Mumbai: It was a symbol of Maratha pride, the capital of Chhatrapati Shivaji`s kingdom and vision of a Hindavi Swaraj (Hindu rule). The majestic Raigad Fort, which resisted British attacks for over a century, is now conquered by a million domestic and foreign tourists every year - thanks to a cable car at the historical site.
And unlike the erstwhile British rulers, the modern-day commoners take barely five minutes to make it to the fort atop the Raigad mountain.
Nestling in the heart of the Sahyadri mountain range, Raigad Fort is around 140 km south of Mumbai and has become a must-see destination on the itinerary of tourists visiting Maharashtra, site manager R. Kulkarni explained.
"The ropeway has given a significant boost to the number of tourists. Earlier, very few tourists took courage to walk up the nearly 1,500 steps which took around four hours, and one hour while returning," Kulkarni told reporters.
Mumbai-based construction major Jog Engineering Ltd took up the challenge of constructing the ropeway project and completed it in April 1996 at a cost of Rs.31 million (Rs.3.10 crore).
Nearly 15 years later, the ropeway has seen nearly a million people gliding up and down each year - or around 15 million so far - perhaps more than the total population of Chhatrapati Shivaji`s Maratha empire.
Constructed on a sheer rock face tearing into the sky, Raigad Fort offers a commanding view of the hills on all four sides. The hill itself is 425 metres tall and has a near-flat surface of around 1,200 acres.
The approaching enemy was visible to the fort`s sentries long before they could come near, making it an extremely strategic location.
Though it remained under various dynasties for nearly six centuries, Shivaji finally gained control over it in 1656 and came to stay there in 1670.
According to historians, when he first saw the place, Shivaji remarked: "This fort is formidable. All sides appear as if chiseled from a mountain of solid rock. Not even a blade of grass grows on the sheer vertical rock. This is the ideal place to house the throne."
The fort witnessed several historical moments - the coronation of Shivaji on June 6, 1674, followed by a second `tantrik` coronation on Sep 24 that year, and finally his death on April 3, 1680.
After Shivaji`s demise, the Maratha empire which he built in less than three decades crumbled and went under British control.
The glory of the Maratha empire can be gauged from the ruins and the ramparts of the Raigad Fort as the two delicately dangling cable cars zoom up the two ropeways that do not have any supporting pillars.
The entrance for the three-hour tour is from the Mena Darwaja at the fort`s rear and a quick climb takes the visitor to the imposing Ranivasa, or the chambers of Shivaji`s six queens.
Close by is Shivaji`s own palace, and his ministerial chambers, food granaries, several natural reservoirs and two huge tanks to cater to the drinking water needs of the people who lived there. Also adjacent are the Raj Bhavan, where he used to hold his public durbars, and the Raj Sabha where he sat on a 10-tonne golden throne and was coronated in a lavish ceremony.
The commoners` entrance to the fort was through the Nagarkhana which has astounding acoustic effects even today - a whisper can be heard clearly over a distance of more than 200 metres, despite the height and windy conditions!
Outside the Nagarkhana is the venue for festivals called Holicha Mal, the temple of Shirkai Bhavani, the presiding deity of the fort, the Jagadishwar Temple, and the revered samadhi of Shivaji.
The samadhi remains in an excellent condition thanks to the initiatives of personalities like eminent freedom fighter Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak and many more after him.
The British had sounded the death knell for the legendary fort after the final battle for its control in April 1818.
The British artillery continued to pound the fort for days together and the magnificent building burned for 11 days.
The defiant Raigad Fort was finally humbled May 10, 1818.
Nearly eight decades later, in 1894, Lokmanya Tilak launched two important public festivals to bring the masses into the struggle for Independence.
They were the Ganesh festival in Pune and others parts of the state and the Shivaji Jayanti celebrations at Raigad Fort. Both became popular annual features.
With Shivaji Jayanti, hordes of Shivaji fans and others started going up the Raigad Fort, a grueling four-hour walk up. Earlier, the number of visitors used to be barely a few hundreds, which grew to a few thousands post-Independence.
Today the number of tourists here has crossed the million mark per annum thanks mainly to the ropeway, founded by an ardent devotee of Shivaji, the late V.M. Jog.
Earlier, the rugged, barren hill-top was out of bounds after dusk, but now the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation has developed over two dozen cottages which are hired out to tourists for an overnight stay.
Thus, nearly two centuries after the Raigad Fort crumbled before the might of the British, its legend has again come alive and the place has become an important destination for students, picknickers, historians and tourists alike.