Crumbling palaces in Dhar fort

When we came through the final gate in the ramparts of Dhar fort, we were a little nonplussed to see a little village inside. I’d read about a palace inside; I realized that the palace was probably the small structure at the top of the ramparts which I’d seen from below. A well-trodden path led off to our left, in the direction where I guessed the palace would be.

Right at the beginning of the path was this little gareebkhana. It wasn’t in great repair, although it looked like someone lives in it. An encroachment or an ancient right? When you come to such forts, it is never clear what the legal status is of the people who live inside. The bricks which made up the wall in front of the house looked very similar to those we had seen abutting the bastion outside the gate. This was certainly built in the last two hundred years, and possibly even in the last hundred.

The next thing we saw was this very impressive row of arches made of brick. This looked so much like the Lucknow residency that I was convinced immediately that it was British. I could be mistaken about that, but I would be very surprised if it was not post-Mughal. I’ve not seen bricks of this kind in Mughal architecture. This looked a little like the lakhauri bricks which the architecture of Awadh used. The wall behind this had thick surkhi plaster, another indicator that this was a post Mughal construction.

We walked through these arches and up a staircase just above it. There was a small palace above these walls(photo above) which was in very bad repair. Was this the Sheesh Mahal which was built by Jehangir inside this fort? There seemed to be no plaque which could tell us anything about the history of this structure. On the other hand, it could be a post-Mughal construction. Baji Rao II, the last of the Peshwas, is said to have been born in this fort. Since this palace stood atop the largest post-Mughal structure I saw, I wonder whether this crumbling palace is where he was born.

The crowning jewel of Dhar fort is supposed to be the Mughal era Kharbuja Mahal. That was indeed what I had seen from below the walls of the fort. The fanciful name apparently comes from the Mughal dome atop the building (you can see part of it in the photo above); to some eyes it looks like a watermelon, hence the name. You can see from the photos (above, and the featured photo) that it is in shockingly bad repair. The doors were locked. A closer look showed electrical wires threaded through jharokhas, so clearly some people do step inside. The building is at the edge of a forty foot drop. It had been raining, so I did not venture round the building to see whether there was a way up to the terrace from outside. Probably not, because some of the many young couples whom we saw here would have then made their way up.

Quite in keeping with the bad upkeep was the board explaining the history of this structure. Written in Hindi and English, it has clearly been stencilled over twice with two different stencils. It is hard to get anything out of this board. The Family walked away from the board in disgust. I took a photo thinking I would decipher it at leisure. Now looking at it again, I am ready to give up. Just in case you want to try, I’ve given you the photo above.

Dhar Fort

The Indore highway runs close to Dhar’s fort. We parked next to the road and walked in past a recent wall. I was to read later that the government is trying to prevent encroachments on the fort, somewhat half-heartedly according to reports. One of the measures is to forbid construction 300 meters from the fort walls. As a result we had a clear view of the red sandstone ramparts and bastions (photo below) as we walked up to the entrance gate. It was interesting to see a part of an abandoned cannon still pointed at the ramparts.

A rather wonky web page by the state tourism department claims that the fort was built in 1344 CE. This fits with the known history of the era. The town of Dhar and the kingdom of Malwa had been annexed by the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th century CE, and passed on to the Tughlaq dynasty in the 14th century CE. Muhammad bin Tughlaq, the infamous 2nd sultan of the dynasty, spent the years from 1327 CE fighting breakaway generals and kingdoms. In 1338 CE he put down a revolt in Malwa, and nine years later lost the region south of it to a rebellion by his own general Bahman Shah. The putative year of the construction of this fort agrees with the period when this region would have been in the thick of war.

We walked in through a gate which stuck out of the line of the rampart and looked quite different (photo above). I guess this was built to commemorate a visit of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir in 1664 CE (1075 AH). Past this we climbed three or four steps and came on the original door built into the ramparts of the fort (featured photo). The stone looks dark here, but I think it is just algae growing on the original red sandstone. In parts where the growth has been scraped off, you can see the colour of the sandstone. The brick walls abutting the bastion here must be a later construction.

Paths into forts never go straight. A couple of youngsters in school uniforms pushed their bicycles past us through the gate. We followed. Inside was a little vestibule, and then another gate. A description in the East Indian Gazetteer (Volume 1, by Walter Hamilton, 1828 CE) says “The fort is entirely detached from the city, standing on a rising ground about forty feet above the plain. The walls are about thirty feet high, fortified by round and square towers.” We passed through the inner gate (photo above, courtesy The Family) into the keep.

Very little stands inside here. Our first view was of a pasture with cows and a little village beyond (photo above, courtesy The Family). I hadn’t understood the descriptions of the fort when I read them earlier. The palaces which stand inside the fort are small. We found them soon enough, but the village explained why there were schoolchildren with bicycles climbing into the fort. When the governor of Malwa, Dilawar Khan, rebelled against the Delhi Sultanate and declared himself Sultan of Malwa in 1401 CE, the fort must have been an important possession. There must be detailed histories of that time, but I haven’t been able to locate any, so I don’t know whether there was a village here at that time. In any case, during the war of independence in 1857, troops garrisoned here rebelled. The fort was taken back by British troops less than a month later, and the village inside was burnt down although the rebels managed to flee. The village we saw is clearly a more recent development.

We climbed up the ramparts and saw before us the spreading town of Dhar. A photo of the fort was taken in 1892 by Raja Deen Dayal, and shows empty land all around the fort. Today, the fort is no longer “entirely detached from the city”. The town is still not very large, so you can see the very pleasant rolling contours of a typical Malwa landscape beyond the houses, all the way to the horizon and the looming windmills.