The majestic Munger fort of Bihar is skirted by the pious river Ganga on the Northern and Western sides. The rich history of the fort is intertwined with the city landscape which has been home to several dynasties. It is believed that the antiquity of the city can be traced back to the times of the Mahabharta and the Ramayana. This fort is located on a hillock, occupying a vast territory of 222 acres. The ramparts of the fort meander up to a length of 21 miles and are 30 ft thick. A moat,175-ft-wide, surrounds the fort. The fort has four gates, of which the southern gate is the main entry point. The strategic location of this structure enables efficient transportation, access to marine resources, and bustling trade and commerce.
Legend has it that the archaic city of Munger was established by local sage Muni Mugdal Rishi, who used to stay on the hill. Hence, Munger was also known as Mugdalgiri during ancient times. It has also been called “Modagiri”, a place mentioned in the Mahabharata. Many of the sacred narratives associated with the city are linked to Mahavira and Gautam Buddha. Buddhist texts mention “Maudgolyagiri”, named after the disciple of Buddha, Maudgolya. Hence, the city exhibits a syncretic religious and cultural heritage. The city grew into prominence during the Pala dynasty (8th -12th century CE). The powerful Dharampala declared Munger as his capital. The Munger inscriptions also called “Munger Plates” are testimony to this fact.
In the 12th century CE, Bhaktiyaar Khilji defeated the last Pala ruler of Munger. Records mention that the city was plundered by the son of Bhaktiyar Khilji. Thereafter, the city went into the hands of the Delhi Sultan, Muhammad Bin Tughlaq. However, it is Ala-ud-din Hussain Shah, founder of the Hussain Shahi dynasty in Bengal, who has been credited for the construction of the fort here in 1494 CE. One can see the fusion of indigenous Hindu and Islamic elements in the architecture of the fort. Dr. Francis Buchanan, a historian, wrote that initially the fort was made from locally available material and its structure looked rugged and irregular, but over time, it transitioned from a rugged to a more refined structure as a result of the influence of Islamic architecture. In the 1530s Munger came under the Sur dynasty. In 1545 CE, Mian Sulaiman, an Afghan of the Kararani tribe, took possession of the fort on behalf of Islam Shah, son of Sher Shah. However, he made an alliance with Bahadur Shah (King of Bengal) and dethroned and killed Adil Shah (seventh contender to the Sur dynasty). Later in 1563 CE, Sulaiman acknowledged the suzerainty of Akbar.
In 1657 CE, Munger was witness to another war of succession post the illness of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Shah Suja, a contender to the Mughal throne, retired to Munger twice after his defeat: once at Bahadurpur (near Benaras) at the hands of Sulaiman (the son of Dara Shikoh), and the second time at Kudwa by Aurangzeb.
The Munger Fort once again came into prominence during the reign of Mir Qasim, the Nawab of Bengal who shifted his capital from Murshidabad to Munger. To extend his military might and drive the British out of Bengal, Mir Qasim ordered his Armenian General Gurgin Khan to construct a traditional arsenal inside the fort which today is known as the gun factory. This fort also witnessed British East India Company officials dissenting against reduced allowances in 1766 which is famously remembered as the ‘White Mutiny’. Robert Clive, the first British governor of Bengal Presidency, suppressed it. This resulted in the deliberate ravaging of the fortifications. By the 18th century, the Munger fort had merely become a station for meagrely paid military men and officers and as a protection depot for military stores. The Damdama Kothi inside the fort was demolished to make room for the residence of the British collector.
The Munger fort houses multiple religious and historical sites and structures. The Lal Darwaza or Red Gate is one of the most prominent gateways of the fort complex. The eastern gate of the fort was a red brick clock tower over a horseshoe arch. This clock tower fell down during the earthquake of 1934 and has not been raised since. The oldest building inside the fort is a Sufi shrine built on an elevated piece of ground near the southern gate. For centuries, this sacred site was hidden in the ramparts of the fort. Many attributed this shrine to an unknown saint who was a disciple of Moin-ud-din Chishti, who traveled from Persia and was directed to stay at Munger. It was Prince Danyal who repaired the fortification of Munger and also added a vault over the shrine of Pir Shah Nafah Gul (Nafah in Persian means pod of musk), who is believed to be the Sufi patron of the city.
The fort being built on a foundation of a quartzite rock, effectively keeps off encroachment by the Ganges. It houses many picturesque ghats. At the North-western end of the fort is an ancient bathing ghat called Kashtharini Ghat. This literally means “the river which eases out pain”. It is believed that Lord Rama and Lakshamana rested on this bank while battling with the demoness Tadaka. Thus, many tourists take a holy dip in the waters of the Ganga to relieve physical pain.
A prominent structure inside the fort is the Shah Suja Palace which has been converted into a jail. On the North-eastern side is the Karan Chaura, built on the natural rocky mountain. It is the highest point of the fort. During their time, the British installed a battery here. The other hillock is the artificial rectangular mound which was the citadel or acropolis of the fort. The fort complex also houses important public offices which include civil, revenue and criminal courts, in the form of three parallel rows of buildings. In 1959, another two-storied building was built to accommodate administrative offices of the District Magistrate. To the west of the courts, a trim little ivy-clad church can be spotted and to the east lies the English church of the Baptist Mission built in 1863 CE which was destroyed by the earthquake of 1897 CE. Near the north gate of the fort is an old cemetery that shelters obelisk tombs erected at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century.
Inside the fort is a famous tunnel, through which Mir Qasim is said to have escaped post the battle of Buxar in 1764 CE. After the battle, it is said that Princess Gul and Prince Bahar (Mir Qasim’s children) used to disguise themselves as tigers near the river side to seek vengeance for their father’s defeat. Unfortunately, on a dark night, a British officer accidentally shot them. They were buried near the sacred site of Pir Shah Nafah Gul.
The fort which stood strong for many years is now in a ruined state. Today, the interiors of the fort house administrative offices as well as pilgrimage sites. The serene ghats of Munger are famous for the views of diving Gangetic dolphins. The ghats also received attention under the ‘Project Namami Gange’, initiated by the central government in 2014. This fort undoubtedly adds to the rich legacy of the pluralistic culture of India.