Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Tripping Down Memory Lane - Aurangabad Diary 2012

The decision to return to any early scene in your life is dangerous but irresistible, not as a search for the lost time but for the grotesquerie of what happened since. In most cases it is like meeting an old lover years later and hardly recognizing the object of desire in this pinched and bruised old fruit. We all live with fantasies of transformation. Live long enough and you see them enacted – the young made old, the road improved, houses where there were once fields - Paul Theroux in my favourite travelogue ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’

Coming back to my college town Aurangabad after 23 Years
Last time I went to Aurangabad it took me two trains and 30 hours. This time it took me 1 hour 55 mins. It normally takes 1 hr 35 mins by air but the pilot chose to abort the landing the first time and treated us to a scary fly round eventually culminating in a white knuckle bumpy landing. A cool breezy morning greeted me as I walked out on the tarmac. Suddenly and inexplicably I felt this happiness inside. I had goose pimples and a smile played on my face. I haven’t felt like that in a long time. I instructed the driver to take me straight to MIT. He didn’t need to be told again where Marathwada Institute of Technology was. Everyone knows MIT lies off the Beed bypass. Same brown burnt earth, craggy hills on the horizon and the same inscrutable shaking of the heads of the locals. Yes, I was in Aurangabad!

MIT Campus
The first feeling was of total disbelief. If Scotty from Star Trek had beamed me down, I wouldn’t have been able to guess that I was in MIT. The changes are enormous. Beed bypass is unrecognisable. Both sides of the road have buildings as far as eyes can see. The MIT campus is a lot greener with trees and lawns.  There is incessant flow of two wheelers with blue shirt MITians driving into campus. The campus has lot of new buildings and some more are under construction. The old workshop where I and my father slept the first night in Aurangabad is now called Central Workshop with scores of lathes and carpentry & iron work classes going on. That was a big relief. All old buildings coexist with the new ones. Mess has been turned into a modern cafeteria. The BSc Applied Sciences has been changed to BTech programme and a new building is under construction. Shops and ATMs have been built just as we enter the campus from the bypass. I thought I will use the ATM just for the transaction slip showing withdrawal from MIT campus. 

Amidst the development, I was again thankful that the old tin shed hostels have not been razed down. They still stand there tall proud of the fact of hosting me for three years. They are being used as storerooms and school classes. Bathroom units are still there along with the drinking water concrete pipes erected upright to serve as tanks. The new hostel where we lived in our final year is a little desolate. Our wing was empty as most of the students are locals now.

The campus seemed purposeful, precise, quite, and efficient and disciplined all round. Classes were being conducted; students worked diligently in their practical classes. With signages everywhere, moving around the campus is simple. Though there are skirmishes between student groups once in a while but nothing like the swordfights we witnessed during our times: O Meerut Bravehearts! Where are Ye? I was informed that the college’s reputation has improved in the last few years. Annual campus placement takes place with reputed companies visiting to hire MITians.

Meeting with Dr. Kawade
Within minutes of reaching MIT, I was in Dr Kawade’s residence/office. He walked in immediately and greeted me warmly. I am not sure but do hope that he recognised me. He informed me that due to illness he was not involved in day to day activities of the college. Apparently his back pain was acting up. His two daughters were in charge now. They were building up Marathwada Institute of Technology brand by naming all their colleges as MIT. There are MITs in Mundka (Delhi) & Bulandshahr (UP) and two new polytechnics are coming up in Maharashtra. All in all, I think Dr Kawade has done a good job. The thing I loved about him was that he kept referring to MIT as ‘your MIT.’ I was overwhelmed when he apologised for not giving us all the facilities during our time. We were soon joined by Mrs Kawade. It was a warm meeting. Afterwards we posed for photos. Mrs. Kawade asked me bring my family next time around. I left promising that I will be back soon.

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University
Its time I got my Degree
I go meet the Registrar Dr. Shankhala. Dr Kawade had suggested I meet him to help me get my degree from the University! Dr Shankhala turned out to be great person, a retired Haryana Army man who has now settled in Aurangabad. We had a great conversation and he will help me get my degree from the Convocation Department of the University. There is a fine of Rs. 100 for every year the University babysits your degree! So if you have not got it yet, now is a good time. Back home, the degree arrived some weeks later.

 Satara Village Aurangabad
Satara Village
Satara was a dingy village in the south. Now the road to Satara instead of occasional bullock carts, sees regular traffic with apartments buildings on its fringes. You can see the table top hill where you went on several expeditions a long time ago. The temple probably from Holkar time never looked better.

Night Show at the Movies
This time I did not walk ten kms from hostel to get to the single screen cinema hall in the Gulmandi area. I just had to walk next door from my hotel to a multiplex showing Agneepath. What a coincidence. The original Agneepath was one of the last movies you had seen during your college days. As I had planned, this was again the last show of the night; the show we preferred during the college days. But instead of buying the cheapest ticket like we used to, I thought let me indulge myself this time around. So it was a Rs. 120 ticket which put me on a couch on the last row! I could not believe this. The audience consisted of mainly college students. Now these students hooted, whistled, talked, passed comments just the way we did and screw up the movie for others. That makes me want to apologise to all the movie goers who suffered because of us. Maybe, we should release an ad in Lokmat Times asking the local population for mercy for the pain inflicted.

Daulatabad Fort

Chand Minar at Daulatabad Fort
Daulatabad Fort
Last time we visited Daulatabad Fort, we took the train from Aurangabad and got off at the Daulatabad station. Then we walked and walked for about eight kilometres. We hardly encountered anyone on the station or on the way. Then we climbed all of 200 metres to the top of the fort without breaking a sweat. After about 25 years, I drove through the bustling town to the fort door. By 100 m I was panting and my legs felt like jelly. I tried to motivate myself like the Sikh gentleman in the Hero ad by singing the ad jingle ‘Hum main hai Hero’ but gave up and came down. Yes I am a middle aged guy now. I remembered the fort as a proud edifice with a commanding view of the area when I saw it last. Today, it is a picture of neglect, the walls are crumbling and trash abounds. I fear that the fort will be lost forever in the next 25 years if the ASI does not wake up.

Bibi ka Maqbara with Aurangabad city stretching behind

Aurangabad City
Aurangabad is a city on the move. MIT is now smack in the middle of the city. I could see new apartment blocks, swishy car showrooms, and of course the malls. Being a mall rat, I had to visit the Prozone Mall to pay my obeisance and to make my little contribution to the city’s economy. The mall is plush and upscale – one million square feet of heaven. Kranti Chowk has a flyover being constructed over it. The morning newpaper reported that the flyover has developed cracks and is being pulled down! Gulmandi has been closed down as the concrete roads were being relaid. I missed out on the imartis of Gulmandi. Beed bypass is unrecognisable. In place of the dusty track going to nowhere, it is a 4 lane black top highway with heavy trucks barrelling down. From few rupees per square metre then, the area commands rates of Rs. 3000 per square feet now. I still remember the evenings when we would walk from the hostel, cross the Beed bypass and come to the medium gauge railway line. There was nothing to be seen around for miles. Now there are residences, buildings, hospitals, schools on both sides. Railway track lies hidden between rows of buildings.

Railway Station
Just next to the old railway station sits a spanking new railway station touted as the model station of South Central Railways. The station which had two tracks and a puny over bridge now boasts of at least ten broad gauge lines and a 200m over bridge. The time when we would walk from the hostel, across the beed bypass, through the bush, across the single metre gauge line to get to the tea stall on the platform is long gone – sorry you can’t do it anymore. That romance is long gone.

As luck would have it, I made several visits to Aurangabad after this. The trips helped me discover the only city I knew then besides Delhi. In one of these later visits, I did climb Daulatabad all the way to the top. Aurangabad will always be special.

I don’t remember the last time when I felt so happy and euphoric – it seemed like homecoming. The college’s progress filled me with quite pride. I wish I could have brought my late father to see this for himself. He would have definitely been impressed. After a long time, walk down the memory lane brought happiness and not pain. College days at MIT were undeniably tough days lived under tough circumstances but not only I thrived but those days helped me prepare for the unknown battles that lay ahead. The trip felt strangely therapeutic. The trip was part discovery of what had changed & what had remained same; and part making past reminisces come to life.

No, Mr Theroux, at least the MIT past has not turned into anything remotely grotesque. MIT was more beautiful than ever imagined. We all wish that our past scenes of life revisited have the same happy ending. I guess my luck has already run out.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Narnala Fort - The Satpura Surprise

The forts across the country are springing new surprises. If the Narwar Fort in Shivpuri MP was founded by your Jat gotra ancestors, a fort 750 kms south in Maharashtra was founded by a king named Narnal Singh or Narnal Swami. You have a feeling that the next fort could well be carrying your name. Now that will be sweet! Sadly, even after some intensive trawling of the net, no substantial information could be dug up on Narnal Singh.

You would have loved to start writing about the fort and its history like you always do but here you just want to rant about the sorry state of most of the built heritage across Maharashtra. Does Maharashtra ASI actually do anything instead of spending crores in building Ajanta and Ellora lookalikes? The question is rhetoric when you see the sad looking and crumbling forts across the state. So even as Maharashtra Tourism's website promotes the forts of Maharashtra, do they even have an idea what their forts look like? Most of the forts are just left with few crumbling walls and bastions. People just point in the general direction of the hill where the so called fort sits. Rest you have to imagine.

Coming to Maharashtra Tourism, again you have no idea what they are supposed to be doing. Okay they do have an orange shaped kiosk at Nagpur Airport. For one, there are absolutely no signs for the heritage attractions. You can only find something only if you know what you are looking for. In MP, if you plan to see a single place, you can be assured you will be treated to a bonus of half a dozen more attractions because of marvelous signage put up by MP Tourism. 

Narnala Fort near Akot Maharashtra
Narnala Fort is a classic example of total apathy of Maharashtra ASI. Almost nothing survives here. Everything is ruined and about to fall. Just across the border when MP ASI can do such wonderful job with little known forts like Asirgarh, Narwar Fort, Rahatgarh or Ajaigarh, what stops the concerned departments in Maharashtra to at least try a little?  The only redeeming feature of the Narnala Fort is the setting. The fort is located in the beautiful verdant Satpura range within the Melghat tiger reserve.

The Lake at Popatkhed with the rolling Satpuras in the background
Satpura Ahoy - on the way to Narnala Fort from Akot
You have started from Akola and driven up 50 kms north to Akot. Still driving north, you turn left at Popatkhed village. Beyond the village of Shahanur village, you arrive at the foothills of Satpura hills. Satpura hills run west to east from Gujarat along the Maharashtra MP border onwards to Chattisgarh. Tapti river originates in the Satpuras. Pachmarhi, the popular hill station 300 kms to the north in MP lies in these ranges. Up North, parallel to Satpura is the Vindhya Range. Satpuras along with Vindhyas divide India in two – Indo-Gangetic plains in the north and Deccan plateau in the south.

Melghat Tiger Reserve Entrance

Museum at Meghat Tiger Reserve

You reach the checkpost at the gates of the Melghat Tiger Reserve where the customary entry formalities are done and charges paid for the car. This part of the reserve is called Narnala Wildlife Sanctuary. Here a small well–done museum shows the life of tribals and the flora & fauna of the national park. The best part is the laminated leaf-through booklet that provides the historical and architectural details of the fort that you are about to see. The details were taken from Akola Gazetteer. But you miss the small scale model of the fort made here. Otherwise you would have seen the Nau Gazi cannon on the top.

Narnala Fort in the Satpuras
Peeping Bastion

Narnala Fort in Akola Maharashtra
A bouncy road takes you up the hill. Monsoon is in full swing. It is amazingly green all around with the hill looking like a green canopy. This is the time to roll down the windows, breathe in deep and feel the breeze on your face and be happy like a puppy. Clouds hang low and the hills seemed to be enveloped in a sweet mist. As the road twists and turns, bastions and walls of the fort peep every once in a while from behind the thick veil of vegetation. The fortifications you see are actually three forts - Jafarabad on the east, Narnala in the centre and Teliyagarh on the west. The three forts cover 392 acres; have 22 gates, 360 bastions and 22 water tanks. The numbers could differ as you read different sources.

Mahakali Gate
And then suddenly on the right you see the first gate rising over the road. This is the outermost gateway / wall of the massive Mahakali Gate complex. The gate probably is also called Shahanur and Muhammadi Gate. From the road it just seems like an intimidating tall fortification about 40 feet high with no opening. This is what probably confused you. The area around was all overgrown and you thought it was just a wall.  While researching for this post later, you realized with horror that you missed seeing the best part of the fort. The gateway built of white sandstone, with lovely lotus adornments, Persian inscriptions, galleries, rooms and flanked with overhanging balconies embellished with stone lattices is something you can relate to beautiful architecture of Bidar. The gate was built in 1486 by the Imad Shahi dynasty founder Fath-ullah Imad-ul-Mulk. 

Heena Gate at Narnala Fort
Heena Gate and the Fortifications

The Greenery and the Skies
Driving further up you come to the second gate called Heena or Mehndi Gate. The gate is built on the hill side perpendicular to the road. You go down to check. The foliage is dense and grass is tall. You have to be careful stepping down the few steps you can see. There is not much to it. The gate is not very high; there are several arches that disappear into the vegetation on both sides. Below the hill falls sharply. The enemy definitely would not have found the climb easy.

You have almost ascended 3000 feet. The low hanging rain laden clouds seem even closer. Sometimes a dark cloud would drift in threatening to drench you. While other times the sun’s rays would filter through the canopy of clouds and the whole hill would glow in the soft light.

Like a Meadow - Narnala Fort

You move ahead and suddenly you realize you are in the fort. It is kind of a downer. You did not pass through any gates like you do in conventional forts. The two gates you saw on the way were built on the hill side. You will have to look around if there are any other gates here. The fort is lush with vegetation and looking for gates or structures will not be easy. Tall grass, bushes, even banana trees are growing on the ruins. Rains have brought the hills to life but in the bargain the fort seems to be submerged under the leaves. What a difference few months make. In the summers you had actually climbed around 1000 steps of Narwar Fort in 45 degrees baking summer. Few months later, you actually drive into a fort and all you can see is fresh dewy vegetation. The entire place is resplendent in glowing leaves.

Ghodpag or Horses' Stables

Since the horses are gone the grass has taken over

Up ahead on the left you see a baradari kind of structure. There is a sign put up here (really!) but it is peeling. You are already feeling sorry for the fort and the people who are supposed to look after it. The barely legible sign says that this was Ghodpag or the horse stables. The horses would have gone crazy during the rains seeing all this juicy grass. The middle arch looks beautiful with brackets that probably held a chajja. On the left are three tiny apartments while the right has five surviving arches and apartments. The actual grounds probably stretched behind. The tall grass is making things difficult to see and walk around.

Track leading to Teliyagarh - at Narnala Fort

The track turns right.

On the right there is another arched gate. Just beyond the gate you can see a water tank. You will come back to the gate.

Hanging Garden of Babylon!

Elephant Stables?

On the left there is another structure with a tall single arched gateway. The arch is beautiful and the banana trees growing on top gives you a feeling you are in Angkor Wat. Or this could be Babylon’s Hanging Gardens. And you thought ASI was not doing its job. No more cribbing about ASI – they are letting you experience places where you have no hope of ever making it to. Lotuses or Sun signia adorns the front. This building could be a guardhouse. Another structure barely visible could be the elephant stables.

Dargah of Pehelwan Baba Shah

Just beyond there are more structures but all buried in the overgrown vegetation. The only distinguishable structure seems to be a small tomb. The sign says it is the Dargah of Pehelwan Baba Shah. Inside chadar is spread over the grave. There is a crumbling complex structure behind the tomb. Beyond on the relatively flat hilltop lies the mansion built during the Bhonsales’ reign and Teliyagarh.

Shakkar Talao at Narnala Fort

Water on the land, water in the sky

Retracing your path you come back to the arched gate. Double arched gateway brings you to the edge of the water body called Shakkar Talao or Sweet Lake. The lake stretches into the distance. On the other end you can see a surviving arch and a structure beyond. It is said that Kamdhenu, the cow that grants all wishes, comes down at midnight, goes into the water and offers her milk to a shivling below. Bathing in the waters is supposed to cure you of diseases. Another legend has it that there is a Philosopher’s Stone or Paras underneath the waters that turn everything it touches into gold. The famine of 1899-1900 dried the lake but nothing was found. These are the stories that enliven the proceedings! If not the fort then the stories and the banana trees will keep ASI busy here.

Burhanuddin Tomb
On the southern edge of the lake you can see a tomb with gravestones and chadars. You start walking. Clouds change colour. Will it rain? You pick up your pace. The grave belongs to Hazrat Burhanuddin Bagh Sawar Wali. It is said that the saint used to ride a white tiger. The Akola Gazetteer notes that a small white tiger can still be seen coming to the tomb at night. People who were bitten by dogs, jackals and rats would come to the dargah for cure. People would offer gur, channa, incense and flowers and walk around the platform five times.

Next to the tomb are the two most complete structures in the fort.

Jama Masjid at Narnala Fort

Jama Masjid or Moti Masjid

Looking towards Ambar Mahal

Single Dome of Jama Masjid

The first is the Jama Masjid which was built in 1509 by Mahabat Khan. The mosque is quite substantial and in good shape. The front has ornamentation in the form of lotuses. Three arched openings lead to the three niches on the western wall. The central mihrab is decorated but has been painted over. On the top rises a single dome. You climb over the roof. With trees all around you cannot see a lot. But the greenery is pleasing. It actually feels like the rainy season. The entire hill seems to have erupted in green joy. Delhi has stopped getting the rains you remember from your childhood. This, right here is the Real McCoy.

The Iridescent Verdant Narnala Fort
What soothes the eyes are the seemingly iridescent leaves all around. The grass, the bushes, the trees all looks dewy, fresh and happy. You have seen Maharashtra during the hot dusty days. You remember your trip to Ajanta Caves in summers when it felt like a furnace and a month later the rains turned the hill green and water cascaded down the gorge. Rains bring magic to this part of the world. Coming from Delhi where monsoon gave it a miss this year, right now you feel you are in heaven.

 Rani Mahal or Ambar Mahal

With blue tiles decoration, the Rani Mahal would have been beautiful

Next to the Jama Masjid is the second substantial structure with a courtyard in the front. This is called the Ambar Bangala or Rani Mahal. The structure was possibly used as a Kacheri or a Darbar Hall in the past. The rectangular building is tall and imposing. It has huge triple arched gateways leading into three apartments. The gateways have been filled up later with smaller entrances created. The front of the building is quite plain. It is possible there could have been slight ornamentation of blue tiles running along the top. The interiors are in poor shape. The dome again is ornamented with traces of blue paint. The roof top terrace has parapet built around punctuated with small niches. Narrow steep steps take you up. Again all you see is fresh greenery all around. In the courtyard in front is a cistern probably for a fountain.

You continue your walk east with the Shakkar Talao on your left.

On the right submerged in more vegetation you see some surviving arches on a high platform. Fearing snakes you are not being adventurous. Few days later you will see a snake in Asirgarh Fort! The platform is supposed to have four covered cisterns used for storing oil and ghee for a large garrison in the fort.

Ahead there is another three arched structure. It is getting impossible to identify the structures. This could be the Zenana? Probably the structure was the residence of gosha women who could not be seen in public. It is said there was a tunnel below that reached the twin fort of Gawilgarh 20 kms away. What is a fort without an apocryphal story of tunnels going half way across the country?

View of Shakkar Talao from the East

 Happy and Green Cactus
You have now walked to the other side of the water tank. On a slight knoll, a small wall with an arched gate stands guard. It is difficult to imagine if there was more to it. On the east the hill rises. There are gigantic cacti bushes. Even the cacti seem to be happy and green in the rain. Beyond the cacti is another tall structure. Is this the Nagarkhana where prisoners used to be kept in pits awaiting execution?

Sarafkhana and the Khooni Burj - at Narnala Fort
Behind this structure on the left is a sprawling structure – Is this the Sarafkhana or the mansion of the nobles? In the distance, to the right you can see a bastion. It is the Khooni Burj. A platform was built on the edge. For fun, the prisoners would be flung down to see if they can fly.

You are now kind of far from where your car is. There is tall grass everywhere. It is time to turn around. And as it always happens, if you had walked a few metres to the east you would have seen the cannon. The gun is called Nau Gazi top or Nine Yard Gun. It is said, a shell fired from the gun once landed 20 kms away.

On the way back to the stables, it is time to ponder over the history.

View of the Shakkar Talao and Beyond

As with most forts, the association starts with Mahabharat. The fortifications were first built by Naryendrepuri, a descendent of Pandavs and the then Emperor of Hastinapur. Later the fort went through the familiar rigmarole as usual suspects dropped in - Satavahans, Chalukyas and Yadavs. It is possible that Narnal Singh made his appearance around the time of Yadavas. Some say the fort was built by the Gonds.

By 13th Century Muslim invasions started. Ahmed Shah Wali of Bahmani Sultanate is supposed to have repaired the fort when he camped in Ellichpur in 1425 after driving away the Gonds. The nearby Gawilgarh was also built / repaired. You remember the beautiful and technicolour Ahmed Shah’s tomb in Ashtur near Bidar. When Bahmani Sultanate broke up, Fath-ullah Imad-ul-Mulk, the governor of Berar – modern day Amravati and surrounding area - decided to found his own kingdom called Berar Sultanate ruled by his namesake Imad Shahi dynasty. The capital of Berar was Ellichpur or Achalpur, about 100 kms from Narnala. It was during Imad’s reign that the impressive Mahakali Gate was erected.

No surprises in the later timeline. Soon the Mughals made their entry by capturing the fort and calling it Shahanur Fort. Narnala was one of the thirteen sarkar of Berar Subah during Akbar's time. Aurangzeb’s great grandson was born here. Predictably, later the Marathas, Peshwas, Nizams, Bhonsales and British made the fort their home.

Walking Towards Akot Gate

Akot Gate - Ruined and Crumbling as the rest of the Narnala Fort

Looking towards Akot in South

Coming back to the stables, you walk south west where the sign points to the Akot Gate.  It is surprising that there is a trail in the grass. You walk it until you come to this crumbling and almost hidden gate. The gate would lead towards Akot where you drove up from this morning. Just beyond is a crumbling bastion that you probably saw on your way up. The trees have the stones in their death grip. The bastion like the rest of Narnala Fort and most of the forts across Maharashtra are gasping for breath. Braindead ideas like building replicas of Ajanta and Ellora will ensure the actual barely breathing built heritage will all be dead soon.

But the mystery of Narnal Singh is still unsolved. You have received a snippet of info to slightly open the window into an unknown aspect of the fort so far. An account says that when the Muslims first came to Narnala, there were three Deotas (were they Kings?) – Raja II, Narnalswami and Raja Bairat. All three were captured, killed (?) and their statues made. Was this the time when Yadavas ruled? Were they some feudatories of Yadavas? And why would the victors have their statues made – it does not make sense. It is time to head out to Achalpur. Maybe Narnal Singh will identify himself later.

In all the time spent here in the Narnala Fort you did not encounter a single person. The thick vegetation made it impossible to explore the area and you missed out on the major gateways. The name Narnal Singh is still drawing a blank. The visit left you kind of unfulfilled. You will come back and this time will also go visit the twin fort of Gawligarh; the story is not complete yet.

Getting There: From Akola in Maharashtra drive North towards Akot which is about 50 kms away. In Akola, don't miss the small Akot Fort which has the tehsil offices. From Akola drive north, turn left at Popatkhed and continue towards Melghat Tiger Reserve gate. Narnala Fort is about 30 kms from Akot. If visiting in summers or winters do walk towards Teliagarh and look beyond the ramparts. Near Khooni Burj a trekking trail takes you down to village below. Also go visit Chikaldhara and Gawligarh.

  1. Imperial Gazetteer of India, Volume 18, Pages 379 and 380
  2. ASI signs within the fort
  3. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/pune/Appeal-to-preserve-Shivajis-forts/articleshow/14057670.cms
  4. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Ramparts-in-ruins/articleshow/5355215.cms

Help Needed: Readers are requested to provide correct identification of the structures described in the post