It was meant to be a straight drive from Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh to Ahmednagar in Maharashtra—appreciating the undulating plains atop the Deccan plateau. But as we approached the small town of Burhanpur, a silhouette in the middle of nowhere struck us. It rose as a speck, slowly grew into a small hill and quietly turned into a façade resembling a fort. Our curiosity was piqued as we realised we’d stumbled on to something fascinating—the Asirgarh Fort, also called Dakkhan ka Darwaza (Gateway to the Deccan) because during the Mughal period, the land beyond this was called the Deccan while north of it was Hindustan.
Since it was not on the conventional tourism circuit, we looked for directions but found none. After a couple of wrong turns, we managed to ascend the hill by a narrow, unmarked road, punctuated with potholes. The fort commands an unhindered view of the plains and, because of its location—with a pass connecting the valleys of Narmada and Tapti—its strategic importance was paramount, especially during the days of medieval wars. The structure is naturally fortified with the steep precipice of the hill on all sides (around 250m) and is considered one of the most impregnable forts of India. Asa Ahir, a local chieftain, is said to have built the original fort and, interestingly, it was ruled by Hindu chieftains over the years. As you walk through, you can see structures from different eras, the most predominant being the Mughal. Reportedly, after Akbar’s invasion in 1599-1600, a lot of new structures were erected.
Since it’s on a hill, water harvesting was always key. There’s a tank in the fort where all the drains empty. Even in March-April, the driest season, there is water in it. But we were more excited when we stumbled upon one of the marvels of medieval Indian engineering in Burhanpur—the Kundi Bhandara, the underground water tunnels. Kundi means wells or well-like structures that we learnt took you down to a labyrinth of water tunnels below. Since we didn’t know where the source was, we followed the wells we saw—numbered 83 and 84—till we reached the first of the series. A few tourism officials told us we could explore the tunnels if we took a lift down, 25 metres into the well. However, before we descended, they urged us to change into shorts—and though young kids aren’t allowed underground, they made an exception for my son as we had travelled so far to get there.
As we descended into the kundi, it was dark. But once the lift stopped, there was light—percolating down through the wells. When we switched on our torches, we realised the walls were white. At first, we thought it was marble, but our guide told us it was calcium deposits. Walking through the cool, airy tunnels was like a dream. The water was almost waist-high and fish swam between our legs. Water flowed down from the walls, too. I tasted it—it had too much minerals in it, but it was clean. As we explored the tunnels, the guide regaled us with historical facts and anecdotes.
He told us how Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana, a subedar in the Mughal army, wanted a water resource to be built so that his garrison of 2,00,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians could get clean water. Tubkutul Arj, a Persian geologist, helped him build the Kundi Bhandara in 1615. He tapped water running from the Satpura Ranges to the Tapti, through 103 wells inter-connected with 3.9 km of underground brick and marble tunnels. As the source is 30m above Burhanpur’s groundwater, the wells follow the laws of gravity—so if the first kundi is 30m deep, the last is just a few metres deep, allowing the water to flow naturally to it.
Patched and ready
The wells were lying in ruins for a long time because of lack of funds, but in the late 90s, the Madhya Pradesh government undertook its renovation. Then in 2000, the district administration renovated it once more when the city faced a severe lack of clean water. Now, officials say, tourists have started trickling in. “There’s no better example of sustainable development elsewhere in the country,” said an official.
When we walked out of the lift, it was evening. We were late and Ahmednagar was still some distance away. So we decided to halt in Ajanta, which was closer. As the first dregs of crimson danced in the early twilight, we kept thinking: where did we lose our way over the centuries? Water-harvesting, the mantra we are obsessed with now, has been around for hundreds of years. People used to live in harmony with nature. We just need to find our way back.
Asirgarh entry at Rs.5 and Kundi
Bhandara at Rs.25. Details: mptourism.com
Back in time
Though it dates back to the Rashtrakuta dynasty, the fort’s fame rose during the
Mumtaz Mahal died in Burhanpur (Asirgarh Fort) while delivering her
It’s 550 km away from Mumbai and is well connected by train. Indore is the nearest airport
(163 km away).
Where to stay: Tapti Retreat (07325 242244, rooms from Rs.1,990++ onwards). Best time to travel: October-March