One of the best ways to experience the heritage and architecture of India is to visit the majestic palaces and forts across the country - be it the Red Fort in Delhi, Daulatabad Fort near Aurangabad, or the Chittorgarh Fort, Ranthambore Fort and Amer Fort in Rajasthan.
While most forts used to be guarded by security personnel who usually man all important entrance and exit points of the fort, some were constructed with underground tunnels to ensure safe passage for the members of the royal family during times of attack or invasion.
Pradeep Patwa, an independent tour guide originally from Udaipur, but based in Delhi, has an in-depth knowledge about Indian forts and tunnels.
Throwing light on the objective behind building tunnels, he says, “Tunnels were strategically located in those places which only members of the royal family could access. And only they know about where the tunnel leads.”
One of the first things that might come to people’s minds when they think of tunnels is its peculiar length. Patwa, who has been actively guiding visitors through multiple forts across Rajasthan and Delhi since 2005 gives an explanation for this.
“The appropriate length of a tunnel is 500 to 800 metres or at most one kilometre, but never beyond that. The reason is simple - people passing through the tunnel might feel suffocated if they have to travel for long”, says Patwa.
On the contrary, Patwa also warns individuals of misinformation. “Some adolescents and young adults pose as tourist guides in Fatehpur Sikri claiming that there are tunnels which connect Fatehpur Sikri to Pakistan. This is not true. Constructing tunnels spanning such long distances was not possible back then”, says Patwa.
This is not the only piece of false information. A lot of people believe that Udaipur has a tunnel ranging from Sajjangarh Fort to Jagmandir island which is situated on Pichola Lake. This again is erroneous. The underground passages at Sajjangarh fort covers a short distance and opens up outside the fort. The varying altitudes and interjecting water bodies rule out the prospect of a tunnel to Jagmandir island.
The popular culture
Many historical movies which are based on stories from medieval India, have exhibited the usage of tunnels.
Patwa says, "Bollywood movies like Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior and Padmaavat, have accurately depicted underground tunnels and this in turn has grabbed the attention of travellers.”
Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, showed an escape sequence from Singhad fort to the outside through the tunnel. Padmaavat on the other hand Rani Padmavati and all women of Chittor used the secret underground passages from Chittor fort into the Jauhar Kund to escape from the clutches of Alauddin Khilji.
“In another earlier sequence portrayed in the film, when Padmavati and her husband Raja Ratan Singh want to slip out, Khilji’s wife Mehrunnisa saves them by allowing them access to another tunnel,” Patwa notes.
Several underground tunnels across the country have been closed due to lack of maintenance, but when it comes to Rajasthan, the tunnel connecting Amer Fort to Jaigarh Fort in Jaipur is an exception since it is functional till date and also considered a popular tourist attraction.
Ambika Gupta, a corporate lawyer turned traveller, pens her experiences on National Geographic Traveller India, of crossing through this 400-metre-long tunnel in about 20 minutes.
She says, “This 18th century tunnel, between Jaigarh Fort and Amer Fort, is clean and brightly lit. The rock walls are smoothened with plaster and the interiors are roomy and cheerful, almost festive. The administration has spruced it up, added a touch of drama - light fixtures resembling old-fashioned mashaals (fire torches).”
Edited by Roshni Shroff
Some resources and links to help you learn more about underground tunnels -