Geography has always played a decisive role in the history of a region. The geographical character and features dominated by the Sahyadri range prevented any real subjugation by alien powers of the Indian subcontinent south of the Tapti river, in the sense that northern India was; the geopolitical influence of these mountain ranges and their rugged and difficult terrain was immense.
The Deccan plateau is a landscape characterised by flat top summits, terraced flanks and precipitous slopes. These flat topped natural scarps rising above lower slopes which were then thickly wooded and surrounded by broken and uneven terrain were difficult to ascend. In many of these hills a sheer precipice of black basalt over 500 to 600 ft high ran almost all around making them natural strongholds.
The word ‘Fort’ originates from the French word ‘Fortis’ meaning strength. Even in Indian languages, they are called ‘Durg’ which is derived from the Sanskrit Word ‘Durgamam’ meaning inaccessible.
Bahamanis of Gulbarga who ruled for about 200 years were some of the first fort builders in the Sahyadris. Amongst local families Silahars of Panhala and Bhojraja in particular built many southern forts - Vishalgad, Vasota, Ragnya, Bhudargad and others. The Bahamani rule disintegrated by the middle of the 16th century and for a number of years chaos and anarchy prevailed. Out of this troubled times rose Shivaji who during his comparatively short span of life dominated the entire landscape of the northern Sahyadris and established his kingdom encompassing the entire mountainous region.
There are over 300 forts spread all over the northern Sahyadris from Salher in the north to the fort of Terekhol on the border of Goa. The forts and pinnacles of the northern Sahyadris are the sentinels that have witnessed a turbulent past and present us with a rich, romantic diversity of site, function, history, architectural style and cultural heritage. Here every peak seems to possess a fort and reverberate with its past of valour, daring, treachery and fluctuating fortunes.
Chhatrapati Shivaji - a painting
From 1294 AD the region was ruled by a succession of Mohammedan dynasties. This difficult terrain of the Sahyadris suited very well for Shivaji’s guerilla techniques, and enabled him to outsmart the mighty Generals of Aurangazeb and Bijapur. The ramparts and bastions of these forts depict the drama of the Sahyadris as well as Shivaji’s skills in harnessing these natural forces for his cause. He fought the might of the Mogul Empire in the north and that of Bijapur kingdom in the south and finally achieved a stunning victory and became the founder of the Maratha Empire. Shivaji himself in a letter to the Mogul Officials (Kutute Shivaji - copy of the manuscript is in the State Archives, Mumbai) brings out the importance of the rugged terrain and the fact that it is a difficult region for the Moguls to conquer.
The letter is reproduced below:
“Far-sighted men know that during the last three years, famous Generals and experienced officials have been coming from the Emperor to this region. The Emperor had ordered them to capture my forts and territory. In their despatches to the Emperor they write that the territory and the forts would be captured soon. Even if imagination were a horse it would be impossible for it to move in these parts. It is extremely difficult for this region to be conquered. They do not know this. They are not ashamed of sending false reports to the Emperor. My country does not consist of places like Kalyani and Bidar, which are situated in plains and could be captured by assaults. It is full of hill ranges. There are sixty forts in this region. Some of them are situated on the sea coast. Afzal Khan came with a strong army, but he was rendered helpless and destroyed.“After Afzal Khan’s death, the Amir-ul-umara, Shaista Khan, marched into my land, full of high hills and deep gorges. For three years he exerted himself to the utmost. He wrote to the Emperor that he would conquer my territory in a short time. The end of such a false attitude was only to be expected. He was disgraced and had to go away.
“It is my duty to guard my homeland. To maintain your prestige you send false reports to the Emperor. But I am blessed with divine favour. An invader of these lands, whosoever he may be, has never succeeded.”
Shivaji was a fort builder par excellence. It is said that he conquered 130 forts, built 111 and at the time of his death in 1680 possessed some 240 forts.
Among the many forts associated with Shivaji’s exploits the following are some of the prominent forts:
This was a Nizam Shahi fort situated about 3 km from Junnar in the Malsej Ghat region. This is the birth place of Shivaji - he was born on February 19,1630 (some sources give the year of his birth as 1627).
Torna & Rajgad :
Both these forts are situated in the Bhuleshwar range. Torna was Shivaji’s first conquest in 1646 when he was only 16 years of age. Around the same year he also captured the fort of Morumbdev (later called Rajgad), 40 km southwest of Pune which served as the capital of Shivaji for 25 years before he moved it to Raigad.
Raigad stands separated by a ravine from the main range, to the west of the point where the Bhuleshwar range starts. It was here that Shivaji was crowned as king on June 6, 1674. It was a safe residence as the natural defences offered by way of ramparts and bastions were further strengthened by vertical scarps.
It commanded an excellent view and it enabled Shivaji to easily control Javli-Mahad area, right up to the sea. Raigad was the capital of the Maratha empire and he died in this fort on April 4, 1680.
This fort called Kondana was Shivaji’s biggest achievement in his early career, which he captured by peaceful means in 1647 which later came to be known as Simhagad. Simhagad is located in the Bhuleshwar range, 26 km south of Pune. It was later surrendered to the Moguls and again recaptured in 1670 after a bitter struggle. The assault was led by the valiant Maratha warrior Tanaji Malusare. The fort was stoutly defended by Udai Bhan, the Rajput commandant of the Moguls. Both the leaders fought a duel which resulted in their death. The loss of brave Tanaji saddened Shivaji and he is said to have cried in anguish “I have won a fort but lost the lion”.
Purandhar fort, at the end of the range which runs southeast from Simhagad is a strong fort that witnessed many a great battles in the Maratha history. The veteran general Jai Singh was sent by the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb to recapture the forts and territory occupied by Shivaji and leaving him no alternative but to surrender to the Moguls. Having arrived in Pune, Jai Singh marched towards the fort of Purandhar and the siege of Purandhar began on 30 March, 1665. There were fierce attacks by the Moguls and equally fierce defence put up by the Marathas. Although the Moguls were poised to capture Purandhar, but at the express request of Shivaji, the fort was allowed to be surrendered and the garrison permitted to evacuate the stronghold. There were 7,000, men and women, in the fort of Purandhar; of these, 4,000 were fighting men defending the fort. The siege of Purandhar is one of the most memorable sieges in Indian history.
The hill station of Mahabaleshwar marks the start of the Shambhu-Mahadeo range of the Koyna region. On the west of the ridge is located the historically important fort of Pratapgad (1,438 m). This fort is one of Shivaji’s most brilliant defense structures built by him in 1656 with some clever manipulation of the terrain.
Militarily it was an important fort as it controlled the Ambavani and Pir passes and was one of the strongest forts due to its vertical scarps. This grim fortress with its towers and battlements surrounded by high, basalt walls pierced with loopholes from whichonce sprouted Jingals - muskets fixed on swivel - still stands as an impregnable monument. The fort was once the scene of a dramatic act of double treachery. Shivaji met his opponent, Afzal Khan, the powerful Bijapur General, in a supposedly unarmed truce. They both embraced each other in a show of cordiality. Afzal Khan whipped out a hidden dagger and stabbed the foe, but the wily Maratha had taken the wise precaution of wearing a shirt of mail and concealed in his left hand a set of imitation tiger claws. He killed Afzal Khan with this weapon. A small monument and tower marks the scene of this vicious encounter at Pratapgad.
Panhala & Vishalgad:
Panhala range branches off from the main Sahyadris south of Warna valley. The range starts with the fort of Vishalgad, which is a historic fort captured by Shivaji in 1659 and is well protected by scarps, walls and bastions.
The range then goes eastwards to Panhala fort, which was captured by Shivaji in November 1659. Both Vishalgad and Panhala have been witness to deeds of valour and epic defense.
Since March 1660 Shivaji had been pinned down at Panhala for over four months in a tight siege by Siddi Jauhar of Bijapur. Shivaji decided to escape and taking advantage of the rainy season and dark nights, on 13th July 1660, slipped out of Panhala and made straight for the fort of Vishalgad, 64 km away. Shivaji’s outnumbered bodyguards were overtaken by the Bijapur forces at Pawan Khind (Ghod Khind) some eight miles short of safe Maratha territory. The epic defense of his Mavle escort enabled Shivaji to avoid capture but at the cost of his valiant leiutenant Baji Prabu’s life.
Memorial to Baji Prabhu at Panhala fort
Salher & Mulher :
These two forts in the Selbari range running west to east dominate the landscape south of Mosam river. Salher is the highest hill fort (above 5,000 ft) in the Sahyadris and marked the northern most point of Shivaji’s kingdom which he laid siege to it and captured in 1671. Mulher is an ancient fort built in the 14th century and is also known as Mayurgad. The famous battle of Salher took place in early 1672. The Moguls had laid siege to the fort of Salher. Its capture had become a point of prestige for the Moguls. But Shivaji was determined to force the Moguls to raise the siege. In the ensuing battle Maratha forces defeated the Mogul forces led by their General Bahadur Khan and the entire equipment and booty was captured by the Marathas.
Apart from Salher and Mulher, this range of hills had nearly ten forts - Chandwad, Indrani, Kanchan Manchan, Dhodap, Ahivant, Achalagiri, Hanumantgad, Markand and Saptashringi.
Tryambak Range :
Harihar fort (1,120 m) is in the Tryambak range north of Igatpuri and is built on a triangular rock. Kalsubai, the highest peak of the northern Sahyadris at 1,646 m lies in this range branching off in the easterly direction. The range has the highest and difficult hill forts of Kulang, Alang and Madangad. Further northeast is the Patta fort (1,370 m) and on the main crest of the Sahyadris running southeast is Ratangad (1,296 m).
The Sea-Forts :
There are a number of sea forts situated along the long Konkan coast which played an important role in the history of the Sahyadris. As the Konkan coast came increasingly under his possession, Shivaji started building a number of coastal fortresses in order to strengthen his modest navy and keep in check the Siddis of Janjira, the Portugese and other powers. He laid the foundation of the fort of Sindhudurg near Malvan on December 5, 1664 which became his naval base. He also built several other sea-forts such asPadmadurg, Vijaydurg, Jaigad and Devgad. Coastal Fort at Ratnagiri
Murud-Janjira fort which is situated 2 km into the sea from Murud, was constructed in the 11th century and was considered impregnable and witnessed many a battles. It was occupied by the Siddis during Shivaji’s time and even Shivaji was unable to effectively blockade this formidable fort.
End of an Era
After the last Maratha war and signing the treaty of 1818, the British controlled most of the Northern Sahyadri region and started establishing the British rule. Most of the forts were systematically dismantled by them for political reasons. They dynamited rocky stairs, fort walls, ramparts and approach routes to many impregnable forts to make them unusable. The damage done by these charges can be seen even today.
The techniques of war had also undergone a sea-change. The development of long range powerful artillery warfare effectively put an end to the value of these forts as defense strongholds and they did not play any further role in the history of the region.