Wrapped in myths and legends, the city of Junagadh, situated at the foot of the Girnar hills in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat is a treasure trove of history. This ancient city contains monuments of rare architectural beauty and grandeur. The Uparkot Fort, located here, is one such imposing structure steeped in history.
Every fort has unique stories that bring its architectural spaces to life. The folklore associated with the Uparkot Fort is fascinating and significant. Several legends attempt to explain the origin of the fort. According to one such narrative, this massive citadel is believed to have been built by the Yadava King Ugrasen, better known as the grandfather of Lord Krishna. It was then known as Revatnagar. Historically, it is acknowledged that the first structure of this fortress was built in the 4th century BCE, during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya, as one of the western outposts of his pan-Indian empire.
The sprawling fort of Uparkot served as the seat of power of the Junagadh state under different dynasties. A rock edict in the vicinity of the Girnar Hills mentions a Yavana (Greek) king named Tushaspha who was the governor of this area under Emperor Ashoka. Subsequent rulers of the region included the Shakas and the kings of the Gupta dynasty. The site lost its strategic significance when the capital of the region was transferred from Junagadh to Valabhi during the rule of the Maitraka dynasty. The town and the fort were both abandoned in the 7th century CE.
It is believed that the fort was rediscovered in the 10th century CE. According to a local legend, one day, a woodcutter managed to carve his way through the forest and arrive at a location with a stone wall and a gate. A holy man sat nearby, who, when asked about the location, replied that the name of the place was "Juna", meaning old. The woodcutter informed the king Graharipu of the Chudasama dynasty about this ancient site. The king then ordered the forest to be cleared, so that the fort could be restored. Over time, this ancient citadel was once again converted into an impregnable fortress.
The Chudasamas ruled the region till the end of the 15th century CE. The last king of the dynasty, Mandalika III, was defeated by Mahmud Begada of the Gujarat Sultanate. He annexed the region and renamed Junagadh as Mustafabad. Thereafter, the Mughals took control of the region for almost two centuries. The Nawabs of Junagadh were the last dynastic rulers to rule over this fort. The Junagadh State became a British protectorate in 1807 CE. By 1818 CE, the East India Company had taken full control of the state.
During the span of a thousand years, the Uparkot fort has been besieged as many as 16 times. A legend claims that a particular siege lasted for almost 12 years! This siege is associated with the story of Rani Ranakdevi. It is believed that the Chudasama King Ra Khengar married the young and beautiful Ranakdevi and made the Uparkot fort her place of residence. The Solanki King Siddhraj Jaysingh, however, adored Ranakdevi and desired to marry her. He, therefore, plotted an invasion of the Uparkot fort along with two of Ra Khengar's estranged nephews. During the siege, King Ra Khengar, as well as two of his sons, were killed by Siddhraj. Queen Ranakdevi is said to have immolated herself before Siddhraj could capture and claim her. Different versions of this legend are popular in the bardic lore of the Saurashtra region.
The Uparkot Fort is a massive commanding structure of great antiquity. The entrance to the fort consists of three concentric gateways. These gateways show intricate stone art and masonry work with ancient archways, a fine example of the Hindu torana style of architecture. The battlements of the fort are impressive and at places, the ramparts are almost 20m high. The fort also has a 300 ft deep moat for its defense. The thick and strong walls of the fort are guarded by bastions at regular intervals.
The Uparkot fort is home to some breathtaking stepwells. The fort complex has two rock-cut stepwells called Adi-Kadi Vav and Navghan Kuvo. The unusual zig-zag staircases in these wells are an interesting feature. Despite the lack of ornamental designs, the rock stratum along the side walls themselves give these wells a breathtaking appearance. A local legend is associated with the Adi-Kadi Vav. This stepwell is believed to have been named after two slave girls. These girls were said to have been sacrificed by the King who commissioned the stepwell to appease the water gods. Navghan Kuvo, on the other hand, is a striking example of early rock cut architecture. This stepwell is said to have sustained the Uparkot fort through its many sieges. It is, in fact, believed to be one of the oldest stepwells of the country.
Inside the fort complex reside two colossal cannons, Neelam and Manek. These twin medieval cannons were used against the Portuguese invaders in Diu in 1538 CE by the Turkish Naval Force under Emperor Suleman invited by Sultan Bahadur Shah. The Turks were defeated and left the cannons behind. These artefacts were later brought to Junagadh and installed in the fort complex. Close to Neelam and Manek, there is a 15th century mosque, the Jama Masjid. It has a rare roofed courtyard with three octagonal openings.
Another architectural marvel are the Buddhist caves nestled within the fort premises. These are fine examples of rock-cut architecture with ornate pillars and carved entrances with an influence of the Satavahana style. These are not natural caves but chambers carved out of rock. These mystical quarters were once the resting place of Buddhist monks.
The ancient fort of Uparkot narrates the tales of a glorious past. Even today, thousands of years after its construction, this citadel stands tall as the bearer of a powerful legacy. Breathtaking and historic, this timeless structure is a witness to the fascinating history of the region.