Sunday, February 14, 2010


My fascination for fortress will be everlasting. I had read so much about Gingee Fort and its strategic part played in the annals of history that i made up to visit the same on 25/1/10, clubbing the repubic day holiday. We had a packed program with checking out Vellore Fort, Tiruvanamalai temple and rushed to Gingee by bus. Our anxiety began when we came to know that there is no cloak room, so we quickly took a risk and deposited our luggage in a small tea hotel. We reached the ticket counter at Gingee Fort, which is manned by ASI staff and paid Rs 5 enterance ticket per head. If we had been a little late the counter would have been closed and so our effort of reaching Gingee. So the saying goes Fortune favours the brave, but i advice my friends it is better not to take a chance. Gingee fort tour takes up an entire day almost, better to arrive early and leave early.
Route : Gingee can reached from Chennai via Tindivanam by train and bus. The total distance is 160 km on a beautiful highway. If one likes to try an alernative route from Bangalore, it can be covered via Vellore, Tiruvanamalai and Gingee. The distance from Vellore to Tiruvanamali which is 70 kms and from there Gingee is another 40 kms. We took this route to cover Gingee.

Etymology : The name Gingee is actually pronounced as Genji, which in Tulu means Crab. Remember the main sponsorers of Fort construction were the Vijayanagar Kings. There are other versions such as the place is named after the Virgin sisters. Senjiamman temple is dedicated to one of the seven sisters. Another fable points towards the episode of Sanjeevi being procured by Lord Hanuman from these hillocks, to save Lord Laxman who was lying injured in the war against Ravan. The hillocks were known as Sengiri, which meant Red hills. Another tale relates the name to Singavaram, wherein Vaishnav diety is supposed to be headquartered. The most common accepted tradition is that of Senjiamman who is worshipped in one of the shrines located on the hillock. The name stuck as a dedication to this virgin diety who is supposed to have committed suicide to escape the tormentors.

Gingee FORT : The fort is spread over 3 hillocks with over 9 kms circumferance. This area being strategic was well endowed with water resources, granary, temple, barracks, Palace, Moat etc. It also contained paddy fields which were cultivated with natural rain water. There are two main enterance to the Fort, one is on the eastern side called as Pondicherry gate and other on the northern front named as Arcot or Delhi gate.

The fort is originally built by Ananda Kone around 1200 AD, who were the original chieftans of Gingee. Earlier to this citadel Cholas seemed to have a strategic interest in this locale from the 9th century, may be a watch tower to protect against enemy invasion. The first citadel at Rajagiri was built by Ananda Kone and later Krishna Kone built the second citadel in 1240 AD, who was the successor to Ananda kone. Later these chieftans became feudatories of the Hoysala empire under Virasomeshwara ( 1235 - 1254 AD ). The Ranganatha temple located on the Rajagiri hills seems to have been constucted during the Hoysala period. There is one more temple known as Kamalakanni Amman enroute to Rajgiri.

Venkatramana Temple : This temple was built during Vijaynagar times. It was built by Muthyalu Nayaka ( 1540 - 1550 AD ) This massive temple has a huge gopuram and a mantap in front of the temple where a pond would have been located in ancient times. After the fall of Vijaynagar empire in 1565 AD, many of the subsidiaries re-located to different places such as Penkonda, Chandragiri and Gingee. Gingee must have been a partial storehouse for the treasures accumulated by the kings. The Nayaks who were subsidiary of the Vijayanagar protected the royalty and continued to rule this territory.

Meanwhile Nawab of Arcot started gaining prominence with the headquaters at Arcot. Raja Desingh ( 1714 AD ) who ascended the throne at Gingee rebelled against the Nawabs and refused to pay tax to his overlords. He was brutally defeated by the Nawabs and the entire fort was taken over. The heroic Desingh was given a decent funeral with his wife committing sati on the pyre of her husband.

Some monolithic pillars well carved were taken away by the French to be relocated in Pondicherry to be used as decor for Dupleix statue, who was the governor during the French occupation of Gingee in 1761 AD.

Palace Complex : Who destroyed the palace complex at Gingee seems to be mystery which needs to be solved. In 1676 AD Shivaji maharaj captured the forts of Vellore and Gingee. Gingee served as Maratha capital for 9 years during the war period. Some of the wealth was obviously taken away by Shivaji to strengthen his empire. He installed Desingh ( Tej singh )who belonged to the Maratha clan. The Nawabs of Arcot, who were descendents of Bijapur sultans obviously occupied the Gingee after defeating Raja Desingh. In 1674 the sultans of Bijapur raided Gingee and almost destroyed majority of its edifices. It was a deadly blow to the sprawling capital of Gingee. The palace seems to have been destroyed during the warfare with French by the Nawabs with cannon fire. All the remaining wealth was looted by the French, some were salvaged by the Nawabs. The palace naturally became a target of vandalism by the French soldiers who conquered this place. The French handed over this territory to Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan in 1772 upto 1790 they reigned along with the help of the Nawab of Arcot. Subsequently after the defeat of Tipu sultan, the British took over the FORT, and by 1823 due to insalubrity of this area they vacated the Fortress and it was in ruins by 1823. The British had a firm base in the form of Fort St George.
Venugopalswami Temple : This temple is located near the western gate of the Inner Fortress. Besides the temple is the Kalyana Mahal which is a multi-storeyed building with pyramid type of rooftop. This edifice was used to preserve grains in a dry condition in certain chambers. It was also used as resting place during the torrid summer for the royalty.
Venkatrama Temple : This temple is the largest edifice with the Gingee fort complex, and the temple was constructed by Muthyalu Nayaka ( 1540 to 1550 AD ). The complex contains number of Tamil inscriptions revealing the endowment to the temple. Many of the pillars were pillaged and taken away to decorate Dupliex statute in Pondicherry.
Overall a visit to Gingee fort will unfold history like never before, from the Jains,Hoysalas, Vijayanagar emperors to Nayaks, Desingh, Shivaji, Mughals, Nawabs of arcot, French, Tipu Sultan and the British. One requires to be prepared for a hard trek uphill, better be prepared with Sunscreen, Salt and glucose and bites to recoup. Umbrella and cap would protect one s skull from being overheated. The entire area is desolated and reminds one of the numerous wars fought in the surroundings

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Mahabalipuram, a pallavan heritage


It was a news to me when I read that Mahabalipuram was built on the wealth amassed from destruction of Vatapi by the Pallavan King. The capital of Chalukyas was Badami ( Vatapi old name ) which was ransacked for its supreme wealth and grandeur. Mahamallan Narasimha Pallavan defeated the Chalukyan emperor Pulakesin II in the battles of Manimangalam and Pariyalam in 642 AD. Pulakesin II died defending his capital on the battlefield. The rivarly between the Chalukyas and Pallavas seemed to be legendary with constant warfare between them for supremacy of reign over the South. It can be assumed that booty looted from Badami was so tremendous that it had to be carried by a caravan consisting of 20 elephants and 80 horses. A store house was built by Mahamalla to safely protect the jewellry in Mahabalipuram.

Modern historians point out that Pulakesin II marched with a huge army in 620 AD and defeated the Pallavan king Mahendravarman and looted the wealth of Kanchi. This scenario seems to be unlikely, since Kanchipuram possessing that sort of wealth base was impossible. Whereas Badami and surrounding areas were filled with gold and diamond mines. The only place where gold was available was Kolar, which was ruled by the Ganga dynasty. Further on my visit to Kanchi i found that most of the monuments in the temples were intact, some have crumbled due to aging rather than loot and arson. It is therefore highly improbable that Pulakesin II came with the idea of looting the wealth of Kanchipuram. Being patrons of art Chalukyan emperor Vikramaditya who defeated the Pallavas once again in 674 AD to avenge their defeat did not resort to enmass destruction, if it were to be true than entire Mahabalipuram would not have remained so.


The Pallava kings had established Mahabalipuram as a sea port to have trading links with China, Arabs and Greeks. Infact the antecedents point out to trading links to earlier times with Roman empire and later to European. It can be pointed out that Pallavan kings were inspired by Chalukyan architecture and wanted to surpass them in their own capital and nearby areas.

Mahabalipuram was an ideal locale with plenty of granite available with skilled artisans to build an edifice of mammoth proportions. The symbol of Lion & elephant was used to display the power of the kings. Thus began the chiselling of the hillocks in the fashion of Badami, which had set the trend. The Mahabharat and Ramayan became an ideal background story for the artisan of times to display their chiselling skills. In fact I strongly suspect that many artisans from Badami migrated to Mahabalipuram in the absense of sufficient work after completing the edifices at Badami.

This place was earlier referred to as city of SEVEN PAGODAS or placee of seven temples. But unfortunately Tsunami in 1341 AD seems to have submerged the majority of the Pagodas and Palaces built around the seashore, with element of nature sparing only one seashore temple for future generation to relish. How ironic, another Tsunami in 2004 has helped to uncover the remains of lost monuments.

The credit for construction or patronage for building all the monuments should go to the following Pallavan Kings Mahendra Varman ( 580-630 AD ) and his famous progeny Mahamallan Narasimha Varman ( 630 - 668 AD ) grandson Mahendra Varman ( 668 - 672 AD ) Great grandson Parmeswara Varman ( 672 - 700 AD ) and Narasimha Varman II also known as Raja simha ( 700 - 728 AD ). Krishnadevaraya ( 1509 - 1529 AD ) too contributed his might by his unfinished gopuram on the hillock, which is known as Rayagopuram.

Monuments of Mahabalipuram received world heritage status in 1984 from UNESCO. This propelled action for resurrection and maintainence of the open air museum. In 1991 when we visited Mahabalipuram in the peak of summer, it was scorching heat, which refrained us from thoroughly exploring the site. But we saw a sea change with greenary embedded into the site, which made it more pleasant. An umbrella is must to cover the entire stretch of monuments to protect oneself from searing heat.

Sightseeing @ Mahabalipuram :

1. ARJUNA's Penance
2. Pandava Cave
3. Krishna Mantap
4. Krishna's Butterball
5. Trimurthi Cave
6. Elephant Group
7. Ganesh Rath
8. Varaha Mantap
9. Raya Gopuram/Tower
10. Lion Throne
11. Mahishamardini Cave
12. Adi Varaha Mantap
13. Lighthouse
14. Five Raths
15. Scupture shopping
16. Tiger cave
17. Athiranachanda Cave
18. Vishnu Temple
19. Shore Temple
20 Beach

ARJUNA'S PENANCE : It is biggest Bas relief monument in the world, hewd from a monolithic rock. The entire structure was devised with a concept of open air theatre stage. Just imagine a drama being unfolded in front of an audience. The pandav cave which is situated besides acts as an indoor stage and the bas relief acts as an outdoor scenary.

I wonder why this masterpiece is called Arjuna's penance, there is sculpture of an old man ( Arjuna ) standing on one foot with ribs exposed praying to Lord, presumably Shiva to grant him the boon. ( Arjuna is presumably praying for the mighty Pasupati weapon to defeat the Kauravs ) The entire facade is filled with wild animals such Lion, Elephant, Deer, Serpants, and even domesticated animals like cat and mouse. It can be compared to a comic strip or ancient form of story telling. Another theory is that this bas relief is actually a personification of the poet Bharavi's masterpiece Kiratarjuniyam

Adjecent to the main relief there is a sculpture of monkey checking lice on its baby's head, which represents the real jungle scenario. The rest of story seems to be untold as it were. The headless sculptures is obviously vandalised by some treasure collector. Some historians ascribe the headless figures to the Pallavan king Mahendra Varman and others.


The cave adjescent to Arjuna's Penance bas relief is called Pandav Cave. This cave is largely unfinished and resembles a Buddhist vihara. The sculptures on the wall resemble a crowded market place, with various human forms and scenes from the life of a farmer with milking scene being the centre of attraction. On the right side one can assume the characters from Mahabharat.


This cave is located adjescent to Pandav Cave towards the left. Basically this cave too resembles a buddhist vihara which may have been converted to Krishna's cave. The life style of Krishna is depicted with cattle being the centre of attraction. Lord Krishna is depicted as effortlessly lifting the Govardhan mountain, along with female cowherds. It depicts a typical rural atmosphere.

There is a scene of lovers holding each others hands in unison apart from the flora and fauna of the jungle. Thus the love for nature is abundant among the artisans of the times.


A huge chunk of rock situated on the hillock looks like a butter ball on a typical masala dosa. This rocky structure is a photo shoot location for couples, students and family members.

In fact the rock looks to be precariously oscillating and about to trickle down, but it is firmly embedded with a flat surface. It is obviously an optical illusion created by nature. It is located to the north of the Arjuna Penance. The land in front has been beautifully landscaped with grass and trees. It was earlier barren and used to emit lot of heat making it a natural sauna centre.


This cave temple lies just behind Arjuna Penance. The pillars are beautifully designed with Lions or wild boars anchoring the structure. The cave seems to have been scooped out of a rock surface.

Inside the cave one can find varha depicted to represent Lord Vishnu. All the 10 avatars of Vishnu is being exposed with wild boar being the prominent one, implying the branding of the cave.


An unfinished agenda for constructing a massive tower on the edge of the hillock. This gopuram belongs to the Vijaynagar era, wherein the attempt was made to construct two gopurams signifying the granduer of the era. It may have been left incomplete due to the lack of sponsorship after the collapse of Vijaynagar empire.

This Gopuram seems to have been commissioned by Krishnadevaraya during the fag end of this reign in 1528, to glory the reign of his empire. He died leaving leaving behind the unfinished gopuram on Mahabalipuram and the later rulers did not have the inclination to finish the majestic structure. If only this gopuram along with the gopuram in front of the Vishnu temple had to be completed the granduer of Mahabalipuram would have scaled the heights of Hampi or even the Sphinx.


This complex was a part of the grand seven pagodas. The credit for construction of the shore temple should go to Pallava King Rajasimha ( 700 - 728 AD ) This temple which is situated bang on the sea shore is dedicated to Lord Shiva. This structure may have inspired Raja Raja Chola to build his Brihadeswara in a grandeur scale. The architects of the yesteryears were obviously aware of the vagaries of the nature and naturally the temple was designed to deflect the wind velocity and soak up the heavy rainfall.

The entire structure withstood the ferocity of the Tsunami speaks volume about the rigidity of construction. It seems to be literally built out of the rocks outgrown from the sea bed by reclaiming some land. Such formation can be seen if one visits Kaup, which gives an idea of the converting ordinary rocks into extra-ordinary monuments. The outer enclosures are filled with Nandi and Lion which may be a later addition to add value to the monument.

There are three temples in this shore complex, one is dedicated to Lord Shiva, with a broken Lingam, another is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and third one is dedicated to Durga, with the Lion type of sculpture.

On the precints of this shore temple miniature shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva have been excavated by ASI. This was accidentally discovered in 1990. The wild boar has been vandalised. Has it been subject to ransacking by the Chalukyan king. It is most unlikely despite some historians claim. Some claim that Vikramaditya I ( 655- 681 AD ) and avenged the defeat of his father Pulakesin II. He exacted revenge by destroying the boar symbol, which was sculpted in prostration to the Pallavan rulers. Hence the Chalukyan emperor must have hacked it. It was subsequently restored by the rulers or ASI.