As you make your way to the impregnable fort of Asirgarh beyond the historic town of Burhanpur, on the border of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, there comes a point when the view ahead is both arresting and overpowering.
Asirgarh is built on a spur in the Satpuras range and rises to 850 ft above the hill base commanded over the road from Hindustan or Northern India to Deccan during the medieval times. The kings of Faruqi Dynasty turned the hill into an unassailable fort as they ruled over Khandesh since the dynasty’s inception in 1382. Twenty km to the south was their capital city of Burhanpur on River Tapti; the Gateway to Deccan.
In the 16th century, Asirgarh was regarded as the strongest fort ever built; its reputation further attested by travellers from across the world who had not seen a fortress so strong which had enough provisions and ammunition to withstand a long siege. Asirgarh was the coveted ‘Key to Deccan’ and the Faruqis were not going to hand over the key yet. Not even to the Mughal Emperor Akbar.
Directed by the excellent MP Tourism signs, you gradually make your way up the hill even as the fearsome battlements keep peeping through the tree cover. Not a stretch of the road goes that is not visible from the bastions above – if not from the main fort but then from the intervening two additional levels of concentric fortifications. If this was not enough, some outlying hills with names like Koria Pahar and Nawara Dongar or the Bridegroom Hill have been scarped into natural bastions. No wonder King Bahadur Khan felt safe in the fort even as the 2,00,000 strong Mughal army kept up the artillery barrage. But then he should have known that rock fortifications and cannon balls are no match for human deception and betrayal.
The Royal Negotiation
It was the twilight of Akbar’s glorious career. He had to take care of some unfinished business in the Deccan. In the beginning of 1600 CE, Akbar rolled into Khandesh from Malwa. The Faruqi King Bahadur Khan refused to pay tribute to Akbar and duly took position inside the impregnable Asirgarh. After taking over Burhanpur, Akbar returned and the Mughal forces laid siege to the fort in April, while Prince Daniyal was engaged in quelling Chand Bibi in Ahmednagar. The emperor could not bear the defiance of a small king on the all important route to Deccan. Intelligence confirmed that the fort had ample supplies of water, food and ammunition. Akbar knew subjugating the fort will take time and time was one luxury he did not have. He will have to employ trickery and intrigue.
Akbar invited King Miran Bahadur Khan for negotiation. Despite his officers’ concerns, Bahadur Shah accepted Akbar’s invitation to meet in August. However, despite assurances and oath that no harm will be inflicted, the King was seized. But still the princes in the fort did not capitulate and the siege continued; the siege was now six months long. Akbar knew that the siege could continue for years, while Prince Salim threatened to take over the Empire. He had to return to Agra but not without completing the conquest. So when treachery failed, it was time for bribery.
The garrison officers were bribed with gold and finally the fort capitulated in January 1601 after a siege and intrigue games that played out for ten long months. Akbar returned triumphantly to Agra but soon died in 1605 without realising his dream of reclaiming Central Asia of his forefathers or conquest of Golkonda and Bijapur.
Just beyond a gateway that opens up to mesmerising views of Nimar below; Nimar being the south-western region of Madhya Pradesh that has been carved into modern districts now. A long series of narrow steps brings the visitors from the plains below to the first level of fortifications called Malaigarh and then here to the central level of fortifications called Kamargarh, through a series of five gateways. This was the original entry path into the fort which was later augmented by a road built by the British. It is time to climb a few vertical flights of steps to enter Asirgarh, the greatest fort of the 16th century. The structure whose minars acted like beacons to bring you up in this 60 acres fortified campus, protected by walls that soar to 120 feet over the formidable hill, looks imposing. The Jami Masjid, built by the Faruqi King Raja Ali Khan, is a handsome structure with stone steps leading to its high three-arched entrance. Inside, the courtyard is flanked by cloistered halls or arched passages. The west facing qibla wall has 13 decorated mihrabs with lattice screens, most of which have been lost. Flanking the western hall are two slender minarets that have kept you company as you approached Asirgarh on the highway.
The Colonial Touch
Leaving the mosque you make your way on the faint trails. The crisp sunny day with blue skies and wispy clouds is excellent for photography. All around here are the unmistakable ruins of colonial structures. The fort along with the Faruqis, Mughals and Marathas has British connection too. British soldiers and their families stayed in these barracks and houses with chimneys. Such houses are common in the railway colonies of small towns across India. There is a cemetery too with several tombstones of soldiers who probably died storming the fort as they tried to wrest it back from the Marathas.
Through the overhanging branches you come to the twin water tanks popularly known as Mama Bhanja Talaos. It was these water tanks that supported a population of almost 40,000 people that came out of the gates of the fort when the fort fell. You can see paths leading to underground structures that probably were used as granaries.
Since there are not many structures here, you can focus on the landscape. Here the views are dazzling – the hill and the rolling plains are awashed in brilliant green even as the lace embroidered skies seem to be in easy reach. The dirt track can be seen inching through the tree cover. All around on the ground studding the luminescent green grass are the purple balsam and pink zinnia flowers swaying in the breeze.
The fort has been witness to a long history of bravery, deception and yes, the fort has connection to mythology too. Firishta, the Persian scholar, attributes the original construction of fort to Asa Ahir, a local chieftain. The name Asir could have originated from the Asi or Haihaya kings who ruled over the Narmada river from Maheshwar. In 1295, Alauddin Khilji returning from one of his sacking tours of Deccan killed all the ruling Chauhan Rajputs of Asirgarh. The Faruqi Dynasty, an offshoot of the Bahmani Sultanate, ruled until the aging Akbar decided to show up on his last conquest outing. Later in 1803, the fort under Maratha occupation was captured by General Wellesley’s army in the Second Anglo-Maratha War.