When I’d first arrived in Sariska, the night was furiously cold in January, even by Rajasthan’s standards. What surprised me though was the warm breeze that blew during the day. And then the weather changed; various social media updates showed snow all across the Himalayas. The clouds had decided to make merry and came out in large numbers to cover the sun.
It was time to shiver now, I was on an assignment to document the attractions and places to visit in Alwar & Sariska. The Alwar and Neemrana belt is quickly becoming a popular choice for a weekend getaway from Delhi. Jaipurites are also quite fond of the Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary, as it makes for an excellent day trip. I had visited Ranthambore earlier and had mixed experiences of seeing a tiger with the crowds.
The intriguing story of Dara Shikoh (the legitimate Mughal prince who had been imprisoned in this remote hilltop fort) made me quite keen on visiting the Kankwari Fort (also Kankwadi Fort). It is inside the confines of Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary, 21 kms from the entrance gate and was originally constructed by Maharaja Jai Singh I.
Since morning, a sort of confusion prevailed with regards to the permit for visiting the Kankwari Fort. With such a mysterious history, it was inexplicable to find out that there were very few visitors that actually went up to the fort. The steep fee for the gypsy was the biggest reason for the same, it was essential to take a safari ride in the reserve forest to somehow reach the Kankwari Fort.
On top of that, there is very little information on the route and whether it is worth visiting this secluded structure that towers on a hilltop. I was lucky to have a respected local guide accompanying me who ensured that we didn’t have to follow the ridiculous 3 hour rule of the morning or evening safari. Visitors are expected to enter the gate of the Sariska Tiger Sanctuary, reach and then see Kankwari Fort and exit the forest gate in less than 3 hours! Rather than a holiday, it would then seem like a rushed activity because a one way drive takes more than an hour.
I was really quite pleased with the incidence of wildlife inside the Sariska Tiger Sanctuary and marvelled at the dense deciduous forest. Although I didn’t spot a tiger (yeah, no!) I gawked and gasped while seeing a number of sambar, nilgai, barasingha, chausingha, spotted deer, wild boar and other animals I don’t know the names of.
Sariska feels nice, I already want to recommend it as a must visit for travellers who have a penchant for adventure.
The Tale of Dara Shikoh
This region is dotted with 8-9 hilltop forts that are quite strategically located. The usurper Aurangzeb held Prince Dara Shikoh captive for a brief period of time in Kankwari Fort. Dara Shikoh was finally executed by his brother Aurangzeb in 1659 in Delhi.
Dara Shikoh was a patron and lover of fine arts and music and is said to have been a supporter of all religions.
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In 1642, Shah Jahan had formally confirmed Dara Shikoh as his heir and conferred the title of ‘Shahzada e Buland Iqbal’ on him, a decision which Aurangzeb didn’t like. In 1657, when Emperor Shah Jahan fell sick, Aurangzeb took matters in his own hands and fought a battle with Dara Shikoh and emerged victorious. In 1659, ‘the prince’ was imprisoned by Aurangzeb and humiliated by parading him in Delhi.
It was at Kankwari Fort that Dara Shikoh, heir to the Mughal throne, was held captive by his brother Aurangzeb sometime in 1658 and 1659. It is believed that if Dara had been the emperor instead of Aurangzeb, India’s heritage and architecture might have stood intact and its subsequent history would have been quite different.
A Unique Rajasthani Fort
The Kankwari Fort isn’t visible until you actually reach its base, the drive almost feels futile at one point of time. It looms large as a humongous structure, and after an hour of a bumpy ride, I cant wait to get inside the fort and see it for myself.
The road is a non-stop winding affair and after every turn I feel that the next turn will be my first sight of the mysterious fort. After every few minutes, there is a cluster of homes that is at the base of rising hills. Colourful Rajasthani costumes worn by women break the monotony of the dull and drab landscape that has intermittent green when forests of local date palm cross us by.
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Then suddenly it appears; pinkish coloured trees grow on the hill and the ramparts of the Kankwari Fort are visible. Distinct white minarets can be seen that make it feel more like a Mughal building than a Rajasthani Fort. A flock of water birds lazes idly in the absence of traffic or any human intervention.
The remoteness of this fort must have been a good reason for Aurangzeb to banish Dara Shikoh here. Even with a dirt road, we had almost lost our way numerous times – there was little chance of finding ‘Prince Dara’ more than 350 years ago.
I wonder how helpless Dara must have felt in this godforsaken place, or was he given literature to read and gaze at the glorious views from this fort?
A huge entrance is visible on the other side of the fort, from where we are supposed to enter. The Maruti gypsy labours on the terrible and uphill path. There is a shallow and marshy space filled with water at the base of the hill, I see a huge Nilgai saunter across the date palms. A winding path from here leads up to the main gate, there is much excitement amongst us – the guide, driver and me.
There is nobody at the gates and no sign that anyone has even come here in the past month, Kankwari Fort looks deserted. I jump out of the gypsy as soon as our vehicle comes to a stop. Immediately the guide runs after me and asks me to be careful, he says the fort is believed to be a favourite lazing ground for tigers and leopards. There is a long corridor that leads to the main door of the fort. On the right side is another entrance, now it is the driver’s turn to warn us.
It feels like an anticlimax, we have literally fought with the authorities and stealthily made our way up here and now my guide and driver are skeptical about the presence of a wild animal up here. I walk up to the main door, which appears closed from faraway. I wait for the guide to catch up before pushing the small door, lo behold – it turned out to be open.
I put my feet inside, the guide tells me he doesn’t have a good vibe about entering inside. Still, I go in and see a yellow white building with stairs on the right leading up to the main fort. There is an eerie feel at this abandoned kind of structure that is not maintained either by the ASI or the tourism department. As it is in the forest, it comes under the Forest department. The locals inform me that there was a talk of an auction to convert this fort into a heritage hotel, but was shelved.
The seed of doubts in the minds of the driver and guide have made it in my mind too; they say if we were 5-6 people, then there was no fear. I begin to think and weigh my options, if it was worth to take the risk of finding a leopard ready for take off upon climbing the stairs. I took a step ahead, and took two behind to exit the door and saw the guide breathe in relief.
Although I want to see nook and corner of the fort, on my travels I have seen that if something doesn’t seem alright, it is better to let it go. I promise myself I will come some other time and explore all the rooftop forts near Sariska – Alwar. There is another legend associated with Kankwari Fort that it was the place where the Mughals stored a part of their treasure, because of the remoteness of this fort.
I wander the streets of Delhi
seeking my name
Dara—the scholar, the Sufi
Shahjahan’s licit heritor
I was trapped and assassinated
by my own treacherous brother
I see, masters of Delhi
have named streets
after murderous Aurangzeb
but Dara Shikoh
the people’s prince
no one remembers, no one cares.
Note : This poem is not written by me.
All the fears of the driver and the guide were about to come true. We had a collective gasp of horror upon sighting a fresh leopard footprint very close to the gypsy. We ran for our lives!