Forts always remind me of layers of sponge cake stacked precariously on top of each other, sometimes toppling down or breaking in halves. That's what I'm thinking about as we turn into Kalpakkam Township just off East Coast Road. We turn right at a fork in the road where a milestone says ‘Sadurangapattinam 1 km', except we're staring at an intimidating cement wall blocking our way. Returning to the main road, we take turn right again and stop at the ruins of the Dutch Fort in Sadras.
The Sadras Fort sits about 100 metres away from the silvery shores of Kalpakkam and 11 km from Mahabalipuram. The wind is just picking up as we walk past the rusting cannons that sit on stony bastions, through the bell tower and into the fort. The towering walls are largely intact, (restored by the ASI), even if the insides are crumbling. The sandy floor is coal black, where the weeds that permeate the space have recently been burnt.
This 400-year-old fort was a flourishing Dutch trading settlement in the 1600s, we find out from Anbuchezhiyan, the caretaker. The Dutch East India Company decided to build a fort here because it was already an established port that traded in muslin and spices. The place was then called Sadiravasagan Pattinam, which later changed to Saduranga Pattinam, shortened as Sadirai. This came to be referred to as Sadras.
To our right is a Dutch cemetery right out of a postcard, with double tombs (of two brothers), a tomb of a child, all marked with interesting inscriptions. The tombs date between 1620 and 1769. “Successive generations of these people still come here sometimes and offer prayers,” says Anbuchezhiyan. Next to the cemetery is a secret passage, where, according to him, the Dutch stored their goods. A part of this passage, built at ground level, has caved in. Apart from this, there are warehouses that are being restored, along with rooms with brick floors, barracks, pieces of Dutch crockery, pipes and terracotta vessels that have been excavated by the ASI. Old trees grow near the ruins, with a couple of stone benches nearby.
When the British set foot here, it caused a commercial conflict between the two powers, which soon became a war. The English captured the fort in 1796 and bombed it from sea, virtually razing it to the ground. The Dutch came back to the fort briefly in 1818 but were driven out again in 1854. This ended their rule along the coast.
About thirty-odd kilometres from here, you take a turn at Kadapakkam village, and at its very end are the picturesque ruins of Alamparai fort, set against the backdrop of calm backwaters and the sea. We bounce our way down to the fort (the roads are quite bad), find our car stuck in sand and then trudge the rest of the way into the fort.
Alamparai was an ancient sea port. It was earlier called Idaikazhinadu and is also known as Alamparva and Alampuravi. The existing fort was built during the Mughal era (between 1736 A.D. and 1740 A.D.). The fort was earlier under the control of the Nawab of Arcot, Doste Ali Khan, and was gifted to the French. When the French were defeated by the British during the Carnatic wars, the fort came under the British and was destroyed in 1760.
There isn't much to see inside the fort, except a small mausoleum right at its centre. The outer façade was damaged during the tsunami in 2004 and pieces of its walls lie in the waters below.
Palm trees surround the fort on the outside and there is an unassuming quiet about the entire area.
Alamparai finds mention in many places in history, including the diaries of dubash, Ananda Ranga Pillai. It was seen as a flourishing trading port of the Arcot Nawabs and the mint is mentioned in several places in the diaries of Pillai. It was the primary port of trade for the Arcot nawabs and even had a mint (which was recently excavated).
The walls are really high and we climb up the broken steps to the top of the fort (where the watchtowers were, perhaps) to get a good look at the ocean. At a far distance, we see fishing boats heading out to sea, and scout for larger ships the same way those on the watchtower might have done a couple of centuries ago.