A star attraction, this fort
Just 10 km from Sakleshpur in Hassan district is Manjarabad Fort, a small structure that happens to be a very rare example of 17th century French military architecture in India. Unless you keep an eye out for it though, chances are you will drive right past it, for no attempt has been made to highlight this quite singular military monument. As a result, apart from lovers and revellers, visitors to Manjarabad Fort leave in just a few minutes, not knowing that they have seen one of the few remaining star-shaped forts in India.
Manjarabad Fort stands on a little hill, 988 m above sea level. A short path and then a long flight of steps lead into a wide passageway flanked by solid, looming granite walls. One or two sharp turns later, the passageway ends at an arched entrance into the fort. I was lucky I had an architect colleague with me who knew a thing or two about the fort and asked me to look up as soon as we entered: carved on the roof of the archway was an eight-pointed star — a plan of the eight-pointed fort itself!
Built in the 18th century
The Manjarabad Fort was built in the late 1790s, a time when Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore, was battling for Mysore’s sovereignty against the British East India Company. Also involved here were the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad, both of whom often fought on the side of the British against Tipu Sultan. And then there were the French, bit players who had allied themselves first with Hyder Ali and later his son Tipu Sultan, playing out their enmity against the English here in Mysore.
But fighting and defending territory was a feature of the region’s history even before these particular actors entered the stage, so it is not surprising that almost every hillock in old Mysore state sported a fort — historians say there were more than a thousand forts in the kingdom. Many of these forts, such as at Devanahalli, Nandi Hills, Koppal and Chitradurga, to name just a few, were extensively renovated by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, often with the help of their French engineers. According to historian Barry Lewis of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, you can see the French influence in these forts, especially in those parts of the forts related to artillery use, such as in the widely splayed openings for firing cannon, for example.
In those days, the French were famed for their military architecture. The late 1600s was the age of Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban (1633 – 1707), France’s most famous military engineer and commissioner of fortifications under the French king Louis XIV. By this time, the use of gunpowder in warfare had already transformed forts from tall, high-walled structures into earth-walled constructions with low but solid walls that would withstand pounding by cannon.
Bastions that projected out from the walls were key features of these new-age forts and were designed so that soldiers could fire on anyone who got too close to the fort walls. In the 1500s, the Italians came up with the idea of triangular and polygonal-shaped bastions to reduce the so-called ‘dead zones’ or blind spots in front of bastions. But it was Vauban who took their design to almost an art form. It is his name that is most often associated with sloping-walled, arrow-shaped bastions…exactly of the kind found at Manjarabad Fort.
The Manjarabad Fort was built in 1792 when Tipu Sultan wanted to guard the approaches to Mangalore and Coorg. It is one of the few forts built by Tipu where earlier there had been none. In common with many other forts renovated or built by him, Manjarabad Fort is also constructed of granite and rubble, and is protected by trenches all around. But unlike in Tipu’s other forts, Manjarabad’s bastions are neither semi-circular nor square. Instead, they are all shaped like arrow-heads so that the fort itself is shaped like an eight-pointed star. Not being constrained by earlier structures, perhaps Tipu himself or his French engineers had decided to adopt the then latest designs when building the new fort.
Similar to European forts
Even a cursory glance at Manjarabad Fort suggests a very strong resemblance to European-designed forts of the 17th and 18th centuries. The star-shaped plan, for example, is very similar to that of Palmanova in Italy built in 1593, or the star-shaped citadel in Quebec, Canada, built in the early 1700s, to a design approved by Vauban himself. Exactly like Vauban recommends, the accommodation for soldiers in Manjarabad is built along the fort walls, making it easy for them to be deployed in case of an attack. As for the sentry boxes, apart from the obvious Islamic design elements, I was struck by how they were near-replicas of those designed by Vauban for the fort at Montlouis in France.
At the time of its construction, Manjarabad was not the only star-shaped fort in India. Kolkata’s second fort, Fort William, built in the late 1700s, was also built to a star-shaped plan. Much of the eastern fortification walls no longer exist but the rest of the fort still stands. However, since it serves as the headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Indian army, it is inaccessible to the public. A fort in Potagarh, Odisha, built by the British in 1768, is also said to have been star-shaped but little remains of it now.
In other words, Manjarabad’s fort is probably the most complete Vaubanesque star-shaped fort in India that you can still see. It seems a real pity that the Archaeological Survey of India, which looks after Manjarabad Fort, has made no effort to inform the public about this unique monument. The only information the ASI provides here is that you could be imprisoned or fined for despoiling this protected monument.
Apart from its unusual plan, the Manjarabad fort also has some structures inside it that are interesting, especially a deep well with steps leading down to it from all four sides. Close to the well is an armoury which like Tipu’s other armouries is a partly subterranean structure with vaulted roofs.
The other attraction of the fort is, of course, the panoramic views of the surrounding country. Almost every spot on the walls and bastions affords a beautiful view of the surrounding hills, all clothed in dense green forests. The story goes that when he visited the completed fort, Tipu Sultan found the mountain covered by fog and so named the place Manjarabad, meaning ‘the Abode of Fog’. As the clouds rolled in, I could quite imagine Tipu viewing much the same scene and being moved to christen the place with that very evocative name.