The Mightiest Warrior of the Plains

To the religious-minded, the journey to Kalinjar is a pilgrimage. The place has a powerful association with Shiva, and as per scholars, it finds mention even in the Vedas and Puranas. Legend has it that after drinking the poison that came up during the churning of the ocean, Shiva came to Kalinjar. The Neelkanth temple within the fort draws its origin from this incident. The name of the fort too comes from this source –

‘Kaal’ meaning time and ‘jar’ implying destruction in Sanskrit-Shiva being the destroyer of time .

To a casual visitor the Neelkanth temple invokes a sense of awe. Located in a corner of the fort, the temple is in a protected enclosure, overlooking the plains below. A flight of steps lead downwards to the shrine, which is essentially a cave facing a large courtyard. Within the cave are two large lingas, which seem to have grown organically out of the wall. In front of them is a pillared mandapa with the courtyard beyond. Alongside the steps and spread throughout the courtyard are dozens of gods and goddesses, carved in stone along with various other beings worshipping them. The entire pantheon of Hindu iconography seems to find a place here. Shiva is everywhere, showcased in his myriad forms and with all his followers. Vishnu and the mother goddess in different forms also find a place. Interspersed with the icons are inscriptions which indicate that the temple and iconography were added to over time by various rulers who held the region.

In one corner of the courtyard is a massive Mahasadashiva, standing over 20 feet in height. It is a powerful, even frightening embodiment of Shiva and an image that stays with a visitor long after he leaves the temple. A huge gap in the rock above the temple gives a glimpse water body within. But more than the pilgrim or the casual visitor, it is the history buff who can best appreciate Kalinjar and its intricacies. The fort tends to zealously guard it secrets and merits a detailed exploration. Located on a craggy hill that rises nearly a thousand feet above the surrounding plains, its location gives it a strategic vantage point with a line of sight extending for miles around on a clear day. Today, a road enables you to drive all the way up, .via several medieval gateway.

Access was a trifle more painful in the medieval era, as many invaders found out. On a hot day in May 1545, Sher Shah Suri died in a gunpowder explosion while besieging Kalinjar. Suri was then the most powerful ruler in the subcontinent and had driven out the Mughals. While the fort subsequently fell to his army, his premature death enabled Humayun to be back in the saddle within a decade of Suri’s passing. It was one of several turning points in indian history which have been witnessed at Kalinjar. Five centuries earlier the fort had drawn the attention of Mahmud Ghazni, only to see him turn back in the face of a powerful chandela army. He returned later almost as if the fort and its lure beckoned, this time turning back after being appeased by gifts by the fort’s ruler. On both occasions, he pillaged the countryside. However, his preoccupation with Kalinjar meant that the temples of Khajuraho, just over a hundred kilometres away, were saved.

History and faith come together in a fascinating intermingling at Kalinjar. While historians have been unable to pin down an exact date for the fort’s founding, the faithful describe the hill as a tapshyasthana and a mahatirth – a place for austere devotion since ancient times.

The place may have been fortified nearly 2,000 years ago and kept changing hands, keeping pace as one chapter of India’s, history followed another. The second century scholar Ptolemy mentions the fort as `Kanagora’, during the reign of the Kushana. Later centuries saw the advent of the Kalachuris, Rashtrakutas and Pratiharas. These were followed by the Chandelas, whose grip on the fort probably lasted longer than that of any other dynasty, though they last control twice, albeit temporarily – once to the forces of Qutab-ud-din-Aibak and later to the Lodis. The last Chandela ruler, Kirat Singh, was executed by the Suri forces, who cap-tured the fort after Sher Shah’s death. With the Mughals ousting the suris, Kalinjar too changed hands, only to fall into the hands of the Bundela ruler Chhatrasal, by the end of the 17th century.

The beginning of the next century saw another siege – this time by a Maratha warlord. The siege lasted two years and ended when the warlord died in a fall from his horse. The dying invader was Ali Bahadur, a descendant of Peshwa Bajirao and Mastani. For Kalinjar, it was just another chapter of history being turned over. The last time this old warrior fort saw fire and brimstone was in 1812, when the power of British artillery Arced the garrison to sue for peace. Kalinjar passed into the hands of the British and like a veteran soldier, faded into obscurity. Not that it became entirely peaceful. Presence of lawless elements in this remote corner of the state, forced authorities to station the Provincial Armed Constabulary inside the fort, unit of which shifted out only a few years ago. Weapons have faded from the fort today, though the walls and broken idols carry the scars of savage battles and fanaticism of centuries past. The area atop the hill is a huge plateau and housed an entire city in its prime. Scattered everywhere are ruins of temples, palaces, water tanks and other structures.

Today the fort finds itself in Banda district, well off the beaten path taken by tourists. Saying the word Kalinjar might elicit a blank expression from a listener. That is a real travesty, for given the antiquity and volume of heritage at Kalinjar, it should rightfully be right along-side India’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. Perhaps the authorities will awaken to its potential one day.

Re-published with permission from Shri Arjun Kumar. He tweets extensively about little known heritage sites at his twitter handle @HiddenHeritage

© Arjun Kumar