Deep in the jungles of the Palamu tiger reserve in Jharkhand lie the remains of the lost kingdom of Cheros. Once inaccessible due to the Naxal menace, the twin forts of Palamu, with secrets lodged in the fissures of their ruins, tell the story of a powerful kingdom that very few outside Jharkhand have heard of.
We know very little of the early history of the Chero tribe. The book ‘The Chero of Palamau’, by Archaeological Survey of India claims that the Chero rule in Palamu was established around 1613 CE. Originally based in Rohtasgarh fort at Bihar, they gradually migrated over centuries to Palamu and have settled across the Shahabad, Saran, Champaran, Muzaffarpur and Palamu regions of Bihar and Jharkhand today.
Till the early 17th century, the region was under Mughal rule, but apparently, a Chero chief named Anant Rai drove out the Mughal imperial troops stationed in and declared his independence, laying the foundations of the kingdom that would rule the region till 1818 CE.
Anant Rai died in 1619 and was succeeded to the throne by Medini Rai, considered to be the most powerful king to ever rule Jharkhand. It is during the reign of these two kings that the twin forts came into existence.
The fort on the lower plain is popularly known as the Old Fort and is said to have been built by Raja Anant Rai. It was subsequently enlarged and fortified by Raja Medini Rai, from the spoils of Navratangarh at Doisa, the stronghold of the Nagvanshi kings of Chotanagpur.
The Old fort is rectangular in plan. It measures about 250 yards east to west by about 150 yards north to south and its walls are about 25 feet high. The western half of the fort towards Betla has a gateway with remains of stones with Meenakari, the upper storey forms a long verandah with small covered enclosures and may have been used as a Naubat Khana, where musicians played ‘Naubat’ or large war drums, every time the Chero rulers passed through it.
If you enter the fort through the western entrance, walking a couple of steps will first bring you to a deep well in the middle of the pathway along with a ruinous brick mosque of triple domes, with octagonal towers at the corners of the rear wall. According to the Tarikh-i-Dandia, the Mosque was built by the Mughal Governor of Bihar, Daud Khan in 1660 A. D. to commemorate his conquest of Palamu.
There are some living areas still existing inside the fort including a ruined Raja’s Palace. Just besides the entry to the fort, there is a secret tunnel on the lower side of the wall which may have been used as an escape route in case of emergency. There also are several small stair cases which allow the visitor to climb up the ramparts of the wall.
The New Fort
Perched on the top of a conical hill, the new fort looks grand even from a distance. While some historians claim that it was built by Medini Rai, others claim that it was his son and successor Pratap Rai.
The main entrance to the fort is the imposing Nagpuri Gate, which rises 80 feet beyond the fort wall. While in a poor state, traces of its remarkably fine outer facade still remain intact with the close-drained stone elaborately decorated in a free arabesque of exquisite workmanship. This was typical of the Jahangiri style of Mughal architecture. On one side of the gate, if one looks close enough, one can still see the inscription in Devangari bearing the names of Chero kings.
The walls of the New Fort are 17 feet thick, and contained within are a continuous series of vaulted chambers, to accommodate the garrison. Among them are large circular bastions with dry pits in them to store ammunition.
However, apart from the walls, wells and a few temples, practically nothing much remains of these two forts. One may normally attribute this to the vagaries of time, but it was actually the British who decided to deliberately pull them down in the mid-19th century. Why did they?
After peace and stability for more than 150 years, the Chero kingdom began to fall apart due to internal conflict. In 1722, a rebellion broke out in which the ruling King Ranjit Rai was murdered, and was succeeded by Jai Kishan Rai, who was also murdered during his reign. The Chero kingdom was thus to descend into a perpetual state of civil war.
This attracted the attention of the British, which had taken control of the neighboring Bengal province after the Battle of Plassey in 1757. On the pretext of ‘restoring peace’, the British East India Company invaded the Chero Kingdom of Palamu and took it under their suzerainty.
Finally in 1817-1818, the British abolished the kingdom and took it under direct rule.
During the revolt of 1857, a major uprising had broken out at Palamu as well. The rebels made the twin forts their headquarters and it was only in January 1858 that it was recaptured by the British, with great difficulty.
So in a bid to crush the rebellion, on the orders of the Commissioner of Patna, most of the buildings and fortifications in the two forts were pulled down to ensure that they never challenged British authority again.
Their ruins sit deep in the forest today as a silent reminder of a once powerful kingdom that ruled vast swathes of Jharkhand.
Amitabha Gupta is a Heritage Enthusiast, Travel Writer, Photographer, and Blogger, who has been writing on the heritage of Eastern India for numerous travel magazines and publications.
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