Bahu Fort: A stronghold of ancient roots and modern marvels
By Arka Chakarborty
The Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir is a region of sharp contrasts. On one hand, it boasts of rich heritage and tradition which go back thousands of years. On the other hand, the region also bears witness to efforts by successive generations to achieve the pinnacle of modern life. Nowhere in Jammu can this contrast be more manifest than the celebrated Bahu fort, the three-thousand-years-old stronghold of the first Jammu kings the surroundings of which features India’s largest underground aquarium. Standing proudly on the left bank of the Tawi river, the Bahu fort has witnessed the establishment, growth, development and changes of the city of Jammu and its people and the recent conservation and development projects within and around the fort premises perfectly represents the convergence and conflict between heritage and modernity.
The story of the foundation and construction of the Bahu fort is integrally connected with the story of the foundation of the city of Jammu itself. According to legend, around three thousand years ago. King Jsmbu Lochan of the Suryavansha dynasty during a hunting trip spotted a goat and a tiger drinking water side-by-side from the same river. This astonishing and unnatural sight led him to conclude that this was a divine site of peace between all and it was here that he constructed his new capital city, Jambu Nagari, which later came to be known as Jammu. It was his brother Bahu Lochan who established the Bahu fort near the new city in order to keep watch over it and protect it from invasions. The Bahu fort is said to have gone through a number of demolitions, reconstructions and renovations in its long and eventful history. The first recorded reconstruction of the fort was financed by Autar Singh or Autar Dev, the grandson of king Kapoor Dev of Jammu, in the year 1585 AD. The most recent reconstruction of the fort was done under the rulership of Maharaja Gulab Singh. This fort was later further refurbished by his son and successor Maharaja Ranbir Singh. The formidable structure that stands near Jammu today is, therefore, the achievement of the Dogra dynasty.
Situated about five kilometers away from the Jammu city center, the Bahu fort sits on a rocky hillock at an elevation of 325 feet, along the left bank of the river Tawi. The fort was initially made of brick, and limestone, but it was later rebuilt in high-quality sandstone. It has eight octagonal turrets connected by thick walls. The turrets themselves are hollow, serving as watchtowers for archers. The main entrance to the fort is large enough to let elephants pass through it. A water tank, situated near the left entry point of the fort, with an area of 6.1*6.1 sq. meters and a depth of 4.6 meters is constructed for the benefit of the devotees who come to visit the Bave Wali Mata temple inside the fort. Adjacent to this water tank lies a pyramidal structure which used to house the ammunition of the fort. There is an underground prison chamber inside the fort premises which was mainly used to house enemy captives. However, there is also a secret passageway connected to this prison chamber which was meant to provide a quick escape in case of an emergency. The first floors of the buildings within the fort are carved splendidly with arches and floral motifs in order to create the impression of a palace.
The area around the fort used to be a dense jungle which served additional defensive purposes. However, this jungle was later cleared to make room for an exquisite garden known as the Bagh-e-Bahu. Inspired by the Mughal gardens, the Bagh-e-Bahu has beautiful statues that increases the splendor of the garden. An artificial waterfall glistens in this garden, filling the visitors with awe and wonder. Moreover, the garden also has numerous species of flowers which magnifies its glamour manifold. The Bagh-e-Bahu in current times serves as a major tourist attraction that draws travelers to the Bahu fort.
Within the premises of the Bahu fort is located one of the most important religious structures of Jammu- the temple of Maha Kali, known locally as the Bave Wali Mata Ka Mandir. This temple was constructed on a raised platform which is 3.9 feet high. The white marble structure was built in 1822 AD, after Gulab Singh was coronated as ‘Raja’ in the presence of his liege lord Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The small structure houses the idol of Maha Kali made of black stone. This idol is supposed to have been brought from Ayodhya ages before the actual temple was constructed. Animal sacrifices were made to the great Goddess as recently as the late nineteenth century. However, this was discontinued during the reign of Maharaja Pratap Singh (r. 1885-1925). Now, in place of animal sacrifice, the sacrificial goat of sheep is sprinkled with holy water by the priset and then set free. This symbolic sacrificial ritual is known as Shilly Charana. The goddess Maha Kali is a form of the goddess Parvati who symbolizes fertility and immeasurable feminine energy. In terms of mystical power, it is considered that the Bave Wali Mata Ka Mandir is second only to the Vaishno Devi temple. The temple itself is small and cannot house more than twelve individuals at any given moment. Every Tuesday and Sunday devotees flock to this temple to observe the Tawi flowing ritual. During the Navaratras, celebrated twice a year (March/April and September/October), thousands of devotees wait in lines for four to six hours or more just to get a glimpse of the goddess. Devotees who pray to the goddess and have their prayers fulfilled present the deity with a special kind of pudding known as Kadah. The temple of Maha Kali is undoubtedly the heart of the Bahu fort complex.
The Bahu fort complex is one of the few areas of ancient heritage in Jammu and Kashmir which enjoys sustained and significant attention from tourists, devotees and knowledge-seekers alike. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the government would invest in its conservation, upkeep and development. In 2013, the then state government had earmarked Rs. 80 lakhs for the conservation of Bahu fort which entailed the repairing of the ramparts, construction of viewpoints, restoration of the water tank, beautification of the landscape in front of the Maha Kali temple and the installation of spotlights. In 2018-19, a further Rs. 6.31 crores was allocated for the up-gradation of the Bagh-e-Bahu which entailed the establishment of a vertical garden, remodeling of entrance gate and path, improved landscaping, up-gradation of existing fountains, 5D theater and shelter sheds. The undeveloped 35 Kanals of land in the park was selected for the establishment of a kids zone, Artisan Haat, Graffiti Wall Amphitheatre, Joggers track, Open Air Gym ad an Illumination System.
Perhaps the most important new attraction of the Bahu fort complex is the Bagh-e-Bahu aquarium. This Aquarium, shaped like a fish and is 22m in length. It features twenty-four caves. Two large caves contain marine fish, thirteen smaller ones have freshwater fishes and nine medium-sized ones have both freshwater and marine fishes. It houses a total of around four hundred species of fishes including sucker catfish, piranha, shark catfish, lobeo rohita, bubble eye, red shiner etc.
In spite of the impressive development projects undertaken by the government to beautify the Bahu fort and make it an attractive tourist and pilgrim destination, there needs to be a balance between the development of new locations within the temple complex and the preservation of the complex itself. One instance of this balance being shattered was a recent catastrophe where 110 feet of the Bahu fort’s wall to the right side collapsed because its foundations were weakened by the construction of a park by the Fisheries Department near the Bagh-e-Bahu aquarium which had created a steep slope filled with soil just behind this wall. What followed was an episode of blaming different departments and officials for the blunder, but the demolished wall had made it clear that no matter whose fault it was, the pursuit of development had in this instance harmed the necessity for conservation.
The Bahu fort complex represents a near-perfect blend between tradition and modernity. Constructed around three thousand years ago to defend the city of Jammu from invaders and maintain control over it, this once-formidable fort has gone through many ages in history which has transformed it not only externally, but in terms of the meaning it holds for its observers and maintainers. The gradual beautification of the fort complex during the Dogra era and after signified a decline in its military importance and its partial conversion into a palace-like structure. After India gained political independence, the numerous conservation and development works that the complex has witnessed were aimed at its transformation into a magnificent hub for tourists and pilgrims alike. This aim has largely been fulfilled, with the fort complex boasting many new areas solely to attract more tourists. However, a balance has to be struck between conservation and development if Bahu fort is to remain as a site of historical relevance and popular adulation.