Kurumbera: The Fort That Never Was

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    Kurumbera Fort is a minor tourist attraction in West Bengal’s West Midnapore district. In the local language, Kurum means stone and Bera means a fence, and the name stone-fence seems ideal for the structure. Built of laterite blocks, the monument has a syncretic identity, caught as it was in the crosshairs of history. But the intriguing blend of Hindu and Islamic elements hides a fundamental identity crisis, for is this fort a fort at all?

    Kurumbera Fort is situated in Gaganeshwar village around 170 km from Kolkata. The nearest railhead is Kharagpur Junction, 36 km away. Unlike much of Gangetic West Bengal, West Midnapore is a part of the Chhota Nagpur Plateau, where laterite is commonly used for construction. That is why Kurumbera is made of laterite, unlike monuments in Gangetic West Bengal, where terracotta is widely used as stone is a rarity in the region.

    According to historian Harisadhan Das, the entire Midnapore region was once part of the ancient kingdom of Kalinga. Eventually, the region broke away, becoming an independent kingdom with the port city of Tamralipti (modern-day Tamluk) as its capital. By the 15th century, the region was ruled by the Gajapati Dynasty (1434 – 1541 CE), a medieval Hindu dynasty that ruled much of present-day Odisha and parts of coastal Andhra Pradesh. The ‘fort’, it is believed, was built by a king of this dynasty. Alauddin Hussain Shah (1494 – 1519), the independent Sultan of Bengal would attempt to expand his kingdom into Orissa, and his armies commanded by Shah Ismail Ghazi overran the area multiple times between 1500 and 1509. However, the campaign was unsuccessful and hostilities along the border regions of Bengal and Orissa would continue through the rule of Alauddin Hussain Shah.

    In 1568, the Afghan ruler of Bengal and Bihar, Suleiman Karrani, sent his son Bayazid on a campaign to conquer Odisha. Bayazid was victorious and the territory between Midnapore and Chilka Lake fell into the Afghans’ hands. However, in 1576, Bayazid’s successor, his younger brother Daud Khan was defeated and killed by Mughal forces commanded by Hussain Quli Beg Khan-i-Jahan, and the region became part of the Mughal Subah of Bengal.

    Kurumbera was first brought to the attention of antiquarians by W Herschel, a British civil servant posted in Bengal, who wrote an article about the site for the Asiatic Society of Bengal in December 1867. Herschel notes that the monument is surrounded by a flat wall, about 15 feet high and 312 feet x 252 feet on the outside. The entire wall is made of massive laterite blocks. The entire interior of the wall contains a row of “serai like cloisters”, he noted. Each cloister has an arch, approximately 10 feet high, and the keystone of the arch contains a lotus pattern. The arches themselves are of the corbelled type, which is generally a pointer to a pre-Muslim origin. There is no gap or opening anywhere in the wall, except for a narrow gateway on the northern side. Herschel says this is perhaps why the structure is called a ‘garh’ or ‘fort’ by the locals even though it has none of the defensive features typical of forts.

    For starters, there is no moat around the structure, and the walls are very atypical of those that usually surround forts. The walls here are relatively low and can be scaled with the help of an ordinary ladder! They do not contain watchtowers or bastions, and lack arrow loops, which would have allowed guards or soldiers to repel invaders. The walls are neither layered nor thick though to withstand a barrage of artillery.

    Inside too, Kurumbera lacks the features of a typical fort. There is no visible armoury, soldiers’ quarters, storehouses and, most importantly, it has no source of water – critical if the enemy were to lay siege to the fort. So if Kurumbera was not a fort, what was it?

    The most tell-tale clue comes from the title of Herschel’s article – Description Of A Hindu Temple Converted Into A Mosque. Herschel writes that the plan of Kurumbera is that of an “ordinary mandir”, in the centre of a large courtyard, surrounded by a high, solid wall. More details can be found in the annual report of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), from 1921-22.

    The report says that the sanctum of the original temple, which must have faced west, was then represented by a well. The superstructure of the main temple and the jagmohan (assembly hall) have been completely lost. However, the plinth of the jagmohan, to the west of the sanctum, partly served as the foundation of a mosque, which is still standing.

    Plain and small, the mosque measures 23 feet x 14 feet, with three bays capped by three domes built of rubble masonry. The peculiar thing about the mosque, as noted by both the ASI and Herschel’s report, is that while the domes are radiating domes, they sit on top of corbelled ones. The entrance to the mosque is also unusually narrow.

    The mosque has no stone plaques or inscriptions which attest to its age or who built it. All mosques have a mihrab, or a niche in the western wall, which indicates the direction of the Kaaba, which the namazi is supposed to face when praying. In many mosques, the mihrab is splendidly decorated. The mihrab here is very plain.

    At the time of his survey, Herschel had spoken to local villagers who had told him that the temple had been destroyed by the Mughals, although subsequent authors have said that the temple was probably destroyed during the campaign launched by Sultan Alauddin Hussain Shah (1494 – 1519) against Odisha under his general, Shah Ismail Ghazi.

    The only source of information about the construction of the “fort” is a tablet affixed to the interior of its western wall. The inscription on the tablet is in the Odia language. However, apart from the first line, the rest of the inscription appears to have been deliberately defaced using a blunt instrument. Fortunately, Herschel’s article in the Asiatic Society journal includes a translation of the inscription, which reads as follows: “In the invincible reign of the auspicious hero and Maharaja Sri Pratapakalpesvara Deva, on Wednesday the 22nd of Vaisakha in the year (illegible), the building of the enclosure of Sri Gaganesvara.” The name ‘Gaganesvara’ suggests that this was a Shiva Temple, since the suffix ‘esvara’, meaning ‘lord of’, is a Shaivite tradition. ‘Gaganesvara’ is the name that the village still bears. The name Pratapakalpesvara Deva does not exactly match any Gajapati ruler of Orissa. However, it does seem similar to the name Prataprudra Deva, the last Gajapati ruler, who reigned from 1497–1540 CE. So does this mean that the “fort” was commissioned by the Gajapatis of Orissa? If so, when? In the absence of a legible inscription, nothing can be stated with any degree of certainty.

    Like every temple in Bengal, Kurumbera has a familiar origin story. The Bengal Secretariat, at the behest of the Government of India, compiled a list of “Objects of Antiquarian Interest in the Lower Provinces of Bengal” in 1879. It included a record of the local villagers’ claims about the temple. The entire area is said to have been covered in dense forests at one point, and the Subranarekha River flowed quite close to it. There was a local chieftain called Bagh Raja, from whom the area derived the name ‘Baghbhoom’.

    According to legend, Bagh Raja’s cattle used to graze in fields on the western bank of the river. One day, it was noticed that one of the cows was yielding far less milk than it usually did. The cowherd was chastised by the Raja. The following day, the cowherd kept a close watch on the cow and followed it across the river and into the jungle. In the forest, he saw the cow deposit a large amount of milk on top of an abandoned Shiva linga.

    The legend goes that when this was reported to Bagh Raja, he brought it to the notice of the Odia king, called Maharaja Kopileswar of the Deb Raj family of Odisha. The king had the Kurumbera Temple built around the linga and named it ‘Gaganesvara’. Was this “Kopileswar” actually Kapilendra Deva, the founder of the Gajapati Dynasty, who reigned from 1434 A.D – 1466 CE? Was he the one who commissioned the temple? Again, it is not possible to answer this with any certainty. And while this might seem like a fascinating story, almost every Shiva temple in the region has a similar origin story, which makes this likely to be more legend than fact.

    There is more evidence of both a Mughal and an Odia presence in the region. In neighbouring Keshiari, for instance, there are remains of Mughal-era structures including the remains of a large number of houses built of stone, in an area called ‘Mogolpara’. Among the structures is a mosque that contains an Arabic inscription, which suggests that it was built during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb. Keshiari also contains an old Jagannath Temple built in the Odia style of temple architecture.

    There are references to forts all across Bengal in old texts but the remains of these forts are few and far between. The reason is that most of them were built of brick, a material that cannot withstand the elements, especially Bengal’s monsoon, over the centuries.

    Kurumbera, on the other hand, is in unusually good shape, with its walls, pillars and gateway still standing. The domes of the mosque, although built later, had developed cracks but they have been repaired. Apart from the south-west corner, the rest of the ‘fort’ is in fine condition and attracts local tourists in winter.

    Whether temple, mosque or fort, Kurumbera is an important marker in the history of the Midnapore region, and it looks like it will remain a sturdy reminder of medieval times for quite a while.

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