. Just on the approach to the fort, one can almost hear the buildup music in the thumping of the heart. Situated in the heart of India, near Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh, and constructed on a spur of the Satpuras, Asirgarh or Asirgadh overlooks a pass that connects the Narmada and Tapti river valleys, and once commanded and safeguarded the medieval trading route through the Deccan to South India, earning the epithet of ‘Key to the Deccan’.
Encompassing around 60 acres, Aisrgarh comprises three distinct lines of porch. The lowermost is Malaygarh, the middle one Kamargarh and the oldest on the top of the hill – Asirgarh. Ancient in its origins, it has been built, modified, strengthened and made impregnable with every dynasty that held it. With a reputation of never having been captured in a fair fight across, Asirgarh, in the world of forts is a legend in its own right.
According to some sources, the oldest accounts of Asirgah in local tradition date back to the 2nd millennium BCE, when it was said to be in the charge of Rajput chieftains. The name Asirgarh is largely accredited to being styled after Asa, an Ahir king of the 15th century, who is believed to have held the fort before it was taken from him treacherously by the Farooqis. The Farooqis are credited with having substantially strengthened the fortifications of Asirgarh, and they held the fort till the Mughal Emperor Akbar arrived at its gates in his quest to conquer the Deccan and captured the fort — again not in a fair fight. While there are many accounts of the unfair means through which Akbar conquered Asirgarh, a widely quoted one tells the story of howa local betrayed his homeland and showed the Mughals a path to get into Asirgarh. It was the last major fort won by Akbar before his death in 1605. An inscription of Akbar records the conquest of the fort in 1600 CE.
The fort passed on to the Marathas from the Mughals and from them to the British who are believed to have paid handsomely to buy it from the Marathas. This was the last major fort that had escaped British control, and after signing a treaty in 1819 at the end of the Third Anglo-Maratha War, a message was sent to the British headquarters that they had finally conquered India. Remains of structures from the Farooqi era to that of the British — mosques, prison, cemetery, gallows, water tanks, and inscriptions, can still be found on the fort written in both Persian and Sanskrit.
Like it is with most things in our country, it is quite impossible to wander very far without stepping into the world of epics. Asirgarh is long believed to be the place where Ashwathama, the son of Guru Dronacharya, cursed by Lord Krishna after killing the sons of the Pandavas post the Mahabharata war, retreated. Some believe that before the hill was called Asirgarh, it was known as Ashwathamagiri — the mountain of Ashwathama. As per legend, Ashwathama is believed to take a ritual bath in the Tapti, perform puja at the Gupteshwar temple in nearby Burhanpur and then take a subteranean path to perform puja at the Shiva temple now located within the fort. Locals claim to have often seen a wild flower appear on the linga in the temple, mysteriously…
While Mumbai’s scenic Bandra fort is a location that gets many visitors and is among the locations of choice for Bollywood love scenes, a fort massive in size and its contribution in history is often overlooked. In the suburb of Vasai lies the Vasai Fort, or the Fort of Bassein, as it was then known by the Portuguese who constructed it in 1536 in over 110 acres of land and used it as a base for over 200 years.
Used often by the Portuguese governor as a residence, the fort was veritably invincible as it was surrounded by water on three sides and the side facing the land had a very high and strong wall. Within this large safe zone, the Portuguese built an entire city complete with a town hall, coin mint, hospital, churches, college, library, court, prison and a market place.
As the Marathas rose to prominence in the 18th century, General Chimaji Appa, the younger brother of the Maratha Empire builder Peshwa Bajirao, captured the fort in 1739 after the Battle of Vasai. The Marathas used the capture of this fort to spread far and wide the story of their triumph and might. Bells from the churches were given as gifts to the warriors who then donated them to temples of their choice. Bells from the Vasai Fort are found in temples as far as Jalna and Kolhapur, and also in famous temples in Nashik, Jejuri and Bhimashankar — one of the 12 venerated jyotirlings.
After the First Anglo-Maratha War, the British took over the Vasai Fort as part of the Treaty of Bassein in 1802. After a brief attempt at running a sugar factory which did not prove profitable to their expectations, they abandoned the enterprise, and their interest in the Vasai Fort faded and so did the glamour of its Portuguese hey-days.
This mud fort built by the Dogra Zorawar Singh in 1836 does not visually inspire the kind of awe as the others on this list, but the story behind it is perhaps taller than the rest combined. A genreral in the army of Raja Gulab Singh of the Sikh Empire, Zorawar Singh executed a landmark event in Indian military history when in the 19th century he conquered Ladakh, Baltistan and extended the boundaries of the Sikh empire almost to the borders of Nepal through the inhospitable terrain of Tibet after fierce battles with the Ladakhis and a combined army of the Tibetans and the Chinese Qin dynasty.
Not celebrated nearly enough in the annals of mainstream Indian history, a cenotaph to his valour lies in distant Tibet, and a symbol of the daring of the best high altitude fighting force the world has ever seen, is a small earthen defensive built on what was then the outskirts of Leh. Returning to quash a rebellion in Leh after he had conquered it through an unimaginable straight march through the high Himalayas in the winter, Zorawar built this fort in 1836 as a garrison for 300 men that he left behind as he eyed larger challenges in Tibet.
Situated well within the city of Leh, it remains off the radar of most tourists and is maintained by the Indian Army which also occupies a part of it. Bare and basic, even today it appears just as minimalistic as it was designed to be. Housed within the fort are two galleries that recount the life and times of Zorawar Singh.
Much of the modern map of Jammu and Kashmir as a part of the Union of India was shaped by the exploits of Zorawar Singh, and this structure built of the same earth he walked and annexed, is in its own right a symbol as powerful as the War Memorial built to honour the valiants who laid down their lives in the Kargil War of 1999.
Located in the Jhalawar district of Rajasthan, this fort is surrounded by water from all sides. Gagron is a rare example of a hill and river fort and is afforded protection on three sides by the confluence of the Ahu and Kali Sindh rivers and by a dense forest on the other side. The fort itself is built on a low ridge at the confluence and does not have an underground foundation to it. The Mukundarrah range of hills behind it acts as a second line of defence. The construction of the fort began by many estimates in the 8th century, established by King Bijaldev of the Doda/Parmar empire, and there were alterations and enhancements right up to the 18th century. In 2013, the fort was included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Ruled by Khinchi Rajputs for over three centuries, the fort has in its violent history witnessed 14 wars and 2 jauhars where women preferred to sacrifice their lives over the threat of facing capture. The possession of the fort passed from the Khinchis to Hoshangshah of the Malwa region in the 14th century following a bloody battle that saw the valiant Rajput clan fight to the death rather than surrender. The decision of Achaldas, the king of the Khinchis to fight despite overwhelming odds impressed Hoshangshah so greatly that local tradition maintains that the room and personal items of Achaldas were not meddled with by Hoshangshah and the rulers to come; and it is oft quoted that the king`s bed too remained in the same place till 1950.
In ancient times, Vijaydurg Fort was also known as Gheria Fort, deriving its name from a nearby village in the Sindhdurg district along the Konkan coast of Maharashtra. Also known as the ‘Gibraltar of the Konkan’, it withstood the attacks of the Europeans and Siddis for ninety-three years.
It is believed that Vijaydurg Fort was built by Bhojaraja of the Silahara dynasty between 1192 and 1205. In the 15th century, Adil Shah of Bijapur occupied the fort and made it one of the strongest in the Bijapur kingdom. After conquest and restoration, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj named it Vijaydurg in 1653. He extended the area of fort by constructing three fort walls on the eastern side. There are claims to an underwater tunnel that connects the fort to the village on the mainland which is yet to be discovered.
As an astute measure of protection, the fort has a fencing compound wall built 8-10m undersea at a distance of 300m from the fort. Not visible above the sea level, but high enough to break the hulls of attacking ships, many would have met a watery grave at the hands of this architectural wonder.
Sarkhel Kahhoji Angre, the admiral of the Maratha navy had a pivotal role in the supremacy of the Marathas on sea. Following his death and the infighting between his sons, a large British force under Admiral Watson captured Vijaydurg in 1756, putting an end to the Maratha might at sea.
With the British occupation of India, and as a necessity to maintain their hold over the subcontinent; forts of India, especially the more impregnable ones were systematically dismantled to prevent opposing forces from holding them as bastions of a possible revolt. The fortifications and key elements that gave them teeth were taken down, and eventually the heroes that once walked those ramparts and weaved the events that gave them character, started fading from public memory. Unfortunately, the fog of amnesia still persists.
Yet, these standing sentinels preserve within them memories as solid and unyielding as the stones they are made of. Their very aura pregnant with the stories of its valiant sons, yearning to sing with pride the accounts that transpired centuries ago. All it takes is a patient ear…