Through history, forts have been historic bastions of control, symbols of power and defenders of the realm. Sometimes they are much more. Take the Chunar Fort towering 150 feet high over the holy river Ganga, 14 km south-west of Varanasi. This fort has played a pivotal role in Indian history. From the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka to the Gupta Empire builders, the Mughals, writers of bestsellers and even hotshot Bollywood directors, all will vouch that Chunar is special. Here is why.
Hindi literature enthusiasts, know the Chunar Fort as the ‘Tilismi Qila’ or the ‘Magical Fort’, due to its appearance in the great Hindi novel Chandrakanta. You would have also seen it in the movie ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ which was shot here.
But beyond fiction, what makes the story of the fort so interesting is the fact that for over 2000 years, this fort was at the heart of a commodity that was most valued by the rulers of the Gangetic plains - stone!
The fertile alluvial of Indo-Gangetic plains, one of the largest riverine plains in the world, has been a poor source for stone, especially that which can be used for hardy construction. The only place in the region which was known to have good quality stone was the Kaimur hill range of the Vindhyas, where Chunar fort is located.
The ‘Chunar stone’ as it has always been known is a buff-coloured, finely grained, hard sandstone which gives a fine marble-like shine, when polished. This stone was quarried and then transported through the River Ganga.
While we don’t know when the trade actually started, we do know that it was highly prized by the Mauryans. The Ashokan columns, the railings and statues found at Sarnath, as well as the famous Didarganj Yakshi now at the Bihar State Museum are all carved from the famed Chunar stone. The tradition carried on and later even the Shunga and Gupta era statues of Buddha, Vishnu, Brahma and other gods found across North India were all made of the same stone. Centuries later, in the 17th century, Akbar used the sandstone to build forts and palaces in Allahabad. It was also used in the construction of the now-famous ghats, palaces and temples of Varanasi, built by various Indian maharajas as late as the 18-19th centuries.
With the Chunar sandstone, so highly prized, it is no surprise that some time through history, a fort was built to secure the region. Though it is yet to be ascertained who built it or when, local legends connect it with mythical rulers such as King Bali, in front of whom Lord Vishnu appeared in the Vamana avatar, or to King Vikramaditya of Ujjain. The earliest historic reference to the fort in only in 1529 CE, found on the graves of the Mughal ruler Babur’s soldiers who died when capturing the fort from the Afghans.
Historians believe that Chunar may have originally been a small wooden outpost, which later was built up, as a stone fort.
Apart from its prized stone, the Chunar Fort was also strategically located. It served as a kind of ‘toll booth’ or ‘octroi booth’ for stone traders as well as other trade vessels sailing on the Ganga from Varanasi downstream to the riverine ports of Bihar and Bengal and vice-versa. As a result, it was highly coveted by different powers jostling for power and influence in the North.
Interestingly, the Chunar fort also has another claim to fame. It played an important role in the rise of Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri, the man who ousted the Mughals from India (albeit for a brief span of time). In 1560 CE, Sher Shah Suri, a local Afghan chieftain from Sasaram in Bihar, married Lad Malik, the widow of Taj Khan Sarang, the wealthy governor of Chunar. It was a smart political move as with the marriage not only did Sher Shah get control of the important Chunar Fort and the surrounding region, he also according to chroniclers of the time, got access to some fabulous wealth. To be precise (or as precise as can be) he is said to have got 280 kgs of pearls and a whopping 2000 kgs of gold. This put Sher Shah Suri in the big league and gave him resources, to eye Delhi.
The Chunar Fort remained in the hands of Sher Shah Suri’s descendants till 1575 CE, when it was captured by Mughal emperor Akbar. The Mughals used the Chunar stone for the construction of many buildings, mosques and palaces in the region. It remained with the Mughals till about 1760 CE after which, following the invasion of Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali, it came in the possession of Safdar Jung, the Nawab of Awadh. But this was for barely a decade.
In 1775, the Chunar Fort and the city of Varanasi were formally ceded to the British East India Company as a part of the second Treaty of Benaras.
The British considered the Chunar fort to be an important outpost, to protect Bengal and control the Ganga trade. For many years, it served as the main military hub, as well as ammunition depot of the East India company in Awadh. In 1849, Rani Jindan, the widow of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab and the mother of Duleep Singh, was kept prisoner in the fort. A year later, she escaped the fort dressed as a maid and travelled through 800 miles of forest, to seek political asylum in Nepal. As the British Empire expanded and the railways took over from the rivers for trade, the Chunar fort lost its importance and was largely forgotten. But it would be resurrected in a different way!
The Fort soon captured the popular imagination, after the publication of Chandrakanta, the first Hindi fantasy novel in 1888. The author, Babu Devaki Nandan Khatri, a resident of Varanasi, used the Chunar fort or Chunargarh as the villain’s lair. The ruler, the villain of the novel, wanted to capture and imprison the beautiful Princess Chandrakanta. In the novel, Chunargarh was a kind of fantasy land which was home to warriors, spies, shape shifters and all kinds of magic. So popular was Khatri’s work that the fort is still mostly referred to by local tourists as Chandrakanta-Chunar.
Today, the Chunar fort stands tall above the Ganga, but sadly most tourists who visit Varanasi give this historic fort a miss. Ironically, it is mostly Chandrakanta fans, for whom the forts remains a big draw, even today.
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