Poonch Fort: An Age of Transition Writ in Stone
By Geeta Vaishnavi
In the border town of Poonch stands a monument which once served as a fort-palace complex but now functions as a government office. The new role, too, seems to be a fact of the past as most offices have relocated outside the building in the twenty-first century due to its dilapidated condition. This monument approaching the size of a behemoth is the Poonch fort, an icon that served key strategic and symbolic functions for most of its history. While its sheer size exhibits its importance, the architectural diversity it represents also bears testimony to a story that is far more interesting than one of a short period of importance followed by negligence. Rather, the Poonch fort narrates a tale of military necessity, political transition, appropriation, adaptation and reconfiguration- a tale that is fascinating to learn.
The small region of Poonch has historically enjoyed a sense of separate identity and autonomy from Jammu and Kashmir. It was a part of the Abhisaras region in ancient India and was supposedly conquered by Alexander the Great’s forces. It has mostly had separate rulers and dynasties, sometimes subservient to the larger political regimes, sometimes independent. One such ruler was Raja Abdul Razaq Khan who laid the foundations of what would later become the Poonch fort in 1713 CE. His ancestors were appointed as rulers of this region by the Mughals in the late sixteenth century. Given his more or less secure, hereditary hold over Poonch, the Raja’s sudden interest in building a new fort there starts to make more sense when seen in its historical context. By the first half of the eighteenth century, Mughal authority over much of India was disintegrating due to a vicious combination of systemic flaws, dynastic intrigue, foreign interventions, factionalism among the nobility, regional interests and peasant rebellions. With the Mughal authority went the stability that they had established and political authority became tenuous and fluid, susceptible to drastic changes. This must have made Razaq’s position insecure, prompting him to reinforce his authority by further fortifying his base of power. His foresight bore fruit as by the time his son and successor Raja Rustam Khan completed the fort’s construction in 1787 CE, Kashmir was overrun by the Afghan Durranis and Jammu was fractured into small states under various chieftains and petty kings. The original fort, also meant as a palatial residence of the ruler, was stylistically faithful to the Mughals, exhibiting the endurance of Mughal authority even if their actual power had long since been extinguished in the region. Even though other architectural and artistic influences were added to the structure later on, journalist Sarita Brara claims that the Mughal style still dominates the fort overall.
In 1819 CE, Kashmir, parts of Jammu and Poonch were taken over by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh overlord of a new Lahore-based empire. A couple of years later, he crowned his favorite Gulab Singh as the Raja of Jammu, even though he was a scion of a lesser branch of the Dogra family which had historically dominated the region. Gulab Singh, along with his brothers Dhiyan Singh and Suchet Singh, were powerful potentates in the Lahore court. By 1827 CE, Ranjit had made Dhiyan Singh Raja of Bhimber, Chibbal and Poonch. During this period (1819-1846 CE), the central section of the fort was added and clearly reflects Sikh architectural influences and motifs.
Although Raja Dhiyan Singh was assassinated shortly after Ranjit Singh’s death due to court intrigue, Gulab Singh’s careful political maneuvering saw him at the head of the newly created state of Jammu and Kashmir as its Maharaja after the conclusion of the first Anglo-Sikh war (1846 CE). The new Maharaja gave Dhiyan Singh’s old domains to his surviving sons Jawahir Singh and Moti Singh. Jawahir Singh was later pensioned off and Moti Singh became sole ‘Raja’ of Poonch. Throughout the reign of the Dogras as the overlords of Jammu and Kashmir, the royal line of Moti Singh would function as the kings of Poonch under their royal cousins based in Jammu. This regime change also reflected in the architectural makeup of the region as Moti Singh and his successors constructed new mansions across Poonch such as the Moti Mahal and the Sheesh Mahal. Moti Singh’s greatest architectural passion, however, seems to have been the Poonch fort itself which he renovated for almost four decades (1850-1892 CE). This brought a distinctive European influence into the eighteenth-century structure as Singh had hired a European architect to design the front block. The hiring of an European architect betrays the fact that even though Jammu and Kashmir was a state under Dogra rule, the overarching presence of the British Raj had created a palpable cultural shift over the subcontinent as a whole and even so- called autonomous rulers were by then deeming European-style architecture to be fashionable and preferable to the older Mughal style. Moti Singh’s successor, Raja Baldev Singh, made the Poonch fort the Secretariat of his state and moved the official residence to Moti Mahal.
At the end of the almost century-long building process, the Poonch fort stood a colossal structure, spanning over an area of 7535 square meters, boasting a series of 89 rooms structured around four irregular courtyards. There were three religious structures within the fort: a temple, a mosque and a gurudwara, thereby exhibiting religious tolerance even in an era of turbulence.
After India emerged as an independent nation-state and Jammu and Kashmir ceased to be a Dogra-ruled princely state, the Poonch fort became home to an array of local government offices. Unfortunately, the officials who worked there seem to have had very less chance or inclination to maintain the sanctity of the fort as one bearing hundreds of years’ worth of heritage. Decades of usage as a massive office space for the local government left the site bustling with activity, but it also led to the damaging of the building as a whole, causing immeasurable loss to not only local, but regional and national cultural landscape. The 2005 earthquake shook the monument to its very foundations. The mosque was damaged, but the temple and the gurudwara stand to this day. The gradual damage done to the structure and the noticeable deterioration of the site’s condition due to the earthquake led to it being abandoned by most of the government offices. By 2013, Poonch fort was home only to the office of the tehsildar. Apart from government offices, the fort has over the years become vulnerable to encroachment. Many illegal temporary shelters and shops have emerged both within the structure’s vicinity and along its margins. These activities run the risk of potentially damaging the monument further.
After the 2005 earthquake, the government has taken considerable steps to restore the Poonch fort to its former glory. In the year 2006-07, restoration work was taken up at the cost of Rs. 40.55 lakhs. Thereafter, in 2011-12 another project called ‘Conservation and Restoration Plan for Poonch Fort’ was taken up at a cost of Rs. 3.79 crore and the work is in progress. Several large- scale projects aiming to develop historical tourism in the Rajouri-Poonch circuit are currently underway. Regarding the encroachment issue, simply uprooting the encroachers will not be a permanent solution. A more sensible and compassionate approach would be to relocate them, ensuring proper housing and shop facilities, so that the need for illegal encroachment does not arise in the first place.
For the past three centuries, the Poonch fort has stood as a silent spectator to an era of transition. From nominal Mughal authority to the Durranis, the Sikhs and finally the Dogras under British suzerainty- these whirlwind centuries have shaped not only the fort’s history, but also its very appearance. The varied architectural styles that the Poonch fort holds within itself show the sheer differences in the various masters who have come to claim lordship over it. Post-independence years were marked by shocking neglect and encroachment, but recent years have made the government keenly aware of the fort’s heritage value. Restoration works are currently underway and one can hope that Poonch fort will once again become a gleaming example of diversity in Indian history in the years to come.