The Kalinjar Fort, situated in the village of Tarahati in the Bundelkhand region, is a monument of great historical significance. This fort, perched on an isolated flat-topped hill of the Vindhya Range, houses a treasure trove of monuments and legends. Combining the features of a giri durga (Hill fort) and a vana durga (Jungle Fort), the fort of Kalinjar is a formidable defensive structure. In terms of sheer grandeur and artistry, this edifice stands out from other monuments of its time.
The Kalinjar fort has been a witness to many significant historical events. Unfortunately, the origins of this ancient fort have been lost to history. The scriptures state that this citadel has been known by different names over time. Legends recount that in the Sat Yuga, it was known as Kirtinagar, in Treta Yuga as Madhyagarh, in Dwapar Yuga as Sinhalgarh, and in Kali Yuga as Kalinjar. The origin of the term “Kalinjar” itself is shrouded in myths and legends. The word is believed to signify Lord Shiva’s victory over Kal or time. Legends say that it is at this very site that Lord Shiva overcame death, after consuming the deadly poison that emerged from the Samudra Manthan. It is believed that the poison turned Shiva’s throat blue and he came to be known as Neelkanth. Kalinjar is not only known as a mighty fort but also as a sacred place of pilgrimage. The Kalinjar fort also finds mention in the great Indian Epic Mahabharata. A legend mentioned in the text says that whoever takes a bath in the sacred lake of Kalinjar acquires the same merit as gifting a thousand cows.
Spanning over centuries, this fortress was ruled by several political powers such as the Guptas, the Gurjara-Pratiharas, the Chedis, the Chandelas, the Solankis, the Mughals, the Marathas, and the British, and served as a key bastion for each one of them. The fort rose to prominence during the reign of the Chandelas who ruled the region from the 9th to 13th century CE. Their kingdom was also called Jejakabhukti. The title Kalanjaradhipati (Lord of Kalanjara/Kalinjar) was used by the Chandela kings, indicating the significance of the structure to their polity. Local legends also tell the story of the last Chandel king Kirti Singh, who suffered from a chronic skin disease. He is said to have taken a dip in a pond here, after which, he was cured of his illness. Even today there are many temples in Kalinjar that attract devotees who come seeking cures for various ailments.
The unparalleled strength of the Kalinjar Fort attracted many conquerors. Mahmud of Ghazni ravaged much of North and West India in the 11th century CE, but was forced to retreat due to the stiff opposition that he encountered at Kalinjar. During the reign of Chandela Raja Ganda Deva, Mahmud of Ghazni yet again tried to besiege the Kalinjar Fort but did not succeed. In the early 13th century CE, Qutubuddin Aibek, the general of Muhammad Ghori, captured the fort. By the end of the 13th century CE, the Bundelas had seized control of Kalinjar. Between 1530 CE and 1545 CE, the Mughal Emperor Humayun attempted to capture the fort on several occasions.
The fort was subsequently captured by the Surs in 1545 CE. It was during the invasion of the fort that the illustrious Sur ruler, Sher Shah, was injured and killed. Following his death, his son Jalal Khan captured the fort, coronated himself, and assumed the title of Islam Shah. Later around 1569 CE, Kalinjar was occupied by the Mughals under Akbar in 1569 CE, and the fortified fortress became an integral component of the Mughal dominion. The citadel was granted as jagir to Raja Birbal, one of Akbar’s Navratnas. In 1700 CE, towards the end of Aurangzeb's reign, when he was campaigning in the Deccan, the Bundela chief Chhatrasal captured the Kalinjar Fort. Subsequently, Chhatrasal established his capital at Panna (1691 CE) and conquered the region now known as Bundelkhand. Later, Chhatrasal gave a portion of his dominion to the Maratha chief, Peshwa Baji Rao.
In 1812 CE, the Kalinjar fort came under British occupation. The indomitable fortress was ceded to the British by the Peshwa under the terms of the Treaty of Surji-Anjangaon. Because of its strategic importance, the British converted it into a garrison fort and prison. During the Uprising of 1857, the people of the Banda District rebelled against the British. The Britishers were able to repulse the attacks of the revolutionaries by fortifying themselves within the formidable walls of the Kalinjar fort. However, in 1866 CE, the British partially wrecked those very walls that had defended them.
Even today, a mere glance at this formidable fortress reveals the strategic significance of this structure. Nature has gifted Kalinjar with a strong protective shield in the form of a thick forest cover. The ramparts of the fort are forty-five meters tall and rise straight up from the rocky base. Cannonballs fired at them would bounce back, failing to breach them. One of the fiercest battles fought in Kalinjar was the attack of Sher Shah Suri. It is said that during this battle a cannonball bounced off the mighty ramparts of the fort and fell on a heap of explosives. The resultant explosion caused fatal burns to Sher Shah Suri which eventually led to his death.
A detailed examination of the architectural features of the fort structures reveals various characteristics of Bundela architecture present in the structure. The fort complex includes several temples, mosques, gateways, palaces, water tanks, and tombs. There are seven gateways in the fort complex namely, the Alamgiri Gate, the Ganesh Gate, the Chandi Gate, the Buddhabhadra Gate, the Hanuman Gate, the Lal Darwaza, and the Bada Darwaza.
One of the main attractions of the fort is the Neelkanth temple. It was constructed by Chandela ruler Paramaditya Dev. The Neelkanth temple at Kalinjar contains a huge sculpture of Kal Bhairav with 18 arms and a garland of skulls, carved on its outer wall.
Within the fort complex, there are two mosques: the Qanati Mosque and the Islam Shah Mosque. The fort contains several palaces that date from the late Mughal period like, the Aman Singh Palace, the Chaube Mahal, the Rani Mahal, the Rang Mahal, the Venkat Bihari Mahal, the Zakira Mahal and the Moti Mahal. These buildings are all built with rubble stones and a thick layer of lime mortar. The Kot Tirth is a large reservoir with several flights of steps and numerous sculptural remnants. This is one of the significant pilgrimage sites of Kalinjar. Apart from this, Sita Sez, Patal Ganga, Pandava Kund, Bhairav Kund, Mrigadhar, Murti Museum, and Sher Shah Suri’s Tomb are some of the prominent structures within the fort’s precincts.
The Kalinjar Fort today stands tall as the proud bearer of the legacies of our past. It is only through a visit to the Fort that one can truly experience this juxtaposition of time and heritage.