First published in 2009
Bramhanand Chipre got a hand on this one and it’s worth a read. The history of the Belagavi fort and Belagavi as well linked to it. It’s quite lengthy but all has to read to understand the entire Belagavi fort.
The Belgaum history as written by: MRS. GUTHRIE
Although there are many forts which play a more important part in history than that of Belgaum, still its crumbling walls, ancient sites, and picturesque ruins tell of an eventful story, which is not without interest.
Placed upon no lofty plateau, and defending no mountain pass, but situated in an obscure part of Western India, it owed its former celebrity to the fact of its being a border fortress, situated amidst territories which were constantly at war with one another, and frequently changing masters. It derived not a little of its strength from the deep jungle by which it was until lately surrounded. The natives still consider Belgaum to be in the jungle, and within twenty years bison have been shot close to the ramparts.
Tradition declares that the fort was founded by a certain Jaina King called Jaza Rajah, who built a large mud fort, surrounded by a ditch, on the site of the existing fortifications, and the existence within the enceinte of three Jaina temples of great beauty and interest tends to favour the idea. There is, however, no positive record as to the foundation of the existing fort, but we learn, from an inscription on copper, the date of which is 1294, in which many names are recorded, and which was found in the fosse, that at one period a certain family, who were Jains, held, for seven generations, the hereditary chieftainship of Belgaum. After this period we have more information regarding the history of this place, for the district is remarkably rich in inscriptions in the Canerese character, beautifully cut in relief, upon large slabs of compact black basalt, which takes a beautiful polish, and resists the influence of the weather.
Many petty wars, and events of local interest, are recorded upon these stones, but nothing of general interest until the year 1472, when it is stated that Belgaum fort was besieged by Mohammed Shah, the Mohamedan King of the Deccan. It must at that time have been a place of strength, as it is mentioned in history as being protected by strong towers and lofty walls, guarded by a deep wet ditch, and by a pass near to it, the only approach to which was fortified by re doubts. When Mohammed Shah set himself down to subdue it, he commanded the fire workers, as they valued their own safety, to affect a particular breach in fourteen days, and ordered his soldiers to throw quantities of wood and earth into the ditch. The enemy in the night, however, always removed them, upon which he placed his guns in another position, but only finally succeeded, by mining, in forming three breaches. The troops of Birkana Ray, Rajah of the fortress, advanced gallantly to defend the place, and nearly two thousand of the king’s troops fell in the attempt to storm. The besieged had nearly repaired the works with wood and stones when the Shah, advancing to the assault, drove the enemy before him, and gained the ramparts. When opposition had ceased, the King entered the citadel, and gave thanks to God for the success of his arms. One of his first acts was to expel the image of Dymavavera, the tutelar goddess of the fort, but the sorrowing Hindoos were allowed to place it in a little temple outside the walls, which still exists.
The history of Belgaum remained intimately connected with that of Bijapur until the decline of the Mussulman power in Western India, when it relapsed into the hands of the Hindoo princes. The king bestowed Belgaum and its dependencies upon Mahmoud Gavan, a very distinguished general, of royal blood, being connected with the Shah of Persia. His career was one of curious vicissitudes. He first served in the Deccan, to which he came in the year 1461, and where he was successful in many campaigns, rendering his royal master great services, for which he was made Governor of Bijipur, was given a seat in the Council of Regency, and was appointed a guardian of the young prince, Nizam Shah. He also rose to the dignity of Vizier, and distinguished himself at the siege of Goa, but was finally murdered by Mohammed Shah in 1481. He was very famous for his learning, justice, and munificence, and left. Once in every twelve years a great festival is held in honor of Dymavavera, when buffaloes, sheep, and goats are sacrificed to her. The slaughter takes place on a platform outside the little pyramidal building erected to her. The jubilee took place shortly after M.’s arrival in Belgaum.
In the same year the Mussulman king again visited Belgaum, probably for the purpose of resuming his full authority over it. He inspected the city and examined the fortifications. Thirty years of petty warfare ensued, and then the golden age of the old fort commenced.
Ismael Khan Shah began his reign at Bijapur in the year 1511, when he was a minor, and the attempt at usurpation made by his guardian was the means of bringing conspicuously forward Khoossan Toork, a Persian, who, as he took part in the deliverance of the young king, was honoured with the title of Azad Khan, and the Government of Belgaum was conferred upon him. He was far the greatest man who ever reigned over it; and even to this day his name is a household word among the people, who love and revere his memory. It is to his wise measures that the town has ever owed, and still continues to owe, its comparative immunity from cholera. He altered and repaired the walls of the fortress, every inscription on which is in the Persian character. He also erected a grand palace, which, with its offices and stables, covered a large space of ground.
There are existing records of the magnificence which he maintained. His household servants — Georgians, Circassians, Abyssinians, and Hindoos amounted to two hundred and fifty. He had sixty large elephants, and one hundred and fifty of a smaller size. In his stables were four hundred and fifty Arabian horses, exclusive of those of mixed breeding foaled in India. Two thousand seven hundred pounds of rice were every day prepared for his household, in addition to fifty sheep, and one hundred fowls. It was he who first introduced the fashion of wearing the waistband of cloth of gold, and the dagger, a custom which has since been adopted by persons of rank in this country. He also attempted to ride elephants with bridles instead of managing them with the goad ; but as these animals are rather unsteady, in consequence of the sudden vicious starts to which they are frequently prone, this mode of guiding them was, according to the old chronicle, not found to answer.
Years flew by, during which Azad Khan was constantly at war, and proved himself a most successful general, acquiring great riches, in the form of gold, jewels, and elephants. On one occasion, it is related that, after a battle, the King of Bijapur presented him with five large and six small elephants ; and at another time, when he had taken a large quantity of baggage and twenty elephants, the king gave him all these animals but one, which he reserved for himself, and called Alia Baksh (the Gift of God). Towards the end of his life, when very ill, he succeeded in frustrating the design of a neighboring chief, Nizam Shah, who had a great wish to possess himself of Belgaum, with which design he entrusted a large sum of money to a Brahman, who was directed to employ it in corrupting the soldiers of the garrison, in the hope that they would deliver the fort into his hands, in case of Azad’s death.
The Brahman had nearly succeeded in his commission, when the plot was discovered, and the chief agent in it, in spite of his high caste, was put to death, along with seventy of the soldiers whom he had bribed. Old age having rendered Azad too weak to contend with a deep-seated malady, he prepared to meet death, and in lines (of which the following is a translation), he entreated the King of Bijapur to honor him with a farewell visit. “Come like the morning breeze to the bower of friendship, Come like the graceful cypress to the garden.” Ibraham assented to the request, and on his arrival finding his old friend had breathed his last, he administered consolation to his family by attaching all the late Khan’s estates and treasures. The fine old chief died in the year 1549, having held Belgaum during thirty-three prosperous years. He left a name not only dear to his people, but celebrated in the history of the period; and we have heard that his standard, on which was embroidered an angry lion, was bestowed as a great honour upon Kishwar Khan.
In the year 1557, the treacherous King of Bijapur lay on his death-bed. He had, on religious grounds, quarreled with both of his sons, the eldest of whom, his heir, was under surveillance in Miraj, whilst the youngest was in confinement at Belgaum, under the charge of Kishwar Khan, the governor, where, upon the accession of his brother, he was still kept prisoner. Though treated with kindness and generosity, he determined to rebel, and having persuaded the governor and the garrison to assist him, he took possession of the fort, and raised the standard of rebellion, upon which a renowned general, Elias Khan, was sent with five thousand men to besiege the place.
Great confusion followed, and in order completely to quell the insurrection, a further force of twenty thousand horse and thirty thousand foot, was sent against Belgaum, under Ein-ul-Mulk, who, treacherously pretending to be the friend of the young prince, persuaded him to take the field, with those who were willing to espouse his cause, and march upon Bijipur. The unfortunate Ismael fell into the trap laid for him, and was taken prisoner and executed. Nor did it fare better with the double traitor, Ein-al- Mulk, who was also put to death, his head being sent to Bijapur, where, for a certain time, it was exposed upon a pole in front of the palace, and afterwards blown from a great gun.
The next important prisoners confined in the fort were the Portuguese ambassador and his suite. About this time, in consequence of a change of territory, Belgaum ceased to be a frontier fort, and no particular mention of it appears until 1673, when the renowned Sevaji, with his famous light cavalry, swept down and sacked both town and fort. At the fall of Bijapur, in 1688, the fort reverted to the Mahrattas, and was in the possession of Aurangzib, second son of the powerful Prince A’Zam, at which period it acquired the name A’Zamnagar. After the lapse of some years the name was changed to Mustafabad, after a Kiledar who thoroughly repaired and strengthened the ramparts; and this appellation it still retains.
One year after the battle of Kirhee, the English, under General Munro, marched against it. He encamped near Sharpur, on the morning of March 11th, 1818, with a comparatively insignificant force of native soldiers, and three troops of His Majesty’s twenty-second Light Dragoons, a force so weak that it tended to confirm the garrison, and the inhabitants of Belgaum and Shahpur (who had a high opinion of the strength of the fort), in the belief that it could not be taken.
The English were unable to obtain accurate intelligence as to the state of the ditch, which was the great defense of the place; otherwise the attack would not have been made from the points selected. On the fifteenth, the fort was invested, but nothing particular occurred until the twentieth, when the force marched to the north of the fort, and encamped about two miles and a half from it. On the twenty-second, the first battery opened on the defences, and on the following day the pioneers broke ground, and began opening trenches.
On the thirty-first, the magazine belonging to one of the batteries, in which there was a considerable amount of ammunition, blew up. The garrison took immediate advantage of this misfortune, and making a sally, succeeded in passing over the battery, but was immediately repulsed.
During the following days such steady progress was made by the English that on or about April 9th, the Kiledar (acting governor) sent out a flag of truce to propose terms, but General Munro did not accept them. Next day all the batteries kept up a heavy fire on the fort, and the breach, though not exactly practicable, began to have a more favorable appearance, in consequence of which the Kiledar found himself under the necessity of accepting the condition offered by General Munro, which was that he should give up possession of the gateway, the garrison being allowed to march out with their arms and private property. This they did on the following day, to the number of one thousand six hundred, having lost seventy men. The loss of the besieging army amounted to twenty three killed and wounded. By the capture of the fort, General Munro obtained possession of thirty-six guns of large calibre, sixty smaller guns, and numerous wall pieces, besides stores of every sort.
The two breaches effected by the English were near the main guard, and are plainly visible, “the masonry which fills the gaps being still ungnawed by time. Count is abstracted without mentally fighting the battle of the fort, and wishing for the success of its brave garrison. The fall of Belgaum completed the conquest of the Peshwa’s territory south of the Krishna. The breaking out of the Mutiny found Belgaum garrisoned by two native regiments, a battery of European artillery, and the depot of an English regiment, withdrawn to serve in Persia. The native troops were believed to be ripe for revolt; all the European women and children were brought into the fort, and the small English garrison had good reason to take every measure to provide for their safety. The walls, which had been somewhat neglected, were put in a state of defence, the breaches were repaired, and the artillery were quartered in the fort. It was thought necessary to make an example of certain emissaries of the rebels, who were taken in the act of corrupting the native soldiers, and they were blown from guns. People have told me that they stopped their ears in order to deaden the horrible sound. Fortunately, no actual outbreak took place here.
The year of the Mutiny is remembered with horror by the natives in Belgaum, on account of the execution of the Brahman chief of Nargund, who was put to death for the cruel murder of Mr. Manson, the deputy collector. Mr.Manson had been sent to negotiate with him, but having no escort, his palanquin was attacked by order of the chief; his bearers ran away, and the unfortunate young gentleman was cut and hacked to pieces. The chief of Nargund was ignominiously hanged upon an elevated spot, which still bears the name of the Brahman’s Hill. I have met with many people who still cherish the memory of Mr. Manson, who was much beloved.
The fort of Belgaum is situated in the midst of an extensive undulating plain. As it now stands, it forms an irregular oval, enclosed by a deep ditch, still full of water, which is cut out of a softish red stone, which hardens on being exposed to the air. The exterior of the fort is surrounded by a fine broad esplanade; the revetment rises about thirty-two feet above the bottom of the ditch. The interior is level, and extends about a thousand yards in length, by eight hundred in breadth. The original entrance was made between two magnificent battlemented bastions, which still exist, although the gate, which once opened upon a bridge, has been walled up. The present main gate, which is a solid pile of building, is considered to be a fine specimen of Indian architecture. There is an open guard-chamber, with a groined roof, which has once been ornamented by pendants, and the exterior is elaborately decorated with grotesque representations of animals and birds (rather curious ornaments for a Mahomedan building, but a Brahman architect is said to have been employed).
The effect has been somewhat destroyed by time, and the frequent application of various coats of colour ; but the ostriches still run races, cats with open mouths still conduct water from the roof, and one elephant has been drinking for centuries out of the same bottle. The little niches scattered about, intended to receive lights, and slippers, and water-bottles, are very graceful. The shrine of the many-armed Durga, the goddess of castles and of war, is an excrescence placed in a corner by the Hindoos when they regained the fortress. “Let not/’ say the most ancient laws of Manu, “foes hurt a king who has taken refuge in his Durgar.” The exterior of this curious shrine is covered with richly-coloured mythological figures.
Some of the unpopular gods, like the pictured celebrities of other nations, have had their faces scratched out, and their noses destroyed. Passing under a lofty unguarded archway, we reach the outworks, and then come to a fine gateway, with solid iron-plated doors, which have once been thickly studded with iron spikes, like those at Poonah, and with the same intention. Under the arch is an inscription in relief, sculptured in Persian characters, to the following effect : ” Jakub Ali Khan, who is a joy to the heart, by whose benevolence the world is prosperous, built the wall of the fort from its base as strong as the barrier of Sicardis.” From every point of view these gates and outworks present a most picturesque appearance. The fine red colour of the battlements, the peeps obtained down into the deep ditch, where the still water lies in shade, and, like a black mirror, reflects the walls it protects, and the tall palms which fringe its outer bank, the mysterious light which gleams through the fretwork in the doors enclosing the cruel goddess, all tend to give this spot a romantic charm which I have rarely found equalled. It is most beautiful by moonlight, but when fantastic shadows are thrown around, it looks a weird place, where one almost expects to see the tall forms of long-dead warriors.
On the western side of the fort there is a more modern egress, a substantial archway, which is gained by a descending road, and a sharp turn leads to a narrow causeway which bridges the fosse. It is guarded only by low loops of thick chain, attached to ricketty old cannon, and I confess that in crossing it I have often sat behind the fresh young Arabs with a beating heart and closed eyes, thankful when the sound of their hoofs on the hard road told me that the dangerous spot was passed. The walls of the fort are crowned by lofty scalloped battlements, standing clear of one another, and pierced with long loop-holes, just so wide as to have admitted the muzzles of the old jangals (literally teazers), which now lie rusting in the arsenal.
The Station library was a charming retreat. The books, which numbered nearly four thousand, were arranged in cases which lined the walls of the long low room, and reached up to a ceiling which was supported by great time honored beams of rough-hewn teak wood. In olden days this house had been the residence of the Kiledar. In its deep, shady verandah, set with plants, it was twilight at noonday, but it was a pleasant place, where one could just see to read. It commanded a charming peep, between the boles of the peepul trees, of the ruined gateway where the Naubat played, and through the deep, dark archway, to an ever blooming garden, where, fanned by the gentle breeze, the rich-hued blossoms, ever combining, looked like the changing colours in a kaleidoscope. Outside the arsenal the great guns and pyramids of ball, as seen from our garden, were picturesque objects. There was little to invite attention in the interior of the building. Some two years ago it contained a curious collection of old native weapons, but they had been carried off to Woolwich, or some other place.
Shreds of silk dangling disconsolately from bare poles were all that remained of colours which had fluttered over many a battle-field, and the piles of rusty jangals lay in obscure corners — all else was fresh, trim, and ready. Some of the long corridors were paved with sections of petrified palm work, the rings of which were so perfect that with a little pains one might have deciphered their age, and told which side of the tree had received the warm rays of the rising- sun. Though last, not least, I must make mention of our little snug Gothic church. Its cockney aspect presented a striking contrast to the crumbling antiquities around, but the interior was pretty and airy. There were a few memorial tablets upon the walls, but none of general interest, excepting that which recorded the sad death of Mr. Manson. The edifice stood upon a small maidan, which G hired for the benefit of his cattle, it being very desirable to graze it down; for the long grass served as cover for cobras, which more than once were seen fighting by the assembling congregation.
Completely shut out from the exterior world, there could not, to my mind, exist a more delightful and romantic spot than that enclosed by the old red walls. The grassy ramparts, which are banked up until the rounded battlements alone are visible, make a charming walk which commands a panoramic view of the surrounding country, of the undulating plain, with its woods, cultivated fields, green pastures, and little villages, sheltered by lofty mango-trees, the distant mountains, the jungly hills, the rolling downs, ever-changing, peaceful in the sunshine, purple and threatening in the storm. Not even water wanted to enhance the charms of the landscape. The tank, in reality a lake of some extent, lay glittering within a stone’s throw of the main gate. Banked up on one side by a lofty wall with a stone coping, it was otherwise at liberty to lie at rest, calm and blue, or to swell out into a turbid inland sea, specked with unfamiliar islands. At morn and eve the tank was a busy scene. I had favorite nooks from which I often watched the great herds of cattle which were brought up to water. The buffaloes delighted in their early bath, and waded about with just their noses out of the refreshing element.
They are docile creatures, obedient to their owner’s call, not half so difficult to manage as the fierce little untamable cows. Serene-looking bullocks drank, and gazed about them, and drank again. Some pet animal was readily distinguished by its brass collar, garland of flowers, or necklace of cowrie shells, put on to ensure good luck. Occasionally a great black elephant came slowly down, and dabbled its “lotus feet ” in the water, whilst it was scrubbed by its driver. One of these sagacious creatures had a curious trick of bending its ears forward with its trunk, in order that the skin behind might come in for its share of the washing. Camels came striding down in long file, they alone looking discontented, for not even the cool morning’s draught could please these peevish creatures.
Another favourite resting-place was the top of the flag-staff, or Chevalier battery, a stronghold built by Azad Khan, within the walls, but towering far above them. From its summit the flag with the angry lion had floated for many a year. It was a delightful spot at the hour of sunset, when the western sky was flooded with amber or rosy red, and the mala was heard from the minaret of the musjid in the Durga camp, in which the old Khan’s bones repose, calling the faithful to prayer. While the cattle slowly crossed the plain to their rest, and the short twilight deepened, ghostly bands of white robed people would glide along, and disappear beneath the deep shade of the mango-trees.
Occasionally a procession might be seen returning from some ceremony, the shrill notes of the musicians toned down by distance, and red robed women, bearing fire in their brass vessels, on their way to sometime-honored temple. How beautiful must this plain have been when covered up to the very foot of the distant hills with a waving sea of green, a jungle of palms, and bananas, and bamboos! Many a time have I lingered, until suddenly it was dark, and I had to descend and cross the pathless grass, in mental fear of the snakes. There is a tradition that three hundred and sixty Jaina temples were pulled down, in order to supply materials for building the present walls of the fort.
This part of the Deccan was once the headquarters of that curious sect whose habit it was to build their temples, which are not very large, near together. There is no doubt that almost all of the immense blocks of stone which have carving upon them, and which are built into the walls irregularly, and without design to adorn, are of Jaina origin. Their style of ornamentation is very peculiar, and cannot, when one once becomes familiar with it, be mistaken. There are long narrow stones, strips of friezes or cornices, with stiff-pointed lotus-flowers cut upon them (the stiff-cut lotus of Indian art does not mean to imitate Nature; it is merely used as a symbol of the power of those kings who ruled over countries where the lotus grew) ; and others upon which musicians, playing upon such instruments as are still in use, pipe to dancing women with distorted bodies and light drapery. They are covered with bracelets and bangles, and long rows of beads hang from their necks; these bands are generally grouped between pillars, such as now serve for gate-posts at almost every bungalow in the fort. Some of the carved divinities are seated in rows, with animals at their feet; some are well-proportioned, and cut in high relief; others are rude, and rendered almost undecipherable by time. Long after I imagined myself to be acquainted with every piece of sculpture around, I came upon bits which were new to me — stones which had been hidden away by tall balsams, or bushes of the many hued lantana (wild sage). One magnificent stream of the black-stemmed giant maidenhair fern died down and disclosed the figure of an elephant, with a chain round the body, which was in the act of treading a man to death, representing, it may be, and some act of vengeance which had taken place near this very spot. From many a corner the hooded head of a cobra, once worshipped, peeped through the long grasses. Another curious study was furnished by the monumental stones, which are supposed to have been erected to the memory of warriors slain in battle. They are divided into three or more compartments. The lowest part of one, which is in the fort, represents a fight, in which a soldier is attacked by armed men and slain. In the next compartment nymphs are bearing him on high, whilst above he is seen worshipping the Linga. Upon a second stone the hero is represented curveting along upon his steed, with his sword-bearer in advance. The middle one pictures the deceased man rising with extended arms, whilst the forefinger of a gigantic hand points to the skies. In the third compartment there is a bust of the warrior, by the side of which a kneeling figure worships the Linga. Numbers of these memorials (all relating to war) lie scattered about the whole district, and it is a pity that they are not removed to some place of safety, and that no endeavour is made to collect any legends attached to them. In all probability the stories they picture have been gathered into the chants and songs of the people.
It would be tedious to dwell upon the sculptured objects which ornament the ancient walls rising up in every compound, cropping out of the loose stone walls which surround them, and peeping from the very ditches — gods and pirates, dancing women and shrined ascetics, beautiful tracery and grotesque animals, jostling one another in strange confusion. Doubtless our feet have passed over many a hidden treasure.
The fort of Belgaum is indeed a glorious place for those who love old stones.
Images Courtesy: Ebay as they were on sale as postcards