by: TAPAS CHAKRABORTY
Lucknow, Feb. 24: The great barrier has conquered time but not the bandits lording over the badlands of Uttar Pradesh.
Kalinjar Fort, considered one of the marvels of ancient Indian architecture, has been under siege from dacoit gangs that have struck terror in Banda and Chitrakoot districts and ensured that tourists did not dare venture anywhere near the structure in Narayani block, 270km from Lucknow.
The fort, which sits on a hillock at a height of 700ft, is being protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
The 7th-century fort, built by King Kedar Burman of the Chandela dynasty which also constructed the Khajuraho temples, was considered a strategic barrier as it prevented marauding invaders from proceeding to southern India.
But in contemporary India, the fort, whose name means “conqueror of time” and is a treasure-trove of sculptures, is struggling to keep at bay at least five gangs. Incidents of loot, abductions and murder are rampant, triggering terror among tourists.
The latest strike that sparked panic was the murder of a Russian tourist, K. Linova, on December 28 last year during a raid on a train near the fort.
The dacoits, who had attacked an air-conditioned coach of the Varanasi-Mumbai Kamyani Express, also seriously wounded a woman passenger.
The incident occurred near Manikpur railway station, 3km from the fort, on the border of Chitrakoot and Banda near Attara.
On January 21, 2006, eight members of a family were travelling to Kalinjar to offer prayers to Lord Shiva, the fort’s presiding deity. They were abducted by members of the Pappu Yadav gang from Bahari village, less than a kilometre from the fort, and later killed.
Besides Pappu, police said, other gangs active in the region include those of Ambika Patel alias Thokia (69 members), Gauri Yadav (12 members) and Kanak Singh (8).
A number of associates of the notorious gangster Dadua are also operating in the area. Dadua was killed last year.
In 2007, there were 25 incidents of loot and robbery and 15 murders in Narayani block where the fort is located.
Ashoke Nigam, a social worker and journalist in Banda, said the fort was deserted now as no tourist dares to visit.
“Only VIP tourists with heavily armed escorts go there. Governor T.V. Rajeswar had visited in January on a confidence-building trip,” he said.
Archaeologists say it is a pity that visitors have not been able to explore the fort, though it is only 130km from Khajuraho.
“It is sad that the gangs are denying people free access to the fort. The temples and structures within the fort reflect the artistic prowess of the Chandela dynasty,” said P.K. Singh, an archaeologist with the Uttar Pradesh government.
The fort had a turbulent history with various invaders capturing it, but the Chandelas always won it back. In 1545, Sher Shah Suri besieged the fort but was killed during operations just before its capture.
His son Jalal Khan ascended to the throne at Kalinjar under the title Islam Shah. The Chandela king and his 70 soldiers were executed soon after and thus ended the long reign of the dynasty.
In 1812, the fort fell to troops of the British East India Company. The forces inflicted a lot of damage on the structure and monuments of the fort.
Indu Dhar Diwedi, superintending archaeologist of the ASI, says when the police crackdown begins on gangs on this side of Bundelkhand, the dacoits go over to districts like Rewa in Madhya Pradesh. “Thankfully, our archaeologists do not come under attack for they are local people,” he said.
Ashutosh Kumar, senior superintendent of police, Banda, said: “The police have consistently cracked down on the gangs active there and are making arrests. But it is not possible for the police to provide armed escorts to all tourists.”