A tale of Bangalore and its four forts

A tale of Bangalore and its four forts

Just a few centuries ago, Bangalore region boasted of not one, but four forts. Today, only two of them have survived the onslaught of encroachment while the other two are buried under vegetation and earth along with their past, finds Meera Iyer

How many cities can you think of that can boast of having a fort? Did you know Bangalore has four? A mud fort, a stone fort, a round fort, an oval fort, a fort that is complete and one that is not, a fort where a challenger to the mighty British was born, to one where a petty chieftain likely ruled, Bangalore has them all.

Let’s start at the very beginning. Nestled between Hosur and Bannerghatta Roads, Begur is one of Bangalore’s faster-growing suburbs, chock-a-block with layouts and apartments. Right in the middle of it all is the Panchalingeshwara temple, where a 1,100-year-old inscription has the oldest known reference to a place called Bengaluru. Not far from this temple is a tiny circular fort, barely 1.4 square kilometres in area. We don’t know exactly when it was built but an inscription on the fort’s gateway was written over 1,100 years ago, suggesting that the fort too is at least as old.

The circular fort is constructed with mud, though its gateway is built of stones. Apart from two small 17th or 18th Century temples and a well, the fort has no buildings or structures, though it does have some tantalising small mounds – do remains of ancient structures lie beneath them?

The fort’s mud walls are surprisingly intact though they have long since been covered with vegetation. Scale these walls on the far side and you can still see traces of the moat that once surrounded the fort. Clearly, this fort once served the defence needs of its residents.

Today, with construction cranes towering over it from nearby, it takes quite a bit of imagination to see this pocket-sized fort as imposing or even well-defended. But it seems Begur’s little mud fort harks back to a distant past when wars were simpler, fought with bows and arrows, and mud walls and a moat were enough to keep enemies at bay. The fort was likely the residence of a powerful local chieftain and his family. Nowadays, only goats and goatherds visit the fort: Begur’s bucolic and peaceful fort has so far kept enemies and everyone else away with no effort at all.

Just three kilometres from Begur lies another fort in the village of Bettadasanapura. Atop a low rocky hillock not far from Electronics City, Bettadasanapura’s fort is small and rectangular, with circular bastions at the four corners. This fort is built of roughly-hewn granite blocks. A stone gateway very similar to Begur’s leads into the fort. Inside is a large and popular temple dedicated to Thimmarayaswamy and a small, picturesque, rock-cut kalyani with steps leading down to it on one side.

According to the Gazetteer, the temple was probably built by the Wodeyars.
Begur and Bettadasanapura have very close cultural connections: The annual jatre at Begur’s temple traditionally begins at Bettadasanapura.Though the fort is much more recent than Begur’s ancient fort, Bettadasanapura’s fort is in greater disrepair.

The stone walls have crumbled and given way here and there, and vegetation runs amok in places. But this is what makes walking along the perimeter of the fort all the more thrilling, for a part of you expects to come across a hidden cannon ball, a potsherd or some other little relic of the past. Besides, Bettadasanapura’s isolated perch atop a hillock means you are always assured of an invigorating breeze.

The two remaining Bangalore forts are both oval shaped. About five kilometres beyond the international airport is the Devanahalli fort, which dates back to 1501, when a chieftain named Mallabairegowda built a mud fort here. The fort would have remained just another of the many little forts that dotted the countryside in the days of yore if it hadn’t been for a certain Hyder Ali distinguishing himself on the battlefield here in 1749.

Fighting in the Wodeyar army, it was here that Hyder began his illustrious military career that eventually led to him becoming the de facto ruler of all of Mysore. His son Tipu Sultan was born at Devanahalli in 1750. A small memorial just outside the fort purportedly marks the place where the Tiger of Mysore was born.

Fort architects

Hyder and Tipu had many of the old forts in their kingdom rebuilt in stone. Devanahalli’s fort serves as a nice illustration of their brand of French-influenced military architecture. Discerning visitors will see evidence that it once had a moat with a drawbridge across it. The wide ramparts built with stone and rubble, the brick parapets, the large semi-circular bastions and the design of the musket holes are all features you will see in most of the forts that they rebuilt or renovated. But as Dr S K Aruni of the Indian Council for Historical Research points out, a trace of the original Gowda-built fort still exists: two large square towers within the fort are probably built on square bastions that Mallabairegowda would have built in his mud fort.

Both Hyder and Tipu are said to have had a soft spot for Devanahalli. Legend says that Tipu Sultan often came to Devanahalli when in need of R & R, enjoying a spot of hunting thereabouts. There is little by way of forest nowadays, but Devanahalli is still an excellent spot for rest and relaxation.

The oval fort that still stands in the centre of Bangalore is in many ways very similar to Devanahalli’s. Most historians believe it was first constructed here by Chikka Devaraja Wodeyar sometime in the late 1600s, though some aver that it was originally built by Kempegowda, the founder of Bangalore. Tipu Sultan rebuilt it extensively, making it one of the stronger forts in Mysore.

In the 1790s, British army officers described the Bangalore fort as double-walled, with four gates, a deep and wide moat, and with several towers and bastions guarding it. A major battle was fought here in 1791 in which the British defeated Tipu’s army and successfully stormed and captured the fort. The fort reverted to Tipu a year later and then fell back into British hands in 1799, when the British finally killed Tipu Sultan.
The British held on to Bangalore fort until 1888, after which it was given over to the Mysore government. From the 1900s, the fort was gradually whittled away, as the walls were broken down bit by bit, making way for roads, markets, hospitals, schools, bus-stands and more. Today, only a tiny fraction of Bangalore’s once-lofty fort still stands, lost in the chaos surrounding it.

Bangalore once had a fifth fort too. Just north of the stone oval fort stood another oval fort –the original city of Bangalore, founded by Kempegowda in 1537. This city had roads running north-south and west-east, and in as per the then-prevailing practice, Kempegowda established neighbourhoods for various professions in his new city. And so came about the old city’s many petes– Nagarthapete, Akkipete, Balepete and so on.The fortified city was surrounded by a strong mud wall. Sometime in the 1800s, this wall was destroyed. But remarkably, the footprint of the old city is still clearly visible in any satellite image of the area. The walls of Kempegowda’s fortified city may have come down, but it still survives.

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