Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Tragic Fort of Gingee

    Sometimes, ruins of a long gone era tell us the most interesting tales - the story of kings and their battles, grand temples and mosques built on their annihilated ruins, a patronage for art and a macabre hunger for war and plunder. And one such place is Gingee Fort or Senji Kotai which is around 150 km South of Chennai and 25 km from Thindivanam in Tamil Nadu. The fort looks exactly like the destroyed forts and palaces of fantasy fiction that authors like Tolkien describe for pages and pages and never get right.
From the top of Krishnagiri Hill - Ranganatha Temple, with the Rajagiri Hill in the background
    The first fortification of Gingee was done in 1200 AD by the Konar community. Since then, this place has been conquered and reconquered countless times by the dynasties that came later- Vijayanagara, Nayaka, Maratha, Mughal, Carnatic, Nawab, French and British. The Hindu rulers added on to the temples and fortifications built by their predecessors, the Muslim rulers razed the temples and built mosques and the French and British soldiers cared zilch about temples and mosques or their history and used the fort for lodgings.
The top of Rajagiri Hill, with the Kalyana mantap and palace at foot hill and Krishnagiri Hill in the background
    The fort was named after Senji Amman, the virgin goddess among the pantheon of Hindu goddesses. Gingee was a minor town for many centuries. In the 16th century, the Vijayanagara emperor Krishnadeva Raya who ruled from Hampi posted Krishnappa Nayaka as his viceroy of Gingee. Krishnappa Nayaka later became the founder of the Nayaka line of Gingee and ruler of the sprawling capital city of Gingee. More than a century later in 1674, Gingee was plundered and looted by the Muslims of Bijapur. Three years later, the Maratha leader Chatrapati Shivaji captured Gingee. The Marathas strengthened the fortress at the expense of the neighboring villages and retained control until 1691, after which the tyrant Mughal emperor Aurangzeb captured the famous Nayaka capital.

    As the Nawabs of Arcot grew more powerful in the beginning of the 18th century, Gingee lost its strategic value. By 1718, the destroyed fort no longer attracted economic activities. It was captured by the British from the French in 1780, Hyder Ali from the British in 1780 and was later regained by the British in 1823. Almost two hundred years later in present day, the only residents of the fort are a few ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) guards and notoriously aggressive monkeys.

Senji fort is actually a combination of three fortified precipitous hills of Krishnagiri, Rajagiri and Chandragiri.

Krishnagiri Hills:
    The Krishnagiri hill is an easier climb than the Rajagiri hill. There are plenty of hidden caves on the way up. Delve too deep into these harmless looking caves and you will find either snakes or embarrassed lovers cursing you.

    At the summit that took us around an hour to climb, there are granaries and oil tankers, temples and mosques, hidden vantage points and durbar halls with ornate swings. The fort is in a rather arid region and water was stored in caved granite structures to prevent evaporation.
Paintings in Laxmi Temple
    A Laxmi temple bereft of statues stands alone amidst the heat and dust, with a few pillars and paintings made from plant and animal extracts. The paintings were probably done long after the temple was built. The Ranganatha temple can be found above the Laxmi Temple and belongs to the Vijayanagara period. There is a sculpture of a snake charmer holding a cobra, something every foreign tourist in India seems to be enamoured with.

    There is an ornate Kalyana mantapa (marriage hall) outside the Ranganatha temple. A bit further, there are also remnants of a temple now converted into a mosque and tell-tales of treasure hunters who have dug up the walls and floors in search of gold. There is also a non-decrepit Krishna temple and a watch tower nearby. The durbar hall where the king collected taxes is at the top of the hill. The queen and her maids played on long swings in the chamber below. The view from the durbar hall is great and you can see for miles in all directions.
The Krishnagiri Kalyana Mantapa beside the Ranganatha Temple
    Unfortunately, not a single statue remains in the temples of Krishnagiri Hills. There are only ruins and half broken statues. An ASI employee guided us around; I got the feeling that the ASI has given up on this fort due to considerable amount of restoration work required.

Rajagiri Hills:
    The Rajagiri hill was of more strategic importance compared to Krishnagiri Hills. At the foot hills, there are two granaries with vaulted chambers, the royal living quarters, a magazine storage facility, the audience hall and chamber in Indo-Islamic style. There is a canon like structure in front of the palace called the King’s “ammi” (a small stone used to grind herbs in households) by the locals. The Kalyana Mahal (Marriage Place) of Rajagiri hill is a pyramidal dome on a four storied rectangular open air structure and grander than the pillared Kalyana Mantapa of the Krishnagiri Hill. There are terracotta pipes to keep the place cool even during the peak of summer. This Kalyana Mahal looks similar to the Queen Mahal in Hampi.
Another relic of the many wars fought on the footsteps of Rajagiri Hill
    The remaining landmarks of palace include a gymnasium, granary, barracks, the mosque of Mahabut Khan and royal harem for all the wives and concubines of the ruler. The Sadat Ullah khan mosque with Persian inscriptions record that the mosque was built in 1717-1718.

    The journey to the top in summer isn't exactly a jolly trip. Midway on the long journey to the top, there is a rather unremarkable shrine of Kamalakanni Amman and some interesting paintings behind it. There are also plenty of langurs and rhesus monkeys here and the latter can get quite aggressive and persistent if they see plastic bags!
Paintings on the Rock structure behind the Kamalakanni Amman Temple
A granary on top of the Rajagiri Hills
    The fort snakes along at many places and has cannons at a few strategic locations. The defense system of the fort was adapted to the requirements of time based on the advances in weaponry over four centuries. But overall there is nothing enlightening once you reach the top after a two hour long trek. Just a few granaries, mosques and more monkeys. Remember the entrance gates to the Rajagiri Hill close by 4 PM; so avoid the long trek up the hill unless you are into such things!

The Venkataramana Temple:
    The Venkataramana temple is truly a broken masterpiece. Built by Muthyalu Nayaka (1540-1550), it contains many Tamil inscriptions and is also known as the 1000 pillared temple. Sadly, not many of those pillars remain today due to marauding Muslim rulers bent on destroying art and the religious symbols of the kafirs. The British and the French attitude towards preservation were just as cavalier. During the French occupation in 1761, many pillars were carted away to Pondicherry to set up the statue of the French Governor Dupleix. The temple would have been a glowing tribute to Nayaka architecture but has been reduced to dust and ashes and consigned to oblivion.
The Entrance Gopuram of the Venkataramana Temple of Gingee
    In the 16th century, the Nayakas ruled over much of present day Tamil Nadu and were great patrons of temple building. They restored the Chola Temples of Gangaikondacholapuram to their ancient splendor and inherited and improved the Chola style of architecture that was prevalent more than 600 years earlier. The Dwara Palakas (door keepers) of the main sanctum of the Venkataramana temple are similar to those in the great Chola temples of Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram.
The entrance of the Venkataramana Temple. The scene depicts the churning of the ocean in Hindu Mythology

The Venkataramana Temple of Gingee was also called the 1000 pillar temple
    There are statues from the Narasimha avatar, Brahma and others Gods from Hindu mythology. And almost all of them look like they could fall off any moment. The entrance to the temple has scenes from the churning of the ocean or Samudra manthan, where the Devas and Asuras, in a moment of rare cooperation between sworn foes, churn the ocean for the nectar of immortality. The tricky Gods later drink the nectar themselves and refuse to share it with the Demons. Oh the betrayal! I still remember how bad I felt for the Asuras the first time I heard the story.
Chola Style Dwarapakas built by the Nayakas
    If you are a student of archaeology and history, this fort is a treasure trove. Recently the Chennai circle of the ASI unearthed a ruined palace with audience hall and a polished royal throne. No doubt, there are plenty more treasures and their stories hidden under these ruins. But unlike the Taj Mahal, these are not stories of love. History is generally written and romanticised by victors but here in the arid abandoned Gingee fort, there were no victors. Only cruel and dark stories of plunder, death, ruin and neglect. And a glorious past long gone by...