Fort unforgettable

Vellore Fort

The Vellore Fort is much more than just a piece de resistance of architecture

Perched on the surrounding hills, the smaller forts seem to gaze in admiration at the leviathan sprawled below. Occupying more than 130 acres and enclosed by a three km circumference of granite ramparts in a double row, lies the magnificent Vellore Fort which is under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India since 1922.

The formidable structure has seen dynasties come and go, passing hands from the Nayaks to the Muslims to the Marathas, and then the Mughals and the British. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the blowing of the bugles of war, the stamping of flying hooves and the lumbering tread of elephants charging through the ranks. Open them and you see the serene stretch of the glacis where stray visitors relax today under the shade of the ancient tree. Or wait for the recently installed boats to take them sailing along the impressive moat where crocodiles once waited to snap up the hapless foe. Jutting rectangular bays can easily fill up in the mind's eye with vigilant soldiers and sepoys ready to fire their guns and cannons.

On July 10, 1806, unhappy sepoys shot down hundreds of British officers and soldiers when forced to remove their caste marks and wear leather headgear. The Vellore Mutiny is considered to have anticipated the "First War of Independence" of 1857 in the North. Commemorating the Vellore Mutiny is the monument erected by the Government of Tamil Nadu at the junction of the roads in front of the Fort.

But by the time of the mutiny, the fort had already witnessed five centuries of history, you learn, as you enter the vast area within. The 30 ft high wooden doors of the Jalakanteswarar temple lead to a place of worship where the main shrine was constructed by the Sambuvarayars of Padaiveedu, the 14th Century rulers of the area; they were also the initial builders of the fort. The Nayak chieftains who were under the control of the Vijayanagar kings then held sway for 70 years. It was during the period of the first chieftain, Chinna Bomma Nayak that the second stage of the fort took shape including its excellent system of water supply, and the addition of a kalyana mandapam adorned with the most exquisite sculptures, at the temple. So captivating are the sculptures here that the British proposed to transplant them to England a la the Elgin Marbles! Fate intervened by sinking the ship which was to transport the numbered granite blocks. Skilfully fashioned yalis, and figures of gods and goddesses are carved on the pillars which foreground the hall at the Mandapam with its ceremonial platform resting on the back of the Kurma, the tortoise.

Invasions led to worship being suspended here for 400 years, says the curator of the State Museum at the fort.

Within the enormous fort premises are now housed museums, government offices and a university. A mosque constructed by the Nawabs of Arcot and a stately church constructed by the British make the fort a confluence of religions. After the defeat and death of Tipu in 1799, the families of Tipu Sultan and his father Hyder Ali were brought and confined in two mahals here that owe their names to the two great warrior sultans. The rows of stables and rooms at the Tipu and Hyder Mahal served as a camp to confine Sri Lankan militants. They function today as the premises of a police training college. A sound and light show is being planned here.

But the surly head of the training college is loath to allow you more than a glimpse of the quarters.

The ASI Museum is housed in the adjoining buildings of Badshah and Begum Mahals nearby.

They formerly comprised the Collectorate.

Renovation work is going on and one sees exquisite idols in the Pallava and Nayak styles being carefully mounted on the bases that have been just built. The building of the former judiciary is again a museum of the State Department of Museums. It has an assortment of objects including sculptures, coins, biological specimens, Neolithic weapons and burial urns.

Many of the buildings in the fort were used as government offices since the time of the British.

The Registrar's office is abuzz with activity.

But it was here that the deposed king of Kandy was confined by the British for nearly 17 lonely years.

Interesting steps and ramps abound within the fort promising to take you in the footsteps of soldiers of yore and the residents of the town who would have rushed to take refuge when the clouds of dust announced to those in the watch towers that yet another army was near.

In a region where forts abound, 20 of them in fact, the Vellore fort queens over them all.

But this piece de resistance of architecture deserves far more attention and visitors than it gets now.

From The Hindu dated 14/04/2007

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