How Chhatrapati Shivaji Scaled The Great Maratha Heights Using Hill Forts

Water tanks at Alang fort
  • He was aware that power in Maharashtra meant control of his strongholds. The visionary knew the science of building, using, protecting and empowering them to be victorious.

The majestic double-walled bastions of Rajgad, the king of forts, cuts the sun. All around me, the hills and forests of the Sahyadris unfold in grandeur. At a distance, I see another strong fort, Torna, and the grey silhouette of Sinhagad. “Swarajyache saar te durg”. The words from Ramchandrapant Amatya uttered in the 17th century, spin around me, in the breeze. Loosely translated — “Swarajyache saar te durg” means “forts are the bedrock of swarajya”. Forts — on the plain or the coast. Sea forts and hill forts. Chhatrapati Shivaji weilded the forts into one giant weapon. A weapon that bravely faced a behemoth like the Mughal empire and enabled the Marathas to prevail.

Every fort in the Sahyadris is unique and enabled the establishment and growth of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s “Hindavi Swarajya”. Chhatrapati Shivaji’s “Hindavi Swarajya” fought gallantly for a whole generation after his death, fought against the mighty Mughals, who had brought an army five lac strong to subdue these forts. The Marathas prevailed, primarily, because of the forts. The mere presence of the forts, however, did not guarantee the Marathas victory. There were exceptions. There was Alauddin Khilji. The strong fortress and capital city of Deogiri would have never fallen to Alauddin Khilji; neither fort after fort have fallen like ninepins to the British in the nineteenth century, had the mere fortification been enough.

Shivaji recognised that power in Maharashtra meant control of the forts. Ali Adil Shah, who ruled the Western Ghats from his capital in Bijapur, also recognised this. While he had given the jagir of Pune to Shahaji, he had kept the forts to himself. Shivaji slowly, but surely, got the forts under his command, some by sleight and some by waging war.

The tale of how the forts were lost to Allaudin Khilji in 1298 AD makes for a depressing read. The fall of the strong fortress of Deogiri, near today’s Aurangabad, is perhaps, a lesson on how not to defend a fort. In those days, Western Maharashtra was being ruled by the Yadavas of Deogiri. In spite of northern India being under the sway of invaders for upwards of a century, the Yadavas were oblivious to the possibility of the Deccan being invaded. So, when Allaudin Khilji decided to mount an invasion, they did not find out till he was 12 miles from the capital! There was a huge granary on the fort, which the Yadava ruler presumed to be holding enough grain to feed his soldiers for months. Imagine the horror when it was found that the granaries contained salt, not grain! Moreover, the single entry and exit points made a siege very easy. All this, combined with a brilliant disinformation campaign by Allaudin Khilji finished the last Hindu kingdom of this region.

Chhatrapati Shivaji knew that while strengthening the forts, he simply could not afford to repeat mistakes of the past. Certain traits of the forts, some predating Shivaji, many devised by him, enabled a strong kingdom to rise. Changes in the structure of the forts, and administrative, were made.

Water And Granaries

The Marathas built huge water tanks on the forts, enough to serve hundreds of soldiers. Even today, after centuries of neglect, these tanks remain the primary source of water. Some tanks, like on the fort of Alang, are so extensive, it is difficult to believe human hands built them. In fact, a good way to determine whether a hill (probably) functioned as a fort, is to look for water tanks. For example, we can safely assert that Kalsubai, the tallest mountain in Maharashtra, never served as a fort because of the complete absence of any kind of water storage facility on it.

One can find the remains of huge granaries on various forts. The most famous ones — of the fort of Panyala — Ganga , Yamuna and Saraswati. As we marvel at the huge granaries that fed large garrisons and enabled a fort to be held for months and years, we are taken back to the fateful days of 1296 AD, the year the last Hindu kingdom in western Maharashtra suffered a body blow at the hands of Allaudin Khilji. Deogiri also had a large granary, but it was stocked almost entirely with salt. A garrison cannot fight on an empty stomach.

Fatal Flaw

Speaking of Deogiri , there was another fatal flaw which contributed to its downfall — the presence of a singular entry and exit point. All that Khilji did was sit in front of that door and the siege was complete! Chhatrapati Shivaji ensured every fort had multiple entry and exit points. While one would be the main entrance, there were other smaller “chor darwajas” which served like backdoors for making an escape effective. Moreover, for the main entrance, a “Gau Mukh” arrangement was followed when building the door and its bastions. From a distance, the ramparts of the fort would seem to overlap and thus, conceal the entrance.

Chhatrapati Shivaji also adopted unique means of defense, such as scarping the hill sides to make the hill side nearly vertical and make full use of the natural defenses of the fort. This can be seen on various forts, including Rajgad. Some structures were unique to particular forts. The double wall of Rajgad, for example. It acted as a double defensive wall and could even trap soldiers in the narrow gap between the walls.

Of the physical changes, the last but not the least, was the building or maintaining of forts in pairs. Rajgad and Torna. Purandar and Vajragad. Lohagad and Visapur. This served a dual purpose. It provided a readily accesible safe area to a besieged fort. Secondly, one fort could provide the other with provisions and supplies, as it happened in case of the fort of Trimbak, providing succour to Ramsej in northern Maharashtra during the great war with the Mughals. The small fort of Ramsej held on for six years.

The Marathas prevailed, primarily, because of the forts The Marathas prevailed, primarily, because of the forts

Administration And Policies — The Core Of Governance

Perhaps, the most important and far reaching changes brought about by Chhatrapati Shivaji were administrative in nature. Namely, how the forts were run. His policies with regards to governing of the forts coupled with the ideal of “Hindavi Swarajya” enabled the Marathas to fight and defeat multiple powers, each one several times bigger than Shivaji’s kingdom.

The most important step Chhatrapati Shivaji took was abolishing the rights of various feudal lords or watandars and preventing them from creating their own fiefdoms. They were justly accomodated into the army and government, but could no longer have their personal strongholds. The forts belonged to swarajya. This kept rebellion largely in check. Chhatrapati Shivaji’s genius followed this up with an abolishment of the hereditary rights of persons who would be put in charge of a fort. A killedar’s son could not claim rights to administer that fort. Lastly, there were frequent transfers from one fort to another. All these measures ensured that feudalism never crept into Chhatrapati Shivaji’s rule and fighting for an ideal remained supreme.

All forts had three officers in charge — the havaldar , the sabnis and the karkhanis. The first was a military post. The person was entrusted with locking the fort gates at sun down and opening them at day break. The other two were ranks associated with finance and accounts. The work was divided well and the three depended on each other. Chhatrapati Shivaji even ensured that the three were a mix of Maratha, Brahmin and Prabhu castes. The ravines and jungles, just at the perimeter of a fort, would be guarded by Bhils and Ramoshis. They too played an important part in fort defense. Within the fort, were at times, depending on the need, more ranks, such as the Tat Sarnaubat and Naik.

Eyes Wide Open And Gates Shut

Chhatrapati Shivaji was not content with merely appointing persons. He actually took rounds during the night to ensure orders were being followed. There is a famous tale of a person named Sawlya Tandel. We do not know how authentic the story is, but it does give us a good idea about Chhatrapati Shivaji’s policies with regards to the forts.

As the story goes, Chhatrapati Shivaji had issued orders that no one was to open the fort gates after sun down. Not even for him. He set out on an inspection round and was aghast to find that havaldars or killedars were happily opening the fort gates for him, considering Shivaji to be exempt from his own laws. Finally, Shivaji came to the fort of Panhala near today’s Kolhapur. A young boy named Sawlya Tandel was guarding the gates. Chhatrapati Shivaji tried to threaten him and cajole him into opening the gates, but the boy remained firm and did not open the gate. An extremely pleased Shivaji rewarded him handsomely!

The Visionary

Chhatrapati Shivaji was an astute strategist. He knew that the Mughals would one day, sooner or later, attack kingdoms to the south of the Narmada. He was not one of the kings who believed that problems of the north would never come south. He recognised that the forts would have to, perhaps, fend for themselves when the Mughals invaded. The ruler would not be in a position to provide supplies, soldiers and provisions to various scattered forts owing to the clash. To prevent such an eventuality, as early as 1671, Shivaji had set aside reserve funds to be used when the inevitable clash with the Mughals happened. This was 1,25,000 hon — reserve for the men on forts, and further, 1,75,000 hon — for repairs and renovation, to be undertaken in war time, with little or no option to raise money from elsewhere. Contrast this visionary thinking with the grain and salt story of 1298!

Shivaji’s policies ensured that the Marathas fought valiantly against the Mughals for 27 long years and came out victorious. There were adverse conditions, but turncoats and party hoppers were almost absent among the Marathas. The ideal of Hindavi Swarajya had won and the forts in the Sahyadris were the prime reason.

Some structures were unique to particular forts Some structures were unique to particular forts

For this article, the author has referred to Military System of Marathas by SN Sen; Athato Durga Jigyasa by Ghanekar; Marathyancha Itihas by Kulkarni & Khare and Rajgad by Appasaheb Parab.

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