Pages From My Travel Dairy: Out At Gingee Fort And Its Silent History

Continuing with my account of our short holiday at Club Mahindra’s (CM) resort at Pondicherry, thanks to my sister-in-law

Day 2 (contd):

Gingee Fort: 

(A 1000 years+ old fort, one of the very few surviving till date in the south)

(Some pics included at the end of the post)

Well, we landed at the base of the Gingee fort at about 11-30, an hour not recommended for climbing up. A prospect the ladies did not warm up to. They went straight for the steps while I split to explore the big structures that were visible and accessible: A shrine for Venugopala Swamy, the murti carved in relief, beautiful despite the damage. A granary with multiple high-vaulted chambers – a de-risking strategy against spoilage? – for storing grains.  Then, a stable for horses.

Not venturing too far out for other structures that may be around, I returned to join the ladies on the steps up the fort. I know I missed at least Kalyana Mahal, thought to be the quarters of the queens, the shrine Chenjiamman – the guardian goddess of the fort, standing under an enormous banyan tree beside the shimmering Anaikulam – a huge elephant pond presently quite dry and large enough to take fifty of them, at a guess.  Was it really used for elephants to wallow and cool themselves?

If only ASL could provide a cart and a map to visit these spread-out structures…

Again I pulled away and forward from the ladies with a cell phone not fully charged (unwise) and a small bottle of water (for the fear of being weighed down). Another concern: Would my much-used slip-in sandals would last out without giving up its ghost?

The steps were manageable to begin with.  A youngster climbing down gave me a stick to keep the bold monkeys away.  As I was climbing up puffing and panting – hauling up a mass of nearly 90 kgs with a heart element and asthmatic breathing, there were others cautioning me to return. Though there were no obvious signs of discomfort as long as the pace was slow.  Now and then my wife would call up, getting shriller, asking me to return – they chose to give up and rest at a spot not far from the start.  I plodded on at an unhurried pace, soon passing the shrine of Kamalakanni Amman.  When the water ran out, mercifully I was able to lay my hands on a discarded bottle that still had some clean water.

At this point let us briefly look at what history tells us about this fort.

Short history of the fort:

The actual name of Gingee is ‘Sengiri’ meaning perhaps the ‘Red Hill’ in Tamil that has got corrupted into Gingee. Another explanation: Two sisters Senji and Kamalakanni gave up their lives fearing threat to their chastity. There are shrines for both, attracting votaries from neighborhood. Perhaps Senji lent her name to the place.

While Gingee and areas around seem to have been successively under the influence of the Jains (200 B.C. to 6 A.D), Pallavas (600 to 900), Cholas (900 – 1103), later Pandya, Pallava and Hoysalas (1014 – 1190), the forts seen today are thought to be the work of Konar Heritage (1190 – 1330). Anandha Koan built ‘Anandha Giri’ and afterwards it became ‘Raja Giri’ – a mere 800 ft we were trying to climbJ. His son Krishna Koan built ‘Krishna Giri’. Raja Giri, Krishna Giri and Chandrayan Durg form the larger fort complex protected by a 80 ft moat and encircling fort walls measuring 13 km enclosing an area of 11 square kms.  There is also a fourth hill Chakkilidrug with nothing to show and overcome by shrubs.

There’s also the rock-cut shrine of Singavaram, situated about 3 kms from the fortress on a fifth hill called Singavaram hill. The deity of the shrine is Lord Ranganatha reclining on the serpent with his head turned to a side.  The hill is also said to carry evidence of association with Jains. Unfortunately the shrine was closed for darshan when we reached.

Ignoring the conflicts in chronology in the available literature, suffice to say Gingee passed through the hands of successive rulers belonging to Kurumba,Vijayanagara, Nayaka, Maratha, Mughal, Carnatic, Nawab, the French, Hyder Ali and British during the period 1383 to 1780. And finally slipping into peaceful anonymity under the British.

Many have conquered and many have ruled Gingee but a young man known for his bravery is still the hero of Gingee, that too after being killed in a war. Raja Tej Singh and his horse “Neelaveni” died in the battle at a place known as Mavanandal on 3rd Oct 1714, along with his buddy Mehboob Khan.

His story – The story of Tej Singh:

“…After the ouster of the Marathas, Aurangazeb seems to have vested with a Rajput cheiftan from Bundela (Rajasthan), named Swaroop singh, the rank of a Mansab, a jaghir and the killedari of Gingee as reward for his loyal services. Thus a Rajput came to assume charge of the historic fort of Gingee. With Aurangazeb’s farman in hand he arrived in Gingee and reported to Aurangazeb’s general Zulfiqar Khan to take over the fort in 1700. When Aurangazeb died in 1707, taking advantage of the confusion in Delhi and the hassled status of aged new Emperor Bahadur Shah I (eldest son of Aurangzeb), Swaroop Singh failed to remit his dues. By now, it was running to Rs 70 lakhs or so and Sadathullah Khan as Nawab of Carnatic and representative of the Mughal throne threatened action against Swaroop singh. Sorrow stricken and with debts unpaid, Swaroop Singh died around the end of 1713. He was succeeded by his son Tej Singh (Raja Desing for the Tamils) who arrived from Bundelkhand with his newly married wife and a great famous horse, according to Narayana Pillai’s chronicle. Narayana Pillai is believed to have lived near Gingee at the time of Swaroop Singh’s death.

Upon reaching Gingee, Desing performed the obsequies of his father and took up the Governance of Gingee. With his father’s debt still unsettled, Nawab Sadathullah Khan of Arcot and representative of Mughal authority was not pleased and insisted that a new farman was needed from the reigning emperor for Desing to be in possession of Gingee. Desing categorically dismissed such suggestions and claimed that the farman of Alamgir (Aurangazeb) gave all the legitimacy needed. Thus the stage was set for the confrontation from the start of his brief 10 month rule. Raja Desing gave scant respect to the orders of Carnatic Nawab to clear the dues and the Nawab decided to punish the Raja. He invaded with a large army of 85000 cavalry and 10000 infantry. Ginjee had a very small army of 500 soldiers and 350 cavalry. Yet the 22 year old Raja Desing decided to face the enemy bravely. He rushed into the hopeless battle on his steed and fought bitterly and very bravely and was killed along with his steed and his much loved friend Mehboob Khan. His bravery and death moved friend and foe alike. His wife committed Sati at his funeral pyre. The Carnatic Nawab was much moved at the turn of events and built a city and named it Ranipet in the memory of the late queen.

The bravery of Raja Desing has inspired many and it has become a legend and the ballads have many interesting events and incidents included in the life of the Raja …”

Obviously it was a reckless suicidal venture doomed from the start, given the formidable enemy power.  Perhaps he had no one to guide on smarter options that might have been available to him. And we, Tamils, secular and given to theatrics and romanticizing, did only what was our wont – we made a hero out of the poor kid posthumously.

Another interesting bit of history I came across:

Gingee and the Maratha’s

“…The fort was further strengthened by the Marathas under the leadership of Shivaji in 1677, who recaptured it from the Bijapur sultans who had originally taken control of the fort from the Marathas. During Aurangzeb’s campaign in the Deccan, Shivaji’s second son who had assumed the throne, Chhatrapati  Rajaram, escaped to Ginjee in the distant South and continued the fight with Moghuls from Ginjee. The Moghuls could not capture the fort for seven long years in spite of laying siege. The fort was finally captured in 1698, but not before Chhatrapati Rajaram escaped. It is learnt that Chatrapathi Rajaram’s escape from the fort of Jinjee was abetted by Maratha General Ganoji Shirke who was in the service of army of Aurangzeb and present in the Mughal army at Jinjee. A senior Maratha diplomat of Rajaram negotiated with him and issued a farman handing over the Jagir of Shirke that was seized by Chatrapati Sambhaji earlier. General Shirke in fact was the person who betrayed Sambhaji Maharaj to Mughal commander at Sangameswar earlier and subsequently Sambhaji Maharaj was tortured and was killed by Mughals at the orders of Emperor Aurangzeb. The Fort of course fell to Mughals after escape of Chatrapathi Rajaram. It was later passed on to the Carnatic Nawabs who lost it to the French in 1750 before the British finally took control in 1761 despite losing it to Hyder Ali for a brief period…”

Shirke’s jagir is present-day Dabhol.

Now why did Rajaram go all the way to Gingee? My interest was piqued.  That’s when I found there are a number of books published on Maratha history and personalities. I’m sure there’s an explanation somewhere in there. There’s also material on the eight-year long siege of Gingee and how it was finally captured by the Mughals with the help of artillery and the kind of opportunistic and strange alliances made by either side for its capture and its defense.   At least one historian has this to say on the unusually long siege: “…It had become an established custom for Mughal commanders to drag on campaigns as much as possible, for as long as they were in the field they wielded enormous power, while back at court they would be just flunkeys. The Mughal army was not so much besieging Gingee as camping beside it. Sometimes Zulfiqar set out on tangential campaigns…delayed the capture of Gingee as much as possible…It was suspected that Zulfiqar was in secret correspondence with Rajaram wanting to set up his own principality in Deccan on the expected imminent death of Aurangazeb….”

So what was the truth? Let them historians sort it out – I’m not going to lose my sleep over it.

So much of happenings around this sleepy little place in the middle of nowhere!! It’s not clear what is the strategic importance many historians attach to this place that every other ruler/chieftain of mention had fought for its possession. Was it overseeing some key trading route? Or…A fact that certainly emerges is forts on hills were sought-after items!

The climb continued:

Well, back to the mundane present, the climb.

On my course, I came upon another shrine a small distance away from the main steps.  The path to the shrine was in bad shape. I found out it works to hold on to the tough weeds growing wild on the side for retaining balance. To my dismay, the shrine was hollowed out, save a few sculptures at the entrance, on the pillars inside and on the small gopuram on top.

I managed to return to the main steps after many near-falls where a large group of monkeys nonchalantly went about their business right in the middle of the path. I’ve no problems admitting it was scary. They seemed looking for the right moment to pounce on me. It was clear the stick I had in my hand was no deterrent if they chose to. Luckily a bunch of students descended right then kicking up a squall that drove the monkeys helter-skelter.  Are there going to be more of them the way up?

On reaching a clearance I had a view of what lay before me – a mammoth rock sheer-faced structure reaching for the sky. My heart sank at the sight – it meant another 300 to 400 steps, surely knee-breaking, ‘unkindly’ confirmed by a guy coming down.  I had enough resolve to make it to the top even at this point albeit slowly – both the spirit and the flesh were willing. But the ladies down near the base would never give me the hours I would need. Can’t blame them – they had nothing to do with themselves while I plodded on. And when my wife heard up there one had to negotiate a deep naturally-protective chasm by going over a wooden bridge – exciting, isn’t it? – the issue was settled. She blew her fuse and was ready to blow the city’s as well over what she saw as an accident cleverly set up for me to walk into by a malevolent fate. The cell-phone sputtering in its death throes didn‘t help the matter either.

So there I was returning defeated, a small voice in my head telling me I had done well as much as I did and anything more would be like pushing it over the edge, not reading the flesh right.

What I had missed: atop the citadel, there are a number of brick structures still in good shape.

At least I gifted the stick to someone going up like I had got it.

On inquiry, a ASI guy told us all the artifacts found inside the fort and at places near-by are in court custody owing to some litigation. May be the ASI museum at the base holds a few that we somehow missed. Otherwise all the structures we saw were bare-faced, not a spoon or a plate or a coin.

At Venkataramana Temple:

Leaving the fort behind, we drove to the near-by Venkataramana temple.  Managed by ASI it amazingly more than compensated for what we lost out at Gingee fort. Of comparatively recent vintage – built by Muthyalu Nayaka (1540 – 1550) – it requires at least a couple of hours to look at the rich sculptures found everywhere in this large temple, large parts of it not in use.

From the moment we got off the car, a ASI man (we asked for no proof) tagged along giving us a unsolicited guided tour.  The man was a great story teller and an amazing store- house of information. He spoke of events around Raja Desing like he was a first-hand witness to the tumultuous happenings centuries ago. Banking on google, I allowed myself to be distracted by the sculptures when he was reeling it out. It was a mistake – his stories – I caught snatches of it — are nowhere to be found on google. He was mighty happy when I paid him generously for his time at the end of it. Why doesn’t ASI formally permit these guys operate as guides?  It’s win-win for them and us.

Contrary to ASI’s practice there was a priest who allowed us to have darshan at the sanctum. At variance with the thin public attendance – I suspect it to be the reality – some posters and photographs displayed at the site claimed considerable public patronage.

Again, while ASI has done a decent job of the upkeep at entire Gingee complex, the bosses in Delhi must address the question of how to promote tourism professionally at ASI managed sites. There is so much untapped potential that we should find solutions expeditiously.

Physically exhausted, we tore ourselves away to return to our resort, our thirst to enjoy the grandeur of this temple unslaked.

Promenade Beach:

After a rest break, we headed to the Promenade beach for the evening.  Just the place for a leisurely walk by sea-side and the balmy wind for bruised souls to recuperate.  With failing light, did not spend time on monuments and buildings of importance if any that lined the promenade on the inside.

We closed the day feeling good about seeing so many, young and old, having a good time on the promenade – all the gloom and doom one reads about must be on another planet.

Back to the resort:

Though there was one cloud lingering in the sky for a while for me – was it right to drag the ladies all the way into something they were not likely to enjoy? Well, I didn’t know the height would cut it out for them and there was little else to occupy them.

(To be continued)

A virtual tour is available here: http://view360.in/virtualtour/gingee/

Here are some pics from the net (not individually acknowledged with due apologies):

1 A view of Rajagiri fort.jpg

2 Anaikulam - a huge elephant pond .jpg

3 Kalyana Mahal at the base.jpg

4 Kalyana Mahal – another view.jpg

5 Kamalakanni Amman Shrine on the way up.jpg

6 A structure atop the citadel.jpg

7 The wooden bridge that ‘brought’ me down.jpg

8 More Structures at the base.jpg

9 More Structures at the base.jpg

10 The Venkataramana Temple.jpg

11 Coin.jpg

End

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14 thoughts on “Pages From My Travel Dairy: Out At Gingee Fort And Its Silent History

    1. 🙂 Visited a lot of places like a nomad after several years, along with my poor wife. I write about these places more for myself – I really cant expect guys to read these long pieces, though I try to keep them from reading like a documentary! I think I’ll shut up after bringing this Puducherry visit to a close with a short post. Pondicherry as it was also known was a small French colony in India.

      Like

      1. Well, don’t “shut up” for the sake of this reader! 🙂

        PS: I write my entire blog “for myself,” not to please other. So the gift from my readers who stay in touch is immensely supportive.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The efforts required to collate the history from google books was a lot more than I had expected.I liked the final output though it turned out to be long for a readable blog post. But it’s a honest account of what I saw and what I read. Wouldn’t have been happy with anything less.

        I understand what u are saying – the trick, it seem, is to keep going after what one enjoys doing,regardless. And I enjoy putting the words and imagery together.

        Unfortunately there are no writer friends around to critique the ‘Indian’ style, tautness in narration, grammar, choice of words…Then I said:’What the heck…I’m not standing in line for this year’s Booker’s:-) So on with it.

        My wife says it’ll in the least keep me from dementia:-)

        Incidentally the first lady who commented on this post is my daughter!

        Thanks v much for being around like a few others do.

        Like

  1. I’ve learned a could of new words this diary too. But I’m still only guessing what Mumbaiti are. Are they new words – sort of like the new vocabulary involved in texting?

    Liked by 1 person

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