The Bathinda Fort, popularly known as Qila Mubarak, is one of the oldest surviving forts in India. Located on the fringes of the Thar Desert in Punjab, this resilient fort is built on layers upon layers of history. The monument is notably linked with the life of Razia Sultan, the legendary woman emperor. Moreover, the fort houses a historic gurudwara that is associated with the revered guru of Sikhism, Guru Gobind Singh.
The exact origin of the fort is still shrouded in mystery. Some historians argue that it was during the reign of Raja Dab in 90-110 CE that the fort was first erected. Bricks dating back to the era of the great Kushana king Kanishka, who ruled in the 2nd century, have also been discovered at the fort. Other scholars theorise that the fort was built in the 3rd century by Bhatti Rao, the King of Punjab after whom the city is named. At this time, the citadel may have been called Vikramgarh.
By the second half of the 10th century, Bathinda served as the capital of the Hindu Shahi king Jayapala. During this period, the fortress stood as an important bastion on the road connecting Multan with interior India. Owing to its strategic location, the city began to be known as Tabar-e-Hind or the Gateway to India. In 1004, Mahmud Ghaznavi laid siege to the fort and captured it. A period of chaos soon followed.
Muhammad Ghori launched an attack and seized the bastion in 1191. Entrusting the fort to Ziauddin Tulaki and a band of 1200 horsemen, he proceeded towards Ghazni. However, Prithviraj Chauhan, the ruler of the neighbouring kingdom of Ajmer, saw these developments as a potential threat to his authority. Accompanied by several feudatory chiefs and a vast army, the Rajput ruler began to march North. Ghori immediately turned back upon hearing this news and the two armies clashed at Tarain. The Rajput confederacy emerged victorious and Ghori barely managed to escape. Surprisingly, Tulaki still managed to hold on to the fort for thirteen months before surrendering it. However, the Rajput rulers were soon defeated at the Second Battle of Tarain (1192).
After 1206, the fort became a stronghold of the Delhi Sultanate under Qutbuddin Aibak. With the emergence of Delhi as a crucial political centre, the fort became even more significant due to its position on the same route. In 1210, following the death of Aibak, Nasiruddin Qabbacha seized the fort. Qabbacha was a Ghurid ruler who rose to power in the region of Uch, Sind and Multan. Later, Aibak’s son-in-law Shamsuddin Iltutmish defeated Qabbacha and recaptured Bathinda.
Iltutmish’s daughter Razia Sultan, the first and only woman emperor of Delhi, ascended the throne in 1236. However, a group of nobles soon conspired against her. The Governor of Bathinda, Malik Ikhtiyar-ud Din Altunia, was part of this clique. Razia was arrested and imprisoned in the fort which was known as Qila Mubarak at the time. After months in captivity, she finally agreed to marry Altunia with the hope of recapturing power. The compromise, however, ultimately proved futile as the couple was killed soon after by local plunderers. Following the assassination of Razia, the fort gradually fell into disuse. The river Ghaggar, which provided water to the Qila, also coincidentally changed its course around the same time.
In the 16th century, Bathinda came under the control of Babur. Writings from the Mughal period describe Bathinda as an urban administrative centre with a strong fort. A significant event took place in 1558, when the Mughal emperor Akbar dismissed his regent Bairam Khan from service. Khan responded by rebelling against the Mughal empire. He stationed his family at the Bathinda fort before proceeding towards Jalandhar. However, he was defeated in battle and forced to surrender to Akbar.
In 1754, a new chapter of history unfolded at the fort. Maharaja Ala Singh of Patiala seized Qila Mubarak at this time. Ala Singh renamed the fort as Gobindgarh to honour Guru Gobind Singh. According to local lore, Guru Nanak Dev- the founder of Sikhism and its first guru, visited the fort in 1515. In 1665, the ninth guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, also paid a visit to the Qila. About half a century later, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru, arrived at the fort after defeating the Mughals at the Battle of Muktsar (1705). The fort remained under the control of the Patiala State until India attained independence in 1947.
The Bathinda Fort was a military fort. As a result, it primarily displays strong defensive features rather than courtly opulence. Towering over Bathinda at a height of 118 ft, the fort has long been a conspicuous landmark in the area. It has a roughly square plan and is protected by a total of thirty-six bastions. Of these, four massive bastions guard the corners while eight supplementary bastions support each side. The sole entrance to the fort is located towards the northeast. This imposing gateway is guarded by an iron-clad door, studded with spikes to protect the fort from elephants. Openings above the door enable fire-arms, arrows, and spears to be let loose upon enemies.
The passage beyond contains recesses which once concealed strong guards posted at the fort. Inside, the fort wall has four 12-sided pavilions that presumably served as watchtowers at each corner. Additionally, a deep ditch once surrounded the entire structure and was filled with water from the Ghaggar. After taking over the fort, Mahmud of Ghazni is said to have ordered this ditch to be filled up. A large tank to store water was also located within the fort complex at one point.
The Rani Mahal, where Razia Sultan had been confined, is perched atop the entrance gate. The remains of the beautiful murals that once adorned this palace can still be observed on the ceiling. Projecting balconies and attached side-rooms are some other architectural features of this Mughal style building.
In 1835, Maharaja Karam Singh of Patiala built a gurudwara at the spot where Guru Gobind Singh is believed to have spent the night. Known as Gurudwara Sahib Patshahi, this red sandstone structure is topped with a white dome. Owing to its somewhat precarious position at the top of the fort, a second gurudwara was later built on the lower level of the Qila for devotees to safely visit.
Much of the outer brick fort that currently exists was constructed by the Patiala kings. Notably, these rulers made use of Nanak Shahi bricks to construct the walls. Also known as Lakhuri bricks, these bricks were slimmer and more durable than other bricks of that period. A number of cannons may also be observed within the fort complex. It is believed that when Babur first came to India, he placed four cannons built out of an alloy of copper, gold, silver and iron, at the fort. However, the specimens currently on display can be dated back to the era of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the 18th century.
Efforts are underway to restore the fort which has been declared a monument of national importance. In recent times, the Rani Mahal has been repaired by the Archaeological Survey of India. A comprehensive plan to conserve the rest of the fort has also been proposed. However, at present the fort is largely in a dilapidated condition.
The Bathinda Fort holds the distinction of being almost continuously occupied from the ancient era to modern times. It has witnessed the reign of Kanishka, withstood the Delhi Sultanate’s relentless battle for succession, played a part in rebellions against Mughal rule, and enjoyed the patronage of a princely state in the colonial period. The sturdy fort is also known for its spiritual and cultural significance, particularly for adherents of Sikhism.