The Kalinjar Fort in Bundelkhand is an entire history in itself, a story through over 6000 human generations in recorded past alone. You cannot think of it without the convergence it includes – of people and events from the wide, wide world within the sub-continent and from abroad – over a span of one and a half millenia, during which developments in East, South, West and North West of India, Asia Minor, Middle East and Central Asia, and in Europe, as far as British Isles, gravitated to this now rather nondescript place.
That is too much of history, we note in astonishment, and far too many people of all kinds to be converging on this quiet forested periphery of one of the oldest mountain ranges on earth – the Vindhyas. What accentuates our wonder are the legendary architecture of the Fort and other ruins from antiquity present in the region. The exquisite temples and irreplicable sculptures at Khajuraho are mere 100 km away.
The economic and political significance the Fort acquired through the centuries, and the culture it spawned, is neither documented nor well understood. The structure scintillates within a wide region, later dominated by Chandel chiefs, as the Indian civilisation itself evolved in the Christian Era from the “Golden” reign of Gupta dynasty rulers, marked by repeat invasions by the Huns, Sakas and Muslims which, in the second millennium after Christ, led to Turk and Mughal reigns in medieval times. The region experienced spirited movements during the British period. By the time the Fort declined both in its power and prestige, it came to carry in its bosom memories of remarkably endowed persons raised within its precincts and of rich traditions fostered in and around it, some of which fabulous hearsays natives in its vicinity still talk about !
Though associated principally with the Chandels from 10th Century through the 13th, and their fantastically temple–dense “city” of Khajuraho, the ‘Kalinjar’ connection goes several centuries back : to the Kalachuris of Elephanta and Ellora fame, the Rashtrakuts of Deccan, the Gujarat Parmars, the Kannauj Pratihars and Chauhans. Later, its presence rubbed against the Mughals and Afghan Sher Shah Suri, before it cast its favour upon Raja Chhatrasaal and the Marathas, who soon had to hand it over to the British. The following two centuries, 19th and 20th, saw the rise of armed rebellions against British occupation, in the cause for Indian independence, and with movements launched by Mahatma Gandhi. The historical and social developments witnessed from the Fort’s ramparts takes the wind out of me and leaves my heart brimming with humanity.
The Kalinjar Fort was a fortress with unparalleled strength, much culture and uncounted wealth. Together with its twin fort at Ajaigarh, Kalinjar formed a formidable line of defence against attacks from the north. In 1019, Mahmud of Ghazni ravaged much of north and west India but had to turn back from Kalinjar on account of difficulties it posed and the opposition he encountered. The year 1022 saw a repeat, with Ghazni having to remain content with a few gifts from the Chandel ruler of Kalinjar but without the keys to its gates.
In its heydays, it is said that the Fort was ‘a frightening embodiment of Hindu power.’ But the most significant place within the Fort still extant is the Neelkanth (Shiva) Temple, built in a cave in the mountain wall, which precedes the Fort itself by a couple of millenia or more. The entire construction came up around this ancient place of worship. The wide platform in front of its small entrance includes a mandapa, with proud pillars that still stand but now without a roof. All around it are priceless, ancient rock cut relics and carvings.
It is certain that had the Kalinjar Fort fallen to Ghazni’s plunder, Khajuraho and its priceless expressions of art, thought and culture, would not have survived. And the irony is that Khajuraho is a thriving well-promoted tourist hub today while Kalinjar is a grey area, seldom appreciated, rarely remembered and infrequently visited by the connoisseurs of history, art, architecture and defence strategy.
The Chandel supremacy was constantly under challenge since early medieval period and its kings had to face assaults from rulers of Kannauj in their north-west, Malwa in the west, the Chalukyas and Rashtrakuts in south and south-west, the Pals in the east, and of Kalinga in south-east. But the survival of Chēdi–Kalchuris through a millenium in such hostile environment, with their own dateline, currency and administrative institutions, speaks a lot for their commitment to the dominion and for their capability of shoring up order and security in the region to allow for people to freely pursue pastoral and agricultural occupations and professions in diverse trades and crafts.
Kalinjar and Ajaigarh forts still remained with the Chandel line of kings, when their dominion had shrunk to a few districts in the neighbouhood. The last of them was finally submerged in the waves of history when the Kalinjar Fort was attacked by Gonds… ostensibly because the Gond king wanted the hand of the Chandel princess in marraige ! Since that event around the middle of 16th Century, uncertain times followed with onslaughts of Afghan and Mughal armies, the rise of Raja Chhatrasal, the sway of Maratha power and finally its occupation by the British.
Today, the Fort is at peace. The battles have ended and the two old forts are gradually fading, much like old soldiers of yore.
Of the hearsays, it is said that even today the Queen’s Palace fills with spooky sounds at night, of ankle trinkets specially worn by courtesans and danseuse while they performed before a gathering of eminent persons invited by the royals for an evening of art, joy and pleasure !