The Fort of Chunar

Situated on the banks of the venerated River Ganges in the district of Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, this fort has a history that goes back to the time of King Vikramaditya of Ujjain who reigned circa 56 BCE. It has witnessed the ascent and descent of several powerful kingdoms and empires, and has been a gateway to Bihar and Bengal for rulers in the north western part of the subcontinent. Other names of Chunar include Chunargarh, Chunda, and Chandalgarh.[1]

Chunar Gur North End Colour BL Online Gallery 1787

Source: William Hodges, Select Views in India Drawn on the Spot in the year of 1780, 1781, 1782 and 1783 and executed in Aqua Tinta, from British Library Online Gallery

Chunar From SW Side 1787 BL Online Gallery

Source: William Hodges, Select Views in India Drawn on the Spot in the year of 1780, 1781, 1782 and 1783 and executed in Aqua Tinta, from British Library Online Gallery

The Fort, due to its location on the banks of the Ganges and its high elevation, provided great strategic advantage to any ruler wanting to control the critical water highway of the Ganges. The Fort, thus, was one of the most coveted forts of the region.

A pipal (Ficus religiosa) tree located in the fort is believed to be the shrine of Bhartri Nath who was the brother of King Vikramaditya of Ujjain.[2] Several historians contest the existence of a King Vikramaditya of Ujjain, who supposedly reigned in the first century BCE. According to them, this Vikramaditya was a member of the Gupta dynasty that ruled in the 3rd and 4th century CE. If we accept the latter argument, even then the antiquity of the fort is quite remarkable.

In the seventh century of the Common Era, it is believed that Bilagar Deo, the founder of Baghelkhand took control of a large territory from Kalpi to Chandalgarh, which meant the fort came under his rule during the period.[3]

Importance of Chunar as an extremely strategic place along the north-east corridor of north India can be gauged from references made to it during the tumultuous era of medieval India when the expansionist policies of the Delhi Sultanate and later the Mughals towards Bengal required the capture of this fort as an expression of military hegemony. In 1528, Sultan Mahmud Lodi, the chief of Bengal, rebelled against Babur by taking control of Bihar. To bring the rebellion under control Babur set out towards Bengal and on his way he was informed that Sher Shah Suri, on whom he had bestowed many favours, including rewarding him with several parganas, and having given him charge of the territory, had joined the rebels who were planning to capture the Fort of Chunar. Babur made a stop at this fort during his campaign against the rebellious Sher Shah Suri in late 1520s.[4] In 1530, Sher Shah took control of Chunar Fort which is considered by some historians as the beginning of Sher Shah Suri’s aggressive policy that culminated as the ruler of Delhi.[5] Adil Shah, the Afghan ruler and successor of Sher Shah Suri, used the fort as a base from where he despatched Hemu, a Hindu general, with a large force to defeat Ibrahim Shah, another contestant to the throne left vacant by the death of Sher Shah Suri. Subsequent to defeating Ibrahim Shah, Hemu went on to defeat Tardi Beg Khan, a Mughal who was made in charge of Delhi post the death of Humayun by Bairam Khan, the regent to the young king Akbar. In 1545, the fort was taken by the Mughals after a siege of six months. The long siege tells us that the fort was built with strong fortifications. Caunter describes it as having ‘walls protected by towers rising one behind another, and covering the citadel with an impregnable array of ramparts, which were manned by a numerous garrison’.[6]

Gulbadan Begam, daughter of Babur and half-sister of Humayun, and author of Humayun-nama, called Chunar Chunda in her description of Humayun’s march to defeat the Afghans of Bengal.[7] The fort finds a mention in the Ain-i-Akbari which gives the description of the people residing in the area. According to the description, the people had no clothing and carried bows and arrows as weapons, suggesting the fort was under tribal territory.[8] In the eighteenth century, the fort came under the control of the rulers of Awadh.

Closer View of Chunargarh 1795

Source: Unknown artist, ‘North View of the Fort of Chunargarh on the Ganges from across the river’, work dated 1795.  From British Library Online Gallery

Water Colour Chunar Fort Seeta Ram

Source: Water colour by Seeta Ram, 1814, from British Library Online Gallery work titled ‘Views by Seeta Ram from Benares to Nazibghur Volume III’ produced by Lord Moira afterwards Marquess of Hastings. This painting is titled ‘The Fort of Chunargarh seen from across the River’.

For the Khaljis, Lodhis and Mughals Chunar Fort was the gateway to the eastern territories of Bihar and Bengal, for the British, however, Chunar Fort proved to be a crucial base from where they led military expeditions to fulfil their political ambition of acquiring territories of north India.[9] It was in the latter half of the eighteenth century post the battle of Buxar that the fort fell into the hands of the British. In the battle between the armies of the British and Shuja-ud-daulah, the Nawab of Awadh, in 1764, the fort was valiantly defended by the Nawab’s forces. However, the Fort was briefly besieged by Capt. Hector Munro of the British Army when he made a surprise attack on the Fort in the middle of the night. But the Abyssinian commander in charge of the Fort was prepared for such an assault and easily defeated the British soldiers who made attempts at climbing the walls in the cover of darkness. The siege of Chunar Fort by the British, however, continued for many months until the Fort of Allahabad fell to the British in 1765. The Abyssinian commander of Shuja-ud-daulah, on realising that his master was in a very disadvantageous situation, surrendered to Major Stibbert on 7 February 1765.[10] Soon after, the British returned the Fort to the Nawab of Awadh who subsequently, in 1772, exchanged it for the fort of Allahabad.[11]

Under British occupation, Chunar Fort housed a magazine of ammunition and provisions for the brigade located at Kanpur.[12] Kanpur was a critical forward military station which was at a distance of over 400 km via a circuitous Ganges channel from Chunar. The British for some years possessed just a narrow strip of territory along the Ganges between Chunar and Kanpur, and since Chunar was within reach from their Bihar territory, it was the best place to locate back-up for their forward posts such as Kanpur in the north-western regions of the sub-continent. At that time any boat passing on the Ganges near the Fort was minutely scrutinised before being allowed to proceed further.[13]

Chunar Garh ISRM 1928 1

Source: The Chunar Fort, ISRM, Volume 1, June 1928.

Chunar ISRM 1928 2

Source: ‘Chunar Fort from the Ganges’, ISRM, Volume 1, June, 1928.

Chunar fort was a refuge and a sanatorium for British soldiers. It also became one of the most secure prisons for the British adversaries and their families. Hastings retired to the fort after the quelling of Raja Chait Singh’s insurrection in 1781. In 1817, the British incarcerated Trimbakji Dainglia (Dengle), a minister of Peshwa Baji Rao II, in this Fort. In the late nineteenth century, some leaders of the Kuka movement of Punjab, which was brutally suppressed by the British, were confined in the Fort.[14]


[1] ‘The Grand Trunk Road – Its Localities’, The Calcutta Review, Volume XXI, July – December 1853, p. 223, pp. 170-224.

[2] The Indian State Railway Magazine, April 1928 to September 1928, June Issue, Volume 1, no. 9, pp. 639-640

[3] W. W. Hunter, The Imperial Gazetteer of India, Volume VIII, pp. 56-58.

[4] ‘Tuzuk-I Babari’, The History of India as told by its own Historians, Muhammadan Period, Volume IV, John Dowson, ed. (London: Trubner and Co., 1872), pp. 218-287, p. 282

[5] S. R. Sharma, Mughal Empire in India 1526-1761, Part I, (Bombay: Karnatak Printing Press, 1934), p. 128.

[6] Hobart Caunter, Oriental Annual, Or Scenes in India(London: Charles Tilt, 1838), p. 198.

[7] S. R. Sharma, Mughal Empire in India 1526-1761, Part I (Bombay: Karnatak Printing Press, 1934), p. 82 fn.

[8] Thomas Pennant, The View of Hindoostan, Volume II Eastern Hindoostan (London: Henry Hughs, 1798), pp. 208-210.

[9] See Sita Ram Kohli, ed., Fort William – India House Correspondence, Military Series, Volume XXI, 1797-1800 (Delhi: National Archives of India, 1969).

[10] William Hodges, P. 57

[11] Thomas Pennant, The View of Hindoostan, Volume II Eastern Hindoostan (London: Henry Hughs, 1798), pp. 208-210.

[12] William Hodges, P. 57

[13] Hobart Caunter, The Oriental Annual, or Scenes in India (London: Edward Bull, 1834), p. 182.

[14] Jaswinder Singh, Kuka Movement: Freedom Struggle in Punjab (Documents, 1880-1903 A.D.) (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributers, 1985), p. 200.