The Forgotten Narnala Fort
Narnala Fort also knows as Shahnur Fort is one of the huge forts in Akola district covering an area of 362 hectares and consists of 3 forts fused together namely Narnala, Jafarabad and Teliagarh. The fort has 360 watchtowers, 6 large gates and 20 small gates. The numbers could differ as you read different sources. A motorable road leads to the top of the fort giving access easily.
Resting tall and strong on an unaccompanied hill of the Satpura mountain range, the Narnala Fort stands as a testimony to the Mughals' rich history and their remarkable architecture. This magnanimous fort was one of the thirteen 'sarkars' of Berar Subah and houses intriguing pieces of evidence of the majesty of the Mughal Dynasty, including the famous Nau-Gazi Tope. Perched upon a secluded hill at a height of 973 meters, the Narnala Fort offers a panoramic view of the Satpura ranges. Surrounded by a blanket of green and with a backdrop of the bright blue sky, the mesmerizing glory of the fort is truly iconic.
It was originally built by the Gond Dynasty in 10 A.D. and was named after the prestige Rajput King, Narnal Singh but was taken over by the Mughals in the 15th century. Ever since, it was named Shahnoor Fort and has been the point of interest of many Mughal emperors. Not just that, it was also the birthplace of Emperor Aurangzeb's very own great-grandson. The renowned Muslim saint, Hazrat Burhanuddin Bagh Sawar Wali, used to set up camp at the fort quite often and claimed to have spotted many white tigers roaming about in the fort!
The nearest railway station to the Narnala Fort is Akola Junction which is 70 km from Narnala Fort. Akola is well-connected with all the major cities in India. The cheapest and convenient way to reach Akola is by train. Akola has rail connectivity with major cities. Train connectivity is excellent, and it makes sense to either explore it as a weekend trip from Mumbai or you can combine it with a trip to Chikhaldara (Like I did) over a long weekend. By train, it will take 8 hrs to 10hrs to reach Akola from Mumbai.
From Mumbai, you can take 12101 Junction Aneswari Delx on Friday leaves from Lokmanya Tilak Terminal at 08:30 PM and will reach Akola Junction the next day around 04:45 AM.
For return journey from Akola, you can take 12860 Gitanjali Express on Sunday leaves from Akola Junction at 11:15 AM and will reach Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus same day around 09:20 PM
To reach Narnala Fort from Akola Railway Station, you can easily hire a cab from right outside the railway station at economical rates. The cab drivers usually quote exorbitant rates, but will quickly bring down their quotes once you start bargaining. For a two day trip, you should not pay more than ₹ 5000 or alternatively hire a bike on rent for maximum INR 700 per day. (Drop a mail at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to hire a bike on rent).
Many governments, as well as private buses, plying in and out of Akola Bus Station to Narnala Fort but the frequency is very low but he fares of these buses are very cheap too.
The nearest airport to the Narnala Fort is Nagpur Airport which is approx 280 km from Narnala Fort and it will take around 7 to 8 hrs to reach Narnala Fort.
Pocket-friendly way to reach Narnala Fort from Mumbai is by train.
Where To Stay?
You can stay in the forest department’s eco-lodges at Shahanur ( ₹1200 per night for a cottage and ₹300 per night for a dormitory). The place is also known is Shahanur Eco-Tourism Complex and is located at the main entry gate of Melghat Tiger Reserve.
When To Go?
The period between October and January is the best time to visit the Narnala Fort. This is the period of winters when the weather is delightful and truly enjoyable. The temperature ranges between a low of 11 degrees Celsius and a high of 20 degrees Celsius, making it the perfect weather for outdoor picnics and outings. Winter is also an excellent time for birding (Melghat has 280-odd bird species), especially since there are opportunities to walk trails.
Summers here are sweltering, but chances of animal sightings are high. Temperatures ranging from a low of 28 degrees Celsius and a high of 41 degrees Celsius. Such high temperatures make summers an offseason for the city.
Day One: Narnala Fort Tour
Check-in and rest for a while before you start with Narnala Fort Tour. I would recommend doing it post-lunch, just to avoid afternoon sun heat. But before 03:00 AM
You start from the checkpoint at the gates of the Melghat Tiger Reserve where the customary entry formalities are done and charges paid for the car and guide. This part of the reserve is called Narnala Wildlife Sanctuary. On the left of the entry gate a small well–done museum shows the life of tribals and the flora & fauna of the national park and the small scale model of the fort.
A bouncy road takes you up the hill. As the road twists and turns, bastions and walls of the fort peep every once in a while from behind the thick veil of vegetation. And then suddenly
on the right, you see the first gate rising over the road. The gate is called Shahanur Gate. From the road, it just seems like an intimidating tall fortification about 40 feet high. The gate is built on the hillside perpendicular to the road. You go down to check. The foliage is dense
and the grass is tall. The gate is not very high; there are several arches that disappear into the vegetation on both sides. Below the hill falls sharply. The enemy definitely would not have found the climb easy.
Driving further up you come to the second gate called Mahakali Darvaza. Walking a few steps through you will see gateway built of white sandstone, with lovely lotus adornments,
Persian inscriptions, galleries, rooms and flanked with overhanging balconies embellished with stone lattices is something you can relate to the beautiful architecture of Bidar. The gate was built in 1486 by the Imad Shahi dynasty founder Fath-ullah Imad-ul-Mulk.
Driving further up to the top so that walking down you can explore remaining places. On the top at the height to 3000 feet, you will see Nau-Gazi Tope which literally means Nine Yard Gun and was commissioned by Aurangzeb during the Mughal rule on this fort.
It is said, a shell fired from the gun once landed 20 km away. This canon is said to be built by Abu Beg one of the Mughal slaves, not one but two another gun was known as Kadak Bijli, the gun has now fallen down into the valley.
Retracing your path walking down you will see the water body called Shakkar Talao or Sweet Lake on your left. The lake stretches into the distance. On the other end, you can see a surviving arch and a structure beyond. It is said that Kamdhenu, the cow that grants all
wishes, comes down at midnight, goes into the water and offers her milk to a shivling below. Bathing in the waters is supposed to cure you of diseases. Another legend has it that there is a Philosopher’s Stone or Paras underneath the waters that turn everything it touches into gold. The famine of 1899-1900 dried the lake but nothing was found. These are the stories that enliven the proceedings!
Tomb Of Hazrat Burhanuddin Bagh Sawar Wali
On the opposite edge of the lake, you can see a tomb with gravestones and chadars. You start walking. The grave belongs to Hazrat Burhanuddin Bagh Sawar Wali. It is said that the saint used to ride a white tiger. The Akola Gazetteer notes that a small white tiger can still be seen coming to the tomb at night. People who were bitten by dogs, jackals and rats would come to the dargah for the cure. People would offer gur, channa, incense and flowers and walk around the platform five times.
Ambar Mahal a.ka. Durbar Hall and Jama Masjid
Next to the tomb are the two most complete structures in the fort. The first is the Jama Masjid which was built in 1509 by Mahabat Khan. The mosque is quite substantial and in good shape. The front has ornamentation in the form of lotuses. Three arched openings lead to the three niches on the western wall. The central mihrab is decorated but has been painted over. On the top rises a single dome.
Next to the Jama Masjid is the second substantial structure with a courtyard in the front. This is called the Ambar Bangala or Rani Mahal. The structure was possibly used as a Kacheri or a Darbar Hall in the past. The rectangular building is tall and imposing. It has huge triple-arched gateways leading into three apartments. The gateways have been filled up later with smaller entrances created. The front of the building is quite plain. It is possible there could have been slight ornamentation of blue tiles running along the top. The interiors are in poor shape. The dome again is ornamented with traces of blue paint. The rooftop terrace has parapet built around punctuated with small niches. Narrow steep steps take you up. In the courtyard in front is a cistern probably for a fountain.
Down ahead on the right you see a baradari kind of structure. The middle arch looks beautiful with brackets that probably held a sunshade. On the left are three tiny apartments while the right has five surviving arches and apartments. The actual grounds probably stretched behind. The tall grass is making things difficult to see and walk around.
On the way back, it is time to ponder over the history.
In all the time spent here in the Narnala Fort, you will hardly encounter any person.
Even the entire route is motorable it will take at least 3-4 hours to explore it to the fullest. So by the time you come back, it would be dark and there is anything to do around. Until you plan to drive back to Akola for dinner.
Day Two: Shahanur Jungle Safari
Morning Time of Jungle Safari is from 06:00 AM to 08:00 AM, so be ready at the entry gate by 05:45 AM. Safari Fees for adult Indians are ₹ 30 per person and Yes! they do have an evening slot also which is from 03:00 PM to 05:00 PM.
Big cat spotting is rare in Melghat, but they are certainly there; 40-odd at last count in 2018, according to data from the forest department, Melghat Tiger Reserve. The folds and valleys of the undulating mountains hide their treasures well. On my trip, I met the forest owlet. This small, nondescript bird was believed to have been extinct for 113 years until it was rediscovered in 1997. Melghat remains the safest habitat for the endangered owlet and the best place to spot it.
Some of the animals spotted in this region are Royal Bengal Tiger, Leopard, Bear, Wolf, Bison, Sambar, Spotted Deer & Blackbuck.
Back to the hotel and its time to say goodbye to this amazing place. But visit left you kind of unfulfilled. You will come back and this time will also go visit Chikaldhara and the Fort Of Gawligarh; the story is not complete yet.
Listen to Me
The basic tenet of wildlife tourism is to remember that we are guests of the wild, and must respect our hosts.
Go with family and friends otherwise feels lonely at night.
Take your sweaters and muffler along as open jeeps safari are cold.