AT a gauging distant Pratapgad fort intimidates like a lion’s presence atop a hillock. The fluttering of the flag, elevated over the fort, signifies the roar – of Swaraj (freedom). This historic fort is best remembered for the ‘Battle of Pratapgad’, which provided a revolutionary breakthrough for the Maratha Empire to flourish. The journey to Pratapgad deals for a glimpse in the incredible life of Shivaji Maharaj (King).
The drive to the fort is an awesome trek on wheels. The road leading is smooth but Mother Nature lends it a leaner and meaner look, twirled with blindfold curves and surrounded by breath-taking views – perilous slopes, soaring peaks and opulent trees carving caves upon the road. It is a drive of 22 km from Mahabaleshwar – a hill station in Maharashtra, India.
The purpose behind building this fort was its strategic location. Shivaji’s prime minster, Moropant Trimbak Pingle, was appointed for the task and the fortress was completed in 1656. Dominant at the highest point of the mountain range – at 1,080 m above sea level, this fort is surrounded by wild inaccessible masses of gigantic cliffs towards its north and west borders, and thick forest slopes towards its south and east edges.
Finally the car covered the tactical stretch to catch the glimpse of the fort and was applied to brakes sighting the hand wave to stop by a tax collecting official. Probing look of my face primed him to clarify, “Money is charged for road maintenance and not for sightseeing of the fort, that’s for free” – my curiosity disappeared for contentment, for this well maintained route deserves a reward.
Historical approach to the fort was an undulating ride but the location of the fort provided an advantage for Shivaji’s army, who were accomplished with mountainous guerrilla warfare. When Adilshahi forces commanded by Afzal Khan were heading for a battle with Shivaji, he started by destroying temples to incite Shivaji out to the plain grounds.
An incline march leads to the fort premises. The intensifying spectacle of the fort from close quarters established that the survey of this fort was at its humble beginnings and a guide’s company is must. My guide, a local guy residing in the adjacent area of the fort, started off the narration very hurriedly – which gave rise to a weird assumption, ‘Is a speedometer attached in his throat?’ Putting my speculations to rest, I requested him to slow down (the gauge) for a proper understanding.
“This fort is now owned by Udayanraje Bhonsale, the successor of the Satara princely state”, the guide affirmed. Then, hastily directing towards a cave at the base of the fort he continued speaking, without a break for a breath, “During the battle of Pratapgad, this cave was a hideout for 30 to 40 of Shivaji’s solider for a surprise attack on the enemy.”
History reveals that when Shivaji expressed his desire for peace, Afzal Khan and Shivaji decided to meet at Pratapgad on 10th November’ 1659. They met in a shamiyana (tent) at the base of the fort. They both agreed on meeting unarmed however both were armed for treachery – the tall and hefty Afzal Khan embraced him, he stabbed Shivaji in the back with his hidden dagger but the attack was deflected by Shivaji’s armour, Shivaji responded by attacking Khan with a single stroke of a sharp weapon called wagh nakha (tiger-claws) which he had cleverly masked on his hand.
The severely injured Afzal Khan managed to reach his palanquin but one of Shivaji’s lieutenants, Sambhaji Kavji Kondhalkar, along with an accompanying guard gave pursuit and beheaded Afzal Khan. Immediately, cannons were fired form the fortress as a signal for the Maratha infantry to attack Adilshahi forces. The victory in the battle of Pratapgad led to the establishment of Maratha Empire.
“Today, I am here to explore its presence”, I thought while inspecting the depth of the cave. The young guide soon plunged to take the topic forward, pointing out towards two huge overlapping walls – He said, “The main entrance to the fort is between these two walls”, leading the climb on the fort’s stairs, he elongated the narration to state the motive – “It was designed to put the enemy into confusion as the walls cleverly conceals the entrance of the fort, moreover the sudden curve of the staircase at the top near its entrance was on purpose, in case of an attack by the enemy, its elephants would find it difficult to alter its speed at the abrupt turn”.
The entrance of the fort is quite narrow and extended with a roofed, short passage which is defended by doors at both ends. To the left of the passage is an antique stone structure of a torch stand and an old canon is displayed to its opposite end.
“Madam, turn around towards the entrance!” … My gaze was interrupted by a hasty but by now familiar voice of the guide. “There are towers and a strong peripheral fort surrounding and guarding the main entrance. You will also notice fissures at equal distance all through its walls, they are called Janga (window) and it served the purpose of spotting enemies near the entrance of fort, to aim canon at the enemy or shoot them or harm them by pouring hot oil”.
On passing the passage the guide in his rustic manner stated aloud, “The whole fort can be divided into two parts, Lower fort and Upper fort”. Soon, I was introduced to the lower part of the fort which lies towards the south-east direction, rectangular in its structure, stretching around 320 m in length and 110 m in its width and defended by towers ten to twelve meters high. “It has the symbolic saffron colour flag elevated on top, this part of the fort is visible on approach towards the fort and looks like a round tipped hill”, specified the guide.
The fort is an exploration by trail through its stairs. Its stair initiates the journey and succeeds to flow up to the top of the hill. As we proceeded ahead I noticed an isolated narrow passage, my gaze was noticed by the guide and he mentioned – “This entrance was the route for Shivaji’s palanquin”. Further on the way up, he stood waiting near a water reservoir for I was still on my way – far down the stairs. Sweating and exhausted I reached and stood taking sips of water from the water bottle as he continued, “There are four lakes here, the stones and rocks used to build this fort was excavated from here … this lake is about 25 feet deep.” After a thoughtful pause he added, “At present, the water in these lakes is not safe for drinking.”
After a short break for refreshment at a kiosk we headed towards the eastern side of the fort, to the Temple of Goddess Bhavani. An arcade with wooden pillars surrounds the shrine, some parts of old canons and a very thick iron rod shaped like a spade at one of its corner (which was used to dig the ground) are exhibited near the entrance of the arcade. The shrine is made of stones; over the shrine is a small shikhar (spire), its roof is flat on the inside and covered with lead covering. Placed inside is the idol of Goddess Bhavani – a sculpture carved on Shaligram stone which were imported from the Gand River of Nepal. An original portrait of Shivaji is placed inside the shrine.
Slowly pacing away from the unceasing rhythm of the temple bell, played harmoniously at short uneven intervals by its unending tide of tourists, we left the shrine. Continuous climb on its stairs leads to the Upper fort; it is built upon the crest of the hill and is approximately 180 m long on each of its sides. Here is a shrine of Lord Mahadev, it is situated towards the northwest section of the fort. Its structure is made of stones; chip of sunlight enters only through its door which gives its interior an enigmatic feel.
My guide enthusiastically led me near the wrecked parapet wall of the fort near the Temple. The location of this temple is nerve-racking; it is near the edge of the hill surrounded with cliffs on its three sides. My shriek got stuck in my throat at the distinctive sight, which engulfs with a terrifying view of vertical drop of over 800 ft. but cherishes an overall sight of the lower fort in a miniature form. I could also spot Afzal Burz which is located to the south-east on the foothills of Pratapgad, the site marks the original approach to the fort which is a steep and rugged pathway leading towards the entrance of the fort. From this scanning peak, the ruin of one of the lakes is also spotted which is situated near the Shrine of Goddess Bhavani.
Taking a break from the tiresome climb, I happened to sit opposite to the Shrine of Lord Mahadev – on a corner of a slight raised area that seemed like a base of a missing structure. Quickly my very eager guide commented, “This place was a small Darbar (court), here Shivaji would meet his very loyal minsters to discuss important issues”.
The last structure is the symbolic statue of Shivaji Maharaja, on the horse back with a risen sword in hand. This bronze statue was unveiled by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the First Prime Minister of India, in the year 1957. At this juncture, an interesting revelation was made by the guide, “The climb up the fort counts for around 450 steps”.
I believe this fort has lot more to offer in exploration to unveil all the mysteries it appears to be hiding in its ruins.