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Agra fort a UNESCO world hertitage site

The capital of each raja or chieftain was a fort around which a township grew and developed; this pattern can be seen in many South Asian cities such as Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan, Lahore, Pune, Calcutta and Mumbai. Two forts in India are UNESCO world heritage sites the Agra fort and the Red fort. The oldest surviving fort in India is the Qila Mubarak at Bathinda which had it origins in 100 AD during the Kushan empire, The Kangra Fort in Kangra believed to have been built by the still surviving Katoch dynasty after the battle of Mahabharta. The fort was written about by the scribes of Alexander the Great, thus making it the oldest fort in India .

Medieval Delhi developed around Chandni Chowk, the township adjoining the Red Fort while and Kolkata came about around Fort William built by the British. Many small towns ranging from Jhansi to Chandragiri grew around forts. Some towns even acquired the names from the forts. Durg is fort in Hindi. Satara was so named because of the seventeen walls of the fort. Then there are famous monuments in certain cities and towns that overshadow the importance of the forts. Agra Fort pales into comparative insignificance against the glory of the Taj Mahal. Khajuraho temples overshadow Rajgarh Fort.

The conquest of, or battles for the forts of India have been significant occasions in Indian history. The capture of Qila Mubarak (Bathinda) in 1004 AD by Mahmud of Ghazni heralded the advent of Islamic rule in India. The struggle of Shivaji against the Mughals in the seventeenth century and his reign occur against the backdrop of forts in the Deccan. The capture of Seringapatam and death of Tippu Sultan in 1799 cemented British rule in South India. The capture of Gawilghur by Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, ended the Maratha threat to British rule in Central India at the time of the Second Anglo-Maratha War.

Prime Minister of India hoists the Indian flag on the ramparts of the historical site, Red Fort, Delhi, On August 15th.

The flag of independent India was first unfurled from the ramparts of the Red Fort by none other than Jawahar Lal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India on the morning of 15 August 1947. This practice of unfurling of flag followed by a speech by the Prime Minister continues each year on Independence Day. Just after World War II, the Red Fort had been the scene of the famous trial of the Indian National Army.


Most of the forts in India are actually castles or fortresses. But when the British Government in India were cataloging them in the 17th–19th century they used the word forts as it was common in Britain then. All fortifications whether European or Indian were termed forts. Thereafter this became the common usage in India. In local languages the fort names are suffixed by local word for fort thus usage of the Sanskrit word durga, or Hindi word qila or the word garh or gad in Rajasthan, Assam and Maharashtra is common.[1] For example, Suvarnadurg, Mehrangarh, Sudhagad etc.

Forts in ancient India

Three major methods were used for the construction of ancient Indian forts. The first consisted of earthen ramparts. Often they were constructed of the sand which was dug out of the ditch surrounding the fort. The second of rubble with earth on the outside which was more sturdy. The third type of construction was with stone and masonry work. The last was the strongest. Often materials from demolished forts were reused in the building of new forts.[2]

By 4 BCE, fortified cities were common in India. The largest ones were between the city of Mathura (on the Yamuna river) and Magadha (on the Ganges). Another series of forts in the south, was on the Ujjain(on the Narmada) leading into the Deccan. These are inferred by the remains of fort walls and bastions seen on excavation at Rajagriha and at several sites in the Gangetic plain notably Kaushambi. At the latter site huge walls of burnt brick, which look like they have been battered. There does not seem to be any formal planning of these forts.[3]

There are few descriptions of these ancient structures. The most noted is the one by Megasthenes, an ambasaddor of Seleucus I Nicator to the court of Chandragupta Maurya. He describes Patliputra as being guarded by a ditch with wooden walls. The fort had 570 towers and 54 gates with colonnaded halls decorated with gold and silver. One such hall has been excavated and is one of the oldest stone structures in India.[4]

Types of Ancient Indian Forts

Detail on stupa at Sanchi showing evidence of crenallations and embrasures

Though most of the structures have been decayed and are lost, India's legacy of ancient forts is seen mostly in the shastras (ancient Indian treatises) and in the reliefs on stupas.[5] On some of the early relief work, the carvings indicate that ancient Indian forts has crenallations, embrasures and sloping walls.[3] The Arthashastra the Indian treatise on military strategy describes six major types of forts differentiated by their major mode of defense.

  • Jal durg:a fortress surrounded by water, also known as audaka-durga and ab-durga. There are two subtypes - the island fortress, or antardvipa-durga, and the plain fortress or sthala-durga. The sea or the waters of a river wash the first like Murud-Janjira.The latter is encircled with artificial moats filled with water or irrigated by a river. Plain fortresses are naturally much more common.
  • Giri durgs: Giri-durga, or parvata-durga, is a hill or mountain fortress. There are three varieties: prantara-durga, giri-parshva-durga and guha-durga. Prantara-durga is a fortress built on the summit (usually flat) of a hill or a mountain. This was the most common type in the Middle Ages, and the best examples are the castles of Gwalior, Mehrangarh and Chittor . In giri-parshva-durga both major civilian structures and fortifications extend down the slope of a hill or mountain though the summit is certainly included into the defence system, too. The living quarters of a guha-durga fortress are situated in a valley surrounded by high, impassable hills. The hills house a chain of outposts and signal towers connected by extensive defensive walls.
  • Vana durg or vrikshya-durga, would be surrounded on all sides with a dense, impassable forest over a distance of at least 4 kroshas(14.6 km). Variations were the khanjana-durga, built on fens and encircled with thorny woods, and the sthambha-durga, erected in the jungles among high trees but lacking sufficient sources of water.
  • Dhanu durg Dhanvana, dhanva, or maru-durga are desert fortresses, usually to be found in an arid area bare of trees, grass or sources of water over a distance of no less than 5 yojanas (73 km), hence its other name, nirudaka-durga, or waterless fortress. An airina-durga is built on saline soil of barren tract or on fens impregnated with saline water and protected by the thorny bushes that grow there.
  • Mahi durg There are three types of mahi-durga or earth fortress. Mrid-durga are encircled with earthen walls; the approaches to panka-durga are protected by fens or quicksand; and parigha-durga are surrounded by walls made of earth and stone or brick, their height exceeding 5.4m and their width constituting half of the height.
  • Nar durg or fortress with men, was defended by a large and loyal army of proven warriors, and was well supplied with arms. It was usually a city fortress, well populated with a substantial garrison. It was also called nara-durga and bala-durga.

Each type of fortress had different advantages.Manu (author of the Manusmṛti a Vedic text) considered the hill forts offers the best defenses. Some Sanskrit text also consider hill forts to be the abode of gods and hence auspicious. Manu also considers the disadvantages of other fortresses. A fortress surrounded by water often sheltered reptiles and snakes, which made for a rapid spread of disease; on the other hand, reptiles and snakes could deter an assault on a fortress, and disease could force the enemy to lift a siege.Earth fortresses often swarmed with rats and rodents, which might in the long run eat away their foundations. Monkeys plagued the inhabitants of arboreal fortresses, while a fortress that housed a lot of people had to be kept well supplied with food and water to feed all those mouths.However the Mahabharata considers Nri-durga to be the best defensive structures.[6] Most of the time a combination of defenses were used to guard the fort.Ranthambhore Castle, for example, stands on a hill (giri-durga) and used to be surrounded by dense forests (vana-durga). When a considerable garrison of soldiers was billeted in it, the castle could also be classified as nri-durga.

The method of planning of the fort is also described along with the layout of the roads. Kautilya suggests that the roads should be laid along the four cardinal directions with a temple at the centre. The Kings house should be at the north.

One of the oldest and most well preserved of such structures are the excavated ruins of ancient fortifications at Sisupalgarh in Orissa. It is estimated to date from the 3rd century BCE and was in occupation for a thousand years at least. Outlines of the fort indicate it had eight gates and thick walls. The western gate was quite elaborate. In 2005, sonar analyais suggested the presence of a deep moat around the fort.

Forts in Medieval India

Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur a Giri durg

Bastions of Murud-Janjira a Jal durg

Ruins of Golkonda Fort, Hyderabad

With the advent of the Muslims, closely followed by the introduction of artillery in the 16th century there were several changes to the construction and design of forts. These changes were similar to the changes that took place in Western forts with the advent of gunpowder, i.e. the lowering of walls, thickening of walls, further pushing out of bastions etc.[7] The construction of a citadel in the centre and putting in more area between the citadel and the walls was characteristic of Muslim forts (influenced in turn by the Norman motte and bailey). Classic examples of such structures are the Golkonda and the Berar fort.[8] The gates of medieval Indian forts were highly decorated.[9] Two distinct styles are seen. The Hindu style with a lintel and the Mughal style with an arch. Gates in Indian forts were often high and wide to allow elephants to pass.[10] Often they had rows of sharp, stout iron spikes to dissuade the breaking down of the gate by the elephants of an invading army.[11] Such a gate with spikes can be seen on the Shaniwarwada fort, Pune. The walls of the forts were often looked higher from the outside than the inside as the forts made use of the natural rock formations on hills. This not only gave an illustion of greater height but also lead to the lower walls of the fort to be entirely made up of natural rock providing almost a perfect defense against the use of a battering ram or elephants to tear down the walls.[12]


Stone was the main material for building fortifications in medieval India. Walls were erected by one of the following three construction methods. A wall could be an earthen rampart faced with stone on both sides. The rampart was built using the earth excavated while digging the ditch, with three-quarters of it used for building a rampart and one-quarter for levelling out the surface inside the fortress and in front of the ditch. Facing the rampart with stone allowed for the erection of higher and steeper walls than those possible with a purely earthen rampart. The structure had a substantial shortcoming, however: an earthen core accumulated water, which could destroy the stone shell. Drainage channels were therefore installed along the length of the wall from top to bottom. The second method consisted of filling the space between the outer layers with earth mixed with rubble. This core was considerably harder than simply using rammed earth. The third and most advanced method involved the use of mortar. A rubble-built wall fastened with mortar was strong and long lasting. Construction methods depended, however, on the materials available.[13]

In medieval India, several reports exist of the practice of burying humans either dead or alive in the foundations of fort walls, to ensure their stability, being widely followed. It was believed that the ghosts of those sacrificed as such would keep evil spirits away. During the building of the Sri Qila, Delhi Alauddin Khilji is reported to have buried 8,000 skulls of Mughals killed by him into the foundation.[14] During the building of Purandar Fort one its bastions gave way several times. The king of Berar then ordered his minister an Esaji Naik Chive to bury a first-born son and his wife into the foundation of the bastion. This was promptly done and after a further offering of gold and bricks. When the bastion was finished Esaji Naik was given possession of the fort and the father of the sacrificed boy was rewarded with two villages. This custom was also followed by Shivaji when he built his forts.[14]

Many Indian fortifications have parapets with peculiarly shaped merlons and complicated systems of loopholes, which differ substantially from similar structures in other countries. Typical Indian merlons were semicircular and pointed at the top, although they were sometimes fake: the parapet may be solid and the merlons shown in relief on the outside (as at Chittorgarh). What was unique is the arrangement and direction of loopholes. Loopholes were made both in the merlons themselves, and under the crenels. They could either look forward (to command distant approaches) or downward (to command the foot of the wall). Sometimes a merion was pierced with two or three loopholes, but more often, one loophole was divided into two or three slits by horizontal or vertical partitions.The shape of loopholes, as well as the shape of merlons, need not have been the same everywhere in the castle, as shown by Kumbhalgarh.[15]

Forts constructed by the British

An old 18th Century painting of Fort St George, Madras

With the advent of the East India Company, the British established trading posts along the coast. The need for security against local rajas as well as other European rival nations led to the construction of forts at each post. Mumbai fort, Fort William in Kolkata, Fort St George in Chennai were the main bastions constructed. These cities developed from the small townships outside the forts. Parsimony of the East India Company, non-availability of trained engineers and use of local materials and artisans resulted in the simple design and construction initially. The vulnerability of these earlier forts, hostilities with the French and the growing might of the Company resulted in stronger and more complex designs for the second round of construction, the design of Fort St George reflecting the influences of the French engineer Vauban.[16]

State of castles today

Although no Indian forts were destroyed by sudden disasters, there are several which were abandoned due to the ambitions of their rulers and have consequently deteriorated over time. Very few castles have survived unchanged since the early Middle Ages or even since the 14th-15th centuries: most of those built in the 10th-15th centuries were later rebuilt and altered. Castles were still used as living quarters until the 19th-20th centuries, and so were continually modified. Even now, some of them are private property.

See also


  1. Nossov(2006),p. 8
  2. Nossov(2006), p. 12
  3. 3.0 3.1 Fass,(1986) p. 13
  4. Fass,(1986) p. 14
  5. Fass,(1986) p. 11
  6. Nossov(2006),p. 8-9
  7. Fass(1986) p. 16
  8. Fass(1986) p. 17
  9. Toy(1965) p.2
  10. Nossov(2006) p. 15
  11. Toy(1965) p.1
  12. Nossov(2006) p. 15-16
  13. Nossov(2006),p. 12
  14. 14.0 14.1 Toy,(1965) p. 51
  15. Nossov(2006) p. 27
  16. Sandes, E.W.C. The Military Engineer in India, Vol I.


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