From a distance we see two distinctive minarets of a hilltop mosque outlined against a blue sky. They are part of the 259-metre-high fort of Asirgarh, not far from the city of Burhanpur. “It is the oldest, the highest, and the most protected fort of India,” claims Guruji, our Burhanpur guide. Hotelier and local INTACH convener Hoshang Havaldar tells us Asirgarh was one of the seven unconquered forts of India.
So we set off to conquer Asirgarh, not by the old traditional entry—a series of seven gateways leading up from the forests below. Instead, we travelled a winding mud road that ends abruptly, at the 120-foot-high walls of the fortress.
Overlooking a pass through the Satpuras that connected the Narmada and Tapti river valleys, Asirgarh historically safeguarded a key trade route between north India and the Deccan. Hence it was called Dakkani Darwaza or Doorway to the Deccan.
Spread over 60 acres, the vast complex is actually comprised of three forts: the lowermost Malaygarh, the middle one Kamargarh built by Aurangzeb, and the highest and oldest part, Asirgarh. We climbed steep stairs to a plateau at the summit where the Jama Masjid stands. The Farooqi mosque, similar to the one in Burhanpur, has the builder’s name and genealogy inscribed in Arabic and Sanskrit!
In the early-15th century, the fort was treacherously taken from the local raja Asa Ahir, who was murdered by Nasir Khan of the Farooqi dynasty. His descendant Adil Khan II further strengthened the fort. Later, though the Farooqis wed their daughter to Akbar, the fort’s strategic importance outweighed the alliance, and in 1600, for six months, Akbar besieged Asirgarh with a force of 32,000. Mounting cannons atop a hill, he bombarded the fort, but in vain. We chuckled at the sight of the round hill, called Akbar Topi because of its uncanny resemblance to the Mughal Emperor’s headgear! Eventually, Akbar too adopted deceit to capture Asirgarh. Using the pretext of the women of the zenana wanting to see the fort, like the Trojans, Mughal troops emerged from palanquins to end Farooqi rule in Khandesh. On 5 January, 1601, Akbar finally offered namaz at the Jama Masjid. Hoshangji quips, “Akbar ne chandi ki chaabi se Asirgarh ko khola. Kisi ne iss qile ko lad kar nahi jeeta.” (Akbar opened Asirgarh with a key of silver. No one ever captured this fort in battle).
Stone inscriptions outside the fort record Shah Jahan’s revolt against Jahangir when he was governor of Burhanpur, as well as Aurangzeb’s overthrow of Shah Jahan. Later it fell into the hands of the Marathas, and the British eventually paid ₹7 lakh to acquire the fort from them. This was the last major fort that had escaped British control, and after signing a treaty in 1819 at the end of the Third Anglo-Maratha War, a message was sent to British headquarters that they had finally conquered India. The remains of British barracks, a prison, church, cemetery and phansi ghar (gallows), hint at a once flourishing British cantonment.
Nearby stands the temple of Asireshwar Mahadev. Some argue that the fort is called Asirgarh after this ancient Shiva shrine and not after Asa Ahir, the king who ruled the region. Legend has it that the mountain was once Ashwathamagiri, the haunt of Guru Dronacharya’s son, who hid here after abandoning the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The story goes that after his ritual bath in the Tapti, Ashwathama performed a puja at Burhanpur’s Gupteshwar temple. He then took a subterranean path to perform puja at this temple. Till today, a lone wild flower that is mysteriously found on the linga, is attributed to his secret ritual.
Getting there: Asirgarh is 22 km north of Burhanpur. It is a 5-km ride to the fort from the base of the hill.
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