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History of Forts in Ancient India


A discussion of the evolution of forts during Ancient India is an ambitious endeavour. This period saw the rise and fall of numerous empires and dynasties throughout the length and breadth of the country. The forts of the subcontinent during this period exhibit great diversity and do not follow a linear pattern of development. This period saw the synthesis of art and architectural traditions that developed within the subcontinent as well as those that travelled from far off lands along with conquerors and adventurers. The present essay aims to provide a broad overview of these developments.

Forts today are seen as the tangible reminders of the military might of the kingdoms of the past. However, the beginning of forts in India start way back in time when kingdoms and empires had not yet come into existence. The earliest fortifications were perhaps not even manmade. Natural defenses such as rivers, hills and forests were used as lines of protection and spaces of safety. Some of the earliest evidence of built fortifications on the Indian subcontinent predate the Indus Valley Civilization. Excavations in areas around the Indus revealed the existence of a Pre-Harappan Phase wherein large fortified settlements existed. A notable level of expertise in crafts such as stone working and metals seems to have been achieved during the period.

Dholavira, Gujarat

Dholavira, Gujarat

Indus Valley Period

As we come to the Indus Valley period, fairly elaborate fortifications built of mud, baked bricks and (even) stones appear. This period is rich in archaeological evidence which enables an in depth understanding of its architectural heritage. An important feature of Indus Valley town planning was the division of the settlements into two distinct areas: Citadel and Lower Town. The town of Mohenjodaro was also divided into these two broad divisions, and the citadel area was additionally surrounded by a moat. Kot Diji (3300 BCE) was a fortified site with a massive wall made of limestone rubble and mud-brick, and the settlement consisted of a citadel complex and a lower residential area. Kalibangan (2920–2550 BCE) was surrounded by massive mud-brick fortifications. In the rocky areas of Kutch and Saurashtra, there was extensive use of stone in building fortified walls. Dholavira in the Rann of Kutch was fortified with an imposing wall made of stone rubble set in mud mortar. This massive fortification wall and the remains of stone pillars in the citadel are very distinctive and are not witnessed at any other Harappan site. Many scholars do not consider these constructions to be defensive works, but regard them as either protective embankments against floods or as structures erected for social functions. However, fortifications, especially imposing ones such as in Dholavira, cannot be overlooked. Force and conflict could not have been completely absent in such a large area over such a long period of time as encompassed by the Indus Valley Civilization.

An artist’s depiction of the city of Harappa

An artist’s depiction of the city of Harappa

Vedic Period

Evidence from the Vedic period comes more in the form of literature and less in the form of material archaeological evidence. The Rig Veda mentions a famous Bharata king by the name of Divodasa who defeated the Dasa ruler Shambara, who commanded many mountain fortresses. It also mentions tribes living in fortifications called Pura. The Aiteraya Brahmana refers to three sacrificial Agnis, or fires, as three forts which prevent the Asuras (demons) from disturbing the sacrifice. Indra, is referred to in Vedic literature as Puramdara or the destroyer of forts.


Map of Mahajanapadas (6th century BCE)

Map of Mahajanapadas (6th century BCE)

The next set of archaeological evidence for forts comes from the period of the Second Urbanisation in India (6th century B.C. to 3rd century B.C.) which witnessed the large-scale growth of town life in the middle Gangetic basin. This period also witnessed the emergence of the Mahajanapadas or sixteen republics: Anga, Avanti, Assaka, Chedi, Gandhara, Kasi, Kamboja, Kosala, Kuru, Malla, Matsya, Magadha, Panchala, Surasena, Vatsa and Vriji. With the growth of powerful kingdoms, emerged constant warfare, and the consequent need for strengthening their defense and military prowess. Rajgir, close to Patna, is the site of ancient Rajagriha which was the first capital of Magadha. There were two cities—Old Rajagriha and New Rajagriha. Old Rajagriha, lay between five hills and was surrounded by two stone fortification walls. New Rajagriha was also surrounded by stone fortifications. The Old Rajagriha outer fortifications belong to the time of Bimbisara, i.e., the 6th century BCE and the two sets of walls around New Rajagriha belong to the time of Ajatashatru, i.e., 5th century BCE.

The Maha-Parinibbana-sutta, a Buddhist text, mentions that a fort was built near the village of Patali, under the orders of King Ajatashatru of Rajagriha. This later emerged as the town of Pataliputra. The Magadha ruler Udayin shifted his capital from Rajagriha to Pataliputra. Ancient Champa, capital of Anga (now Champapur and Champanagar villages in south Bihar) was surrounded by fortifications and a moat. Kaushambi, capital of Vatsa, too was surrounded by a mud fortification wall. Ahichchhatra, capital of Panchala, was a huge fortified city. Ujjayini (modern Ujjain), on the banks of the Sipra river, was the capital of Avanti. The settlement was surrounded by an imposing mud fortification wall as well as a moat.

In 326 BCE, Alexander reached the boundaries of Magadha. Arian’s Anabasis of Alexander (a history of the campaigns of Alexander) written around the 1st or 2nd century BCE describes the Mallian campaign (against the Malloi of Punjab region also known as Malavas) of Alexander in great detail. It spoke of the walled cities with citadels of commanding heights which were difficult to access. The walls are also said to have had towers at regular intervals.

Mauryan Period

After the fall of the Nanda Dynasty, Chandragupta Maurya became the first king of the great Mauryan dynasty (321 BCE) with the help of his legendary minister Kautilya. Kautilya’s Arthasastra, a political treatise, is in fact one of the most important literary sources for understanding the military institutions and fortifications of the period. Its concept of the saptanga rajya considers the state as consisting of seven inter-related elements —svami (the king), amatya (ministers), janapada (the territory and the people), danda (justice), durga (the fortified capital), kosha (the treasury), and mitra (ally). While describing the fourth element, i.e., durga, he provides detailed directions for its construction. He recommends a mud rampart with parapets of brick or stone, and suggests that troops be stationed all along the fort. The fort walls are to be be surrounded by three moats filled with lotuses and crocodiles. The fort should be well supplied with provisions to last through sieges and should have secret escape routes. Kautilya also mentions different categories of forts: the Dhanva Durg or desert fort; the Mahi Durg or mud fort; the Jala Durg or water fort; the Giri Durg or hill fort; Vana Durg or forest fort; the Nara Durg or fort protected by loyal soldiers. The last Mauryan king was overthrown by Pushyamitra Shunga who established the Shunga dynasty in 187 BCE. Fortifications belonging to the Shunga period were identified at Katragarh, in Muzaffarpur district, Bihar which included ramparts made of burnt brick walls with a mud core and a trench.

Peninsular India (Sangam Period)

Literary and archaeological evidence indicates that the map of the early peninsular India was dotted with hundreds of forts. The concept of a fully-built fort with all its architectural features such as moats, turrets and bastions had reached a mature stage of evolution during the Sangam period (3rd century BCE- 3rd century CE). The forts were built either of mud or huge laterite blocks or bricks. Brickbats and pebbles were used during later renovations meant to strengthen the ramparts. While bigger forts were built around capital cities (like Madurai, Kanachi, Vanji - the capitals of the Pandyas, Paliavas and Cheras respectively) and important commercial centres, smaller forts were erected around royal palaces. One of the earliest South Indian forts built with stones and bricks has been reported from Pudur village in Nellore in Andhra Pradesh. The fort was rectangular in plan and built of large bricks. The moat around the fort was nearly 30 metres wide. One of the grandest forts vividly described in the Sangam literature, was the one at Madurai. Puram (Tamil classical poetry concerned with war) says, “The huge fort walls at Madurai looked like a mountain while the gates of the fort were like a broad river. The entire city was surrounded by forests dense with trees and shrubs; beyond this was a very deep moat full of clear water.”

A map of Peninsular India (Sangam Period)

Gupta Period

The Gupta empire encompassed a large part of the Indian subcontinent between the 3rd and the 6th centuries CE. In terms of architecture, the Gupta period is primarily known for its religious architecture consisting of Buddhist and Jain cave temples and some of the earliest free-standing Hindu temples. Not a lot of scholarly attention has been focused on the fortifications and military architecture of the imperial Guptas. The Allahabad Pillar inscription records that Samudragupta, during his southern expedition in the 4th century CE, arrived at Mahendragiri and defeated a king named Svamidatta. He is also said to have captured the hill-forts of Mahendragiri and Kottura in Ganjam. The hill-fort of Mahendragiri was built by the early Ganga Kings. The Garhwa Fort complex houses some of the oldest remains of the Gupta period, including architectural relics of temples and tanks dating back to the 5th-6th century. It was however Raja Baghel Raja Vikramaditya of Bara (UP) who secured the temple ruins at Garhwa with a square enclosure and parapets in the 18th century. Basarh fort, in present-day Bihar (known as Raja Bisal-ka-garh), is believed to have been constructed under the Guptas.

Ashoka Pillar, Allahabad

Ashoka Pillar, Allahabad, Image Source: ASI


The topography of Rajasthan, is defined by the existence of the Aravalli hills which results in a rocky terrain covered by scrubland. One of the defining characteristics of the Rajputs, apart from their strong clan loyalties, is the widespread construction of forts. The Rajput forts that we encounter today in their full glory are structures that have existed over the centuries and witnessed layers of construction. According to a legend, the Chittorgarh fort was said to be built by a local Maurya ruler Chitrangada Maurya. The fort is believed to have been captured by Guhila (a Rajput clan) ruler Bappa Rawal in the 8th century CE. According to a local legend, the Gwalior Fort was built by a local king named Suraj Sen (of the Sakarwar clan of Rajputs) in the 3rd century CE. He named the fort after a sage called Gwalipa who cured him of leprosy. The Amer Fort too boasts of a long history. The first Rajput structure is believed to have been built in the 11th century. The Fort, as is witnessed today, was built over this older structure by Raja Man Singh, the Kachwaha King of Amer, between the 16th and the 17th centuries. The Jaisalmer fort is believed to have been built by Rawal Jaisal a Rajput of Bhati clan in the 12th century CE.

Rajput architecture in its mature phase: The Amer Fort, Jaipur

Rajput architecture in its mature phase: The Amer Fort, Jaipur

The Rajput forts, mostly built during the early medieval period, continued well into the medieval times when they attained more complex and refined forms. In their mature phases the Rajput forts display distinct characteristics. The Forts feature massive fortified gates, flanked by watchtowers. Most forts contained a series of gates. These gates were often built to commemorate victories in battle. Ramparts and outer fortified walls consisted of watchtowers at regular intervals. The ramparts also contained a unique system of tunnels and stairs. The design of the ramparts was customised according to the usage of weapons. In the days of bows and arrows, these had narrow slits that allowed only the arrow to come out. Later, with the introduction of gunpowder and cannons during the medieval period, the ramparts were designed to accommodate both cannon and men. Walls were strengthened and reinforced to withstand cannon fire. All forts had a special area for worship dedicated to the deity of the ruling clan.