Adventures, Races, Kit and Life
I was lucky to have one of those very rare amateur explorer’s moments of excitement, when from the road I spotted something interesting looking in the distance. It was well off the beaten track and looked like it had the potential to conjure up that tingle of anticipation that goes with a mini adventure. Importantly and for a refreshing change, instead of the normal head shake and “It not possible Sir” (often without even looking, never mind understanding the desire to explore ), my driver actually said, ( with a little head shake of course ) “Okay Sir, on the way back ?”.
We were travelling on the dusty back roads of Maharashtra, from the “best hotel in Arangabad” on route to the Ellora caves. About half way there, a section of the road passes straight through the sturdy outer most defensive walls of Dualatabad Fortress. Looking upwards, the Fortress and its high towers loomed invitingly in the distance.
Having explored the more famous Ellora caves first ( which are genuinely incredible ) we then tagged on the Fortress on the return journey. It was pretty easy access to a car park and then conscious of time limits, a motivated, fast footed and therefore, sweaty power walk up and into the Fortress boundaries, to try and cover as much ground as possible before dusk (meaning darkness and mosquitos) settled in. This was far from ideal in the mid summer heat of India !
Despite no obvious investment as a tourist location, it’s not in a bad condition and it is easy to understand how it had operated. From the outer wall, the meandering journey upwards reveals a series of ingenious defences. Moats vary in depth and width and are filled with murky green water ( that I am sure would guarantee a trip to hospital ! ). The thick, robust walls are punctuated with numerous archer positions and my favourite, a clever series of twist backs as you approach the main gates are specifically designed to stop the attacking elephants building up momentum as they charge (scenes from Lord of the Rings spring to mind). Each huge gateway still has large, sturdy looking, hardwood doors reinforced with iron.
Part of the thrill of visiting India is the freedom to explore and the fact that you are left to decide whether or not your chosen location is safe or not. There are no railings, or signs saying “Do not climb” or “Do not walk on the grass”. There is rarely supervision and admittedly anyone to help if things go wrong. A door and normally a huge sturdy, iron door at that, is either open, which means you can go through, locked, which means that to go through you need to find a chap with a well groomed moustache and probably a military hat often dating back to some long forgotten war, equipped with a multi purpose key and give him a few rupees,to let you through. The last option, is to simply put your shoulder into it and give it a jolly good shove, to loosen the rust on the hinges because no one has had the inclination to go this way for some time ( in which case it’s best to watch out for snakes ). It certainly allows you to open up the boundaries of the imagination a little more and allow the imagery from an accumulation of many different films ( and books having recently read “Flashman and the Great Game“ ) to add an extra fantasy dimension to the experience.
It truly is an impressive hilltop fortress. The ruined fort looms 200m above the rest of the battlements that surround it providing a fantastic strategic position for defence. As you progress down the hill there is layer after layer of defensive walls all the way out to the outer wall, which is not only 20 feet tall and wide but about 5km long ensuring protection from armies approaching from all angles. These battlements would have made it practically impenetrable in its time.
When you delve into the history the extent of the battlements make a little more sense. Due to its water supplies Daulatabad Fort was originally strategically positioned on a main caravan route through central India and would have been a key stop for both feeding and watering the elephants and camels and of course trading.
Sultan Mohamed Tughlag took a fancy to it and decided that it was to become the new capital of India and marched his court a staggering ( literally ) 1,100km from Delhi to inhabit and develop the fort. Unfortunately over time, the caravan routes changed and the location of the fort became somewhat redundant. The fort was finally abandoned and fell into a slow state of decay. This makes it a perfect time machine that when combined with a little imagination allows you to step into the past.
There are no more sultans but there are monkeys, thousands of them and this is now seems to be their domain. They live ruling the roost and can be quite intimidating. Most stay out of the way but some are actually quiet aggressive and I noticed that the locals were making an effort to avoid them (probably poisonous saliva ). They are certainly not the pleasant chaps from The Jungle Book.
For me the highlight of the fort was the dark ascent up through the secret tunnels that meander through the perilous blackness, up and into the base of the fort. There are several large moustached guides, reeking of paraffin and patiently waiting for the occasional western and, therefore, comparatively affluent looking tourist, in order to earn their daily salary. For a few rupees they will light up their little paraffin torches and lead you into the darkness.
As you enter the pitch-black tunnels there is a real feel of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. You stroll into the uncertainty of the darkness and the maze of tunnels. It’s not particularly safe, especially if you are tall as there is a high chance of catching your nut on the uneven ceiling. Beneath you, your feet squelch through a combination of mud and bat poo. The authentic flaming torch, stinking of paraffin, stings your eyes but you are grateful as it burns on providing a degree of light and hopefully keeping the vampire bats away! It has an authentic old world cobwebby feel about it. My mind wanders to Count Dracula’s staircase…
But it is more exciting than Bram Stoker’s fiction. The passages which have several dead ends are designed to trap potential invaders and before they can retreat, cauldrons of boiling oils would be poured on them from above, sealing their fate for ever! Eek! What a way to go ! There are deliberate drop offs to unknown depths carefully positioned to injure and remove yet more attackers. As you progress up the staircases there are a couple of areas where you can look down below and see the next group of tourists partially illuminated by their dirty paraffin lamp and tentatively strolling through the darkness. This makes you appreciate how vulnerable they are. It’s great!
When you finally make it all the way up to the top you are greeted by a huge and impressive 6m canon. The canon looks out over panoramic views of the surrounding sun parched countryside. I’m not quite sure how effective it would have been, but there is no doubt that it would have been very intimidating to an attacking enemy with both its high location and undoubted huge range.
Overall a fantastic experience and much easier on the way down, but don’t forget to watch out for the monkeys !