Chitradurga fort, like most other forts in the country, has its own treasury of legends and stories. And if you happen to have an imaginative guide, it's magic to see them take narrative shape.
I like engaging guides at historical places. Although their facts may not bear close scrutiny, their legends are interesting. And part of a monument's charm to me lies more in the evocation than in the facts which are available everywhere. Our guide at Chitradurga, which lies 200 km from Bangalore, was as intrepid in his story telling as the architects of the famous fort were in their strategic methods to repel enemies.
The fort was the symbol of the power of the Nayak Palegars, feudatories of the Vijayanagara kings. It took eight centuries to complete before it was taken by Hyder Ali's soldiers and his son Tipu after which the British briefly occupied it.
It commands a magnificent position on a hilltop, and the Nayaks used this vantage well. It was strategy at every turn: in the zigzag of the pathways which prevented the attacker from easy access, in the embrasures for weapons aiming exactly at eyes or heads and in the seven gates each with its own defence mechanism from the clanging bell to poisoned swords which fell upon the enemy.
Stretching for eight km, it has seven circumambulations which gave it its Kannada name of Yelu suttina kotte, 19 gateways, four secret entrances and 50 warehouses. Boulders all around present a formidable sight — dramatic, impregnable and harsh.
Inside the fortress are about 122 temples including forms of Siddeswara such as balekka(plantain) Siddeswara, nellikai(gooseberry) Siddeswara, sampige(chempaka) Siddeswara etc. Many are cave temples, tunnelled through the boulders to emerge from behind. Some stand on rocky outcrops like the Hidembeswara temple and therein lies a tale.
The Pandavas did battle here with Hidemba, an asura. However, the dying Hidemba asked a boon of his destroyer Bhima that he would marry his sister Hidembi. Their son Ghatotkacha was supposed to have been born here.
That temple, dedicated to Hidemba, stands silhouetted, dramatic against the sun. My arthritic knees protested, but the guide literally enticed me step by step. He knew I would be spellbound. In front of another temple is a swing which the king would use during Dussehra and light lamps placed on another structure called deepada kamba. Halfway up the hill to one side is a pavilion dedicated to animals such as the horse, the bull and the elephant which had served the rulers with such commitment. This is called the bombe mantapa.
The architects provided wells, one of which, the akkathangiyaru hondais in memory of the two sisters who plunged to their deaths after the king, their husband, died. There is also a lovely, small, stepped tank used for storing coloured water for the ladies to play with during the vasant utsav, called okale(coloured) honda.
Such immense constructions were completed in an age when there was no cutting edge technology. We saw huge rocks with serrated edges having holes close to each other; when pegs were tapped into them they broke up. Sometimes water at pressure also helped split them.
Inside the mint was a temple-like structure with a diamond-shaped slab to cover a hole in which jewellery was stored with an idol on top to give the impression of worship being conducted here to deter foes. The mint had mud walls made of dough so strong that part of the walls still stood even after 400 years.
No account of the fort can be complete without the saga of the heroine of the fort: Onake Obbava. The woman who used the pestle with telling effect. She was the wife of a guard. When she went to the thanniru kolato fill her pot with water from the cool spring, she noticed Haider Ali's troops surreptitiously entering through a small opening in a cave. Undeterred by the fact that she was alone, she stood guard over the opening with an onake(a large wooden pestle) and bludgeoned the soldiers one by one as they tried to enter. The crevice is called Obbava Kindi in her memory.
Chandrasekhar, our guide, even had the acclaimed song about Obbava from the movie “Naagarahaavu” with the famed Kannada actor, the late Vishnuvardhan in it and he played it for us from his cell phone where he had it stored!
Unlike many of the better maintained forts in North India, with their palaces, this one is in ruins. Only the solid walls remain. Grass grows between the ruins and squirrels, sparrows and monkeys scamper across the ramparts, where soldiers once stood guard, protecting their birthright from sworn enemies from both within and without.
As we entered the fort early in the morning, we saw men and women enjoying the sublime peace of the hour: their only company was the lone hoopoe on the walls. It was a peace which the Nayaks probably never enjoyed for too long, having had to endure battles and raids throughout their fateful history.
The fort stands, a tribute to their strategy, their intrepidity and their courage.
By Rail: Daily service from Chitradurga Railway station to Bangalore and weekly services to Mumbai
By Road: From Bangalore it is 200 kilometres on NH-4
Advisable to hire a guide for Rs. 250 for a three-hour tour
Places to stay: Hotel Naveen Regency, NH4 Bypass Road, Rates: From Rs. 600 to Rs. 2,000