The hills around Asirgarh have witnessed the making of legends and epics and how mythological heroes just like emperors and other mortal men turned fallible, writes Nirdesh Singh.
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You now know how Akbar felt as he laid siege to the Faruqi stronghold of Asirgarh. Built on a spur in the Satpuras range, 850 feet above the hill, the fort commanded over the medieval route from Hindustan to Deccan earning it the epithet of Key to Deccan. As Akbar rolled through Khandesh in early 1600, the Faruqi king, instead of paying tribute, took up position inside the impregnable fort. Ageing Akbar who had more pressing matters could not afford a protracted siege.The car negotiates another tight turn. A sharp boom ricochets from the hill side. Have you been caught in the crossfire between the Mughal Imperial Army and the hill-top garrison of Faruqi King Bahadur Khan? The car swerves on the narrow dirt track seemingly hanging to the folds of this high hill even as the intimidating fortifications overhead watch the intruding vehicle come to a stop. You get out to investigate. The front left tyre has burst hitting a sharp rock.
Winning the Key to Deccan will never be simple – Akbar found out the hard way. The conquest of Asirgarh would be the last of his long list of conquests that spanned a glorious career of forty five years. But it was not a victory that Akbar would like to be remembered for. Prince Salim’s rebellion snapping at his heels and his growing age meant Akbar had to take extreme measures.
Akbar invited the King Miran Bahadur Khan for negotiation. The king had his reservations but still accepted Akbar’s invitation to meet. However, despite assurances and oath that no harm will be inflicted, the King was seized. The Faruqi team upstairs was made of sterner stuff and the siege continued. Akbar could not bear the thought of returning to Agra without completing the conquest. So when treachery failed it was time for bribery. The garrison officers were bribed with gold and finally the fort capitulated in January 1601 after the siege and intrigue games that played out for ten long months. Akbar returned triumphantly to Agra but soon died in 1605. His questionable conquest of Asirgarh was to be his last conquest.
The road north of Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh winds through scenic hills when you catch the first glimpse of the ridge like hill soaring over the Satpuras. Few more turns and you can make out the fortifications on the edge of the hill. Even from a distance the two soaring minars can be seen adding to the drama in the skyline. Negotiating the narrow dirt track up the hill is when the boom rings out.
Tyre fixed, the car is brought around to the parking lot. You climb a few vertical flights of steps to enter Asirgarh, the greatest fort of the sixteenth century. It is the end of the monsoons and the fort is a riot of overgrown dazzling greenery. Not many structures can be discerned among the bushes and trees. A path through the grass leads to the most imposing building in the sixty acre fortified campus protected by walls that soar to 120 feet over the formidable hill.
Built on a high platform, the Jami Masjid, built by the Faruqi King Raja Ali Khan, towers over the visitors as stone steps lead to its high three-arched entrance. Inside, you find yourself in a quiet courtyard; it feels like as if you have walked into a private audience with God. Looking around you see the courtyard is lined with cloistered halls. The hall in the west facing the qibla wall is the prettiest. Four rows of identical pillars form long arched passages where the faithful would congregate. The qibla has thirteen decorated mihrabs with lattice screens, most of which have been lost. Flanking the western hall are the two slender minarets that have kept you company as you approached Asirgarh on the highway.
Outside, there are the unmistakable ruins of colonial structures. The fort along with the Faruqis, Mughals and Marathas has British connection too. British soldiers and their families stayed in these barracks and houses. There is an overgrown cemetery too here with several tombstones of soldiers who probably died as the British tried to wrest Asirgarh back from the Marathas.
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The tall grass is making progress slow and you need to watch your steps as forts usually has underground bunkers that are usually caved in making the terrain treacherous. Through the overhanging branches you come to the twin water tanks popularly known as Mama Bhanja Talaos. Steps seem to be buried in the grass and you try to stay away from the edges. It was these water tanks that supported the fort’s garrison during the siege. On the ground are the brilliantly coloured balsam and zinnia flowers studding the fluorescent grass and overhead wispy clouds float in the blue skies.
There is one last thing to do. In the south-east is the Shiva Temple with connections to Mahabharata’s character Ashwathama. According to popular folklore, Ashwathama, who was condemned to eternal roaming by Lord Krishna when he killed Pandavas’s sons to avenge his father Guru Dronacharya’s killing by Pandavas by deception, comes to the temple every morning to pray to Lord Shiva or Mahakaal to relieve him from his misery. Fresh flowers are reportedly found inside the sanctum every morning. Taking off your shoes you descend into the side of the step-well where the temple is built. In the small sanctum, Nandi looks reverentially towards the ling. In our beautiful country, you keep stepping into the world of epics.
The hills around Asirgarh have witnessed the making of legends and epics and how mythological heroes just like emperors and other mortal men turned fallible; the hills also witnessed the love of another emperor with his queen in the nearby city of Burhanpur – a love story that would create the monument of love of epic proportions.
Asirgarh in Madhya Pradesh is 160 kms from Indore and 30 kms from Burhanpur. Aurangabad in Maharashtra is 240 kms away.
What else to see:
Burhanpur to the south is a veritable treasure for heritage lovers. It was in Burhanpur that Mumtaz Mahal died giving birth to her fourteenth child in the Shahi Qila and was buried in Ahukhana just outside the city while her grand mausoleum was being built in Agra by a heart-broken Shahjahan. And in another little known episode, a much married middle aged Aurangzeb fell in love with a girl in Zainabad near Ahukhana.