Sinhagad Fort: The Lion Still Roars

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    If you’ve ever visited Pune, it's hard to miss 'Sinhagad'. Even before you enter the city, you'll notice 'Sinhagad Institute' in big bold letters, just after Lonavala. You could also take the 'Sinhagad Express’ train that runs daily between Mumbai and Pune, and you can spot ‘Sinhagad’ on numerous signboards and institutions that have appropriated the 'Sinhagad' brand.

    And then there’s the real thing. From Pune, on a clear day, you can actually see Sinhagad Fort to the south-west of the city in the lap of the Sahyadri mountains. Vantage points include the river bridges in the Deccan Gymkhana and Kothrud localities, among other places.

    For many centuries, Sinhagad was the place to conquer if you wanted to command Pune and its surroundings. Located in the centre of a number of other Maratha forts in the region, it was a safe haven whenever Pune was under siege. On numerous occasions, many notable personalities stayed here, among them Rajmata Jijabai Saheb, Chhatrapati Shivaji (who renamed the fort ‘Sinhagad’ earlier known as ‘Kondana’), Chhatrapati Rajaram, Maharani Tarabai, Balaji Vishwanath Peshwa and most of the Peshwas, Lokmanya Tilak and even Mahatma Gandhi in the early 20th century.

    The fort, originally called ‘Kondhana’ has a glorious past and a rich history that goes back to the Satavahana period (2nd century BCE to 3rd century CE) – the caves used for water storage and temple carvings indicate as much. It was a small wooden fortification which was enlarged over time. Its importance lay in the fact that anyone who controlled the fort also dominated the strategic route from Pune down to the Konkan coast. There is a reference that the Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad bin Tughlaq seized it from a local Koli chieftain in 1328. Later it came under the Bahmanis (14th to early 16th century CE) and the Nizam Shahs of Ahmednagar controlled it till 1636.

    After 1636, according to the treaty between the Mughals and Adil Shah, the Nizam Shahi kingdom was extinguished and its possessions were split into two among the victors and Shahaji Raje Bhosale, the father of Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji, got the Pune pargana from Adil Shah. Years later Chhatrapati Shivaji captured the fort in 1647. He had to give the fort back to Adil Shah when the Bijapur court imprisoned Shahaji Raje. Around 9 years later, the fort came back in Maratha control, when Chhatrapati Shivaji recaptured it in 1656 with the help of his commander Bapuji Mudgal Deshpande.

    The most famous of Sinhagad’s tales is the one of a daring nocturnal attack in 1670 by Shivaji’s military commander Tanaji Malusare, which has been also been the subject of a recent movie ‘Tanhaji’. The attack resulted in the Maratha conquest of the fort, but Tanaji had to sacrifice his own life on the battlefield. The legend says that Tanaji used a monitor lizard to climb the high cliffs and when Tanaji was slain while fighting the Rajput commander Udaibhan Rathod, Tanaji’s brother Suryaji took over the command and made sure that Tanaji’s martyrdom was not a waste.

    It was the Marathi play in the 19th century, Gad Ala Pan Sinh Gela, that popularized the legend of Tanaji. He was the 'sinh' or the ‘lion’ of the play, which rhymed well with the name of the fort. Thus popular opinion assumes that the fort was renamed Sinhagad due to Tanaji's conquest. But this is not true, since the Shivapurkar Deshpande Bakhar (an old 17th century Maratha chronicle) contains an entry indicating that the Kondana fort was called Sinhagad even before Tanaji's conquest – “Shaka 1569 (27 March 1647 to 14 March 1648) Bapuji captured Sinhagad and handed it over (to Chhatrapati Shivaji)

    Unfortunately, not many authentic details of the Tanaji story have survived and what you read about this battle is largely fiction conjured up in novels. However, we do learn a lot more about Sinhagad from the original Farsi documents from Aurangzeb's reign, along with Maratha letters. One finds that during the epic Maratha-Mughal war of 27 years (1680-1707AD), this all-important fort changed hands eight times!

    Another letter dated 1693 tells the story of an equally daring conquest, this time by Navji Balkawade and Vithoji Karke over the Mughals under Aurangzeb. Close your eyes and imagine you are standing with Navji on that rainy night, on the edge of the cliff. You will almost feel the stress he was feeling at first light, as his chances of success were slipping away.

    Here is an excerpt from the original letter, translated in English.

    (1693 AD) Shankaraji Narayan Sachiv writes to Rajashri Kakaji Narayan Deshadhikari (Two Maratha officials in service of Chhatrapati Shivaji)

    “On 25th June 1693, (the Maratha army) approached Sinhagad from Rajmachi through Kokan and they took refuge in the forest that surrounds Sinhagad. On 30th June 1693, a select group that was led by Navji was sent to capture the fort. They climbed the cliff by using their long spears. Navji himself climbed first, using a rope ladder and approached the fort walls along with others. During that night, the enemy was very cautious and the guards kept pacing the walls so it was impossible to climb without attracting the enemy’s attention. At dawn, Vithoji Karke put the ladder up at the point where there was a guard post. Navji made up his mind and climbed up. He attacked the guards and defeated them, thereby capturing the fort on 1st July 1693. Navji was bestowed with a new grant of village Savargaon for his bravery.”

    After the death of Chhatrapati Sambhaji in 1689, Chhatrapati Rajaram shortly moved to Ginjee in Tamil Nadu and continued the war against the Mughal army. In 1700, shortly after returning to Maharashtra, Chhatrapati Rajaram died at Sinhagad, where you can visit his samadhi in the fort today.

    During the 18th century, Sinhagad was where the Peshwas moved the jewellery and valuables of the court whenever Pune was under threat, as happened during the Nizam’s attack on Pune in 1762 and Holkar’s looting of Pune in 1802. When the last Peshwa, Bajirao Raghunath, declared war on the British in 1817, all valuables were moved to Sinhagad from Shaniwar Wada and other places in Pune, including wealth from some private individuals. This treasure-trove apparently included a Ganesha idol made of pure gold.

    Unlike the earlier battles, the British plan to capture Sinhagad was scientifically planned and executed methodically with little scope for personal bravery. In 1818, the fort was conquered without losing a single man on the British side. Here’s a map prepared by British engineers, which shows the plan and elevations of the fort using contours, probably for the first time in Sinhagad’s history.

    The map shows the locations of British cannons along with the trajectory of their firing. The British used three types of cannons, each with a different role and function.

    1. 6, 12 and 18 pounders

    1. Mortars

    1. Howitzers

    In total, the British fired 1,417 explosive shells from Howitzers and Mortars, and 2,281 shells from 18-pounders. The Maratha garrison in the fort surrendered on 1st March 1818.

    The loot began the next day. According to the agreement between the British and the garrison, the people in the fort were allowed to take their personal belongings with them. There was one Naro Govind Awati, a faithful servant of Bajirao, who had four boxes of gold coins with him. According to him, they were valued at Rs 36 lakh in those days. The British claimed that the boxes were Bajirao’s property and therefore plundered it as loot.

    Naro Govind died sometime later, but a few moneylenders bought a claim on his estate in the court. At the Supreme Court in Bombay, a decision was made in favor of Naro Govind Awati but the East India Company appealed and the Privy Council in London finally ruled in favor of the Company in 1830. This case was even discussed in the British Parliament and the rulings are available for reading.

    After this period, we have only one reference to Sinhagad, from this advertisement in The Poona Observer in 1876. One can see that the fort had a Jawahir Khana, Ratna Shala and Rajwada at the time. The mention of ‘Jawahir Khana’ or the ‘Jewel House’ is interesting, as historians like GS Sardesai have mentioned how Sinhagad would be used by Peshwas to securely protect their jewels during the times of War. What happened to those buildings after 1876 is lost to history.

    Sinhagad Fort is a popular destination for day-trippers and weekenders with a historic bent. It is gigantic, occupying an entire hilltop, its battlements cascading down the hill slopes to two gates – Kalyan Gate and Pune Gate. The fort is also a popular destination among trekkers.

    Some parts of the fort are in ruins but most of it is in pretty good shape. Apart from the memorial to Tanaji Malusare and the tomb of Rajaram Chhatrapati, there are other structures in its precincts, including the military stables, a brewery and a temple to Goddess Kali.

    In late medieval times and after, Sinhagad Fort reverberated to the hoofs of the Maratha cavalry. Today, the fort helps train soldiers in more modern ways, even as cadets from the National Defence Academy at Khadakvasla nearby trek and train here in full battle gear.

    When in Pune, a visit to Sinhagad Fort is a must. The views are to die for but that’s not all. Spare a thought for those who died in the many battles fought here, especially the Lion of Sinhagad, whose valour has been immortalised by history.


    Manoj Dani is an independent researcher of art history based in California and is currently working on classifying the art treasures of BISM, Pune.

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