A fort and an airport

A fort and an airport


A fort and an airport

Mention Devanahalli and everyone thinks ‘International Airport’. But Devanahalli is also where one of Indian history’s most colourful personalities, Tipu Sultan, was born. Indeed, the town is quite a heritage hotspot, with a history stretching back several hundred years even before Tipu. A fine fort famous for its association with Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali lies just off the national highway, about 10 km beyond the airport exit.

Though small, this oval fort is quite impressive with its huge stone walls topped with brick and mortar battlements. The overall impression is one of solidity, an impression that is reinforced when you walk along ramparts that are 20 feet wide. There are circular bastions at regular intervals and loopholes or gun slits line the walls in between, most with slots for four muskets, some with six. I couldn’t resist peering into each one and ended startling some lizards in the process!  The fort is less damaged the further you walk away from the road so that walking the ramparts is a little like going back in time. Away from the road, more of the original plastering remains on the fort walls, and you realise that the pillars in the bastions were all actually decorated with intricate stucco work and each loophole had a unique decorative design.

The French influence

Both Hyder and Tipu paid keen attention to matters of defence, incorporating the latest in military warfare from French engineers. Historians believe some of the fort’s features betray the French influence, such as the ledge running along the walls, which would have been used by soldiers to stand and fire from, or the slightly sloping floors of the bastions.

Story of sacrifice

Anjanappa, a wrinkled 40-something-year-old who lives in Devanahalli and looks after the fort lawns, told me of a morbid tale associated with the fort. One of the bastions in the fort, he says, is called the Bastion of Sacrifice because a pregnant lady was sacrificed there to ward off the evil eye on the fort.

I recalled that a similar story, though of self-sacrifice, is associated with the Bangalore fort. And there are further similarities between the two forts. 

Both were originally built by members of the Morasu Wokkalu clan and then rebuilt in stone by Hyder Ali. While Kempe Gowda built Bangalore’s fort in 1537, a mud fort at Devanahalli was first built in 1501 by Mallabaire Gowda, an ancestor of Kempe Gowda.
According to S K Aruni, author of a recent book on the Yelahankanadu Prabhus and Assistant Director of the Indian Council of Historical Research, traces of Mallabaire Gowda’s original fort remain in Devanahalli. The two square-shaped watch towers in the fort are probably part of the original design, says Aruni.

Devanahalli fort passed to the Wodeyars in 1749. In fact, it was during the siege of the fort that year that Hyder Ali first made his mark as a soldier. As a volunteer horseman in the Mysore army, he displayed such courage and daring that he impressed Nanjaraj, the Dalavoy of the Wodeyars.

Hyder’s military career never looked back and he eventually became the de facto ruler of Mysore. His son, the illustrious Tipu Sultan, was born just outside the fort circa 1750. A simple memorial marks his birthplace which lies half a kilometre outside the fort.

Soft spot for Devanahalli

Understandably, both Hyder and Tipu are said to have had a soft corner for Devanahalli. But in 1791, the fort was taken over by the British. A week after successfully wresting Bangalore fort from Tipu, Cornwallis and the British army marched to Devanahalli – only to find that it had been abandoned. But Tipu took back the fort shortly. In fact, in 1794, two years after he was forced to give two of his sons as hostages to the British after he lost the Third Mysore War, it was at Devanahalli that they were restored to Tipu.

British officers who have described this event say it took place near “the large tank” at Devanahalli.

Adjacent to the fort on its north is exactly such a large tank, one that today is usually dry. The British describe how several tents had been pitched near the tank and how gaily coloured elephants conducted the princes to Tipu’s camp, where they were greeted with a 21-gun salute. On reaching their father’s camp, the two young princes “sprang forward with a quick pace” to meet their father. Tipu, we are told, greeted the two princes by gently placing his hands on their necks.

Looking out the battlements at the dry lakebed, I saw that children were today enjoying a raucous game of cricket, where this extraordinary scene probably once took place.
Elsewhere in Devanahalli, too, a placid present overlies a dramatic past. Farmers plough their fields in the fort’s shadow, buffaloes and cows loll about, coconut palms sway in the breeze, and the frenetic activity of the airport seems worlds away.

Far cry from the aiport’s buzz

Another oasis of calm is the Venugopalaswamy temple close to the fort entrance. An inscription dated 1698 records the grant of several villages by the Avati-nadu prabhu Gopala Gowda for supporting worship at the temple. But it is likely that the temple itself is older than the inscription by a few hundred years. It has an imposing Dravidian style gopura, some nicely carved pillars and an interesting frieze depicting scenes from the Ramayana on its outer walls.  The Vishnu statues at the entrance are from the Ganga period, over a thousand years ago. But what I liked best about the temple was its serene atmosphere – no throngs, no queues,  just peace and quiet.

Devanahalli is also famous for a different sort of heritage – Devanahalli chakothas (pummelos) are one of the items that the Department of Horticulture sought geographical indicator status for last year. You will find vendors laden with the fruit lining the roads in and around Devanahalli. Try them, they are delicious!

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