INSIDE STORY Vattakottai This circular sea fort conceals within its walls a tale of camaraderie during trying times. Lakshmi Sharath tells you more

A Dutch naval officer leads an army against an Indian king, only to be defeated by him. The story, however, does not end there. The king, impressed by the foreigner, hires him and makes him a commander in his own army. The Dutch officer trains the army, builds forts and even helps them defeat local and international rivals in war.

This story is set in the 18th Century when kings and queens ruled India and the Europeans were knocking on their doors to establish trade and eventually take over power. I am speaking of the stories relating to the Travancore-Dutch wars. The king is Travancore Maharaja Marthanda Varma and the Dutch naval officer is Eustachius De Lannoy who was with the Dutch East India Company before switching loyalties.

It is a beautiful day with perfect cotton candy clouds floating over the clear blue sky. The sea surrounding us is calm as it gently caresses the shore. A lone tree stands, its dead branches almost touching the sky. In the distant horizon, we can see windmills dancing to the breeze. I am at Vattakottai, a circular sea fort built on the coast near Kanyakumari, by De Lannoy for Marthanda Varma. Standing from the ramparts, I look out into the picturesque view of the Western Ghats encircling the Bay of Bengal on one side and the Arabian Sea on the other.

Vattakottai was one of our destinations as part of the heritage Naanjil Naadu tour where we explored the monuments left behind by various dynasties in and around Kanyakumari and Nagercoil.

Origins of a dynasty

The Venad kings started their reign over Travancore from this region before moving base. The ancient Padmanabhapuram Palace ringed in by the Western Ghats stands as a testimony to the origins of the dynasty. It is believed that Marthanda Varma dedicated his kingdom to his family deity Padmanabha, and Padmanabhapuram lost its significance when the capital was eventually shifted from here to Trivandrum in the 18th Century.

As we enter the granite fort, the outer walls greet us with the symbol of two elephants with a conch shell, but the fort itself is neither imposing nor formidable. It just seems like another nondescript hidden destination that lets the eye gaze at some of the most beautiful vistas around. It was believed that one can see the Padmanabhapuram Palace from here, but all I can see is a fabric of blue — the sky and the sea seems to merge. Coconut trees grace the shore, as some parts of the wall jut out into the sea. And, as many folklores say, a tunnel was supposed to have been built here too, but one wonders where, as the fort seemed isolated, surrounded by water.

A huge open courtyard, probably a parade ground, leads us to a flight of steps with a ramp. We look down from the walls, built at a height of almost 25 feet, and the sea greets us. The British apparently destroyed the fort in a much later battle, but today, Vattakottai stands in memory of the Dutch commander who had served and trained the army under the Travancore kings.