India since time memorial is known all over the world for its rich culture, art and exemplary architecture. Although, the temple architecture of India is highly sort after, little is known about the military architecture of ancient India. The architecture of Indian forts was an important aiding element to the culture of warfare prevalent in the country. While some Indian forts were merely constructed for defence purposes, some massive fortresses were also built to display power and authority. At the time of wars and sieges, these forts decided the fate of the kingdoms as they were the only thing that stood between victory and defeat. Thus, they were looked upon as symbols of both glory and bloodshed.

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Image Sources: Aoa Bihar, The Great Grand history of Bihar, Map of Patna 1838 ©

The evidence of forts in the Indian literature can be dated back to the times of the Rigveda. The Rigveda mentions the forts by the names of ‘Satbhuj’ which translates to a hundred moats. These forts have been described as massive structures of earthwork, spread over large areas of land. The cities that were guarded within the walls of these forts were known as ‘Pur’.  Traces of the architecture forts in the ancient Vastudiya can also be found. The Dhanur Veda mentions the forts as Durgs(something difficult to trespass), classifying them into six categories. These include Naradurg(fort protected by men), Dhanvadurg(dessert fort),Mahidurg(mud fort), Jaladurg(water fort), Giridurg(hill fort) and the Vanadurg(forest fort).

Kautilya’s Arthashastra states water and mountain fortifications to be best suited to defend populous centres. It also gives the specifications of moats, mentioning them to be filled with perennial water, protected by crocodiles and adorned by lotuses. Patliputra, which was the capital of India during the Mauryan empire was based on the principles of the Arthashastra. Excavations in the 20th Century have revealed large fortification walls including reinforcing wooden trusses that fortified the entire city. The fortress was surrounded by the river Ganga on one side and moats on all other sides and is thought to be a water fort.

Other fine examples of military architecture in the Indian saga also include the Rajput forts. Rajputs were native to Rajasthan and were known for their loyalty and chivalry which was further testified by their medieval forts and palaces surviving on hilltops, on the side of lakes and in the dessert. These forts within their defensive walls guarded the inimitable Rajasthani culture, trade, religious centres, water harvesting structures and urban settlements, some of which have still survived to date. The forts were buildings in the form of solid mass following the trabeated style of architecture. They fashioned drooping eaves supported by brackets. Extensive use of delicate and intricate jali work was also observed along with chajjas that were supported by graceful serpentine brackets. The surfaces of walls and gates were also ornamented with plants and animal motifs. The materials used for construction differed from region to region. Stone was extensively used and gypsum was used for plastering whereas lime was reserved for places that needed to be secured for waterproofing.

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Wikipedia, Mauryan remains of wooden palissade at Bulandi Bagh site of Pataliputra ASIEC 1912-13, ©
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Wikipedia, Mauryan remains of wooden palissade at Bulandi Bagh site of Pataliputra ASI 1926-27, ©
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Travel with Lakshmi, Chiitorgarh fort, ©
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HitFull, Rani Padmavati Chittorgarh Fort, ©
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HitFull, Rani Padmavati Chittorgarh Fort, ©
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Amer Fort, Jaipur ©
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Ranthambore Fort, Sawai Madhopur, ©
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Ranthambore Fort, Sawai Madhopur, ©

An example of the hill fort, the Chittor fortification rises 500 feet above the plain and is considered to be one of the finest Hindu defence systems to survive in any degree of completeness. The fort has seven gateways which are flanked by octagonal and hexagonal towers. Currently, the walls of the fort enclose almost 65 historic structures, among that, include 4 palaces, 20 water bodies and 19 Hindu and Jain temples.

The Ranthambore fort currently located in the Ranthambore National Park is one of the rare forest forts in India. The thick forest cover surrounding the fort from all directions hinders the visibility of the fort adds a distinctive defence feature to its architecture. All official and residential structures are located in the centre of the fort compound.

The Jaisalmer fort built on a hill in the desert terrain of Rajasthan, a desert fort that contains an extensive township within its majestic walls, still inhabited today. The entire fort is supported by a retaining wall and is also made up of a double line of fortifications with a walkway in between. In today’s date, the inner fortification wall has merged into the residential quarters of the fort. The fort complex contains several palaces, Jain temples, wells, a chowk that forms the heart of the city, gallis, mohallas and havellis.

With the advent of Islamic architecture in India, the Mughals like their Rajput counterparts also gave much stress on the construction of forts and the principles of military architecture. The forts were constructed on strategic positions in accordance with the natural topography. In areas such as the plains of northern provinces devoid of this, sometimes an artificial topography was created. Forts were generally surrounded with moats; outside the moats, sometimes a thick jungle of bamboo or some thorny bushes or trees was planted to delay the approach of a hostile force. The walls were machicolated and mounted with parapets. The use of iron as a construction material was also done along with wood, stone and mud.

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Jaisalmer Fort ©Pinterest
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Jaisalmer Fort ©Pinterest
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Jaisalmer Fort ©Pinterest

The Red Fort built by Shah Jahan lies along the banks of river Yamuna. Although the fort was built on the prototype of the Mughal architecture, some influences of Hindu, Persian and European style can also be found, thereby resulting in a unique Shahjahani style. The fortifications are punctuated by turrets and bastions that vary in the city along the river and the city side. The entrance to the fort is marked by the Lahori and the Dilli Gate and the interior is marked by various palaces and mosques that are separated from each other by the means of beautiful Charbagh gardens.

Soon after the decline of the Mughals, as westernisation invaded the country, these forts were stripped off their strategic importance and merely became objects of show. In todays date most of them have been classified as historic monuments and are protected by various organisations.

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Red Fort ©Wikipedia
Red Fort ©Wikipedia
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Red Fort ©Wikipedia

References (n.d.). Hill forts of rajasthan no.247 rev. Icosmos. Shamasastry, r. (n.d.). Kautilyas arthashtra. Singh, s. (2000). Interaction of western india(notably rajasthan) and mughal architecture during The 16th and 17th centuries. Aligarh: centre of advances studies, department of history, aligarh, muslim university. The structure of forts in indian historic literature, chapter 2. (n.d.). Shodhganga, 41-51.


Rishika Sood is a student of architecture, currently in her third year. She has a keen interest in exploring buildings and aspires to work towards the conservation of historic monuments. She is particularly drawn indigenous art, craft and lives of the craftsmen associated with it.