On the eastern bank of the Ganga, in the Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh, is an intriguing sandstone structure known as the Ramnagar Fort. The Ramnagar Fort was the official residence of the Maharajas of Benares. The fort is renowned for the elaborate Ramlila performances that annually take place within its premises. It is also linked to Veda Vyasa, the legendary author of the Mahabharata. The fort played a part in the Indian independence movement as well.
Ramnagar is situated 14 km away from Varanasi or Kashi- one of the oldest living cities in the world. According to a local legend, the sage Veda Vyasa was once refused alms in Kashi. Overcome with emotions, Vyasa cursed the city. Though he later changed his mind, the sage was banished from the city by Lord Shiva and forced to live on the other side of the river Ganga. Thus, a city called Vyas Kashi is said to have developed in the area which is now known as Ramnagar.
The fort’s massive buttresses date back to the 17th century. However, the bulk of the fort was constructed in 1750 by Raja Balwant Singh, who governed the province of Benares on behalf of the Nawabs of Awadh. Under Balwant Singh, Ramnagar became the capital of Benares. Following the Treaty of Faizabad in 1775, the province was ceded to the East India Company by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah. The Raja of Benaras was thus bound to pay an annual tribute to the British.
In 1778, the colonial administrator Warren Hastings demanded an additional sum from Balwant Singh’s son and successor Raja Chait Singh. The Company had incurred extra expenses during their military campaigns against the Marathas. Chait Singh refused to pay the sum and subsequently rebelled against the Company in 1781. The outbreak of the revolt strengthened the anti-British sentiment in other parts of Awadh and Bihar as well. Though the movement proved to be unsuccessful and Benares was annexed by the British, it was one of the key factors that led to impeachment proceedings against Hastings. The fort’s palace was later restored to the royal family who were named as the Maharajas of Benares.
In 1910-11, the British created the Princely State of Benares. As a result, the city of Benares came under the direct rule of the British but the Maharaja was granted “full ruling powers” over his capital of Ramnagar. After India attained independence in 1947, Maharaja Vibhuti Narayan Singh acceded to the Indian Union and the Princely State became a part of India. The erstwhile royal family continues to reside within the Ramnagar Fort.
The fort is built in the Mughal style of architecture. Open courtyards, beautifully carved balconies, scenic pavilions, pointed archways, and vast flights of stone steps are some of the chief architectural features of the Ramnagar Fort. The fort boasts of four large entrances. An impressive gateway called Lal Darwaza forms the main entrance to the fort. Inside, a series of courtyards lead to the main palace within the fort. The palace includes the private apartments of the royal family as well as the Durbar Hall and reception rooms. A carved balcony with a marble throne offers an unparalleled view of the city.
In 1964, the Maharaja Banaras Vidya Mandir Trust Museum was established within the fort. The museum contains a vast collection of royal items, including palanquins, elephant howdahs, ivory articles, vintage cars, swords, guns and a unique astronomical clock. Once housed in the inner court of the Ramnagar Fort, this clock shows not only the time of day but the position of the sun, the phases of the moon, the signs of the zodiac, and the date of the month and year. The innovative instrument was constructed in 1872 by B. Mulchand, the royal clockmaker of Benares. A rare manuscript that is believed to have been handwritten by the poet-saint Tulsidas is also part of the museum’s collection. Several illustrated books with gorgeous miniature paintings and intricately designed covers can also be found here.
A temple dedicated to Veda Vyasa is located within the fort premises. Local myths state that it was at this place that the legendary sage composed the epic Mahabharata, after being banished from Varanasi. A Durga temple, a shrine for the Tantric deity Chhinnamastika, and a Hanuman temple known as Dakshin Mukhi Mandir are also located within the fort. Several popular legends are associated with the Hanuman temple. It is believed that during the construction of the fort, the flow of the river Ganga repeatedly caused the subsidence of the southwestern edge of the site. Upon inspection, Raja Balwant Singh discovered a partially submerged idol of Hanuman at the bottom of the water. The idol was unearthed and a Hanuman temple was built at the spot, after which the fort was safely constructed.
The Ramnagar Fort is perhaps best known for its 200-year-old tradition of Ramlila. Ramlila is a folk re-enactment of the epic Ramayana through the use of song, narration, recital, and dialogue. The performance is based on a 16th century sacred text called Ramacharitamanas that was composed by Tulsidas. To celebrate the festival of Dussehra, an extended version of the Ramlila is performed over a period of 31 days in Ramnagar. The exterior of the Ramnagar Fort provides the principal setting and backdrop for this vibrant celebration.
The tradition dates back to around 1830, when Maharaja Udit Narayan Singh (r. 1795 – 1835) began the practice of staging the Ramlila at the Ramnagar Fort. The monarch also commissioned an illuminated manuscript of Tulsidas’ epic that was stored in the fort’s private library. Under the patronage of Maharaja Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh (r. 1857 –1889), the Ramlila spread from the fort to include areas of the town of Ramnagar itself. The Ramlila at Ramnagar is considered the most extensive, best performed and most well-attended staging of the Ramlila.
With its rich history and deep cultural significance, the Ramnagar Fort is one of the most remarkable forts in India. The historic structure not only showcases the past grandeur of the Maharajas but continues to play a part in the living traditions of the region.