It is about half past three in the afternoon and my friend Niti and I have been walking through and exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Gagron Fort at Jhalawar, Rajasthan. We have been at the Fort for the last 2 hours or so and leisurely exploration has been all about trying to understand the Fort’s layout, extent and get a feel of its past.
We take paths leading off tantalisingly into various parts of the Fort. We stop regularly to peer into what looks like half-finished structures, but realise that they are attempts to ‘renovate/restore’ them. We peer over the massive fort walls and rear back in alarm at the sheer drop. We also notice the fascinating rock formations around and see the river flowing silently by.
All through this, we have no clue as to what we are seeing for there are no signboards to indicate where we are within the Fort or what we are seeing. Niti and I have fun speculating what each building could have been — armoury, palace, stables, public hall, temple, etc. But the November afternoon sun is harsh and we are beginning to tire.
We almost decide to turn back when we see steps leading to a doorway in the fort wall and decide to explore that and before heading back.
We walk through the doorway and find ourselves in a circular bastion that would have doubled up as a watchtower in the past and would be perfect as a viewing gallery today. I walk up to the edge and literally gasp at the sight in front of me. The beauty of the location and the uniqueness of the Fort that I had read about was suddenly revealed.
The Gagron Fort is built in the Mukundara Hills of the Vindhyan mountain ranges, with the hill itself acting as the foundation for the fort walls. Two rivers — the Kali Sindh and the Aho — flow on either side of the Fort and only to meet in a confluence at one end of the Fort. The riverine actions of both the rivers have cut through the vertically inclining rocks to meet each other. While the confluence is not very apparent, it would be a different story during the monsoons when the water levels would rise. The rivers would appear to flow as one looping around the Fort, and that’s when one can experience the Fort being surrounded by water on three sides.
There has been a fair amount of debate as to whether Gagron is a hill fort or a water fort. Most people consider it to be a water fort due to it being surrounded by water on three sides. But according to this newspaper report, a 15th century stone inscription describes Gagron as a hill fort. Known as the Kumbhalgarh Prashasti, these inscriptions are at the Udaipur museum and refer to Gagron Fort as “Gangrat” that Rana Kumbha won during one of his military expeditions. The Fort also finds mention as “Kaakroon” in a Persian text called Tabaqat-I-Akbari.
The setting couldn’t have been more picturesque or dramatic, and one would think that Gagron Fort would be impregnable and unconquerable. History, however, tells us otherwise as Gagron has seen many battles, sieges, two jauhars (or self-immolation by women) and change of rulers.
Historians are divided over when the fort was built. Some say that construction of the Gagron Fort began in the 7th Century CE and continued until the 14th century; others say that it was built in the 11th century. One reason why an earlier date is ascribed to the Fort is the absence of lime mortar (which started getting used in construction only in the 10th Century CE) in some parts of the Fort.
One of the earliest known rulers was Bijaldev, a Doda-Parmar Rajput in the 11th century CE. During his reign, the Fort was called Dodagarh and when it came under the control of the Khinchi-Chauhan rulers some 200 years later, it came be called Dhulargarh. It is not clear when the name of the Fort changed to Gagron.
The last Khinchi-Chauhan ruler was Achal Das, who was defeated by Sultan Hoshang Shah of Mandu in 1423. Alauddin Khilji laid siege to the Fort in the 14th century, but failed to capture it, while Rana Kumbha won it in the 15th century. Bahadur Shah of Gujarat won this Fort from Mewar’s Maharana Vikramaditya in 1532. The Gagron Fort was captured by Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1561 and it remained with the Mughals till 1715, when Maharao Bhim Singh of Kota got it as a grant from Aurangzeb. Gagron remained with Kota till India’s Independence.
Gagron finds mention in the Akbarnama and there is a beautiful illustration by the artist Madhav Kalan of Akbar taking control of the Fort. I saw this painting only after my visit to Gagron Fort and was amazed to see that not much has changed. This is just inside the Fort’s entrance and while the Fort is a lot shabbier today, the features are still recognisable. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photographs of this frame.
I do, however, have a small selection of the photographs I took of the Fort, the views and the buildings within to share. Clicking on any of the photographs below will start a slide show and you can use the arrow keys to navigate through the set. Once you have finished, do come back to read the rest of the post.
As I look out of the circular bastion, a question strikes me: Gagron is just about 7 km from Gagron and yet, it remained with the Kota state rather than the Jhalawar. Why was that so? Did the Jhalawar state not pursue in getting the Fort as part of its territory?
I asked Mahijit ji, member of the Jhalawar royal family, and my host in Jhalawar. His response made a lot of sense. Before the formation of Jhalawar state in 1838, the area that forms Jhalawar present day Jhalawar city was developed as a chhauni or military outpost by Zalim Singh, Diwan of Kota, and grandfather of Maharaj Rana Madan Singh Jhala, the first king of Jhalawar. Zalim Singh used to camp at the Gagron Fort, but by the time Jhalawar state was formed and Madan Singh arrived here, the Fort was already in ruins. While Gagron’s location is impressive, it is also quite impractical — during the monsoons, access to the Fort is limited and it often gets cut off (something that happens even today). This was not a very good position for a ruler to be in, especially a new ruler of a new kingdom who needed to be accessible to his people rather stay in a remote Fort.
Mahijit ji also spoke about his memories of visiting Gagron Fort as a child. He called it a khandahar, which doesn’t quite translate into just a ruin, but also conveys a sense of desolation. And that is exactly what I felt about the Fort. In spite of the grandness, its size and its location, and the fact that there is some restoration work happening, Gagron is a khandahar, a desolate ruin. I was there in the afternoon and even though I had Niti with me, there was a sense of unease all along. Partly because of the empty and lifeless buildings, partly because we came across just 2-3 other people in the couple of hours we spent there, and partly because of the site of the jauhar that my driver pointed out.
The ASI’s ‘renovation’ of the Gagron Fort to make it more visitor and tourist friendly may not really work. At the most, it will be a cosmetic exercise to spruce up a Fort.
I leave you with this short video (not mine!) of Gagron Fort which will give you a bird’s-eye view of the Fort, its layout, the two rivers, the circular bastion-cum-viewing tower, and the hills surrounding it. I’ve been told that in the not too distant past, this used to be heavily forested. Not much remains of it, though. All that remains is the desolation.
Acknowledgements: Shubhra Chatterji, for sharing her research on Gagron; and Mahijit ji for that wonderful discussion on Gagron.
The Hadoti Trip Series: Dear Hadoti | Discovering Jhalawar | The painted rooms of Garh Mahal of Jhalawar | Bhawani Natyashala: The Opera House of Jhalawar | An evening in Jhalrapatan | The Buddhist rock-cut caves at Kolvi | The Gagron Fort at Jhalawar | An impact crater, a temple ruin and some discoveries | A fun evening in Kota | A safari on the River Chambal |