A fort of many tales

A fort of many tales

The sky is dense with dark clouds as we head towards the fort town of Ballari. The twin rocky hills, Ballari Gudda and Kumbara Gudda, tower over the townscape and come into view much before we enter the town. One of Karnataka's oldest forts and its pride, the citadel lies at the centre of the town and stretches over a circumference of 2 km. The fort is located atop Ballari Gudda, a monolithic hill.

The history of Ballari town is a long one that traces its beginnings to 300 BC and continues through to the Vijayanagar empire, which was founded in 1365 CE. In this period, it was ruled by several dynasties, including the Mauryas, Satavahanas, Pallavas, Kadambas, Badami and Kalyani Chalukyas, Southern Kalachuryas, Sevuna dynasty and the Hoysalas. Following the fall of the Vijayanagar empire in the 16th century, Ballari experienced turbulent times. Later, Hyder Ali made it his stronghold, and then it subsequently came under the sway of the British imperialists around 1800 CE when it served as their cantonment.

Many legends

Ballari was once part of an area also known as Kuntala Desha, ruled by the Western Chalukyan kings. Subsequently, it was also known as Sindavadi-nadu and Nolambavadi-nadu. It is interesting to note the various legends associated with the naming of Ballari. One of the myths credit 'Balari' as being another name for Goddess Durga. According to an inscription belonging to the Talakadu Ganga Dynasty, Ballari is derived from the old Kannada words vallari and vallapuri.

As per another such fable, Ballari came to be named after Indra, the king of gods who annihilated the demon 'Balla'. One other tale indicates that Ballari is derived from the word balla, meaning a measuring cup used for quantifying grain. The story goes that a devout merchant community which passed through the town could not find a Shivalinga to worship when they halted here. They turned a balla upside down, symbolically for a linga, and offered prayers to it. In time, a temple was built around it and dedicated to Shiva as Balleshwar. Even today, the locals celebrate Maha Shivaratri at the temple with great pomp and pageantry.

The upper and lower forts into which the Ballari Fort is segmented were built during the regime of two different rulers, Hanumappa Nayaka and Hyder Ali, respectively.

Without much delay and before the rains decide to play spoilsport, we proceed to the Upper Fort, also known as Hill Fort. The fort, which is built on an isolated monolithic granite rock, was constructed by Hanumappa Nayaka, a vassal of the Vijayanagar Empire. The structure rests atop the Ballari hill, on a spur of the Sandur hill range bordering Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

We begin our climb to the polygonal-shaped Fort Hill via an uneven flight of steps that run parallel to a winding path created by rocky boulders. Little children, evidently natives of the town, seem to have a field day bounding their way through these rock surfaces, often sliding down as if on a regular play-slide. We halt several times during our climb of over 600 uneven stone steps to reach the top. The views of the town that sprawl below are spectacular. We are overcome by a sense of pride as we see, from every point of our halt, the fluttering national flag of our country, as it is held majestically atop a soaring flagstaff located at the centre of the town.

The semi-elliptical-shaped Ballari Gudda is rocky with a mix of abundant granite and feldspar boulders, with barely any greens except for a variety of cacti. The fort itself is built of cyclopean masonry comprising granite, set in lime mortar with musket holes and circular bastions at periodic intervals. The view of the plains spread below us is spectacular. We weave our way through a maze of structures that once served as stables for horses, cisterns, ponds, water conduits and watchtowers. Most of these structures, though in ruins, provide glimpses of bygone times. It is yet again heart-warming to see Karnataka's State flag hoisted on a pole on the fort's main turrets. This east-facing turret also has a huge mural of the Indian flag which is visible from the approach road below. As we walk the length of the fort, we come across a tunnel, supposedly leading to Srirangapattana and Mysuru.

Hyder Ali who captured the fort in 1769, renovated and modified it with the help of a French engineer. On the eastern mount of the fort, he added the lower fort. History records that the engineer was hanged for having erroneously calculated the height of the fort, which unfortunately, was visible from the neighbouring Kumbara Gudda. This jeopardised the security of the fort. On the east gate of the fort, we see the Frenchman's grave, which locals consider to be the tomb of a Muslim saint. The Lower Fort has a 30 feet long, 40 feet wide deep moat around it. We reach this section of the fort via one of the two gates, from which it is accessible. At one time, the structure had in its portals, armoury, barracks and garrisons.

When the colonialists took over the town, they added a store, lodge, post office, a church and an accompanying orphanage, and some private residences. Today, however, the lower fort is home to government buildings, educational institutions and edifices of worship, which include the Kote Anjaneya Temple just outside the eastern gate. With these attractions, the edifice is an appropriate destination for both history buffs and travel enthusiasts.

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