The ascent to Chunar Fort

Part 2: Medieval Chunar

The Uttarvahini Ganga on a hazy day
The Uttarvahini Ganga on a hazy day

Chunar fort is built on a promontory on the eastern bank of the river Ganga but is so strategically placed across it that the mighty river actually strikes against the fort and turns back towards north. This gives the name to Ganga as Uttarvahini – meaning turning around! This fort has multi layered historical contexts and several stories hidden within it. Within this limited space and not wasting your time I will be able to tell of the ones that stand out for their uniqueness to me.

Photo courtesty: Poulomi Das
One of the many grand fort entrances

The fort was alternately built and ruled over centuries by kings such as Vikramaditya of Ujjain, Shamsuddin Ghori of Delhi, Muhammad Shah of Jaunpur, the Mughal emperors Babur and Humayun, the Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri, the Nawabs of Awadh, the King of Benaras, and finally the British.

 

Carved archways
Carved archways

But it is important to me due to its link with Sher Shah, the formidable Afghan king of the Sur dynasty who dared to challenge the rising power of the Mughal dynasty and fought a decisive battle that made Humayun flee India. Sher Shah is probably the only ruler of India to have any romantic linkage to the Chunar fort – he married Lad Malka, the widow of governor of the Chunar fort during the Mughal era and gained control over the treasury housed in the fort. Since the fort was located on the water trade route, boats passing by on the Ganga had to pay taxes for a safe passage, this let to the importance of the fort and its riches. On getting Chunar fort Sher Shah immediately came upon a lot of wealth, required to pay his army and attacked Humayun. In a cunningly planned game, Sher Shah defeated Humayun and made him flee India. It was this same fort that made Sher Shah Suri the emperor of India in 1540 at the age of nearly 60 years! Isn’t it fantastic to stand in the same fort and marvel at it?

Thanks to the PAC staff the fort isn't crumbling!
Thanks to the PAC staff the fort isn’t crumbling!

I wish we could have seen more of the fort, maybe some painting or a painted tile somewhere that would have helped understand the actual splendor of the fort that it must have witnessed. Most of the fort is under Provincial Ahmed Constabulary (PAC), so large parts of it are not accessible. We could not see the royal personal monument since it is the residence of a senior PAC official.

 

Steps and entrances leading to stories within the fort
Steps and entrances leading to stories within the fort

We were told of the hanging house where imprisoned prisoners were hung, the torture chambers under the ground with only small holes for the prisoners to breathe, the artillery chamber where the fort’s entire artillery was stored and the places where members of the ruling families would have lived. Since there is no detailed information available on this site there is an acute lack of clarity on the history of the fort. We were shown two inscriptions on top of gates of the fort that have been attributed to the Mughal emperors Akbar and Jahangir but sadly we are yet to know the message in these inscriptions.

Photo courtesy: Asok Kumar Das
The compound lies in neglect

We did come across two large tomb structures dedicated to the Sufi saints Shah Qasim Sulaimani and Shah Kabir Baba. While one of these structures is smaller the other is quite large – both are beautiful. Both have tombs at the lowest stories that are open to public only during Urs. The top of the actual tombs are encased in domes, remnants of painted circular medallions and motifs convey to us the finesse of artistry of the 17th century.

Photo courtesy: Asok Kumar Das
Photo courtesy: Asok Kumar Das

Most of the painted ceiling has been subdued with time but whatever remains is startlingly similar to the painted decoration as seen from the architectural elements in Mughal and Persian miniatures. This means that these painted motifs that I was looking at is the archaeological proof of those times that the paintings have so efficiently captured!

Photo courtesy: Poulomi Das
The central medallion from the dome
Detail of a carved window near the ceiling of the dome
Detail of a carved window near the ceiling of the dome

There are still a lot of the stone carved jalis with unique designs that were made from, yes you guessed correctly – Chunar sandstone 🙂 and iron.

The families that take care of the tombs have representatives who narrated the stories of the history of the tombs to us with startling ease and accuracy. They were the best interpreters to Chunar that we encountered till then!

Carved jalis (screens)
Carved jalis (screens)
Photo courtesy: Poulomi Das
Iftikhar Khan’s tomb

The final destination on our way out of Chunar was the tomb of Iftikhar Khan who died in 1605 while one of the governors of the place during the reign of Mughal emperor Jahangir. His tomb and the space it is enclosed in reminded me of the Maner shrine in Bihar due to the carving on it.

 

Photo courtesy: Poulomi Das
Carved arches of the tomb

The tomb is mostly closed due to neglect and disrepair and infested with bats and bees. I managed to climb the upper story to get a better view of the domes and the vast area around it. Hopefully, one day soon this tomb will also get some attention from its stakeholders and be restored nicely.

 

The journey through Chunar till now has been a lesson of how a lack of interpretation and interest in our history, a deep apathy to what could have been explained through exciting moments, stories and flashbacks has resulted in a sense of loss and pride in our identity and present.

Some regular visitors were left intrigued by our constanty photography!
Some regular visitors were left intrigued by our constanty photography!

 

The next and last post on Chunar will talk about its British association.

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