Bhimgarh Fort: A Monument to Jammu’s Glorious Past
By Geeta Vaishnavi
The hilly region of Jammu is known by tourists for its numerous temples, its architectural beauty and its nutrient-rich lentil-based cuisine. However, the landscape itself inspires and indicates a history that has been marked by instability and warfare. The scores of forts that dot the hills and towns of Jammu are tangible testaments to this history. Many of these strongholds built by the kings and chiefs of old have been destroyed partially or completely, but some have stood the test of time and stand proudly in the modern world as relics of this heroic past. The Bhimgarh fort of Reasi, locally known as the Reasi fort, is one of the few forts of Jammu which have survived centuries of conflict and still inspire awe among the observers with their might and majesty. First built during an era of internecine warfare, this ancient fort has gone through several cycles of destruction and reconstruction. Looming over the little town of Reasi, this formidable juggernaut of brick, stone and mortar tells the story of Jammu’s violent, yet glorious yesteryears.
The Bhimgarh fort is located 64 kilometers (according to other sources, 73 km) northwest of the city of Jammu, in the small but ancient town of Reasi in Udhampur district. The fort is situated atop a hillock around 150 meters elevated from the main road (according to another source, 150 meters above the mean sea level). Surrounded by Anji Nalla on one side, the fort is also placed with the Chenab river on its western side. The northern side of the fort is guarded by the Salal hills. Hence, the Bhimgarh fort, like many of Jammu’s forts, boasts of a layer of natural protection which makes it less vulnerable to attacks.
Raja Bhim Dev, a monarch ruling in the 8 th century AD, was responsible for building the Bhimgarh fort for the first time. This fort was founded as the center of the Bhimgarh state, also founded by Raja Bhim Dev, which comprised a part of the complex geopolitical scenario of Jammu which was then, like most of its history, divided among small, squabbling states constantly jostling for political ascendancy. Founded during the early medieval period of Indian history, Bhimgarh continued to be the center of small states until the 18 th and 19 th centuries AD. The first fort was made of clay and mud. The founder of the town of Reasi, King Rishipal Rana, or one of his successors, rebuilt the entire structure in stone. For a long time, the fort and the region surrounding it was under the control of the Risyal Rajputs. In 1672 AD, when Raja Gajay Singh united a large part of Jammu under his rule, he transferred Reasi and Akhnoor as jagir to his younger brother Jaswant Dev. Jaswant later passed on Reasi to his son Rattan Singh and Akhnoor to another son of his, Chandan Singh. Rattan Singh’s son Maan Singh repaired and strengthened the fort. As the eighteenth century progressed and Mughal power gradually disappeared from the Kashmir region, Jammu became embroiled in a new series of regional and interregional conflicts, of which the Bhimgarh fort became a local theater. Jammu, once again fragmented, was unified by the Dogra ruler Ranjit Dev for a brief period. However, his death in the late eighteenth century and the growing power of the Punjab-based Sikh confederacies resulted in the region being fragmented once again by the 1780s and 90s, with the difference being that this time the political players of Jammu, Kashmir and Punjab engaged in intense interactions involving both alliances and warfare. Around this time, the Bhimgarh fort and the town of Reasi came to be controlled by Mian Diwan Singh who was involved in the murder of Mian Mota Singh who was the minister of Raja Jeet Singh. In 1815 AD, this holding was snatched from him by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ruler of the new Lahore-based Sikh empire which had set its sight on the Jammu region. The Maharaja threw Diwan Singh in a prison in Lahore and granted the Bhimgarh fort and the town of Reasi to his young subordinate Gulab Singh (1792-1857), a direct descendant of Ranjit Dev’s brother Surat Singh who had decided to claim political power by serving under the Punjabi Maharaja. Gulab Singh gave his subordinate Mian Amir Chand the responsibility of restoring the fort to its former glory. In 1817 AD, Chand brought masons from Himachal and Punjab and with local labourers the restoration work began. While restoration was in its early stages, however, Bhup Singh rescued his father Diwan Singh from his Lahore prison and both marched towards Reasi. At this time, the Bhimgarh fort was being guarded for Gulab Singh by the eventually celebrated general Zorawar Singh Kahluria. He and his soldiers valiantly defended the fort against Diwan Singh and Bhup Singh, giving Mian Amir Chand enough time to rush to their rescue with reinforcements. Before he could arrive, however, the father and son duo escaped to take shelter in the hills near Reasi. This was one of the first achievements of Zorawar Singh, who impressed Gulab Singh by his honesty and bravery. He was later promoted to be the governor of Kishtwar and given the title of wazir. As commandant and later governor, he presided over the restoration of the Bhimgarh fort and was also instrumental in a number of wars that the Dogras under Gulab Singh were engaged in in the Himalayan regions of Ladakh, Baltistan, Tibet and Skardu. He died in the very year the restoration of the fort was completed (1841), leading a military expedition in western Tibet. Gulab Singh’s political rise also accompanied the fort’s long restoration process: he was crowned as the Raja of Jammu in 1822 AD and, by 1831 AD, his influence in the region became second only to Maharaja Ranjit Singh himself. After the Maharaja’s death, political instability at the Lahore court led to the Raja distancing himself from his Sikh overlords and his assistance provided to the English East India Company during the first Anglo-Sikh war (1846) resulted in him becoming the first Maharaja of the independent state of Jammu and Kashmir.
The fort, as it stands today, seems to be a blend of Mughal and Rajasthani architecture. It does not have a discernible geometric shape. The outer wall of the fort is 50 meters high and one meter wide, featuring a front entrance which is two and a half meters high and one and a half meter wide. The front gate has carvings in the Rajasthani language. The outer wall has loopholes which could be used by archers to shoot arrows at invaders. After entering the front gate, one has to cross an open space which is seven meters long and five meters wide to reach the second gate, this one being four meters high and two and a half meters wide. After entering through this gate, one has to cross a second open space which is thirty meters long and five meters wide in order to reach the inner gate which has a length of five meters and a width of two and a half meters. Two statues of God Hanuman and Goddess Mahakali flank this gateway, infusing the military structure with a sense of piety. There are four bastions (burj) situated at four corners of the fort in order to provide more protection to the structure. These bastions, like the walls, are battlemented and also have loopholes for the archers to strike. Octagonal abutments also have been built to support the weight of the wall. The inner quarters of the fort feature several different sized rooms, some with roofs and some without, for the soldiers. These rooms have shelves built into them to store weapons. The southern side of the fort features twelve doors (Baradari) which provide a stunning view of the landscape and the nearby Chenab river. Below the Baradari stands the Bhim Devta temple, which houses the idols of Bhim and Arjun. The idol of Bhim seems to have an open mouth, flat eyes, a horned crown and an iron trident. The idol of Arjun seems to be wearing a Chola (long shirt). Lotus images adorn the roof of the temple. The entrance of the temple is graced by the presence of the God Ganesh. There is a pond and an open water tank near the temple which used to store rainwater. The soldiers could also use these tanks to escape in dire situations. Stairs and lanes connect the entire structure.
After centuries of conflict and instability, the Dogra rule saw the Bhimgarh fort emerge as one of the most important defensive structures of a united and peaceful state. It served as the royal family’s armory and treasury under Gulab Singh’s successors, Maharaja Ranbir Singh (r. 1856-1885) and Pratap Singh (r. 1885-1925). During the reign of Maharaja Hari Singh (r. 1925-1947), however, the British suzerains of Jammu and Kashmir ordained that the armory be destroyed. Thereafter, the treasury, too, was transferred to Jammu. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a long era of peace maintained at the cost of absolute freedom eventually led to the devaluation and neglect of a structure built and maintained for military needs. As the twentieth century progressed, Bhimgarh went through a phase of slow decay, a decay that was hastened by it sustaining serious damage in earthquakes. In 1989 AD, the ownership of the fort was transferred to the Jammu and Kashmir State Archaeology Department. The following year, the latest round of renovations began under the auspices of the Vaishno Devi Sthapna Board (according to another source, the Vaishno Devi Shrine Board). When these renovations were over, the fort was finally opened to the public.
The Bhimgarh fort carries with it the long and turbulent journey of Jammu. Built during an era of chaos and violence, increasingly elaborate repairs, renovations and additions were made to the initial structure in order for it to be an effective instrument for the numerous political and military groups who came to possess it. The makers and renovators of the fort also laid emphasis on piety, perhaps to keep the morale of their armies up. The fort eventually oversaw the unification of Jammu and Kashmir, the ebbing of violence and the establishment of stability in the region. Ironically, long years of peace led to the fort losing its importance as a military structure. The actions of the J&K state government in the 1990s has exhibited, however, that modern observers have learned to respect and cherish the Bhimgarh fort and similar ancient structures for their historical, architectural and cultural significance. The latest renovations to the structure and the enthusiasm of the large number of annual tourists promise a bright future for Jammu’s built heritage.