Holding fort

Holding fort

heritage

Holding fort

The Vellore Fort, within which were sown the first seeds of our nation’s freedom struggle, is one of the principal sites of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, writes Maya Jayapal

In my mind, a fort is implacable, unyielding, a scene of rivalry and battle, of conquest and defeat, of romance and intrigue.

Therefore, I was not surprised to see that the word originates from the Latin word for strong. There are all types of forts — land forts, hill forts, jungle forts and water forts. An outstanding example of the latter is the Vellore Fort.

As a child, I had lived in Vellore for two years and I am sure we had gone to the fort for picnics, but I do not remember it now. So, I was quite astonished to see, on my recent visit, just how much a part of our history it is, and discover the wonders within.


It is, according to Virginia Fass, who has chronicled the history, architecture and importance of forts in India, a perfect example of a water fort. I was amazed to see the expanse and extent of the grounds inside.

Sprawling over 136 acres, it has only one gateway. Originally, there was a drawbridge that connected it across the crocodile-infested moat (one of Kautilya’s recommendations for a fort). The space between the outer and inner walls could accommodate a tennis court, according to one citation.

Site of uprising

Although sadly neglected today, with rank undergrowth, pools of stagnant water and dilapidated buildings, it was a historic place. A place which, in a way, was considered the forerunner of intense anti-British feelings, which culminated in the much-publicised mutiny of 1857. I could feel the power that exuded, almost palpably, from the crumbling walls of this impressive fort.

The fort is supposed to have been constructed in the 13th or 14th century and ran through the Hoysalas, the Vijayanagara kingdom, the Delhi Sultanate, Marathas and finally, the British, who captured Vellore in 1781. They incarcerated the sons of Tipu Sultan here, within the precincts of the fort, as also the king of Kandy.

The buildings where they lived, in comparative comfort with retainers and servants, were called the Hyder Mahal, Tipu Mahal, Raja Mahal, Rani Mahal and Kandy Mahal respectively.
The dramatic events of the Sepoy Mutiny played themselves out, on July 10, 1806, within the fort. Indian sepoys rose in a bloody revolt against the East India Company garrison. The sepoys went on a rampage, shooting at British soldiers and officers, and massacring the sick in the hospital, leaving 14 British officers and 100 soldiers dead.

The story goes that Colonel Rollo Gillespie, out riding at dawn, returned after his morning canter to find the place in an uproar. He immediately rode to Arcot, 14 miles away, to muster his men and returned for a counter-attack. In the ensuing bloody melee, 350 Indian sepoys were put to death. The event is celebrated in a poem by Henry Newbolt which ends in the refrain:Riding at dawn, riding alone,Gillespie came to false Vellore.

The causes of the conflagration were many. New regulations against facial caste marks, earrings and facial hair, the imposition of new turbans made of a leather cockade, purportedly of cow and pig hide, known as firangi topi from Madras, incensed both Hindu and Muslim soldiers.

The instigating match was supposedly lit by the children of Tipu, who were inside the fort, and rumour has it that weapons were smuggled in by retainers of the princes and princesses. The flag of Tipu Sultan was hoisted on the ramparts and the sepoys went berserk, looting and plundering.

But, they were careless in the euphoria of the moment, perhaps, and had left the gates unattended. The British reinforcements came thundering in and retook possession of the fort. Poetic content has Newbolt describing how belts were secured to hoist Gillespie over the gates to open them for the army.

According to several sources, reprisals were swift and dire. “Six mutineers were blown away from guns, five were shot with musketry, and eight were hung.” (Secret Despatches, Vol 33) A spectator describes the fact that kites accompanied the party to the execution place, flapping their wings and screeching, as if in anticipation of the bloody feast. And they caught the quivering pieces of flesh before they reached the ground. The princes, however, were not punished, but sent to Calcutta.

The buildings inside have got a new lease of life, having been converted into museums and offices and a police training school. There is a church, a mosque and a temple within. We inspected the church, kept immaculate and gleaming with a new coat of whitewash. We also went looking for the graves of the British, who had perished in the mutiny, but to no avail. It was only later that we read that the bodies were in another church across the maidan, on the other side of the street. But the raw sense of history hangs over the place like a veil.

The temple inside is another story. It is built in late Vijayanagara style, with wonderful pillars carved with beauteous damsels, prancing steeds and other animals and birds, and dancers in graceful poses. The temple is several steps down the road in front, with a kalyana mantapa, an utsava mantapa and a glorious Nandi. The temple is dedicated to Jalakanteswara; legend has it that the kalyana mantapa, which is a beautiful piece of art, with sculptures of parrots hanging topsy-turvy around lotus stems and other sculptures, was to be taken to the Brighton Museum. But the ship that was to carry it sank and thankfully, the plan was abandoned.

The usual worshippers were in the temple, mostly women with trays of coconut and flowers on one side, clutching children on the other. A few tourists were around, taking in the exquisite ceilings and pillars with wonder. It is a temple that has not been written about much.

This, I am grateful for, in a way, because the temple is not overcrowded and is fairly clean. I would like to return to it at leisure some day and drink in its beauty.

The fort is a lesson in history and I wish it would be restored to its former prestige, with well-tended walks, signboards and a map. For example, there is a square building with Corinthian pillars, but nobody present inside the fort at that time could tell us what it was.

Information is necessary to imbibe history, to understand our past, to be respectful of it. Although the overburdened ASI is making its efforts, the project requires much more funding and endeavour. In America, much is made of a 100-year-old edifice, with videos, guides, books and souvenirs. I wonder, are we so cavalier about our history simply because we have so much of it?

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