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History of Punjab:Ancient Forts of Punjab


The forts and fortresses, though become very largely obsolete in the context and content of modern warfare, due mostly to vulnerability from the air, were deemed until quite recently as the sine quo non of military defense and the last refuge of a combatant power put sadly on the defensive. When defeat seemed imminent or inevitable, they could repair to these citadels of security in the final resort and fight an obviously losing game to vantage through the protraction of the struggle for an incredibly long time and infliction of heavy losses on the investing enemy forces on whom ceaseless fire could be poured by the garrisoned troops nestling in comparative security behind the thick and impregnable walls. Given ample armament, stores and food supplies, the besieged could hold out almost indefinitely taking full advantage of the exposed enemy positions and rendering the batteries directed against them ineffective, sometimes even putting them completely out of action. It happened not infrequently that the continually battered attacking army found it almost impossible to persevere in this unequal contest and was forced to raise the siege on its failure to storm the fort by assault.

These edifices, varying in size according to their need or the strategy of their position, were constructed more or less on a uniform plan all over the world, sharing several features of similarity. To begin with there was the moat or ditch spanned by a drawbridge or bridges which could be filled with water so as to impose the first impediment before an investing force. Behind it was the outer wall, generally of great height and enormous thickness, strengthened with towers, bastions or, battlements, at regular intervals and pierced with loopholes, through which arrows, missiles, musket shots or small battery cannonade could be discharged at the assailants. The main entrance through the outer wall was protected by the barbican, with its narrow archway, and strong gates and portcullis. Inside there was usually the outer and inner court, and strong, more or less, detached buildings comprising the military headquarters and the residence of the potentate. In massiveness and strength these buildings were of a piece with the castle-walls to which the defenders retreated only in the last extremity.

The Punjab or the Land of Five Rivers has been studded with solid defenses in the form of forts due to its vulnerability from the north through the Khyber and other passes which opened time and again to let in a turbid flood of invaders from time immemorial. Even the incoming Aryans found the Dasyu castles, presumably of the Indus Valley Civilization, interposing a serious check to their advance lower down into the country. The sacred literature of the Aryans is replete with stories of almost incessant fighting against an enemy which, from behind the defenses of their fortified positions, rained death and fire on them through its skill in magic and the black arts. It took the people of the bow and arrow and the horse chariot an immeasurably long time to prevail against the indigenous inhabitants, who resisted them successfully from behind there impregnably fortification of solid masonry. The Aryans, in their turn, on their victorious establishment in the land emulated the example of the conquered enemy through the construction of forts and fortifications as they had come to realize only too grimly the dangers and perils of their exposed positions. On their establishment at Kurkshetra or Thanesar (Sthaneshwar of the Sanskrit terminology) of the first Aryan settlement, styled as Brahmrishidesha, they set up fortifications in the manner of their former enemies and the foundations of the fort constructed by the legendary Dilipa of the Mahabharata can still be traced among the ruins of this ground hallowed by the sanctity of age. In the center of Sthaneshwar, a veritable graveyard of antiquity and archaeology still stands on old ruined fort, about 1,200 ft. square. The remains of towers and bastions indicate the imposing and massive character of the structure.

It would seem that in course of time every city or town of any consequence came either to possess a separate fort of its own or was fortified at least as a necessary part of its defensive plan. The town of Karnal, though not quite able to dispute antiquity with Thanesar, is a very ancient place all the same and according to the Mahabharata was founded by Raja Karna. It has ever been a walled town as far as it is possible to trace and may even have had a citadel one time. The town of Panipat, being one of the pats referred to in the Mahabharata, and standing on a high mound consisting of ruins and debris of ages, has an old fort occupying a high mound adjoining, but separate from the town itself. Likewise, Sonepat too had a fort, now reduced to a heap of undistinguished ruin, which has furnished a vast quantity of staple building material in the form of old brick. Traversing higher up to the north, we find that the original town of Ambala too was a walled town once and Ludhiana still has an old fort lying to the north of it. Phillaur ten miles further north has a nice little old fort, which is rendered very conspicuous by its large barbican. It was an important artillery arsenal and magazine up to the time of great uprising of 1857 and had a detachment in garrison, which however kept there. It is today the seat of the Punjab Police Training School. A mention may also be made of the fort of Gobindgarh at Amritsar, lying midway between the Railway Station and the city, which is a rather old-fashioned stronghold surrounded by a deep ditch. Other forts of the Punjab lying further to the northwest such as Lahore, Multan, Dipalpur, Attock and Jamrud, though reeking rich with history, are now in West Pakistan.

Almost all the important hill chiefs had small forts perched safe upon inaccessible mountain crests from where they could fight the assailant enemy to advantage. When attacked they would repair to these for security making it extremely difficult and hazardous for the foe to pursue them there.

The ancient city and Fort of Sirsa , the ruins of which adjoin the present town, are said to be of great antiquity and are said to have been, founded some fourteen centuries ago by Raja Saras. In the early eighteenth century it became the headquarters of the marauding Bhatti Rajputs who from here and the forts scattered all around it, of which the runs are still clearly identifiable, made raids on the surrounding regions making them devoid of population as well as cultivation. It is on record that in the time of the adventurous career of George Thomas, sometimes designated as the Irish Raja in these parts, the Bhatti clans were able to bring 20,000 men into the field.

The Forts of Sirsa, Bhatnair, Abohar and Bhatinda , situated at the angles of a figure nearly square with a side about fifty miles long, were built each on the same plan and of the same dimensions, thus forming a sort of quadrilateral in the path of the invaders from the North-West. Often they interposed a successful barrier in the path of the steadily piercing Muslim hordes. They accordingly obtained considerable celebrity, almost disproportionate with their intrinsic importance, because of their position on the direct route of invasion from Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Bhatnair, though actually situated in Rajasthan, would seem to fall in the schematic plan of strategic undivided Punjab forts. Timur attacked it in 1399 in the course of his whirlwind and devastating invasion of India. Muhammad Ghazni captured it in AD 1001 and Khetsi Kondahalt sacked it in 1527. In 1549 Mirza Kamran, brother of the Emperor Hamayun, took the fort by assault on which occasion Khetsi died in the field with 500 Rajputs. It was afterwards taken and retaken down to 1800, when it capitulated to the celebrated George Thomas. The other forts of this series shared much the same vicissitudes and history. The town of Hissar too had a well-known fort as its name so clearly signifies. But time’s tyrannous claim appears to have triumphed over it so completely as to reduce it to a mass of undistinguishable ruin. Only maunds of brick cover a large space from which we might obtain a glint of the past importance of the place.

The old Fort of Hansi situated right in the heart of Haryana has had a varied and checkered history. It is deservedly celebrated in Indian History on account of its massive strength and reputation for impregnability. Over fifty thousand invaders lie entombed in its immediate vicinity, a living proof of the grim fighting that raged here time and again when the successive waves of marauders tried to wrest this mighty stronghold from its legitimate and rightful masters. Ala-ud-Din captured it in 1200, though not before 20,000 of his tried warriors had kissed the dust and lay stretched in the field.

When George Thomas’s mercenaries captured Hansi, Hissar, Mehem, the Irishman selected the fort of Hansi as the capital of the New Kingdom. He strengthened and repaired its walls and fortifications. He established a mint, cannon foundry, factories for powder, muskets, matchlocks and other small arms within the fort. It was here that he fought the last battle of his life but it was like playing a losing game. His absence in the Punjab had done the mischief. With supplies all but cut off and treachery rife in the camp Thomas, despite all his dash and intrepidity, was unable to cope with the situation. Perron’s gold had bought over most of the officers of the garrison and held their families as hostages. Thomas stood valiantly to his guns and put up a most heroic defense but the odds against him were such that he was eventually obliged to yield the fort.

Another old fort calling for mention is that of Ferozepur fort . Now used for commissariat purposes for three-quarters of a century, it must at one time have been a place of considerable strength. It is an irregular building, one hundred yards long and about fifty broads surrounded by a ditch ten feet wide and ten feet deep. It is described as being picturesque and almost English in appearance. Through repeated alterations it has, however, been changed quite out of recognition. It was the scene of the grand durbar and review that Lord Auckland held there in 1838 at which Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Lion of Punjab, with his generals was present and witnessed the elaborate maneuvers purposely arranged to impress him and to bring conviction home to him that it would be catastrophic for him to embroil himself in the Afghan War. The spick and span turn out of the troops, the mimic warfare and display of discipline, tactics and strategy so impressed Ranjit Singh that throughout the Afghan campaign, despite its reverses and changes of fortune, he continued in an attitude of benevolent neutrality at least.

There are three forts in the territory formerly comprised in the erstwhile Patiala State which seem deserving of more than a mere passing mention. In the first place there is Fort Bhatinda around which grew a city bearing the same name. It is one of the oldest towns in Punjab and of considerable historical importance. The fort is reputed to have been built by a Hindu Raja, named Dab in the second century of the Christian era. That means that it has been in existence for about 1900 years. It is constructed of large archaic type of brick, which was used for construction long before the advent of Islam. The origin of the name Bhatinda is variously explained. It may have been called as Bhattian da kot or Bhattian da adda, meaning the fort of the Bhattis or the abode of the Bhattis, which through the inevitable corruption of words was changed into the name now current. The Bhattis were an ancient Rajput tribe, which flourished in these environs. Many of them turned Muslim and before the partition of the province were divided fifty-fifty between the faith of their fathers and the creed of between the faith of their fathers and the creed of Muhammad and still took legitimate pride in their proud Rajput ancestry. The fort of Bhatinda constituted the twin capital with Lahore of the well-know Brahman dynasty of the Pals, of which Jai Pal and Anand Pal were among the last scions, who were subdued and supplanted by the Ghaznavids though not without valiant but unsuccessful resistance. On the conquest of northern India Muhammad Ghori appointed his favorite slave and general Kutb-ud-Din Aibak, and later king in his own right and the founder of the slave dynasty, to the governorship of the Bhatinda fort for the coercion and subjugation of the turbulent Bhattis. That ill-starred Queen, Razia, the daughter of King Altamash, who was the first woman to assume the throne in India, was first incarcerated here on her defeat and dethronement. The fort next became the scene of her unsuccessful attempts to regain her throne. The rest of its history is steeped in oblivion but it was an important point d’ appui both of the Sultanate of Pathans and the Empire of the Mughals. In the middle of the eighteenth century on the decadence of the Mughal rule it passed into the hands of Ala Singh of Patiala. It was renamed as Gobindgarh by Maharaja Karam Singh of Patiala in commemoration of the reputed visit of Guru Gobind Singh to the place in the days when from his venue in the jungles of Bhatinda he was challenging and fighting the mighty Mughal Empire. A muafi of 50 ghumaons of land was assigned for the upkeep of the Gurudwara in the fort.

The fort of Bhatinda still stands grim and gaunt in its lordly vaunt of having shared for ages a notable part in the schematic plan of India’s defense. The walls of the citadel which slope from base upwards are of extraordinary massiveness and strength, tapering upwards from 53 feet below to 35 feet at the top and rising to a height of hundred feet. The bastion tower of burj is 120 feet above the ground level and is still in a wonderful state of preservation. There are in addition four large bastions one at each corner and 32 smaller ones, i.e., 8 to each wall. The larger bastions have a circumference of 291 feet at the top. Taken all in all it is one of the mightiest structures in its line built nobly and well. 

The Qila Mubarik or the fort of triumph, of which the foundation is attributed to Baba Ala Singh, was completed by his grandson and successor Maharaja Amar Singh. It contains the royal palace and other appurtenant subsidiary buildings. Then there is the beautiful Fort of Bahadurgarh , situated nearly five miles from the town of Patiala, which though only 123 years old and not an ancient for exactly, is a stately, graceful and imposing. Begun in 1837 by Maharaja Karam Singh, it took eight years to build entailing a cost of millions of rupees. Two circular walls or ramparts surround the fort, the outer wall being 110 feet apart from the inner one. A pacca moat or ditch 25 feet deep and 58 feet wide surrounds the outer wall, which is 29 feet high. The circumference of the fort is nearly 1 1/3 miles. Maharaja Karam Singh gave the fort its present name in commemoration of the sacred visit of Guru Tegh Bahadur in the time of Saif Khan, who was a brother of Fidai Khan and a foster brother of Aurangzeb himself. The legend goes that the Guru had predicted the rising of a fort on the self-same spot. The Maharaja also built two Gurudwaras, one inside and another outside the fort. This fort like that of Phillaur, was used one time as the Training School for Police.

The Pathankot fort is reputed to have been built as far back as the 12th century AD by one Raja Jet Pal. Through nothing over-brilliant and falling in the category of modest and minor structures, this edifice is a stern reminder of the days when a Rajput was pledged to hold his own even against mighty odds. If the worst came to the worst, he could retire to his fort and fight his own feud out like a man with his back to the wall. These citadels of security whatever they be were yet the hall-mark of respectability and a man was a man for all that. From this fort a road strikes east to Dharmsala and the Kangra Valley. As we ascend the valley from Pathankot the first parao or halting station is reached at Nurpur, a small commercial town, where yet another ancient Fort of the Pathania rajas meets us rising along the precipitous edge of a hillock to the west of the town. It is built in the typical Mughal style, though representing two varieties of architectural developments. It would seem that the fort, though commenced and party built in Akbar’s time, was not completed until about a century later in the time of Aurangzeb since the impress of these two variant epochal building crafts is only too clearly discernible to leave one in any doubt. The earlier portions are in the style of Akbar with which Fatehpur Sikri has made us only too familiar, while the superstructure is definitely of the time of Aurangzeb. Its construction is attributed to have been undertaken by one Raja Vasudeva who presumably was a contemporary of Akbar but he did not apparently live to complete it which one of his successors did. Out attention is specially drawn by the basement of an ancient temple which was recovered after careful digging from within the precincts of the fort in 1886. Experts were of the view that the temple was much anterior to the fort in date as indicated by the profuse decorations and patterned carvings on the outer walls.

The pride of place in the line of forts, however, goes to the Kangra Fort , from which the town of Kangra or Nagarkot (the city of the fort) itself derives its name. It is perhaps the oldest extant structure in the land to have defied alike time’s tyrannous claims. The earthquake of 1905 played great havoc with it to which battered wall and fissured battlements bear ample evidence. It occupies a picturesque and strategic position above the Ban-Ganga torrent, not far from its confluence with the river Beas, overlooking the scenery of Kangra Valley, which has been described as possession sublime and delightful contrasts. The valley is a picture of rural loveliness and repose; it is irrigated by numerous streams; interspersed with homesteads amidst groves and fruit trees, and in the background are lofty mountains with oak forests on their sides, above them pine trees, and above all the eternal snows and masses of bare granite, on the southern slopes of which the snow cannot rest.

The fort which is three miles in extent enjoys great local as well as historical prestige as its roots lie dug deep in myth and legend some claiming for it and age contemporaneous with the Mahabharata itself. Be that as it may, its possession by the Katoches of Jalandhara is confirmed as going back to 1800 years or more. It long enjoyed a reputation for invulnerability and was first assailed by Muhammad of Ghazni as treachery was rife in the house. In no other way can one explain his sudden side-deflection to this mountainous region from the direct line of his advance soon after having surmounted the confederacy of Anand Pal and his associates unless he had been hid in the fort of Kangra together with the rich treasures accumulated by the devotions of endless generations of the Hindus in the temple of the goddess Vajreshvari or Mata Devi. Vast quantities of coined money and gold and silver bullion were carried off. The treasure included a house of white silver, like to the houses of rich men, the length of which was thirty yards and the breadth fifteen. It could be taken to pieces and put together again. And there was a canopy, made of the fine linen of Rum, forty yards long and twenty broad, supported on two golden and two silver poles, which had been cast in moulds. The Sultan returned to Ghazni with his booty and astonished the ambassadors from foreign powers by the display of jewels and unbored pearls and rubies, shining like sparks, or like wine congealed with ice, and emeralds like fresh sprigs of myrtle, and diamonds in size and weight like pomegranates.

The celebrated golden image was sent to Macca, where it was trodden under foot by the faithful. The fort was held by the Muslim garrison for thirty five years after which it was recovered by the Hindus who made good the damage to the fort and the buildings comprised in it which it had suffered in the process of this abysmal holocaust and the subsequent occupation. The descendants of the Katoches of hoary antiquity remained in undisturbed possession and control of it till AD 1360.

Firuz Tughluq, who like his imperialist predecessors wanted to bring as much territory under his away as possible, was an ardent and fanatical Muslim and could thus ill brook these Hindu Rajas flaunting their independence behind the protection of their mountain citadels. He must subdue them to submission and reduce them to the position of feudatories like all the rest. He accordingly organized an expedition against Kangra, the haughtiest and strongest of the lot. Not being able to check the king’s advance through an open engagement, the Raja made the necessary preparations to defy the enemy and offer resistance from behind the walls of the fort. Firuz, accordingly invested the fort with a view to storming it to surrender not thinking into be a difficult proposition really, but these who had learnt to enjoy the blessings of mountain nymph sweet liberty could not be divested of it so easily. The garrison despite great privations clung on to their posts remarkably well inflicting losses on the besiegers at every available opportunity in order to force them to raise the siege. It stood out a protracted siege of six long months without displaying the least sign of weakness, hesitation or irresolution. Firuz Tughluq who had not witnessed such dauntless courage in his career of triumph so far was averse to dealing with people cast in such heroic mould too drastically and sent an emissary to the Raja to sound him about submission and unconditional capitulation, assuring him on his part full pardon and generous treatment. There had been as earlier offer too but since it bore no guarantee the Raja had turned it down with haughty disdain that he would much rather die as a Raja than be reduced to the state of a miserable, cringing beggar. He would think twice before turning down the present one since he realized quite fully that the protracted siege had exhausted the patience of combatants on either side, nerves had been frayed and tempers soured and that he was finding himself in dire extremities. Discretion was the better part of valor in the existing situation and the Raja made an unreserved submission. The king on his part received him most kingly, admired the gallantry and bravery of a proud Rajput that he had shown so demonstrably and by way of a pun on the Raja’s previous reply made the generous gesture publicly in order to dispel his misgivings finally, You are a Raja today and you will be a Raja for ever. The fort was restored to him together with his conquered dominion and the king contented himself with the bare acceptance of nominal suzerainty.

Two hundred years later the fort was taken and permanently occupied by the Emperor Akbar. But the Rajputs proved most troublesome to the Mughal governors of the Punjab and repeated expeditions had to be launched in their territory to check them in their recalcitrant and refractory career. The Emperor Jehangir visited the fort and the town in person is still known as the Jehangiri Darbaza. The sanatoria of the Kangra valley doubtless offered him sites for residence in the summer months but he presumably exchanged if for the superior attractions of Kashmir.

The vigorous rule of the Emperor Shah Jahan reduced the Rajas of the hills to the conditions of tributaries, enjoying a good deal of power, and possessing the privilege of building forts and making war on one another. It is presumed that one or other branch of the Kotach family remained in occupation of the fort as it gained or acquired ascendancy in the ancestral hereditas.

Guru Gobind Singh when he took up cudgels on behalf of the oppressed in his fight with tyrannous and persecuting rulers, encouraged the hill Rajas to flout the skirts of the hills between the Sutlej and the Yamuna, lent assistance to the Rajas in their frank revolt against Imperial officers and joined with them in defeating the local governor. Thus the hill chiefs became practically independent in the sequel.

The last of the Katoch family who reigned as Raja at Kangra was Sansar Chand, who succeeded in gaining possession of the renowned old fort in 1784. He was very ambitious, and sought to extend his dominions on every side; but in 1803 he had to contend against Ranjit Singh, who was then becoming an important power in the Punjab. Defeated by him in the plains, Sansar Chand turned his arms against Kahlur; but the Raja of that little state called in the Ghurkas to assist him. They defeated the invader, but could not take his fort. A period of anarchy followed, both parties plundering the country in turn; till at last Sansar Chand asked Ranjit Singh to help him. The required assistance was given, and the Ghurkas were defeated; but Ranjit Singh, though he had promised to allow Sansar to retain his dominions, gradually encroached upon them. The old Katoch Raja eventually surrendered the fort and lost his kingdom forever. It was annexed by Ranjit Singh who offered the dispossessed sovereign a jagir , but Sansar Chand refused to accept it, and supported himself by a revenue of Rs. 20,000, which he had assigned for the support of his female household; this property Ranjit Singh left untouched, and it forms the jagir of Raja Shamsher Singh, the present representative of the family. Sansar Chand died in 1824. He had a most colorful personality and was famous for his patronage of art and music. He assiduously nursed the Kangra Valley School of Painting, which constitutes a fitting memorial to him for all time. At this time all the small hill states fell one after the other into Ranjit Singh’s hands. After the defeat of the Sikhs and at the annexation of the Punjab, the Fort of Kangra stood a siege, and the valley, including the Jalandhar Doab, and the hills between the Sutlej and the Ravi, came under British administration.



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