Overlooking the steep slopes of the Sahyadri mountains in Western India is the colossal fort of Raigad. Located in the North Konkan region of Maharashtra, this grand fortress was once the capital of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the founder of the Maratha Empire.
The initial construction of the fort was carried out by Chandraraoji More, a feudal lord who controlled the region of Jawali in the Western Ghats. In 1656 CE, Shivaji defeated Chandraraoji in battle and acquired the hilltop bastion that was known as ‘Rairi’ at the time. Shivaji expanded and renovated the fort significantly, before renaming it as ‘Raigad’ or the ‘royal fort.’ Encircled by deep valleys on three sides, the fort could only be accessed through a steep pathway at the front. Considering the strategic location and imposing size of the fort, Shivaji decided to make Raigad his capital. In 1674 CE, the Rajyabhishek or coronation of Shivaji took place at this fort and it was here that he adopted the title of ‘Chhatrapati.’ This event is considered to be a significant development in Indian history because the coronation was not authorized by the Mughal emperor and made a bold statement against Mughal rule.
Fifteen years later, the control of Raigad once again changed hands. At the Battle of Raigad in 1689 CE, the Mughal general Zulfiqar Khan attacked the fort and defeated the forces of Rajaram Bhonsle I, the third Chhatrapati of the Marathas. Thereafter, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb renamed the fort as ‘Islamgarh.’ However, by 1707 CE, Fateh Khan - the Peshwa or regent of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate, captured the fort and controlled it for the next two decades. At this point, the Marathas managed to wrest away the fort again and retained it till 1813 CE. Meanwhile, the British too, had set their sights on this virtually impenetrable hill fortress. They first targeted the area in 1765 CE but it was not until 1818 CE that they were finally able to take over the fort, after bombarding it with cannons. The British proceeded to pillage and largely destroy the fort after taking over. They referred to Raigad as “the Gibraltar of the East,” comparing its steep, inaccessible and solid nature to the famous monolithic rock formation near the Mediterranean Sea.
The architecture of the fort includes some striking components. After Shivaji seized Raigad, the architect Hiroji Indulkar was asked to construct a number of new public and private buildings. Royal palaces and mansions, a royal mint, three hundred stone houses, several offices, a garrison for thousands of soldiers, and a market spread out over a mile, were some of the new additions to the fort complex. Moreover, water reservoirs, gardens, pillars and pathways were used to embellish the redesigned fort.
At present, Raigad boasts of a number of quaint gateways which offer a small glimpse of this past grandeur. The Chitta Darwaja or Jit Darwaja was used to access the fort from the foothills below, while the Khoob Ladha Burj is a strategically placed tower from which assailants on all sides could be spotted. The Maha Darwaja, or the main gateway, was built almost 350 years ago but still retains a magnificent look. It consists of two massive bastions, each measuring about 20 metres in height. Apart from the main gate, a special entrance called the Palkhi Darwaja was created for the royal ladies and queens. The Ranivasa or Queen’s chambers, comprising of six apartments in a row, is located to the right of this gateway. Unfortunately, the entire residential structure is currently in a dilapidated condition. Another interesting structure is the Nagarkhana Darwaja, a three-storey edifice which used to face the royal throne. The platform now houses an octagonal ornate canopy, with a seated image of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj placed above the original location of the throne. The Nagarkhana Darwaja also leads to the Raj Sadar or the hall that was used by Shivaji Maharaj to hold court for the public, as well as to meet nobles and envoys.
Raigad also continues to possess water reservoirs of varying sizes, including the splendid Ganga Sagar. This large, artificial lake is situated below the fort, reflecting the massive stone construction above. Besides the lake, an important feature nestled within the fort complex is a Shiva temple called Jagadishwar Mandir. Even today, devotees visit this medieval temple to worship the Shiva lingam inside. Another highly revered structure stands next to the temple. The mausoleum or Samadhi of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj was erected within the Raigad fort, after his death in 1680 CE.
In addition to the fort itself, the hill upon which Raigad is located also has three major points of interest. To the North, lies a daunting cliff marked by Takmak Tok or Takmak point. This point served as an execution site, where all the prisoners convicted by the Marathas were flung down the sheer drop below. On the western side, stands the Hirakani Buruj or bastion. This wall is built on a steep cliff and has a remarkable legend associated with it. According to folklore, a woman named Hirakani used to come from a nearby village to sell milk at the fort. Busy with her work, Hirakani was still within the fort complex one day when the fort gates clanged shut at sunset. Worried about her infant child in the village, Hirakani decided she couldn’t wait till sunrise to go home. The brave mother is said to have climbed down the high cliff in the pitch darkness of the night. To honour her heroic spirit and valour, Chhatrapati Shivaji is believed to have built the Hirakani Buruj over the cliff. The third historic site is Bhawani Tok, which lies to the East. It is speculated that when the Marathas battled the Mughals, Rajaram Bhonsle escaped through a secret route on this side. Mention may also be made of the Raigad Museum which is situated at a distance of about 3 km from the fort. This museum exhibits a collection of paintings, literature, antiquities, decorations, weaponry, and other objects from the Maratha period.
Shouldering the weight of all this history, the Raigad fort stands today as a testament to Maharashtra's glorious past. Bestowed with the honourable epithet of Durgaraj or the “king of forts,” this massive construction is at once an architectural gem, a historically significant monument, and a source of legendary tales of courage.