The cry of war has been replaced by the rustle of leaves and the twitter of birds. Pankaja Srinivasan writes from Palakkad
From where did they pour hot oil on their unsuspecting enemies? Everyone knows that uninvited guests, foolish enough to come too close to the fort walls, would have cauldrons of the stuff tipped over their heads from above. But, may be, that was not Haider Ali's style.
The Palakkad Fort that he made famous doesn't seem very war-like today. It is big and red and has a moat and a bridge leading to a massive entrance…but still, it is not intimidating. Anjenaya stands at its entrance. And people bob up and down holding their ears in front of Ganesha carved into the fort wall. All this makes it even less war-like.
Perhaps it is because not much remains of the original. Till recently, it was overgrown, derelict and quite invisible. Though it's located in a bustling part of Palakkad (there is a Fort bus stop and a Fort exhibition ground), even the locals didn't know much about it. Until 2004, when the Archaeological Survey of India, Thrissur Circle, stepped in.
Now, we know that in 1766 Haider Ali refurbished and strengthened this medieval fort with some help from the French. It was meant to be a strategic location that facilitated communication between Coimbatore and the West Coast. In 1790, the British recaptured it and, thereafter, it must have slowly fallen into disuse. And, strangely enough it has always been referred to as the Tipu Sultan Fort.
The history that is available is rather sketchy. The fort has seen some fierce battles, especially between the Zamorin and Haider Ali, and later the British. So, there must have been prancing horses and caparisoned elephants, soldiers in armour and canons trundling up and down the ramparts (there are barricaded alcoves that must have stored the ammunition). But, for now, the cry of war has been replaced by the rustle of leaves and the twitter of birds. We see hornbills, lots of them, on the gnarled old branches of the trees. Instead of sword-wielding generals there are nervous sweethearts holding hands, and kids skip about as their parents keep an eye on them.
There is water green and shiny in a step well and a lone man fishes out weeds from it with a stick. Nearby is a pillared mandapa that serves as a museum. It has rather nice ‘before and after' photographs. They give you an idea of how dilapidated the fort once was and how much work the ASI has put in. The choked, overgrown moat is limpid today with tortoises swimming in it. Broken pillars are standing again and the undergrowth has been cleared. The man at the museum informs us that there are plans to update the museum and further spruce up the fort.
When Haider Ali set about restoring the fort, he is said to have used granite from the nearby Jain Medu. The area still exists in the municipality of Palakkad, and was once home to a community of Jains. Today, the area is only occasionally visited by a few Jains. They come there to pray at an ancient Devi temple (some say it is over 2,000 years old) that still stands there. Many attempts have been made to restore the temple which is in a shambles, but for a long time it was believed that every time someone tried, they would hit a hurdle. But, a man next door tells us that steps are underway to clean and restore the temple.
An old well stands next to the temple and amidst the wild undergrowth are beheaded statues of tirthankaras, and remnants of carved granite. There are inscriptions on the walls. The story is that two brothers came to this region to trade in diamonds. One of them dreamt that he should bring the Devi from his village in present-day Karnataka and install her in a temple here. So he did. And she is still worshipped there.
Keywords: Palakkad Fort