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

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


  1. Looks magical! It now feels like I need to get back to India to do some exploring with a "Just Tripping" guidebook. Hats off, Indy!

    1. Hi Sadie,

      Yes forts and heritage sites in India do look magical in the rains. You will have to come back for at least two years to feel a little fulfilled since there is so much to see here. I mostly do hop and skip and in the bargain miss out on a lot. Will like to see and read from your perspective.

      And the guidebook and the guide are waiting!

      Thanks for reading and keep wandering!


  2. ASI Maharashtra should definitely wake up and take better care of the monuments otherwise these monuments may be encountered only on the posts of "Just Tripping"!!

    1. Hi Aparna,

      I dont think that is happening.What will happen is that the remaining piles of stones will soon roll down the hills. So we will be left with hills that we started with!