Ranthambore Fort: Rajasthani Stronghold and Center of Chauhan Culture
Located in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, it is widely believed that Ranthambore Fort was constructed during the 10 th century AD. It has also been suggested that the hill fort was actually built during the 12 th century. Due to its strategic location between northern and central India, Ranthambore Fort was an important stronghold. Consequently, and the fort changed hands many times during its history. Just prior to India’s independence in 1947, Ranthambore Fort belonged to the princely state of Jaipur. Today, the fort is part of the Ranthambore National Park. Additionally, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as part of the Hill Forts of Rajasthan.
Rajput Forest Fort Built by Chauhan Kings
Ranthambore Fort is located not far from the city of Sawai Madhopur, and its construction is most commonly thought to have begun in 944 AD. At that point in time, the area was under the rule of the Chauhans, a Rajput dynasty, and the king who initiated the building of Ranthambore Fort was Sapaldaksha. The name Chauhan is the vernacular form of the Sanskrit Chahanama, and scholars believe that the ancestors of the dynasty were from Ahichchhatrapura (known today as Nagaur), and that they were of the lineage of the sage Vatsa. It is also speculated that the Chauhans were originally petty rulers of Ahichchhatrapura, and that they gradually expanded their power in northern India.
Nestled within the surrounding forest, Ranthambore Fort enjoys incredible views of the forest terrain. (Shaz.syed13 / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Chauhans founded a number of ruling dynasties, the major ones being the Chauhans of Shakambhari, the Chauhans of Ranthambore, and the Chauhans of Jalore. Additionally, during the time of the British Raj, there were a number of princely states whose rulers claimed descent from the Chauhans. Although Sapaldaksha is normally credited with the construction of Ranthambore Fort, it is sometimes suggested that the stronghold was actually built by another Chauhan king, Jayant, in 1110 AD. In any event, after the fort was completed, more structures were added to the fort by succeeding Chauhan kings.
Chauhan Dynasty of Rajasthan and Clash With the Ghurid Empire
Arguably the most famous Chauhan ruler was Prithviraja III Chauhan, who ascended the throne around 1177. By that time, the Chauhans had become one of the strongest kingdoms in Rajasthan. Prithviraja continued to expand the kingdom, and came into conflict with neighboring rulers. For instance, he destroyed the Bhadanakas so thoroughly that they were no longer mentioned in subsequent historical records, whilst his successful campaign against the Chandelas caused them to form an alliance with the Gahadavalas against the Chauhans.
Whilst Prithviraja was expanding his power in Rajasthan, another power further north was seeking to assert its rule over India. This was the Ghurid Empire, whose Muslim rulers hailed from Ghor, in what is today central Afghanistan. When the Ghurid Empire reached its height of power during the second half of the 12 th century, it was jointly ruled by Ghiyath al-Din Muhammad and his brother, Mu’izz ad-Din Muhammad Ghori (also known as Muhammad of Ghor). The latter was responsible for expanding the eastern frontier of the Ghurid Empire, and is credited with laying the foundations for Muslim rule in India. Prior to his reign, the Muslims were content with raiding northern India, and saw the region as a source of plunder.
Ranthambore Fort in Rajasthan has experienced a tumultuous history since it was built in the 10th century. (Sameer Sapte / Adobe Stock)
In 1191, the armies of Muhammad and Prithviraja clashed at the First Battle of Tarain (known today as Taraori), about 110 km (70 mi.) to the north of Delhi. During the battle, Muhammad was seriously injured, and the Ghurids were forced to retreat. Although the Chauhans were victorious, Muhammad returned the following year, and the Second Battle of Tarain was fought. Learning from his previous defeat, Muhammad changed his army’s tactics in order to deal with the Prithviraja’s forces more effectively. At the same time, the Chauhans were weakened by infighting. As a result, the Chauhans were defeated by the Ghurids, and Prithviraja fled the field of battle, but was captured not far from there. Subsequently, the king was executed, as were many of his generals.
Chauhans Become Vassals of Muslim Overlords
The death of Prithviraja in 1192 was a huge blow not only to the Chauhans, but also to the Hindus of northern India. Organized resistance in northern India against the Muslims collapsed, and within a generation, the entire region fell under Muslim rule. As for the Chauhans, Prithviraja’s son, Govindaraja IV, was spared by the Ghurids, and swore an oath of loyalty to them. He was, however, dethroned by his uncle, Hariraja, and banished. Whilst Hariraja was later defeated by the Ghurids in 1194, Govindaraja established a new dynasty, the Chauhans of Ranthambore.
Although the Chauhans were now vassals of Muslim overlords, they were allowed to keep Ranthambore Fort. When the Ghurid Empire fell in about 1215, it was replaced in northern India by the Delhi Sultanate, which consisted of several dynasties. The first of these was the Mamluk dynasty, whose third ruler, Shams ud-Din Iltutmish (more commonly known as Iltutmish), captured Ranthambore Fort in 1226. After Iltutmish’s death in 1236, the Chauhans recaptured the fort. Due to the strategic importance of Ranthambore Fort, subsequent rulers of the Delhi Sultanate made multiple attempts to seize the stronghold from the Chauhans. The eight Mamluk sultan, Nasir-ud-din Mahmud, for example, besieged the fort in 1248, 1253, and 1259. On the first two occasions, the sultan was unsuccessful. On his third attempt, however, Nasir-ud-din Mahmud managed to defeat Jaitra Singh Chauhan, and took control of Ranthambore Fort.
The women of the Chauhan royal family are said to have performed jauhar after the Siege of Ranthambore (1301) when the fort fell to the Sultan Ala ud din (Public domain)
In 1283, Ranthambore Fort was retaken by Shakti Dev Chauhan, Jaitra Singh’s successor. Seven years later, the Mamluk dynasty came to an end, and was replaced by the Khilji dynasty as sultans of Delhi. The founder of this new dynasty, Jalal-ud-Din Khilji, tried to capture Ranthambore Fort, but failed in his endeavor. His nephew and successor, Al-ud-din Khilji also sought to seize the fort. The Chauhan ruler, Hammiradeva had given shelter to one of Al-ud-din Khilji enemies. When the sultan learned of this, he was furious, and attacked the fort. The Chauhans managed to repulse three attacks by the sultan, but in 1301, the Al-ud-din Khilji finally succeeded in seizing the fort from them. When Ranthambore Fort fell to Al-ud-din Khilji, legend has it that the Chauhan royal women performed jauhar (mass self-immolation) in order to avoid capture and enslavement by the Muslims. The fall of Ranthambore Fort in 1301 also marks the end of the Chauhans of Ranthambore.
Struggle for Control of Ranthambore Over the Centuries
In the roughly two and a half centuries that followed, the ownership of Ranthambore Fort changed multiple times. For instance, the fort was in the hands of Udaipur (known also as Mewar) on various occasions. The rulers of Udaipur were in control of the fort, between 1326 and 1364, during the reign of Rana Hammir Singh, and again between 1433 and 1468, during the reign of Rana Khumba. During the reign of Rana Khumba’s successor, Rana Udai Singh, Ranthambore Fort passed into the hands of the Hada Rajputs. Subsequently, it was captured by Bahadur Shah, the sultan of Gujarat, in 1532, and remained in his hands until 1535.
Left: Bullocks dragging siege-guns up hill during Akbar's attack on Ranthambhor Fort in 1568. (Public domain) Right: Akbar's entry into the fort of Ranthambhor in 1569 after the submission of the Rajput. (Public domain)
In 1558, Ranthambore Fort was captured by Abu’l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar (more commonly known as Akbar), the third Mughal emperor. From then until the middle of the 18 th century, the fort remained in the hands of the Mughals. By that time, the Mughal Empire was in decline, and was threatened by the Maratha Confederacy, who were originally from the area of the western Deccan. The Marathas sought to expand into Rajasthan, and even tried to seize Ranthambore Fort. In order to counter the growing influence of the Marathas in the region, the ruler of Jaipur, Maharaja Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh, requested Ranthambore Fort from his Mughal overlords. As Madho Singh’s request was denied, he opted to fortify the nearby village of Sherpur instead, which he then renamed Sawai Madhopur. In 1765, two years after founding Sawai Madhopur, Madho Singh was given Ranthambore Fort.
Wildlife Sanctuary Protects Ranthambore Fort From Encroaching Urbanism
Ranthambore Fort remained part of Jaipur until India achieved independence in 1947. Two years later, Jaipur acceded to India, and the fort became the property of the Indian state. During the period when the fort was part of Jaipur, its surrounding area served as the hunting grounds of the state’s rulers. Ranthambore Fort was surrounded by dense jungle, home to the Indian Tiger, which added to its defensive features. In 1939, the Jaipur Forest Act was passed, as the forest was threatened by increasing urbanism. Under this Act, the cutting of trees, animal grazing, and hunting were prohibited, though in reality, this could not be implemented. In 1953, the Rajasthan Forest Act was passed to preserve the forest, and two years later, the Sawai Madhopur Game Sanctuary was established. In 1973, the game sanctuary was declared as one of the Project Tiger reserves in India, and in 1980, Ranthambore National Park was established. Thus, Ranthambore Fort is now located within a national park.
Indian Tigers at the lake in Ranthambore National Park. (Zahirabbaswikiindia / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Ranthambore National Park itself is a tourist destination, and is most famous for its tiger population. Nevertheless, the park is also home to other animals, including leopards, sloth bears, sambar deer, and marsh crocodiles. In addition, about 539 species of flowering plants, as well as one of the largest banyan trees in India can be found in the park. Moreover, around 320 species of birds live in the park, mostly around the three large lakes – Padam Talao, Malik Talao, and Rajbagh Talao. Visitors to the Ranthambore National Park have an opportunity to spot the animals, flora, and birds on safari tours.
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Architectural Delights of Ranthambore Fort
Unfortunately, the architecture of the fort is not well documented, though some architectural features are of particular interest. The fort can be accessed via seven pols or gates. One of these is the Navlakha Pol, which faces east, and has a copper plate with an inscription fixed on it. From the inscription, we learn that it was built during the reign of Maharaja Sawai Jagat Singh, i.e. during the early 19 th century. As for the other gates, it is unclear as to when they were built, as they do not have inscriptions like the Navlakha Pol. Another gate facing east is the Suraj Pol, which is also the fort’s smallest gate. The southern side of the fort also has two gates – the Ganesh Pol, and the Sat Pol, whereas the northern, southeastern, and northwestern sides of the fort have a gate each. These are the Andheri Pol, the Hathi Pol, and the Delhi Pol.
The architecture of Ranthambore Fort shows that it was not merely a stronghold, but was also a center of courtly culture, and a place of patronage for learning, the arts, and music. This can be seen in Hammir Palace built by Hammir Singh, whose ruins are considered to be the oldest surviving structures of an Indian palace. The palace is a single-storied structure, with the exception of its eastern wing, which has three stories. The palace contains numerous chambers, which are connected by small doors.
The impressive Battis Khamba Chhatri is alleged to be the place where Hammir Singh would hold his audiences. This is a three-storied building topped by a huge central dome surrounded by eight smaller ones. The domes rest on a roof that is supported by 32 pillars, or battis khamba, hence the name of the building.
The impressive Battis Khamba Chhatri is alleged to be the place where Hammir Singh would hold his audiences. (Abhipalsinghjadon1 / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Temple of three-eyed Ganesh: Sending your letters to elephant-headed Hindu god
Ranthambore Ganesh Temple is also said to have been build by Hammir Singh at Ranthambore Fort. This is supposed to be the oldest temple in Ranthambore dedicated to Ganesh, the god of new beginnings. The temple is known also as the Trineta (meaning ‘three eyes’) Ganesh Temple, and is claimed to be the only temple where Ganesh is depicted with a third eye. Today, the temple receives thousands of letters addressed to Ganesh from Hindus all over the world. Containing formal prayers, requests and even wedding invitations, over 20 kilos of letters are delivered every day. Incidentally, there is also a Jain temple within the fort.
The Hindu god Ganesh, the god of new beginnings, is one of the most worshipped of Hindu deities. (Public domain)
Today, Ranthambore Fort is not only a tourist attraction, but also an important cultural heritage. In 2013, the fort was inscribed as a World Heritage Site, as part of the Hill Forts of Rajasthan. Apart from Ranthambore Fort, the group includes five other forts – Chittor Fort (Chittorgarh), Kumbhalgarh Fort (Kumbhalgarh), Gagron Fort (Jhalawar), Amer Fort (Jaipur), and Jaisalmer Fort (Jaisalmer). Together, these six hill forts “reflect the elaborate, fortified seats of power of Rajput princely states that flourished between the 8th and 18th centuries and their relative political independence.” Indeed, this is visible in the history and architecture of Ranthambore Fort.
Top image: Ranthambore Fort was built not only as a stronghold, but also became a center of Chauhan culture in Rajasthan, India. Photo source: RealityImages / Adobe Stock .
By: Wu Mingren
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