The Khajuraho temples, with all their erotic sculptures and tantric subtext are famous across the world. But closely connected with their history, is the history of the impregnable fortress of Kalinjar, around 102 kms from Khajuraho. Built on top of a hill 800 feet high, this fortress has been in continuous occupation for the last 1500 years from the Gupta dynasty in 3rd century CE to serving as a British garrison during the Revolt of 1857. This was the fort that Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri, was trying to capture when he was killed and this was also once owned by Akbar’s confidante and ‘Court Gem’, Birbal. Few forts in India, have been around for so long, or seen so much!
Origins of the Fort
While we don't know the exact date when the fort was built, the District Gazetteer of Agra and Oudh, mentions that Emperor Samudragupta of the Imperial Gupta dynasty conquered Kalinjar fort in 336 CE. However, Alexander Cunningham, the founder of Archaeological Survey of India, in his book Boundelkhand & Rewa in 1883-1884, claims the origins of the fort to be around 249 CE. Cunningham has an interesting theory of where the name Kalinjar or Kalinjar comes from. He believes that it might have been used by Shaivite ascetics as a place of retreat giving it the name Kalanjaradri or 'Hill of Kalinjar'. Kalinjar is one of Shiva's names, which means 'Decayer of Time' (Kal - Time, Jar - Decay). He goes on it compare it with Gwalior Fort, which also derives its name from Shaivite monk 'Gwalipa' who meditated on the hill.
Few forts in India, have been around for so long, or seen so much
However, Kalinjar achieved prominence only under the rule of the Chandellas who ruled the region from the 9th to 13th centuries CE. The Chandella kingdom was called Jejakabhukti, which covered parts of modern Bundelkhand. It was King Yashovarman, the founder of the Chandella dynasty who ruled between 925 and 950 CE who conquered the Kalinjar fort, though we don’t know when and from whom. His capital was at Khajuraho and he is said to have built the famous Lakshmana temple there.
Invasion of Mahmud of Ghazni
Kalinjar comes into prominence once again in 1019 CE, when Mahmud of Ghazni attacked the Chandella kingdom and specifically Kalinjar during his tenth invasion of India. Alexander Cunningham reproduces an account of Ghazni’s invasion of Kalinjar by Nizamuddin Ahmad (1551-1621 CE), a prominent historian in Akbar’s court:
‘When the Sultan approached his camp, he first sent an ambassador, calling upon him to acknowledge fealty and embrace the Muhammadan faith. Nanda refused these conditions, and prepared to fight. Upon this the Sultan observed Nanda’s army from an eminence, and observing its vast numbers, he regretted his having come thither. Prostrating himself before God, he prayed for success and victory. When night came on, great fear and alarm entered the mind of Nanda, and he fled with some of his personal attendants leaving all his baggage and equipment. The next day the Sultan, being apprised of this, rode out on horseback without any escort, and carefully examined the ground. When he was satisfied that there was no ambush and strategical device, he stretched out his hands for plunder and devastation. Immense booty fell into the hands of the Musalmans, and 580 of Nanda's elephants, which were in the neighbouring woods, were taken. The Sultan, loaded with victory and success, returned to Ghazni.’
However, this account was written several hundred years later of the actual attack and may not be completely accurate. The king ‘Nanda’ in the account was Gandhadeva who ruled the Chandella kingdom in early part of 11th century CE.
Death of Sher Shah Suri
The Chandellas continued to rule Kalinjar till 1202 CE when a large army under Qutubuddin Aibak conquered the fort from Parmadideva and broke the Chandella power once and for all. The fort thus became a part of the Delhi Sultanate. But it soon fell back into the hands of the Chandellas, probably during the weak reign of Aram Shah in 1210-1211. This was just a minor branch of the Chandella family, ruling a small tract around Kalinjar.
A large army under Qutubuddin Aibak conquered the fort from the Chandellas
In November 1544 CE, Kalinjar was attacked by Sher Shah Suri, the Afghan ruler of Delhi. The Chandel king at this time was Raja Keerat Rai, whose daughter Rani Durgavati was married to the king of Garha-Mandla, Dalpat. Keerat Rai was assisted by the powerful Gond kingdom during the siege, which lasted for well over a year. The walls of Kalinjar were found to be impregnable. It ended dramatically on 22nd May 1545, when a missile-like weapon set off by the Afghans bounced off the mighty walls and landed in a gunpowder dump near Sher Shah Suri. The resultant explosion saw him suffer fatal burns and he died the same day.
Under Birbal and Chhatrasal
Islam Shah, Sher Shah Suri’s son captured the fort in the same year and ordered the slaughter of everyone inside the fort. Akbar captured the fort in 1569 CE and under his reign, it was gifted as a jagir (grant) to his favourite courtier, Birbal. Born as Mahesh Das (1528-1586), Birbal belonged to Kalpi region of Bundelkhand, around 200 miles from Kalinjar. Birbal enjoyed the Kalinjar jagir till his death in 1586 CE. Not much is known about Kalinjar under Birbal.
Sher Shah Suri’s son captured the fort and ordered the slaughter of everyone in it
In 1688, the Bundela hero, Raja Chhatrasal, captured the fort from the Mughals. Raja Chhatrasal had carved out a large kingdom in Bundelkhand for himself. He was also the father of Mastani, married to Maratha Peshwa Bajirao I. In 1707 CE, Emperor Bahadur Shah, son and successor of Aurangzeb ‘officially’ granted Kalinjar to Raja Chhatrasal.
The fort stayed with the Bundelas till 1812 CE, when the British thought that the fort was too powerful to be left in Indian hands. An army under Colonel Martindell was sent to conquer the fort and the British bombarded the fort with artillery. Finally, on 8th February 1812 CE, the Bundelas surrendered, handing over the fort to the British.
Thereafter, a British garrison was stationed there. During the Revolt of 1857, Indian revolutionaries made several attempts to conquer the fort, but the same impregnable walls of Kalinjar prevented it. It was the only place in Banda district to be in British possession. Ironically, the very walls of the fort which protected the British garrison, were dismantled by the British in 1866 CE, to prevent any further revolts.
It was only in when Alexander Cunningham, the founder of Archaeological Survey of India excavated the site that he realised the actual antiquity of the fort. Since 1904, the fort has been under Archaeological Survey of India and remains to this day.
Today, the fort is home to multiple structures like temples, ponds, mosques, tombs, gateways and palaces. The path to the fort has seven splendid gateways. The major attraction in the fort is the Neelkanth temple which was built by Chandella ruler Parmardi Dev (1165 – 1203 CE). The temple is built in a cave with two dark lingas inside - one each to indicate Shiva and his consort Parvati. The mandap in front of the temple is exquisitely carved. Equally interesting is a 24 feet high statue of Kal Bhairaav, with 18 hands which even found a mention in Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari. There is also a large reservoir named Koti-Teertha, which locals believed could cure people of leprosy.
There are layers and layers of history piled up in the Kalinjar fort, yet not even a small fraction of the many tourists who head to Khajuraho each year, bother to take that drive and visit the once famous fort of Kalinjar!