A cold curry of rain, mist and wind was served us as we motored to the top of the Narnala fort housing the 12.35-sq. km Narnala Wildlife Sanctuary at around 3.30 in the evening. “We are at around 3,000 ft above sea level and is the highest point in Akola district,” informed Imtienla Ao, Divisional Conservator of Forests, as the wind made one unsteady. “It always blows here whatever be the season,” Ao added, and one did not dare to go to the edge to see the green Akola valley below.
For a few seconds the sun made a guest appearance before the mist erased the distant Satpura range. An old noting from a district gazetteer (why have we dropped this healthy habit after Independence) says: “Narnala is an ancient fortress in the hills in the north of Akot taluka at a point where a narrow tongue of Akola district runs a few miles into Melghat. It is uninhabited but is in charge of a patel and a patwari; the latter, Narayan Dattatreya, has a fund of information about it.”
The spot today is still free of humans as we crawled about an hour to get to the top. The black-brown stone tower broods over the traveller and seemingly was built by some Muslim emperor going by the architecture of the broken remains of arches and gateways. The writer of the note in the district gazetteer says: “Ahmad Shah, the ninth king of the dynasty, was compelled to visit his northern province owing to the invasion of eastern Berar by the Gonds. After driving the intruders from his dominions, he halted for a year at Ellichpur and while there built the fort of Gawil and repaired that of Narnala. … In the reign of Mahmud Shah, the assumption of supreme power in Bidar by Kasim Barid, a Turk, disgusted the tarajdars, whose allegiance to Mahmud Shah was, after 1487, merely nominal.
“Fatehullah Imad-ul-Mulk, who retained to the end an affectionate regard for the son and successor of Mahmud Shah, was resolved not to be the servant of the Turkish upstart and now began to pave the way for an open declaration of his independence by repairing and strengthening his fort. The inscriptions over the beautiful Mahakali or Muhammadi gate ….. record the fact that the gate, which is the strongest in the fort, was built by Fatehullah in 1487.” Was the Narnala fort then built before 1487? Perhaps, one can assume the Narnala fort is at least 500 years old — a sufficient age to claim senior citizen status. In the evening, we (Kishor Rithe, Dinesh Kothari and this writer) along with Ao and her officials, went for a walk under a drizzle.
As one sighted a pack of 20 jungle bush quails (
Perdicula asiatica) scrambling in and out of the shrubs on the edge of the track, Dinesh and others spotted three healthy sambhars. One of the forest officials told us of the existence of a resident tiger near a lake of which there are six at the top. “These lakes do not go dry in the summer,” said an official and if so should act as water holes for animals.
The Narnala fort covers 392 acres and the walls wind about so much in following the shape of the hill that people say the full circuit measures 24 miles, says the gazetteer. It would certainly take very many hours to trace out all the buildings, especially as the walls, though generally in excellent condition, have crumbled in places and the enclosure is much overgrown with long grass and bushes. It is said that there were 22 tanks, six of which hold water all the year, 22 gates and 360 Buruj towers or bastions, the gazetteer adds. It remains the same today.
“As years go by, only forts like Narnala can act as sanctuaries for tigers to live in relative peace,” thought Kishor though one is not sure if a resident tiger can live alone; more, poachers can easily make it to the top. Even if the tiger lives, it may be as uncomfortable as the lone female elephant.
The State Government dumped the lady on the forest department and now does not provide enough funds to feed her. Every evening, the elephant is fed some oil-coated 10
rotis(one kg each) with blocks of gur. In the night, she is left free to find her fill while through the day she is tethered to a pole by iron chains.
An iron cannon located away from the trail suggests some hard battles centuries ago with humankind than being no better than today. In modern times, couples leave their mark by scribbling their names in white on the cannon. We spent the night at the protection camp (a two-roomed cement structure) with the windows shut tight while the night wind searched for entry points.
At six in the morning, a thick mist hid Dinesh standing some 10 ft. away. Sipping cups of tea one watched some six grey tits (
Parus major) having a breakfast of insects served by the rains. They were all over the forest floor and two of them stood some five feet away for one to have a detailed look.
At the foot of the Narnala fort, we parked ourselves to watch a large number of crested tree swifts assembled in a line on an overhead electric wire, as if in some school. While an iora called from near, a pied crested cuckoo (
Clamator jacobinus) flew down to a bush some 10 ft away from this writer. “Time up,” said Kishor as we drove off.