Centuries of War, Now Asleep in Peace

Centuries of War, Now Asleep in Peace
Tourists throng the Gingee fort complex, Photo Credit: akimov konstantin / Shutterstock.com

An OT reader recalls an eventful visit to the once-impregnable fort complex of Gingee in Tamil Nadu

Sanchari Samanta
November 02 , 2020
08 Min Read

“Space. It seems to go on and on forever. Then you get to the end, and a monkey starts throwing barrels at you,” said Philip Fry, a fictional character in the American animated science fiction television series Futurama.

This is how exactly we felt when Phurpa screamed,“Ohh my god! He’s there!”

The four of us, limbs frozen, faces pale, gazed at him.

This was the fourth time that the mature ape had followed us. Arriving and waiting for another disappointing encounter at the exact location we had headed to, even before we reached there.

The huge baboon, painted somewhat like burnt chestnut, and quite determined to scare us, waited on top of a huge crust of rock in the narrow rugged alley that would have led us to the dilapidated 16th century Venkataramana Temple. It is believed to be one of the most exquisite structures of Gingee built by the Nayakas, standing outside the innermost fortification of Rajagiri in Tamil Nadu.

A game of gazes: Monkeys huddle together

“Let’s go back. I can’t deal with this creep any more,” said Sayantan. 

There was no other option left. Either we had to combat another encounter with the ape, or choose the other undefined path amidst the woods which might have led us to a never-ending mystery.

“We are not going back from here without reaching the Rajagiri Fort, after trekking for the past 75 minutes…just because of that monkey!” I mumbled.

We traversed thick growth peppered with trees that seemed decades old, deeply indented with scars, and where sunlight hardly penetrated.

We came across the rare sight of a grey baboon, sitting statue-like, alone on the edge of a cone-shaped rock, maybe watching the sun-kissed horizon while her offspring played in the lower boughs attached to the rock.

Ruins of the fort complex and the rocky granite outcrops visible in the background

For the most part, our tread was sometimes relaxing, invigorating, even arduous, meditative and every shade-in-between. Till we found ourselves unreasonably warm even after entering the coolness of the woodland canopy that immediately released upon us a bulk of mosquitoes and bugs.

Ahaa…there it is! Up ahead lay the vast grey carpeted nebula, free to fly with the wind. 

The deeper graphite stones that promised good rain seemed to veil the two hillocks of Krishnagiri (to the west) and Chandrayandurg (to the south-east).

The fort of Gingee (also called Senji or Chenji) some 160km away from Chennai in the Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu has been occupied by most dynasties of medieval South India. It is believed to have been built originally in the 13th century by the Chola dynasty. By the end of the century, Gingee came under Hoysala rule, and then Vijayanagara rule, under which it rose to prominence.

An arched hallway at the Kalyana Mahal

The Vijayanagara kingdom was huge, so the administration of this region was entrusted to the Nayaks of Gingee who were like viceroys and enjoyed increasing autonomy through the years. In the middle of the 17th century, Gingee passed into the hands of the Bijapur Sultanate.

The Maratha king Chhatrapati Shivaji conquered it soon after that. In the 18th century, the Europeans arrived at the Gingee. It was first under the French then under the English, and then finally faded into obscurity.

The fort is built on three hillocks, Rajagiri, Krishnagiri and Chandrayanadurg, forming a huge triangular enclosed area peppered with royal religious and military structures.

It was evident the moment we entered Gingee how hard it must have been for any enemy army to invade while being attacked from three hills simultaneously. In fact, Shivaji himself is said to have considered this India’s most impregnable fort.

Rajagiri is the most important part of the complex, and the most tightly defended of the three hillocks. It is surrounded by the innermost line of the granite fortification, and encloses all the royal structures. The fort walls are 13km long and the three hills are connected by walls enclosing an area of 11 square kilometres with a height of 800 feet  and protected by a 80-foot-wide moat. 

The sprawl of the fort complex amid verdant environs

The Kalyana Mahal, a seven-storeyed tower-like structure with a pyramidal top, is probably the most iconic structure here. It is accompanied by an assortment of arcaded stables, remains of palaces and a temple dedicated to the presiding Hindu goddess, Chenjiamman aka Senjiamman. 

The fortifications contain a sacred pond known as Aanaikulam. On the top of the hillock, there are minor fortifications.

To gain entry into the citadel, one had to cross a small wooden drawbridge and seven gateways. This citadel contains important buildings apart from the living quarters of the royalty, like the stables, granaries, and meeting halls for the public, temples, mosques, shrines and pavilions. 

The open ground next to the mahal has a wide stone platform overlooking it. A smooth cylindrical stone resembling a bolster, is placed on one side of it, probably used for audiences with the kings.

The lower regions of the Rajagiri also have granaries, stables, batteries and a big beautiful stone tank called the Elephant Tank.

A temple dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kammalakanni Amman, the guardian deity of Gingee, sits atop the Rajagiri hillock.

The Venkataramana Temple with its impressive spire

The Ranganathar Temple, belltower, watchtower, cannon and drawbridge are located atop the hill.

“Oh! It is worth the effort,” exclaimed Rituparna.

The patchwork of the faraway city lay closely clustered, ruddy on the plains, the narrow roads with green patches glittering just like the fashion-conscious city folk. The flat roofs and hued square towers, seemed to be strangely naked in the clear air.

We strolled back with limbs cramped, faces dehydrated and hair untidily tied. This time, we relaxed a bit to step on the plain with our sore feet, when our eyes rested upon the monkeys playing around the huge banyan tree, still in a perfect mood to chase us.

A fair warning. One can definitely afford to miss a few monuments inside but never ignore the rusty signboard saying “BEWARE OF MONKEYS!” as they can ambush you all of a sudden, clinging to your back and unzipping the bag to get a packet of biscuits.

How to reach 
Travellers going from Bangalore to Pondicherry can make a stop at Gingee, just before Thiruvanamalai. The highway cuts right through the fort walls. 

The nearest airport is Chennai International Airport at a distance of around 160km. You can take a bus or book a cab to reach Tindivanam where the fort is situated. If you are planning to reach there by a train, then take a train from Villupuram Railway Station. 

Gingee is the Anglicised version of Senji, Tamil for ‘Red Hills’.

The fort at Gingee was declared a National Monument in 1921 and is under the Archaeological Department of India. Entry is Rs 25 for Indians, and Rs 300 for foreigners.

Travel tips

  • The fort is open from 9am to 3pm. It is advisable to go on a weekday to avoid crowds. 

  • The entire complex faces the direct sunl, so make sure that you apply sunscreen to avoid sun tan or sunburn. And wear a hat and shades. 

  • Take enough water with you. There are no food joints nearby, so make sure you carry snacks. 

  • Wear clothes that fully cover your body, to avoid scratches from scrubs and plants, and also insect bites. 

  • Save your belongings from the monkeys.

This article is a submission by one of our readers, and part of our series #OTReadersWrite.

 


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