Fort Architecture

Namaskar and welcome to this episode of the Master Builders of India. The monuments are not merely the creation of mortar and stones, they are the mute embodiment of history; time is frozen in each of their stones. Centuries after centuries, the humble builders of our great country erected sublime monuments in which culture echoes, tradition speaks, beauty enthrals and diversity delights. The most majestic of these creations were the Forts.

Forts are called durg in Sanskrit, which seems to have originated from the word durgam meaning difficult.

Manu, the celebrated Hindu law-giver, states:

“A warrior protected by the fort can fight a hundred enemy soldiers, while one hundred soldiers fighting from the fort can encounter an enemy force of ten thousand.”

Ancient Indian texts mention a variety of forts characterized by their topographical and architectural features. Manu describes six categories of forts:

Dhanur-durg, Mahi-durg, Ab-durga, Varkshya-eva va
Nra-durg, Giri-durg va Samashritya vaset puram

These are such as Dhanur-durg situated in a desert, Mahi-durg a fort made of mud, Ab-durg a fort surrounded by water on all sides; Nra-durg was a fort that was protected by a chaturangini-sena or a four-fold army consisting of elephants, horses, chariots and infantry, and finally the Giri-durg or a fort situated on a top of a hill or a mountain.

Some of the finest pieces of fort architecture can be seen in Rajasthan, or Rajputana as it was known to the British. Despite their preoccupation with war, the Rajputs were great patrons of art and architecture, the most excellent examples being their forts and palaces. In contrast to the perfect symmetry of Mughal architecture, Rajput forts and palaces are complex compositions.

Most of the forts in Rajasthan fall under the category of Giri-durg, also called Shail-durg or Parvat-durg which were, according to the ancient texts, the best of all the categories due to their unassailability.

Sarvottam Shail-durgam abhedyam chanya-bhedyam

Sarvena tu prayatnena Giri-durgam samashrayet
Esham hi bahugunyena Giri-durg vishishyate


One such great mountain forts is at Kumbhalgarh which even today echoes the saga of the gallant Sisodiyas of Mewar..

Kumbhalgarh Fort

[Photo Courtesy: [visit for other images of this fort]

Eighty four km from Udaipur, lies one of the most important forts in the Mewar region. This is Kumbhalgarh, built by Maharana Kumbha in the mid-15th century, who is credited with building as many as 32 forts and fortresses in Mewar during his long reign of nearly half-a-century. Because of its inaccessibility and hostile topography Kumbhalgarh had remained un-conquered. It was taken only once in its history. Even then, it took the combined armies of the Mughal emperor, Akbar, and those of Amber and Marwar and a treacherous poisoning of its water supply to breach its defences. It was here that the rulers of Mewar retreated in times of danger.

Within the walls of the fortress are many temples, palaces, gardens and water-storage facilities.

The fort is self-contained and has within its amalgam almost everything to withstand a long siege. The fort has many magnificent palaces, of which the most picturesque place is the Badal Mahal or the Palace of the Clouds. It offers a spectacular bird's-eye- view of the surrounding countryside.

The Kumbhalgarh Fort also has a great significance by being the birthplace of Maharana Pratap and as the finest examples of defensive fortification in Rajasthan. The most interesting part is that this fort has a fort within itself. Named Kartargarh, the inner fort has a palace built by Maharana Fateh Singh in the 19th century after he had pulled down the old palace built by Rana Kumbha. Kartargarh has 365 temples and shrines including one with a huge Shivlinga.

Rising from a prominent ridge, 1,914 m above the sea level, this massive fort is encompassed by a 36 km long wall and over 25 feet thick, wide enough to take eight horses abreast. As an exemplar of exclusory masonry, this wall stands as the second longest continuous wall in the world, next only to the Great Wall of China. The fort has seven majestic gates and seven ramparts, one within the other. Rounded bastions and soaring watch towers strengthen its crenulated walls making it an impregnable structure.
Cradled amidst a cluster of thirteen mountain peaks of the Aravali range, today the formidable Kumbhalgarh stands a wary sentinel to the past glory of its kings and princes.

Of all the forts located in southern part of this vast country, one that stands out for its rare combination of beauty and strength lies 11 km west of Hyderabad. This is Golconda.

Golconda Fort

[Photo courtesy: width="800px"]

The history of Golconda Fort dates back to the early 13th century, when this part was ruled by the Kakatiya dynasty. The bulk of the ruins of this fort, however, date from the time of the Qutub Shahi kings, who ruled this area during the 16th and 17th century. The fortress, built on a granite hill, rises 120 metres high, and is surrounded by massive crenulated ramparts.

The word Golla Konda, literally means Shepherd's Hill in Telugu. It has an interesting story behind it. In 1143, on the rocky hill called Mangalavaram, a shepherd boy came across an idol of a god. When this news was conveyed to the ruling Kakatiya king, he got a mud fort constructed around the holy spot. From 1507 over a period of 62 years, the mud fort was converted by the Qutub Shahi kings into a massive fort of granite, extending around 5 km in circumference. The rule of the Qutub Shahis at Golconda ended in 1687, with the conquest of the fort by the Mughal emperor Aurangazeb, who almost completely destroyed the fort and left it in a heap of pathetic ruins.

Golconda consists of four distinct forts with a 10 km long outer wall having 87 semi-circular bastions. Some of these bastions are still mounted with cannons. It had eight gateways, four drawbridges and number of royal apartments and halls. Besides, temples, mosques, magazines, stables etc, were also located inside the fort.

An impressive gateway leading to this fort lies at the outermost enclosure. It is called Fateh Darwaza or Victory gate, after Aurangzeb’s triumphant army marched in through this gate. Situated near the south-eastern corner, this gate is studded with giant iron spikes to prevent elephants from battering it down. At Fateh Darwaza one can experience the fantastic acoustical effects, characteristic of the engineering marvels of the builders of the Golconda fort. A hand clap at a certain point below the dome at the entrance reverberates and can be heard clearly at the Bala Hisar pavilion, the highest point almost a kilometre away. This acted as the warning note to residents in case of danger. Now it is a amusing diversion to visitors.

Another majestic gateway is the Bala Hisar Darwaza. Mythical beasts and lions on stucco panels of the spandrels provide decoration on this defence portal. From the Balahisar Darwaza starts the uphill ascent of some 380 uneven stone steps culminating at the Bala Hisar Baradari, a wind-swept pavilion, twelve-arched, triple-storeyed structure used as a durbar hall. It is divided by substantial piers into vaulted bays. A raised chamber with triple arches opens off the rear wall. On the uppermost terrace stands a stone throne. The Baradari shows yet another engineering marvel – natural air-conditioning provided by a gap in the double walls which sucks the air and releases it with accumulated pressure in the chambers.

The main structure of the fort is laid out in a sequence of enclosures that holds the public and administrative structures to the royal residences and halls. Steep narrow steps descend to the zenana quarters – Rani Mahal. These palaces, built on massive platforms, had high ceilings and walls covered with decorative niches, alcoves and cornices, essentially Persian in design. The Rani Mahal in its hey-days contained a world of luxury envied even by the grand Mughals.

Outside the Fort are two separate pavilions built on a rocky eminence - the Taramathi Gana Mandir and the Premamati Nritya Mandir where the legendary sisters Taramathi and Premamati resided. They gave their performance on a circular dais atop a two-storeyed structure, the Kala Mandir, which was visible from the king's durbar (king's court) on top of the Golconda Fort.

Golconda was famous for its diamond mines from where the famed Koh-i Noor diamond is said to have come.

While selecting a site for a fort, its strategic location reigned supreme in the mind of its builder. Whether it was a mountain fort like the ones at Kumbhalgarh and Golconda, or the one located on an island, its inaccessibility was its greatest strength.

Magnificent in its appearance and unassailable in its strength is a unique Water fort or Jal-durg¬ on the Konkan coast. It is Janjira. The locals call it Ajinkya, the Unconquerable, and so it remained throughout its chequered history.

Janjira Fort

[Photo Courtesy:]

Janjira is amongst the more hardy forts that the Konkan coast is gilded with. The Arabian Sea crashes relentlessly all around the fort. In spite of centuries of battering by the ocean, it stands as a testimony to the marvels of engineering; a brooding structure that leaves the onlooker awestruck.

Janjira lies 2 km into the ocean at Murud, a village in the Raigad district of Maharashtra. Janjira is the Marathi corruption of the Arabic word Jazirah meaning an island. Though the whole area was once called Janjira, the name truly referred to the mighty island fortress. It was once the stronghold of the Abyssinian Sidis who played an important part in the history of the region during the latter part of the 17th century.

The sea Fort of Janjira is the only one of its kind in India. Many stories abound about the origin of this fort. Some say that this Jal-durg or Water fort was originally a wooden fortress built by the fishermen of the Murud to protect their village from pirates. Some other hold that it was constructed by the Siddi ruler, Jauhar to protect a Muslim saint named Panj Peer Panjtan Shah Baba, who lived on this island and whose tomb greets visitors as soon as they step inside the fort. But unanimity points towards Malik Ambar, the powerful Abssinian minister in the service of the Nizamshahi Sultan of Ahmednagar, who is credited as the builder of the fort as it appears today.

The Janjira fort was built at the end of the 17th century. The number 22 seems to have a special significance for the fort. It took twenty-two years to complete; it is spread across twenty-two acres of land, and has twenty-two outposts.

The Janjira fort is approached by boat. A stone carving at the main entrance depicts six elephants trapped by a single tiger – a symbol of the bravery of the Siddis. Once the fort boasted of five hundred canons; today only a handful of them are left, still intact and able to tell their story. Amongst them are the three major cannons built from an alloy of five metals. Named Kalar Bangdi, Gaimukh and Chavdi, these were the cherished weapons of the Siddis.

A black mass of impregnable rock, this fort is oval shaped instead of the usual oblong or square shape. The fort wall is about 40 feet high. Inside the fort walls, the ruins of a mosque, a palace and bath with water channelled from streams, tell of ancient times when royal ladies occupied the quarters. In the centre lies a round glass-surfaced pool called Chirekani talav, which was main source of water supply for the residents of the fort.

Janjira withstood a number of invasions by the Portuguese, the Marathas and the British who tried in vain to vanquish this fort. The story goes that Sambhaji planted a mango tree the year he arrived to conquer this fort. The tree grew and Sambhaji partook of its fruit, but the fort never fell. This invincible fort remained unconquered until it became part of India after Independence in 1947.

In long series of the forts, fortresses, and the fort-palaces that mushroomed in the various parts of India, an important contribution, both from aesthetic as well as strategic points of view, was made by the Mughals. The earliest example of their architectural enterprise in building a fort of their tastes and preferences, stands imposingly at Agra.

Agra Fort

[Photo Courtesy: Archaeological Survey of India]

The Red Fort standing on the bank of the Jamuna at Agra is the first major great architectural venture of Akbar. The construction on this fort started in 1565. A daily labour of three to four thousand masons and eight thousand labourers took eight years to complete it. The fort is of an irregular semi-circle in plan that is 2.5 km in circumference. Its massive walls are of concrete and rubble, faced entirely with huge blocks of finely dressed red sandstone.

Complete with battlements, enclosures, machicolations and stringcourses these mighty walls were skillfully designed to withstand any onslaught.

Amar Singh Gate provides the main entrance to the fort. It was originally intended for private entry. This gate has remarkable strength and arrangements for defence purposes, namely a drawbridge, a crooked entrance with dangerous trap-points and a steep rise.

Earlier known as Akbari Darwaza, it was renamed after Amar Singh Rathore of Marwar, who assassinated Salabat Khan, the Mir Bakshi or the Pay Master of Shah Jahan in1622. Amar Singh is said to have escaped by jumping the moat on his horseback from the top of this gate.

Just behind the Amar Singh Gate is Naubat Khana, a truly imposing and beautiful structure. It has pillared pavilions overhead, where musicians sat and played music announcing arrival and departure of the royals. The decorative patterns of this entry-point are worth seeing.

The only building of Akbar's period, preserved in its entirety, is the Jahangiri Mahal, a large square palace built of red sandstone. It is a double-storeyed structure enclosing an open courtyard.

The courtyard behind the facade is flanked by pillared halls on north and south sides.

The inner chhajja, rotating round the court is supported on beautifully designed peacock-shaped brackets. Each peacock has a serpent in its beak. This is an illustration of the Hindu mythological belief that the peacock is a traditional enemy of serpents.

Abul Fazl, the court historian of Akbar who was also one of his navratnas or nine jewels, records that the fort contained over 500 buildings. However, most of these buildings were pulled down by Shah Jahan, who added a string of his own edifices. Abdul Hamid Lahori, the author of Badshah Nama, tells us about Shah Janhan’s love for building art.

“The Royal Mind, which is illustrious like Sun, pays full attention to lofty edifices and strong buildings’, informs Lahori, adding that ‘the majority of these buildings he designs himself and in the designs prepared by clever masons after a long consideration, he makes appropriate alterations…”

According to Lahori, during the reign of Shah Jahan, the construction of buildings reached such a point that astonished ‘the fastidious tourists and the magical masters of this incomparable art.’ And what meets the eye to this days proves that Lahori was not wrong.
The marble buildings of Shah Jahan in the Agra Fort stand in sharp contrast of the red and yellow sandstone buildings of the earlier age. The beauty overtook the strength, or so it seemed.

The Khas Mahal with the Anguri Bagh or the Garden of Grapes stretched at its feet; the Sheesh Mahal or the Glass Palace, situated on the north–eastern corner of the Anguri Bagh marked by its glass-mosaic decoration; the octagonal Mussaman Burj where Shah Jahan breathed his last in full view of the Taj Mahal across the Jamuna; the Machhi Bhawan or the Fish Palace, which served as the water sports arena for the ladies of the royal harem all testify to the aesthetic taste of their royal patron.
The crowning glories of the buildings inside the Agra Fort are the two buildings namely the Diwan-i Khas and the Diwan-i Am.

Diwan-i Khas or the Hall of Private Audience, was constructed in 1635. The beauty of its intricate inlay work and inscriptions in Persian, is enhanced by carved relief designs.

Diwan-i Am was the Hall of Public Audience. The façade is composed of an arcade with 9-cusped arches supported on double columns. In the middle of the eastern wall is the throne chamber – a beautifully devised structure with trefoil shaped arches. It is profusely ornamented with inlaid patterns and sunk niches.

The forts of India add a unique chapter in the history of its architecture. Their location, their design and their size provide us with an index of political climate during various phases of India’s illustrious history. Their ornamentation and other decorative features give us an insight into the attainments of Indian craftsmen.

When the monuments speak, you should stop and hear, or so they say. Until next week when we will continue our journey in time, its Good Bye and Jai Hind.

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Fergusson, James. History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, 2 Vols. New York, 1891.
Havell, E.B. Encyclopaedia of Architecture in the Indian Subcontinent, 2 Vols. Reprint, New Delhi, 2000,
Jain, Kailash Chand, Ancient Cities and Towns in Rajasthan, Delhi, 1972.
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