Richard Sharpe and the siege of Gawilghur, December 1803 Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe's Fortress -- the stunning successor to Sharpe's Tiger and Sharpe's Triumph -- marks the explosive finale in Richard Sharpe's trio of unforgettable adventures in India. Richard Sharpe, now an officer in... read more
It is 1803 and Sir Arthur Wellesley’s army is closing on the retreating Mahrattas in western India. Marching with the British is Ensign Richard Sharpe, newly made into an officer and wishing he had stayed a sergeant. Spurned by his new regiment, he is sent to the army’s baggage train and there... read more (warning: may contain spoilers)
It is 1803 and Sir Arthur Wellesley’s army is closing on the retreating Mahrattas in western India. Marching with the British is Ensign Richard Sharpe, newly made into an officer and wishing he had stayed a sergeant. Spurned by his new regiment, he is sent to the army’s baggage train and there finds corruption, romance, treason and enemies old and new. Sergeant Hakeswill wants Sharpe dead, and Hakeswill has powerful friends while Sharpe has only an orphaned Arab boy as his ally.
And waiting with the cornered Mahrattas is another enemy, the renegade Englishman, William Dodd, who does not envisage defeat, but only a glorious triumph. For the Mahrattas have taken refuge in Gawilghur, the greatest stronghold of India, perched high on its cliffs above the Deccan Plain. Who rules in Gawilghur, it is said, rules India, and Dodd knows that the fortress is impregnable. There, behind its double walls, in the towering twin forts, Sharpe must face his enemies in what will prove to be Wellesley’s last battle on Indian soil.
In popular culture, the campaign to take Gawilghur forms the background of the novel Sharpe's Fortress by Bernard Cornwell, the third in a trilogy of books covering the eponymous hero's time in the British army in India during the Napoleonic era.
The fort takes its name from the Gawli (cow herds) who inhabited the Berar (modern day Amravati) for centuries. Earlier the fort was likely just made of mud as were several such areas in the region. The exact date of construction is not known but the Persian historian, Firishta, records that Ahmed Shah Wali, the ninth king of the Berar dynasty built Gawilgarh when he was encamped at Ellichpur in 1425<2>. Likely this was the date when major fortification was carried out.
After two failed attempts at the main gate by British and Sepoy companies, and many casualties, Captain Campbell led the 94th Scottish Brigade (light company) up the ravine dividing the inner and outer forts and into the inner fort by escalade. The Scots then forced the northern gatehouse and opened the many gates, allowing the remaining British forces entry. The British suffered few casualties in the final assault (approx. 150). The fortress was returned to the Marathas after making peace with the British but they abandoned it.
The fort has several inscriptions in Persian recording the date of building of each of its seven gates. It has two water tanks (Devtalav and Khantalav)<3>, which would have been the main water source in case the fort was besieged. Within the fort the ruins of a mosque are the most conspicuous. It stands at the highest point in the inner fort and is built in the Pathan style of architecture. The mosque has a square canopy with intricate stone lattice work and a seven arched façade. The mosque originally had two minarets, only one of which is intact today<4>.
Gafur Ahmed, a jaglia (tenant) of the Narnala fort, tried to determine whether the chambers built into the fort of Narnala had any use by driving 20 sheep into them. One of the sheep turned up at Gawilgarh which is more than 20 miles away<5>. So, probably there is an underground tunnel connecting the two forts.
There are several unrepaired breaches made by British guns, which remain to this day. The gun that killed five attackers with a single shot still stands, although now with graffiti running the length of the barrel.
The Capture of Gawilghur fort in western India by British East India Company forces under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley on 15 December, 1803 during the Second Anglo-Maratha War was the culminating act in the defeat of the forces of Raghoji II Bhonsle, Rajah of Berar. Gawilghur was commanded by killa-dar Beny Singh.
At the time, Gawilghur was considered unassailable and the defenders believed they could hold the mountain fortress regardless of whatever the British Army threw at it. The defensive works consisted of two fortress, one outer and one inner. The Outer Fort was considered more of a decoy, and behind that lay a ravine, across which lay the gate to the Inner Fort. An army could theoretically capture the Outer Fort before realizing that the greater task lay in assaulting the inner. The Inner Fort was protected by several gates, the first of which was the least defensible. After breaking through that first gate, however, an assaulting army would turn sharply to the left and follow a narrow passage up to a second gate, all the while being harangued by the defenders from above.
This was largely the case when Arthur Wellesley's army attacked Gawilghur. Lieutenant-Colonel Kenny, of the 11th Regiment of Foot succeeded in taking the Outer Fort, and led the assault on the Inner Fort, supported by flank companies of the 94th Regiment of Foot, and sepoys from Major General James Stevenson's division. At the same time, the 74th and 78th highlanders diverted the attention of the defenders by false attacks from the south.
The assault might have been doomed to failure in the narrow passageways of the Inner Fort had it not been for the bravery of an officer of the 94th. Captain Campbell and his Light Company discovered a way to climb the ravine and cross the Inner Fort's wall. They were then able to successfully assault the gatehouses from behind and win the day for the British.
When the Second Anglo-Maratha war ended, Gawilghur was returned to the Maratha Empire, although it was never again used as a stronghold.
Lady Elizabeth Longford, in her book Wellington, the Years of the Sword, quotes Jac Weller whose opinion of Gawilghur was that 'three reasonably effective troops of Boy Scouts armed with rocks could have kept out several times their number of professional soldiers'.
Naravane, M. S (2007). Battles of the honourable East India Company:making of the Raj. APH Publishing. ISBN 9788131300343.
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