Anybody who has ever seen a fort and not been awestruck by its sheer size and imposing structure? Think about children who have extremely impressionable minds. When children see a fort, they are fascinated by its various nuances.
No wonder then that children in the region of North Karnataka and Maharashtra indulge in the pursuit of constructing Mud Forts during the Diwali season. Check out the wonderfully laid Red Fort opposite the Ram Mandir in Acharya Galli, The majestic Rajgad at Kore Galli and many more in the bylanes. At various residential areas, one can come across these mud forts, replete with the scaled down citadels, bastions, ramparts and moats with tanks and soldiers guarding the precincts and every conceivable idea in place to safeguard the fort and upheld the reputation of this ‘kingdom’. These mud forts are on display right from Diwali to almost a month after that and have enthusiastic visitors appreciating the creation.
India, and especially the Deccan Plateau, has a fair share of majestic forts, those built by Shivaji being more popular. Shivaji’s regime saw the annexing or construction of myriad forts, from Salher- near Nashik to Gingee in Tamilnadu. They also appeal more to the common man who is astounded at the simple but intelligent designs that merge with the surrounding topography and the strength of the fortifications that they offer. The different types of forts are based on the topography on which they were built. Kautilya, in his famous Arthashastra, describes the importance, types, and details of building a fort. According to him, water and hills provide the best security. He also describes the different types of forts – the ones built on land ( Ex: The Belgaum or Banavasi forts), in water ( Called Jal durg: Ex. Sindhudurg, Murud Janzeera)), on hill tops ( Called Giri durg: Ex. Raigad, Purandar), in deserts amidst sandstone hills ( Called Maru durg, Ex. Mehrangadh in Rajasthan), in deep impenetrable jungles (Called Van durg, Ex. Kohoj fort), etc.
Anything that has action, drama and a thrilling story attached to it and you have children mesmerized. No wonder the forts, which offer all this and more, are so attractive to them. The period before and after Diwali is the time kids of all ages in the Maharashtra and Karnataka region spend hours together in building these forts in their homes or in any open space available – in mud! This is the time when they have time, the resources and also the weather that does not play spoilsport.
The culture of children recreating the structure of a fort is prevalent for many decades in this part of the country. It has not only taught multiple lessons but also attracted the attention of corporates who now routinely organize these workshops or competitions and the best structures are awarded.
The Mud-Fort building process: Diwali is steeped in myths, traditions, and stories associated with various Gods, Goddesses and Kings from different cultures. It is a wonderful amalgamation of joyous festivities, spread over almost a week. The children in this part have their October holidays during this season. Preparations for the Fort begin way ahead of time, with different photos of real forts being collected, compared and approved for building a miniature. A member of the group convinces his parents to use the garage or a corner of the garden to build this structure. Then begin a series of hectic parlays with the other members of the group and work is distributed. The common materials used include
Mud, Cement, Plastic paper, hay, black clay tiles, paints, discarded gunny bags, cardboard, and stones. This forms the basic structure.
Mud is filled in small bags and brought to the ‘site’. Then it is cleaned and sieved for any stones. The ‘fort’ premise is marked with chalk. Stones are laid to give shape to the hills and covered with gunny bag cloth. Mud mixed with water is applied on this to plaster it and give a surreal natural texture. Mustard seeds are then sown on this ‘hill’ to stand for trees which grow in an about 2 to 3 days. A pedestal is made in the specially carved sanctum for the King who is almost always ‘Shivaji’. The black roof tiles when erected vertically make for excellent bastions. The ramparts and roads are laid with bare hands using mud and strengthening with hay mixed in it. A tiny moat is also dug and lined with plastic to hold the water. The different parts of this fort include the hill, roads, ramparts, moat, gardens, a lake ( again lined with a plastic sheet), zoo, houses, buildings, etc. At times, a small bridge is also built with some tin sheet.
Various accessories required to complete the mud fort are available at the local markets in many towns in this area . In Belgaum, Ganpat Galli, Saraf Galli corner and the First Gate area stock these figurines. Coveted items include the colorful statue of Shivaji in various sizes, his soldiers, also called Mavalas, the popular warrior Dajiprabhu Deshpande, men-women, animals, bullock carts, etc. Ready-made fort bastions and the main structure is also available in many cities, but most kids prefer to make it themselves. Once ready, the entire structure gets a whitewash at requisite places. Roads are decorated with sawdust or sand and the ‘lakes’ get their share of the swans and the crocodiles. It is a queer sight sometimes when enthusiastic kids also lay snazzy cars and tanks lining the roads!
Now all this may seem a trivial playful pursuit, but it isn’t in the true sense. It is a worthwhile mission that provides key life lessons.
History: Children learn the structures of various forts as also the stories associated with them. What better way to teach history and ignite the pride of the rich heritage of our country? Elders play a key role in this while they guide and help the kids select the best design for their mud fort.
Team Work: Building a fort requires no less skill and manpower than an actual one. Chalking out key tasks and distributing them is a trait that they will learn at a young age. Every member of the group is equally accountable for the tasks and the completion of the mission. This develops team spirit. Kids learn to encourage others, find solutions for problems, think of alternatives in material and mode of execution.
Engineering: Building a fort requires an acute awareness of various architectural facets like the quality of mud, mixtures of materials, use of water, the strength of the bridge, angles of laying the roads, the stability of the bastion and the pedestal, etc. They also make use of fairy lights to line their roads and a wire is drawn from the main house to the site of the mud fort with the help of elders. Kids learn on their own through mistakes and trial and error.
Eye for detail: It also develops a sense of aesthetics when the kids decorate their fort and its citadel with fairy lamps, colored sawdust, sow plants with mustard and coriander seeds and see them grow every day. It also teaches them about the ecosystems, a lake is necessary for the aquatic beings, a zoo provides space for the giraffes and the deer, trees are where the birds will perch and humans need homes to dwell. Many such ‘forts’ have special scenes recreated to depict planes flying, dams gushing or light effects to depict war. It requires a lot of technique and coordination to achieve that. Sowing seeds, watering them, seeing them grow and nurturing the plants teach them the importance of agriculture and water harvesting.
Safety measures: A fort’s main objective is safeguarding. It represents the kingdom’s strength. Many a kingdom in history has fallen to enemy hands with the seizure of its key forts. Children learn the rules of warfare and safety at a young age. They also learn a key lesson in safety – precaution is better than reaction. Just like the army who uses the sandbox to learn strategy, kids learn defense systems through this small structure.
In an age where everything is available ready- made and toys are getting smarter by the day, when kids have to be literally pushed out of their rooms to play outdoors and activities have come to mean computer games and surfing, this act of building a mud fort by hand definitely remains an excellent tool to engage children in meaningful pursuits. Institutes and various educational organizations must pursue and encourage this activity and use it as a tool to inculcate key life skills in children at a very young and impressionable age.