Monday, 29 June 2015

Sinhagad Fort, Pune

Known as “Kondana” in the old days, Sinhagad (also spelt Sinhgad), or “the lion’s fort” is one of the most popular weekend destinations from Pune. Located at around 30 km to the Southwest of Pune city, on a hill of the Bhuleshwar range of the Sahyadri Mountains, some 1300 metres above sea level, Sinhagad is a favourite with trekkers but may be reached via car as well. The Marathas have fought multiple battles from the 1640s to the early 1700s for control of this fort.



Kondaneshwar Temple at Sinhagad
The earliest mention of Sinhagad fort (then called Kondana) is from 1328, when the Koli chief Nag Nayak defended it bravely against the vast armies of Muhammad bin Tuhglaq, Sultan of Delhi. Nag Nayak, it is said, held out for almost nine months when Tuhglaq’s army laid siege to the fort. More than 300 years later, in 1647, Shivaji, the great Maratha warrior King, rebelled against the Adil Shahi Dynasty and took control of the fort. Forced to return the fort to Adil Shah only two years later to secure the release of his father, Shivaji recaptured the fort in 1656. The Mughals attacked the fort thrice, in 1662, 1663 and 1665, but all efforts to take the fort by force failed. Finally the Mughal commander Jai Singh laid siege to Shivaji’s fort in Purandar in 1665, and compelled him to hand over Sinhagad, along with almost a dozen other forts and large tracts of land to Mughal control. But Shivaji’s armies laid siege to the fort only 5 years later, leading to the most famous and legendary confrontation of all.

The attack was led by Tanaji Malusare, who was nicknamed “Sinha” or “lion”, and his brother Suryaji. On the night of the 4th of February, 1670, Tanaji was informed that the garrison of 5000 guarding the fort would probably have their guard down, as there was to be a celebration of some sort. As the Mughal soldiers drank themselves into a stupor, Tanaji surveyed the fort and found one bastion to be completely unguarded. But a natural advantage to the defenders of Sinhagad was that it was on top of an immensely steep cliff which afforded it natural protection. How would the Maratha soldiers scale the sheer rock face? Tanaji came up with a brilliant solution. A rope was tied around the waist of a giant water monitor lizard named Yashwanti. Water monitor lizards are extremely strong and can climb any surface with ease. With Yashwanti’s help 342 Maratha soldiers reached the bastion. On the other side, Suryaji prepared to attack one of the fort’s gates with another small force of men. Once inside, the Marathas attacked the drunken Mughal soldiers who were taken completely by surprise. In the fierce combat, Tanaji and Jai Singh’s nephew Udaybhan killed each other. When the commander is killed, soldiers often panic and retreat. To prevent them from using the rope to escape down the bastion wall, Suryaji cut it down. The message was a simple one, fight or jump off the cliff to your death. The tiny Maratha force was ultimately able to subdue the fort’s defenders, even though the Mughals outnumbered them 10 to 1. When news of victory and Tanaji’s death reached Shivaji, he is said to have uttered the famous words, “Gad aala, pan Sinha gela”, meaning “the fort has been won, but the lion has been lost”. He renamed Kondana Sinhagad in Tanaji’s honour. Sinhagad was to fall to the Mughals again in 1689, only to be recaptured by the Marathas in 1693, by Aurangzeb’s armies in 1703 and by the Marathas again in 1706. The East India Company’s overthrow of the Maratha Empire finally put an end to this Ping-Pong game in 1818.

Sinhagad is mostly in ruins today, but enough of the fort remains to provide the visitor with an idea of what it must have been like in its heydays. This includes the fort’s two gates, the Kalyan Darwaza and Pune Darwaza. The fort is used by the National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla, who send their cadets carrying heavy battle gear on runs through the fort to build up their endurance and stamina. Exploring the fort can take several hours and there is much to see. Indian freedom fighter Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak built a villa on top of the fort which he used as his summer residence which remains standing. But for some inexplicable reason, state television Doordarshan has been allowed to erect a huge broadcast tower on top of the fort. The power generator for the tower is located right next to Tilak’s Bungalow! There are multiple tanks atop the fort, the most famous among them being Dev Taki and Ganesh Taki. The water of Dev Taki is sweet and considered potable. Near it is the temple of Kondaneshwar. Kondana… Kondaneshwar, get it? There is also a memorial to Tanaji Malusare, and a plaque atop one of the gates says the following in Marathi, “On this Fort, warrior men have the saffron flag. Because they have shed their blood, we have been able to see a happy today. Brave warrior Tanaji Malusare laid down his life and won the fort on 4th Feb 1670. After that, freedom fighter Navji Lakhmaaji Balkavde also laid down his life and won us the fort on 1st July 1693. And Chatrapati Rajaram Maharaj also passed away on this same fort on 3rd March 1700”. From boards put up near the Pune Darwaza, it appears that Sinhagad today is in much better shape than a decade back. Mountains of garbage have been cleaned up, the road up to the fort has been repaired and stairs and pathways have been laid out well.

Tilak's villa at Sinhagad

What is the best time to visit Sinhagad? I had visited it in October-November, and found clear blue skies and very pleasant weather. Do avoid going in the monsoons because the stairs are all stone and can get very very slippery. Keep in mind that exploring hill forts means climbing up and down stairs constantly and as such, Sinhagad isn’t really suitable for the elderly or unfit. The fort remains as treacherous today as it once was for Shivaji’s soldiers, and in January 2015 a young man who was taking photographs slipped and fell to his death from one of Sinhagad’s bastions, so do be careful. While you’re there, don’t miss the hot and crispy “Kanda Vada”. Sliced onions, deep fried in a spicy batter, Kanda Vada is a popular snack all over Maharashtra. There are also stalls selling some excellent “baingan bharta”, which is a spicy dish made with eggplant, accompanied by “bhaakri” which is the Maharashtrian version of the “chapatti”, made with Jowar (Sorghum) or Bajra (Millet). To cool your stomach down after that spicy meal, have a cup of cool, unsweetened yoghurt, which is also sold here.

The view from Sinhagad

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

  • I am grateful to my cousin Ayan Sarbadhikari for accompanying me on this trip.
  • Thanks also to Madhuri Bhosale for translating the Marathi plaque commemorating Tanaji Malusare and others.


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