A battle saga, one March night

A battle saga, one March night


A battle saga, one March night

REMAINS OF ANOTHER DAY The walls and bastion that remain today are only a small portion of the fort's northern gateway complex. Photos: Arul Jegadish

Right in the heart of Bangalore city is a monument that was at the centre of dramatic events that helped shape the course of history in this region and hence, in a sense, also determined its future. Exactly 220 years ago, in March 1791, the British Grand Army led by Charles Cornwallis defeated Tipu Sultan after laying siege to and capturing the fort of Bangalore.

In those days, Bangalore was a city of two forts – one that encircled the Pete and contained within it the commercial and residential areas, the other, the adjacent, so-called oval fort that held the Palace, arsenal, stores, treasury and other important state buildings, and also barracks and houses. The British first attacked and captured the Pete fort in a bloody assault on March 7, 1791. After the usual pillaging and plundering, there followed a two-week siege which culminated in the assault on the oval fort on the night of March 21.

Visiting the fort today, it is a little difficult to imagine the events of that battle. In place of the British, the fort now seems besieged by buses and people. Instead of the staccato of gunfire and the clamour of clashing armies, the area around the fort now resounds with the cacophony of cars, commuters, buses, horns, vendors and shoppers.

But enter the fort and you leave the din behind, as the solid and lofty stone walls effectively block out the outside world. Standing on the ramparts, I tried to imagine the scene on that warm moonlit March night two centuries ago. What would the defending Mysorean soldiers have felt when they saw ladders coming up against parts of the breached fort walls and the British troops swarming into the fort? Did the three cheers called out by the enemy troops when they scaled the ramparts – “Hip hip, hurrah! Hip hip, hurrah! Hip hip, hurrah!” – chill the defenders’ hearts or did it spur them into action? Certainly, the Mysore army fought back bravely.

Of brave Bahadur Khan

As the British chronicler Mark Wilks blandly puts it: “Resistance was everywhere respectable.” Several British contemporary accounts of the battle mention the gallant commandant of the fort, Bahadur Khan, who died fighting at the breach to defend the fort. But in a few hours, the resistance was quelled and the fort fell to the British.

Anywhere from 300 to 2,000 Mysoreans are said to have died during the final battle that ended the siege of Bangalore.

One of the immediate results of the Battle of Bangalore was that the British army’s supplies were replenished. Accounts of the wars of the period sometimes read like a never-ending search for supplies: for rice and grain, gold and loot, but also for forage for the thousands of bullocks that were employed to transport guns and other equipment, and without which the army would be quite powerless. So if by capturing Bangalore, British soldiers had a few more days of rations and their bullocks a few more days’ feed, it was no small matter. But Cornwallis was also able to use Bangalore as a convenient base for his subsequent and eventually successful assaults on Tipu’s capital at Srirangapatna.

Loss of morale

Another consequence of the defeat of this important and prestigious fort was the loss of morale among Tipu’s soldiers: In the months following the capture of Bangalore, several forts in his empire were either captured by the British without firing a shot, or in some cases, suddenly gave up resisting them and fell to them rather meekly.

The British occupied Bangalore fort for only a year in the 1700s. In 1792, following Tipu’s defeat at Srirangapatna, according to the terms of the treaty he signed with the British, Bangalore was returned to him. But when Tipu was killed in 1799, the British took over Bangalore Fort and stationed a garrison there. In fact, even though we think of the cantonment as being in the eastern parts of Bangalore, the fort, too, formed a division of the cantonment. It wasn’t until 1888, when the arsenal was shifted out of the fort, that the British relinquished control of the fort and handed it over to civil authorities.

The fort that still stands near Victoria hospital is only a fraction of the stone oval fort that fell to the British on March 21, 1791. In its heydays, this was but a small part of the extensive northern gateway complex that was called Delhi gateway. The southern Mysore gateway stood close to where today’s Makkala Koota circle is.

What remains of the forts?

How did the city go from having two complete, interconnected forts to now having merely two and half bastions and a portion of a gateway?

We do not know much about how the fort that once encircled the Pete fared after it was captured by the British on March 7, 1791. No trace remains of it today. Popular opinion has it that the Pete fort was built by the founder of Bangalore, Kempegowda, while the oval fort was built later by Chikkadevaraja Wodeyar.

But contrary to this view, S K Aruni, Assistant Director of Southern Regional Centre of the Indian Council for Historical Research, believes that both these forts were built by Kempegowda. According to Dr Aruni, there is no evidence for citing Chikkadevaraja as the builder of the oval fort. Further, he says that building two forts, one around the commercial centre of the town and the other forming a citadel, was a popular practice in the 1500s. Aruni reasons that Kempegowda would have been inspired by the layout of modern and important capital cities of the time, such as Bidar, which were built on this pattern.

Fortified by Tipu, Hyder

Regardless of who built it, the oval fort certainly underwent many transformations. It went through a complete overhaul under Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, when the duo rebuilt it in stone, strengthening its bastions and redesigning its defences. Some of the fort’s defensive works bear the telltale influence of the French engineers who worked with Tipu.

The whittling down of the stone oval fort began soon after the British took it over. Some buildings within the fort, including parts of Tipu’s palace were demolished when they took over the fort.

The dismantling of the fort continued even as late as the 1930s. Glacis, ramparts and walls made way for roads while arsenals, barracks and the other old buildings quickly made way for colleges, schools, bus stands, and hospitals, among other things.

Today, little remains to remind people of the historic battle that took place here, except for a wall plaque that was put in during the British period. It reads: “Through this breach the British assault was delivered. March 21, 1791.”

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