The history of forts in India through the medieval era is a harmonious continuation of its past. Several forts built in the ancient times were fought over, captured, recaptured, destroyed and occupied over the centuries. Architectural changes reflected the changing atmosphere of the country. The developments during the medieval period are closely related to the military and political history of the subcontinent between the 13th and the 18th centuries. This section aims to throw light on the broad features of forts during this period.
The seeds of the Sultanate in Delhi were sown with the coming of Muhammad Ghuri and Qutbuddin Aibek. It was formally established by Iltutmish in the 13th century. At the same time, the Rajputs held sway over large parts of Northern India. They built hundreds of monuments throughout the rocky terrain of Rajputana and beyond. Among these, forts were prominent. The rulers of the Delhi Sultanate brought cultural influences from their land of origin. Cultural exchange went hand in hand with the struggle for supremacy between these two prominent powers. The architectural style which developed in the country during this time was a synthesis of indigenous traditions and influences from Central Asia.
Sultanate architecture involved the use of the arch and dome technique. This was not a Turkish invention, but was borrowed from Arabs who borrowed it from Rome. Before becoming privy with this technique, Indians used the slab and beam technique which involved putting one stone over another and covering it with coping stone till the gap was closed. The art of putting a round dome on a square building base, enabled rooms to have a clear view as no support structures obstructed the spaces. They used a fine quality, superior lime mortar for construction and the decorations involved geometric designs with verses from the Quran.
Apart from the pressing Rajput challenge, the early Sultans of Delhi also fought against the onslaught of the Chaghtai Mongols on the North-western frontier. Balban, one of the prominent early Sultans, ordered the repair of the Lahore fort to defend against them. It is under his rule that we see the appearance of the first true arch in architecture. This arch was made with the help of wedge-shaped stones which are held together with the help of a keystone at the centre. The Rajput states of Kalinjar, Bayana, Gwalior, Ranthambore etc. fought for independence in the western regions of the country. Under Allauddin Khilji (1296-1316), forts became of prime importance for the Turkish rulers. Khilji, one of the later Sultans, was known for his military reforms. He was the first to maintain a large standing army. Against the backdrop of the consistent struggles with the Rajputs of Mewar and the Bhatti Rajputs, he captured the three prominent Rajput forts of Chittor, Ranthambore and Jaisalmer. Additionally, he captured the fort of Mandu and diplomatically gave it to the Songaras, a branch of the Chauhan clan of the Rajputs from present day Rajasthan. Khilji built his capital at Siri fort, which became the second city of Delhi, to defend against the Mongol attacks. This was the start of the city fortress complex model which was continued by his successors. The entire city would be enclosed within fortified walls and institutions such as masjids, madrasas, temples etc. would be made inside.
The Khilji rule was followed by the rule of the Tughlaqs in Delhi. Tughlaq architecture saw a new trend of building structures on high platforms as can be seen in Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq’s tomb. In the political arena, the state of Mewar regained its freedom during the reign of the Tughlaq dynasty in the 14th century by defeating Muhammad bin Tughlaq in the historical battle of Singoli in 1336. The Rajput states now spread their dominance till the state of Bengal and Raja Man Singh Tomar made additions to the Gwalior fort in present day Madhya Pradesh. Firoz Shah Tughlaq, built the Firoz Shah Kotla fortified complex in the 14th century. This complex exhibits the technique of ‘batter’ or sloping walls which sloped inwards to render a structure stable and strong under attack.
It was a general under the Tughlaq rule called Allah-ud-din Bahaman Shah who established the Bahamani sultanate in present day Karnataka. This was the first Persianate kingdom of the Deccan region in India. The Bidar fort, built under its auspices in the 15th century, introduced Iranian architectural techniques in peninsular India. This fort used a unique system of water supply called the karez system which was borrowed from Persia. It also included Islamic designs and buildings such as the arches and the mosques in its complex.
The 15th century saw the rise of the famous ruler of Mewar, Rana Kumbha. He is known for building forts, the most prominent of which is the Kumbhalgarh fort in Rajasthan. During this time, conflicts occurred not only between the Rajput clans and the rulers at Delhi, but within the Rajputs themselves. This fort separated the regions of Mewar and Marwar and acted as a sanctuary for the Mewar kings during long battles. Rana Sangha (1508-1528), the grandson of Rana Kumbha, fought against the Lodi dynasty in Delhi. The Lodi dynasty introduced gardens as one of the most distinct features of constructions. It can be seen in the Lodi gardens built in Delhi. This feature, though introduced in the 16th century by the Lodis, would be taken forward by the founder of the Mughal dynasty, Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur. Additionally, the Lodis are also credited with founding the double dome in India.
The historic Battle of Panipat was fought between the Lodis and Babur in 1526 AD. This marked the beginning of the Mughal rule in India. Rana Sangha bravely fought Babur at the Battle of Khanwa in 1527 AD. Babur won in both these battles, despite being in a foreign land against seasoned warriors. It is said that novel techniques of warfare such as Tulughma (dividing the army into different divisions to flank the enemy from all sides) and Araba (armed carts) that he won these decisive victories. The Mughal era saw the repeated Siege of Chittorgarh Fort until it was finally captured by Akbar in 1568 AD. The Ranas of Mewar, Marwar and Jaipur consistently rebelled against the agents of the Mughal throne and the two sides fought relentlessly.
Architecturally, the Mughal era saw large scale developments. One of the biggest cultural changes was the development of a syncretic theme in architecture. Nasir-ud-Din Muhammad, better known as Humayun was the successor of Babur. He was influenced by the Persian tradition and introduced new features in architecture in India. The layout of the building involved a square base of red sandstone topped with a white marble dome. It was under the famous ruler Akbar, however, that the Persian traditions mixed with Indian indigenous features from Gujarat and Rajasthan. Akbar’s Buland Darwaza to commemorate victory in Gujarat used the novel Half Dome technique. The flat roofs, first seen under the rule of the Lodis, were made more prevalent. Akbar’s Agra Fort built in the 16th century has flat roofs. Abul Fazl, a 16th century historian, mentions it to be influenced by “Bengali and Gujarati style”. Shah Jahan built the Red Fort in Delhi in the 17th century patterned on the Agra Fort. The Diwan-i-Am in this complex is also flat roofed.
The introduction of artillery in the 16th century called for changes in fort architecture. Forts were made with lower and thicker walls and with bastions which were pushed out of the circumference of the fort. While the thicker walls defended against bullets, the bastions helped in tactics of offence as well as defence. More space was left out between the citadel and the outer walls as can be gauged from the Golkonda and Berar forts. Gates were made tall for the elephants to pass through and at the same time, rows of spikes were used to prevent the enemy elephants from breaking the gate down. This can be seen in the Shaniwarwada fort, Pune built in the 18th century. Additionally, symmetry came to be emphasised and given great importance under the Mughals. Forts of the previous rulers erected walls according to the natural topography and slope of the region. The combination of indigenous and Turko-Iranian techniques continued till the 18th and 19th centuries.
With the coming of the colonial forces in the 16th and 17th centuries, forts came to be built as trading posts for commercial purposes as well. They also functioned as places of refuge for people during sieges and revolts.