Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Hill-top Fort, Vellore

On Dec 26th I visited an old hill-top fort with my father and some of his friends. This fort is located about 17Km from Vellore. Getting to it requires driving past Bagayam on the Arni Road, turning left about 10Km past Bagayam, and driving all the way to the village closest to the Fort. (I forgot to write down the name of the village. I think it's something-Kottai. 'Kottai' meaning fort.). According to my GPS, the village is at 12deg46.358'N and 79deg10.150'E, and the Fort is located at 12deg46.651'N and 79deg9.766'E. The fort is not easily seen from the main road.

These friends of my father's have been visiting local historical sites for many years now, and my father has joined them on a few. They acted as our guides for this trip and told us that this is only one of about 25 forts in the Vellore area. I was aware, of course, of the main Vellore Fort (built by the Vijayanagaras in the mid 1500s), and the hill-top fort (built by Shivaji ?) on that nameless hill east of Vellore, but was completely unaware of the other ones.

They lead us from the village, through the fields, presumably towards the top of the hill. Suddenly, at the base of the hill, there appeared a stone structure covered in greenery. It appeared exactly like you'd imagine the ruins of a long-abandoned building would. Except it was in very good condition. It was a little pillared hall (mandapam). The pillars were carved with floral,religious and other imagery. Also notable was the apparent absence of cement or other kinds of bonding material, and how the extremely straight edges of the stones fit perfectly against each other.

The path up the hill is very thorny. Ezhumalai (guy from the local village) who very generously lead us up the hill clearing the way with his sickle, told us that until recently the face of the mountain was fairly bare. The forest service planted these thorn bushes to make it look more green. Closer to the top of the hill are man-made steps and walls --- presumably built to improve access to the fort.

The fort at the top of the hill has a few concentric layers of walls, most of which are in great condition. Along the walls of the fort are a few doorways. Though they're missing the actual doors, the cavities for the door-posts still exist. We made our way through one of these door-less doorways into the fort. Inside the fort are a few surviving structures - a pillared hall and entrance-way, and a storage room (occupied by bats) with almost no light (known, appropriately, as 'irrutu(darkness)-mandapam'. Other examples of the carvings within the fort are this carving of Hanuman (?), two figures on a pillar, and this carving above a doorway showing two battling warriors --- one on a horse and another on an unidentified animal.

The builders came up with ingenious ways to use wind and water to beat the heat. Dug through one fort-wall, is a narrow curved passage leading from the inside of the fort to the rock-face outside. Standing inside the passage is like standing in front of an air-conditioner. Similarly in the middle of the fort are steps leading down to a partially hidden cavernous room. This room with a pool of water at the bottom, is shaded by the branches of a banyan tree above and is also very cool. There were a few other man-made pools of water around the fort. In this arid region having access to a source of water makes much strategic sense to a fort-builder.

Our (amateur) guides weren't certain of the age of the fort ---- if it was from the time of the Pallavas (who ruled from Kanchipuram from the 4th to 9th centuries), Cholas (who ruled from Thanjavur until the 13th century) or the Vijayanagaras (who ruled from Karnataka starting in the 14th century). They pointed to signs indicating that it might be more than a thousand years old --- such as certain distinctive engravings on the wall, and the presence of these flat long bricks (supposedly used by the Pallavas). I'm not convinced that it's that old. I'd be curious to get a dating from a more authorative source (leave a comment if you are one).

Other things I heard on this trip were how a chinese traveller (Huen Tsang ?) visited this part of the country and described the widespread prevalance of jainism and buddhism at the time. We also heard the rumour that the nearby hindu shrine of Tirupati, might have originally been a Buddhist shrine. They say that the ears of the idol are long like in statues of Buddha. Also, the rumour is that the reason the crown of the idol is never removed is because under the crown is the distinctive hair-style that would give it away as being of the Buddha. What is a blog if not a place to spread rumours ? In that context, here is a picture of jain carvings on a rock-face that my father took on a previous such historical excursions. None of these places are maintained by the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India). With India's overwhelming historical legacy they probably have tough choices to make regarding which ones to support and which ones not to.

All of these photos can be seen here or here as a slideshow.


Blogger malai said...

i am frm vellore. and i am amazed to see such a fort in my area. I have heard there are some forts on hilltop. but never thought such an amazing things r there. Have u gone to other forts lying near vellore hillsides. Please put the photos of those too....


7/10/2006 09:12:00 AM  

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