The Akhnoor Fort: A Proud Record of Jammu’s Cultural Heritage
By Geeta Vaishnavi
About 28 km away from the city of Jammu, on the right bank of the Chenab river (also known as Chandrabhaga and Asikni), in the beautiful town of Akhnoor stands a formidable fort. While the strength of this magnificent structure, visually dominating the town from its elevated position atop a cliff, speaks of the military turbulence of late eighteenth-early nineteenth century Jammu region, deep beneath its foundations it also has preserved in earth and stone the story of the Indian civilization. The visual splendor that the Akhnoor fort inspires is no less interesting than the millennia-long history that it has kept hidden. Unsurprisingly, both these factors have turned the location of Akhnoor into a major attraction for tourists and academicians alike. The ravages of time, however, have not spared this priceless testament to civilization in India.
The name ‘Akhnoor’ that adorns both the town and the fort situated in it supposedly predates the building of the fort and there is an interesting story behind the name. It is said that the Mughal emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-1627) who was fond of the valley of Kashmir and liked to visit it often with his moving court, once caught an eye infection on his way back. He was advised by a saint to visit the town now known as Akhnoor to restore his health. When he visited the place, its local weather seems to have helped in curing his infection. A pleased emperor christened the town ‘Ankhon ka Noor’ (‘The Light of the Eyes”) which later became ‘Akhnoor.’
The fort itself is two-storeyed, boasting walls which are 200 yards long and 3 feet thick. The walls of this fort are crowned with bastions and battlements. Watchtowers were also built at the corners of the fort and these, too, are crowned with battlements and merlons. Inside the fort is a Mughal-style palace, also two-storeyed. The side of the palace facing the courtyard adorns beautiful decorative arches and mural images. The fort is internally bifurcated by a wall emerging from the southern end and approaching the palace. The builders of the fort tried to ensure that it would be as impregnable as possible. Therefore, it can be entered only by the river and from the northern side. As impressive as the architecture of the fort is, it only scratches the surface of the wonders it has in store for its viewers which lie in the thrilling history that it has bore witness to.
The construction of the Akhnoor fort began in 1762 AD under the supervision of Mian Tej Singh (alternatively, Mian Tegh Singh) who, according to Dr. Jasbir Singh Sama, was a Sikh ruler. This demonstrates that by the late eighteenth century, many rulers from Punjab had established control in regions outside their homeland, regions which would eventually coalesce into the Sikh empire under the leadership of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The construction of the fort was completed in 1802 AD by Tej Singh’s son and successor, Raja Alam Singh. The period of the fort’s construction was an especially turbulent and transitional period in the history of Jammu. By the mid-1700s, Ranjit Dev, a local Dogra ruler, had used the erasure of the power of the Mughals in the region to establish his own rule over all of Jammu. However, his reign also saw the increasing threat of Sikh confederacies (misl) in the region, of which the building of the Akhnoor fort is tangible proof. After Dev’s death, his son and successor Braj Raj Dev (r. 1762- 87) had to face the full brunt of Sikh incursions. By the 1790s, the Dogras were forced into a tributary relationship with many of the prominent confederacies and the kingdom of Jammu that Ranjit Dev had built was once again fragmented. Hence, while the beginning of the Akhnoor fort’s construction was attended by a region dominated by one power, the Dogras, its completion was accompanied by a much more chaotic atmosphere.
Yet, a mere twenty years after the completion of its construction, Akhnoor witnessed the coronation of another Dogra scion, Gulab Singh (1792-1857), who, like his immediate forebears, had risen to prominence using the chaos caused by the breaking up of the previous Dogra regime. A direct descendant of Ranjit Dev’s brother Surat Singh, Gulab Singh grew up at a time when the Sikh confederacies were defeated and absorbed one by one by the Sukerchakia confederacy under the leadership of Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) who soon came to be styled as ‘Maharaja,’ claiming suzerainty over the Punjab and the Jammu regions, among others. A young and ambitious Gulab Singh observed the meteoric rise of the Maharaja and joined his army as a soldier. His military prowess soon got him noticed by his overlord who showered him with titles and privileges. He was soon promoted to command armies of his own and became a jagirdar. In 1813 AD and 1818 AD, he was assigned to lead the ill-fated Sikh invasions of Kashmir and Multan. In 1819 AD, he successfully crushed a rebellion in Jammu led by Mian Dido and conquered Kashmir for his master. Realizing his potential and his appropriate family background, Ranjit Singh dispatched him in the 1820s to establish control over opposing powers in Jammu. Finally, in recognition of his caliber and perhaps to invest him with authority in Jammu assailable only by himself, he granted Gulab Singh the title of ‘Raja’ of Jammu. Moreover, Gulab Singh received the rare honor of his liege travelling to Akhnoor and personally performing the Raj Tilak (coronation) ceremony on him below a Jiya Pota (Putranjiva roxburghi) tree. Jammu had once again been unified under a Dogra king, even if under nominal Sikh suzerainty. This suzerainty, moreover, would be shattered after Ranjit Singh’s death as his descendants jockeyed for power and the Dogras were pushed out of the Lahore court. At the end of the first Anglo-Sikh war, Gulab Singh found himself as the Maharaja of the newly created kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir under British suzerainty and the Akhnoor fort was one of the best military strongholds of this state.
While the Akhnoor fort is a monument to the chaotic transitions that characterized the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the Jammu region in particular and the north western part of the Indian subcontinent in general, what makes the site of the fort a relatively unique and important one for academicians is the evidence of millennia-long human settlement there which is buried in its soil. Archaeologists have unearthed at least three prominent layers of human settlement under the foundations of the Akhnoor fort itself. The first and the oldest layer pertains to the Harappan civilization (3 rd -2 nd millennium BC) where red and grey pottery consisting of jars, dish-on-stand beakers, goblets, copper pins, bone arrowheads, terracotta cakes and sherds with Harappan graffiti. Akhnoor stands on the ruins of a Harappan-era town called Manda which is considered to be the northernmost Harappan settlement found so far. The second major layer exhibits early historic pottery. The third major layer demonstrates Kushana-era artifacts. Just four km away from the Akhnoor town lies the Ambaran village where life-size busts of Lord Buddha pertaining to the Kushana period were found. Moreover, ruins of a Vihara and a Stupa built around the same period have also been discovered, leading archaeologists to conclude that around the Kushana period, Buddhism was a major religion in this area and a number of Buddhists lived here. The stupas of this site, according to a study from 1999 to 2001, also seem to be the first of their kind in the region. Apart from these three major periods, archaeological remains found in and around the Akhnoor town suggest that the region saw human occupation as early as the Neolithic era and as late as Gupta and post-Gupta eras. The Akhnoor fort represents only the latest of a long series of man-made achievements that adorn the area.
Before the real archaeological importance of Akhnoor was discovered, the local government used parts of the fort to house two water reservoirs for Akhnoor town, a police station and a revenue (tehsil) office. This has led to the destruction of many of the priceless ancient artifacts which were buried in this site. It is difficult and painful to imagine how much more wealth of historical knowledge we would have gained from Akhnoor had the archaeological potential of the site been discovered sooner. Thankfully, the government has used the Protection of Monuments Act, 1958, to declare the Akhnoor fort as a protected monument. The Archaeological Survey of India is currently under the process of excavating the site further and conserving it.
It is rather rare in history that one finds a site which tells the story of several stages of civilization. The Akhnoor fort is one of these unique and breath-taking sites. From Neolithic culture to the Harappan civilization, the Kushana period, the Gupta and post Gupta periods and finally to the military-political-cultural vibrancy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Akhnoor fort holds within it a microcosm of the entire Indian journey. It is for this reason that it is that much more surprising to observe how little-known this fort and its heritage is among the masses in a nation that is proud of its history. The attention that the ASI has given to this site is a move towards a hopeful future and it is crucial for learners in general and history enthusiasts in particular to be aware, mindful and proud of this priceless tome of Indian heritage.