The jewel in the city of spears

Sheila Kumar

Image result for vellore fort full view

Jan 2, 2011

One of the things that hold endless fascination for me is the way life weaves itself around fort- towns. For good or bad, dwellings, shops, a bustling marketplace, temples,all spring up around the mammoth granite walls of what hitherto was a place of war. Bells ring from temple courtyards and from cycle handlebars, cows wander around lazily chewing more plastic than cud, stray dogs do their routine rounds and boys play cricket, all in the vicinity of looming walls or in some cases, inside the fort.

It’s the latter case with the Vellore fort. However, unlike Jaisalmer, which is also a living fort, at Vellore once you drive in through the gates, it isn’t too hard to forget that you are now on what was the site of much gore and glory.This is history that has run itself into the ground.

This dusty town has a hoary past, fascinating to unravel. Apparently, it was a hamlet right in the middle of a forest full of velan (babool) trees; and, of course, the hamlet was called Velapadi. Even today, archaeological digs throwup pre-historic relics in and around Vellore; pottery, coins and even burial tombs dating back to the Paleolithic, Neolithic and Iron Ages have been found in the surrounding plains. The area and the fort itself was, in its heyday, quite the heartbeat of Dravidian civilisation, being the capital city of the mighty Vijayanagar empire, and then and the successive seats of the Nayaks, the Arcot Nawabs and the Adil Shahi Sultans of Bijapur. In the late 1670s, it passed briefly into the hands of the Marathas until Nawab Daud Khan of Delhi took it over from them.

The British took control of the fort almost 100 years later, after the fall of Srirangapatnam and the death of Tipu Sultan. If Vellore is soaked in history, the fort is quite the jewel in this particular crown. More than four centuries earlier, a chieftain named Bomma Reddy witnessed a dog being attacked by a hare, and was rendered speechless with shock at such a strange occurrence. That night, he dreamed that a lingam was buried at the spot where the hare had attacked the dog, and knew that it was his duty to dig it out and build a temple on the spot; he also dreamed that enough treasure would be found in the hills nearby, to fund this project. Sure enough, Bomma Reddy went on a treasure hunt, found what he was looking for, and built the Fort and the Jalakanteswarar temple.

The very name Vellore, is believed to be derived from a combination of the Tamil words vel (spear) and oor
(city) — the city of spears. Archival records state that these grounds used to be liberally strewn with spears,
the detritus of many a bloody battle. The other legend of Vellore’s name also has a spear connection: the vel
(spear) which is the main weapon of the deity Murugan. Built from granite blocks on the banks of the Palar river, the fort in Vellore went on to become the strongest fortress in the Carnatic War of the 17th Century.

Back then, of course, the city’s fortunes were inextricably linked with those of the fort. And the fort saw more than its share of drama. In fact, the outburst of defiance by the sepoys inside the 16th-century fort, also known as the Vellore Revolt of 1806, was the earliest recorded uprising against British rule in India; some historians consider this the First War of Independence rather than the Meerut Sepoy Mutiny. Later, Tipu Sultan’s family and the last king of Sri Lanka, Vikrama Rajasinha, were royal prisoners who served their time in the fort.

Sitting smack in the middle of the crowded town, it is truly a thing of formidable beauty, this granite fort, with its grand ramparts, its wide moat which is fed from a subterranean drain, its round towers and rectangular
projections, its solid and stately air. Once one of the most perfect specimen of military architecture in these parts, today it houses an untidy sprawl of various public departments and private offices. There is a church, a mosque and a temple in the environs of the fort, as also the government museum with its share of objects of art, archaeology, bronze relics, weapons, etc. There also stands a derelict building, the once grand Tipu Mahal, where Tipu Sultan is believed to have stayed with his family when battling the British.

Within the fort is the Jalakanteswara Temple, its gopuram soaring high above the fort walls. It is dedicated to Lord Shiva in the form of Jalakanteswarar. This temple was built about the same time as the fort and has survived some very troubled times. It is worth a visit for the beautifully intricate carvings it contains.

The sun is at its merciless peak when I leave the fort. The bazaar continues to bustle, all noise and smells. The water in the moat is speckled with white plastic bags that float about in a forlorn manner. I turn to the young son of a friend who lives in Vellore. What does the fort mean to you, I ask. He thinks for a bit, then brightens as he replies: it is where I meet all my friends and play cricket, after school.

A while later, I ask a shopkeeper in the vicinity the same question. He is flummoxed and can’t find an answer. Then I put the query to two young men loitering without intent nearby. It’s a great place to spend the evening, after the sun loses its heat, they vouchsafe enthusiastically. History, too, has its uses, I discover.
Copyright © 2012 The New Indian Express.

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