Gazing down from a spur in the Sayhadri mountains or Western Ghats, the Panhala fort is master of all it surveys. Located just 20 km north-west of Kolhapur city in Maharashtra, it is one of the largest forts in the Deccan, its perimeter stretching 14 km. Adding heft to its already imposing presence, this spectacular fort looms 400 mt over the surrounding plains.
Panhala’s strategic location stems also from its positioning on a mountain pass. Built on mountain tableland, it overlooked an important trade route that connected the great ports of Gopakkapatnam (Old Goa) and Ratnagiri before it proceeded onward to Kolhapur and reached the grand cities of the Deccan.
But the story of this great fort starts much earlier, when Kolhapur first rose to prominence at the end of the 10th century. During this time, Panhala was the headquarters of the Shilahara dynasty. Its construction began when its last ruler, Bhoja II, laid its foundations between 1178 and 1209 before he was defeated by the Yadavas of Devgiri. Later, in the 15th century, the fort became one of the most important outposts of the Bahmani kingdom.
By the beginning of the 16th century, Panhala was absorbed into the Adil Shahi Sultanate of Bijapur, whose rulers were responsible for the extensive fortifications that we see today, including the ramparts and three double gateways – Teen Darwaza, Char Darwaza and Wagh Darwaza. Most of the architecture is of the Bijapuri style, with the peacock motif of the Bahmani Sultanate prominently visible on several structures.
The main structures include an Andhar Bavadi (hidden well), which was constructed when the main water source was poisoned by the enemy; a beautifully ornamented Rang Mahal for entertainment; and Ambarkhana, which had three huge granaries whose storage capacity was the equivalent of 50,000 pounds of corn.
In 1659, after the death of the great Bijapur General Afzal Khan, the great Maratha ruler, Chhatrapati Shivaji, seized the fort. However, Adil Shah II sent an army under the command of Siddi Johar to win it back. The siege lasted over 4 months and what followed is one of the most famous incidents in Maratha history.
When Shivaji’s provisions were on the verge of running out and he faced capture, the Marathas hatched a canny plan. On the night of 13th July 1660, Shivaji along with a small band of trusted men escaped to Vishalgad, a few kilometres away, while a lookalike of him, Shiva Kashid, and a commander, Baji Prabhu Deshpande, rode the other way. This was meant to confuse the enemy and engage them, buying valuable time for Shivaji to flee.
When Siddi Johar realised the mistake he had made, he was furious. He unleashed all the firepower he commanded against the Maratha army and wrested back the fort. It was only later, in 1673, that Shivaji occupied the fort once again, stationing 15,000 horses and 20,000 soldiers here. Panhala would be the second-most important fort in the Maratha empire after the capital, Raigad.
After Shivaji’s death in 1680 CE, Panhala passed to his son and successor, Sambhaji. In 1689, after the fall of Raigad to the Mughal army, it was Panhala that served as the de-facto capital of the Marathas. It was here that Queen Tarabai, the widow of Shivaji’s younger son Rajaram I, declared an independent kingdom of Kolhapur in 1709. Queen Tarabai’s wada still exists inside the fort and is a school today.
However, in the 18th century, with the advent of advanced artillery, Panhala lost its importance and the seat of power shifted to Kolhapur city. In 1827, when Kolhapur accepted British suzerainty, the fort was taken over by the East India Company.
But in 1844, an incident shook the entire region. Local rebels seized Panhala from the British and imprisoned Colonel Ovans, the Resident of Satara, inside. There were similar rebellions against the British in surrounding forts such as Samangad and Vishalgad, as part of what was called ‘Gadkarincha Banda’ or the ‘Revolt of the Fort Commadants’.
Shaken by this, the British East India Company ordered the demolition of the Panhala fort walls to ensure that such an incident was not repeated. Very few of the fort walls have survived and, today, it is almost impossible to imagine just how magnificent the structure once was.
Panhala served as the summer retreat of the Kolhapur rulers. Interestingly, during World War I, when there was a shortage of iron in India, the visionary ruler, Chhatrapati Shahu of Kolhapur, ordered that all the cannons at Panhala be melted and handed over to Kirloskar Industries for the production of agricultural equipment for farmers.
Ironically, in the 21st century, this imposing fortress is under siege once again. The last two decades have seen a mushrooming of hotels, resorts and farmhouses inside its precincts, and it is now ‘fashionable’ for the local elite to own a ‘Panhala Farmhouse’. As a result, Panhala – one of the most important forts in Western India – is turning into an urban sprawl and losing its identity.