Sunday, June 19, 2011

The lion’s fortress

Gad aalaa, pan singh gilaa (We captured the fort but lost the lion) “ , so goes popular Marathi folklore, referring to the Marathi warrior Tanaji Malusare, who lost his life in regaining the fort of Sinhagad from the Mughals, in the Battle of Sinhagad of 1670. This fort has an important place in Maratha and Indian history- for it was here that Mughal power was crushed by the inimitable warrior and Maratha supremo, Chhatrapati Shivaji.

It was a rain-soaked day, and I, along with my friend Ajay, decided to make the most of by trekking up to this historic fort, located some 30 km from Pune. The drizzle had increased to a tempo, and clouds loomed heavy over the sky by the time we reached Sinhagad Road, the arterial connector to the fort.

Established some two thousand years back, Sinhagad Fort was an important base for the Maratha warriors, being located at a height of 1350 metres above sea level, and situated strategically at the center of a string of other forts such as Rajgad, Purandar and Torna. Built originally as 'Kondana' after the sage Kaundinya, it was captured from the Koli tribal chieftain, Nag Naik, by Muhammad bin Tughlaq in 1328 AD .Thereafter, it had a turbulent history of being alternately in Maratha and Delhi Sultanate/ Mughal hands. The most notable event surrounding this fort was the battle of Sinhagad in 1670, in which Chhatrapati Shivaji gained control over the fort through his brave chieftan Tanaji. After further turmoil and change of hands, the British took control of this fort in 1818, but notably it took them three months to conquer the fort, a testimony to the ruggedness and remoteness of this place.

We had lunch at a dhaba, with Gavran (desi chicken), and we could see that all around, people were in the “spirit” literally, making most of the weather. Further on the way, we passed by the Khadakwasala lake, busy as always with its share of holiday revellers, roadside snack stalls and frantic policemen trying to control the unruly traffic. The lake was blue and looked inviting, as it always does in the rains. Ahead, the road laid out, in a sinous pattern, through swathes of green, towards Sinhagad. We could see the clouds in the distance collecting on the hilltops, the scenery looked idyllic and captivating, and we were excited about the trek.

The base of the fort was a river of mud. After having parked my car initially in a field, and getting the slush all over us in the bargain, I parked it on the road securely, and we started to ascend the 5 km distance to the summit of the fort. The downpour had reduced to a drizzle by now, which made things more enjoyable. As we walked up, the winding trail that formed the trekking route to Fort Sinhagad, constantly ascended uphill with sharp bends and corners. A number of people, in all assortments, were climbing with us – the middle-aged lady in semi high heels (!) with her husband, frolicking youngsters, elderly people and serious trekkers with rucksacks on their back. There was enough company to feel encouraged, though we had began trekking only at quarter to four in the afternoon, with just a few hours of sunlight to go.

We were now passing through clouds, and could see them around us, on the neighbouring hills and generally all around. It was damp and we could feel the precipitate falling on to us. It was thrilling to be literally walking among the clouds.

Every now and then, we would come across makeshift stalls selling chai, sugarcane juice (usa ras) and other assorted eatables. We declined these politely since we were carrying our own ration- water! It was, at any rate, vital, since the trek was arduous, given the time frame we had on our hands.

These are the very treacherous slopes that Tanaji and his men conquered on February 4, 1670. The fort was then controlled by the Mughals, under the fortkeeper Uday Bhan Rathod. Legend has it that Tanaji, one of the closest confidantes of Chhatrapati Shivaji, received the summon for war at his son’s wedding and immediately left for the battle. He decided to climb the steepest cliff leading to the fort, which was left unguarded by the Mughals, not believing that any attack could be launched from there. A giant monitor lizard (ghorpad) named Yeshwanti, was used, with a rope tied around its waist for climbing up the steep vertical rock face. Under the cover of the night, on a cliff which was considered unapproachable, Tanaji and his brave troupe of warriors ascended the treacherous slopes of Sinhagad Fort. However, there was a fair share of tragedy - the rope gave way in the later stages of the ascent- plunging 60 of his warriors to their death below.

The slopes of the hill are still treacherous, and we faced quite a few situations where utmost caution was required. This being the monsoons, the slopes were slippery, and some of the rocks were a challenge to climb.

The fort is a part of training at National Defence Academy, Khadakwasala. Cadets from the academy are regularly sent on a hikes and run from NDA to Sinhagad, a distance of 26 km, in full battle gear to build endurance and stamina.

It was a great revelation on the way that peoples’ perceptions of time and distance vary widely. Whenever we asked other people around us, the time needed to climb up, to our co-climbers, we got different answers- it was half an hour at times, two hours at others, one hour. Several people indicated that it was just “around the corner”, whereas we were in fact climbing further and further. It was amazing to see people coming down with small babies on their shoulders, little girls ascending barefoot, elderly women negotiating the slopes with difficulty. It made one aware of the adventurous nature of these people, perhaps a remnant of the spirit of the people who inhabited this place in the past.

While we climbed up, the valley opened up below us from one of the bends in the road. There were houses below, shrouded in lush greenery, clouds around us, and far away in the distance, we could make out the waters of the Khadakwasala lake. It was well past four in the afternoon, and we were hopeful of reaching at the fort much before dusk, but were unsure of how to descend, since it would be dark by then. Our co-climbers suggested we take the public taxis available at the fort. We hoped we would get one, and pressing our luck, pushed on. I had taken a torchlight in my backpack, just to be sure, so that we were prepared for any eventualities. The ascent was a tiring one, and we stopped a few times on the way to catch our breath. I used this opportunity for taking photographs.

Coming back to the Battle of Sinhagad, a fierce combat took place between Tanaji and Udaybhan.The battle was fought bravely, Tanaji fighting on despite losing his shield and warding off the sword attacks. He managed to acquire another sword and fought his adversary, who was wielding a sword and shield. At the climax of the battle, both struck a fatal blow to each other, and collapsed, succumbing to their injuries. The fall of Tanaji caused panic amongst his soldiers, who tried to climb back down the slopes. Legend states that the ropes were then cut by Tanaji's brother Suryaji forcing the soldiers to either fight or jump down the sheer cliffs to their deaths. As we made our way up the slopes, I sympathesized with those who had jumped off the cliffs that day. It must have been a hard decision to take; war makes people do desperate things. Looking at the tranquil surroundings, it was hard to believe that this place had been the site of such a fierce battle so many years back.

Finally, after the last bend in the road, we could see the ramparts of Fort Sinhagad! We were finally there, after having trekked 5 km in one and a half hours, continuously uphill, something I would have thought earlier, would never be possible. The crowd at the fort made one feel we were standing at the busy MG Road of Pune, rather than at the summit of a rugged hill. It was apparent that people had decided to make the most out of their Sunday by visiting Sinhagad. It is a popular weekend destination among Puneites.

Clouds had encircled the Fort, creating a surreal surrounding, a sort of make-believe world where one felt as if he were moving amongst the clouds. We could not see the nearby hills due to the fog and clouds, and the continuous precipitate from the clouds were getting through our shoes and clothes. I had to take due care of my camera so it wouldn’t be damaged.

I photographed an old building that looked like a storehouse, capturing the play of sunlight and fog coming through the door. I just had entered another building, which looked like old stables, planning to take photographs, when I had to come out instantly due to the stench. The Indian “loose-bladder” syndrome had struck here, and a visitor was happily adding his liquid contribution to the history of this place. Our ignorance, apathy, utter lack of concern and disrespect towards our historical places is, of course, a well-known fact- nothing much to comment newly upon. It is sad, bad and disgusting, and falls flat upon our claims of being ones of the world’s oldest civilizations. I can only hope and pray that one day, better sense will prevail upon people, so they don’t mutilate history and historical places.

We could see people on the ridges of the fort, shadowy characters in the mist, and were taking photographs , when, miraculously, the clouds started drifting away from the surroundings. And then it opened up below and around us, through the clouds- a lake in the distance, a valley, lush hills surrounding us. It was breathtaking. And further as we walked on , we could see a river running through the valley below, and far away in the distance, the city of Pune! It was breathtaking and worth every minute of the tiring trek.

No doubt, the Marathas would have also felt elated after they captured the fort after the Battle of Sinhagad. As morning would have dawned, after a night-long battle, they would have gazed at these slopes below and felt proud of their achievement. However, all achievements come at a price, and for them, the price was Tanaji’s life . When Shivaji was informed of his death, he remarked “Gad aalaa, pan sinh gilaa” (thus according the status of lion-heart to Tanaji) . Legend says Shivaji renamed the fort from Kondana to Sinhagad (Lion's Fort) in Tanaji's honor. However, records show that fort Kondana was many a times referred to as 'Sinhagad' on many occasions before this war. The jury would be out on this one, as in all matters related to folklore.

We saw the Samadhi of Tanaji, erected and maintained in his memory. A bust of the brave warrior adorns the site.

Other illustrious people have graced Sinhagad, too. We came across the bungalow of the great freedom fighter Lokmanya Tilak, which he bought in 1890. He completed some of his seminal writings such as “Arctic Home in the Vedas” and “ Gita rahasya” at this very bungalow. It was also here that he met Mahatma Gandhi in 1915.

After having done a round of the fort, it was now 6.00 pm and time to return. The question was- how to head back? Conversation with one of the shopkeepers revealed that it was still possible to trek down, as dusk would set in only at 7.30 pm. I was initially apprehensive, having seen the slippery nature of the trail, but agreed. An adventure has to be enjoyed; it does not come every day!

The way down was easier than climbing up, though we got into a bit of a tight spot by taking a short cut from the main trail and ending up on a steep path. After some anxious moments, we finally got back to the main trail. Dusk was approaching and our main concern was to get to the lower reaches as soon as possible. We teamed up with two other guys who were climbing down. They were regular trekkers and we conversed about trekking in general and Sinhgad in particular. According to them, it seemed like we were a bit late in the timing of the descent. We moved on at a brisk pace.

It can be tough running down a steep slope and taking photographs at the same time; but I kept clicking, despite being anxiously prodded on by Ajay. The anxiety was understandable- no one wants to get caught in a hilly trail after dark in the monsoon season with the wilderness and steep terrain for company. However, I wanted to make the most of the experience, confident that we would reach down before sunset.

All the stalls and chai shops on the trail were closed by now. As we climbed down, we came across some people who were descending , but other than that, it was fairly deserted. The clouds were still around us, and I could see the lower slopes below, and the Khadakwasala lake in the distance.

I was thinking of the significance of this fort in history. The Battle of Sinhagad was the epicentre of the turnaround of the Marathas, and they won a number of important forts after this, such as Purander and Lohagad. Nearly 1500 Mogul infantry fled to Pune from Sinhagad after the battle taking advantage of darkness of midnight. Within the monsoon season that year, the urban areas such as Pune, Baramati, Supe and Indapur were won back by the Marathas from the Mughals, signaling a transition in the politics of the Deccan and laying the seeds of a strong Maratha force that would later stretch even to far-off areas such as Delhi, the northern plains and Bengal.

Finally, at the end of 45 minutes, we reached the end of the trail. It was nearly dark by the time we reached back at the base of the hill, having just made it in time. It had been an extremely tiring trek, given the paucity of time, but worth every step and every moment. As we prepared to leave, soaked and exhausted, we saw the lights go o in the hills, lighting up the trail and the houses. Totally satisfied, we bid farewell to this scenic and historic place, and started off to make the journey back to Pune.

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