Fortified wonder

Fortified wonder

M P Nathanael unlocks many a hidden tale behind the legacy called Chunar Fort in Varanasi

The palace where Warren Hastings resided. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

During an official visit to Varanasi recently, I had a few hours with me to while away my time. It struck me that long back I read about Chunar Fort, quite close to Varanasi.

Having hired a taxi, I drove to Chunar — 23 kilometres south west of Varanasi. About an hour later, as we hit the bridge over Ganga River, the fort, nestled on a hillock, came in view bang on the banks of the river Ganga. Winding our way through the narrow lanes of the city at the base of the fort, we entered the fort.

Walking beside a spacious bungalow I was told by the guide that it was once the residence of Warren Hastings. It has since been converted into a PWD Rest House for Government servants. Since it was closed, and even otherwise not open to public, we were proceeding towards a well, when I was told about a majestic seat in a balcony also known locally as jharokha, adjacent to the bungalow, where the Queen of Sher Shah Suri, Fatima Begum, used to be seated to hold royal sessions. The residence of Warren Hastings served as the palace of Sher Shah Suri.

The well which was used by the Queen of Maharaja Vikramaditya and by Princess Sonwa
The well which was used by the Queen of Maharaja Vikramaditya and by Princess Sonwa

Well of stories

We were soon peeping into the royal deep well where the Queen of King Vikramaditya used to have her bath. The fascinating information that the guide gave me was that there was a separate entrance to the well and a private changing room adjacent to the well. Another story doing the rounds is that Princess Sonwa, the daughter of the King of Nepal Sandeva, also used the well, the source of water here being the adjacent Ganga River. To King Vikramaditya of Ujjain goes the credit of constructing Chunar Fort on the crest at a height of 280 feet on the banks of Ganga River. Legend has it that his brother Bhartri Hari had chosen this place for penance after he turned a hermit.

Having learnt of this, Vikramaditya visited this place, constructed a palace and ramparted it. With the passage of years, the fort assumed much importance due to its strategic location and also because it served as the gateway to Bengal and Bihar.

War of supremacy

In 1532, Sher Shah Suri attacked the fort and established his supremacy until Humayun took over briefly and Sher Shah Suri ensconced himself again in the fort. After his death, the fort remained with his progeny till the Mughal Emperor Akbar arrived and took over the reins.

Troops of the British East India Company under the command of Major Munroe attacked the fort in 1768 and after a treaty, took over the fort. While it was being used as a storage of ammunition, Maharaja Chet Singh attacked the fort and held on to it briefly until the East India Company evicted the Maharaja from the fort. It was subsequently used as a rehabilitation centre for those medically unfit for military service and also for incarceration of State prisoners from 1852. Among those imprisoned was Maharani Jind Kaur, the wife of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh in 1849. She made good her escape after posing as a maid servant and reached Nepal where she was granted asylum.

After the East India Company vacated the fort in 1890, the whole complex was handed over to the civil administration, who continued to use it as a jail until the Provincial Armed Constabulary took over a major part of it for use as a training centre. Though a small strength of PAC continues to hold on to the major portion of the fort, the tourists get to see the important buildings within the fort.

Balcony also kown as Jharokha from where the Queen of Sher Shah Suri Fatima Begum used to watch the royal sessions.
The balcony, also kown as Jharokha from where the Queen of Sher Shah Suri Fatima Begum used to watch the royal sessions.

Touch of gold

Having seen a portion of the fort, the young lad led me to another portion where I was accosted by young children with guitars and camera asking me to pose for photographs playing the guitar. I declined and moved on to Sonwa Mandap, which I was told, was once a palace made of gold. Though known as mandap, no marriage was ever solemnised there. It is still believed that hundreds of kilograms of gold lie buried in the fort premises. Sonwa, it is said was a beautiful princess who had golden hair. As the king wanted to get her married only to someone who could defeat him, 52 young men lost their lives in their bid to marry Sonwa. In memory of those who lost their lives, 52 pillars were erected in the palace. She was ultimately kidnapped and married to a youth from a nearby village. They are known to have lived happily ever after. Behind the Sonwa Mandap is the Bhartri Hari Nath Samadhi sthal which also serves as a temple. The locals are known to rever the legendary hermit.

Close by are the dungeons which were constructed by Sher Shah Suri to incarcerate those whom he defeated, which included Humayun. Here, my young guide took leave saying that the tour of the fort comes to an end. I doled out an amount higher than what I had bargained for and after a cup of tea in the few stalls near the entrance where bus loads of tourists from West Bengal had arrived, left for Varanasi.