The makers of the television series, Forts of India, have researched, visited and filmed 26 forts across the country. The multi-faceted Pushpesh Pant, who is a professor of international studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and a well-known writer on food and cuisine, was part of the team that worked on the show and also anchors it. He tells Lounge about the mystique of Indian forts as well as some sober facts about their present condition. Edited excerpts:
How did the idea for a show on forts of India come about?
The CEO of Prasar Bharati and film-maker G.S. Chani were in discussions about a documentary series on forts. Initially, the idea centred around looking at the evolution of military architecture in India. But then we realized that forts were much more than military barracks—within their walls lie palaces, madrassas, tombs, mausoleums, mosques, minarets, temples and much more. They encompass the totality of Indian experience over the last millennia and a half.
What sort of experience?
A visit to these forts is a journey back in time and space—from Punjab and Himachal to Rajasthan to Tamil Nadu and the western coast. It is exciting to go there and peel back the layers of time—you find a canon and next to it a room full of miniature paintings. The Daulatabad fort dates back to the seventh century AD when the Yadavas ruled in that region; the Purana Qila’s history extends from the mythic age of the Mahabharat right up until the Asian Relations Conference that was held there in 1947 and was attended by Mahatma Gandhi.
How long did it take to make this series?
Three years in all—one and a half years for research and referencing; and another one and a half years for shooting and production. The experience transforms you—some forts such as the one in Chanderi and Kumbhalgarh are well-maintained and make you happy. Others, such as the one in Jaisalmer are in a state of decline. At the Golconda fort, we came across a traditional Telugu badakatha performance with songs of the valour of the Rani of Jhansi.
Name the oldest, largest, strongest and the most beautiful forts?
Purana Qila in Delhi is the oldest—its site dates back to fourth century BC. Kumbhalgarh has the longest ramparts that extend up to 46.5km. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it is the second longest manmade structure in the world after the Great Wall of China. The fort which never ever fell to the enemy is the Sidi fort at Janjira. The Mughals, the Marathas, the Portuguese, Dutch and other European powers—no one could subdue it and they all had to pay ransom to the Sidis for safe passage for their ships. I can’t get over the spell of Mandu; I found it the most beautiful, but it is sprawling, spread over a wide area. If I may add, the one I found the most frightening was the Daulatabad fort with its blind tunnels and ramparts. We even found a snake there.
How did you find the general upkeep of the forts?
You can’t generalize. Some are beautifully preserved. Kumbhalgarh is a beautiful example of the horticultural officer there taking professional pride in his work and doing wonders for the fort. The royal families of Jodhpur and Bikaner have taken great personal interest in the preservation of forts there. But Jaisalmer, with its illegal construction pandering to the tourists’ need for an exotic experience, is in decline. The locals there have vested interest and everyone is busy making money with fake havelis and what not, so no one cares. The Archaeological Survey of India’s role in promoting forts is disappointing. They need to realize that besides being preserved and conserved, forts need to be experienced by the people too.
Your impressions on what the forts tell us collectively about the past?
They tell us whatever we want to interrogate them about. They will tell the art historian about art; the military man about strategy; the sociologist about the intermingling of people over time. They respond to whatever you ask them.
Forts of India airs on the DD National channel every Sunday at 8.30pm.