Hidden 100: Fort on the coast

TESTIMONY OF A TRIUMPH: Visages of Manora Fort. Photo: M. Srinath   | Photo Credit: SRINATH_M

For the third time that evening I wished for a draught of some magical drink with shrinking powers, like the kind Alice found down a rabbit hole. The dark, knee-high tunnel I was peering down at a fort overlooking the Bay of Bengal, riddled with hidey-holes and lattice windows, looked all the more alluring in the hour before twilight.

What started out as a baffling question in a quiz show — ‘Connect Pattukottai taluk in Thanjavur district and Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte's historic nemesis' — ended in a Sunday jaunt to Manora at Sarabendrarajapattinam village. At the end of a drive from Tiruchi, we look for a towering structure only to find an edifice resembling a multi-tiered wedding cake, dwarfed by a tall modern lighthouse nearby. The Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department's signs at the site crack the connection. The 75-ft high hexagonal tower commemorates the Battle of Waterloo. It was erected by King Serfoji, the Maratha ruler of Thanjavur, in 1814. But what served as a family residence and lighthouse is also a testament to royal sycophancy. The monument actually preceded the Battle of Waterloo, which took place only in 1815. A stone tablet inside the fort records that the column was erected by the maharaja, “a friend and ally of the British to commemorate triumphs of British Arms and downfall of Bonaparte”. The intriguing name Manora was probably derived from ‘minaret' for obelisk or ‘manohara' for beautiful, says the tourist literature.

We cross the moat, now filled with plastic bottles, to a courtyard bounded by blackened ramparts set with niches. They open out into tunnels with dead ends, recesses submerged in shadows or short pillared corridors, enough to kindle the itch to explore. Looking out of the windows overhanging the moat, I conjure up soldiers keeping guard in the tower, where weapons and gunpowder were stored. We miss out on a probably magnificent view of the ocean as we are allowed to climb only two floors of the winding stone staircase. The tower was left open to the public after the restoration in 2000, but boisterous miscreants are blamed for the restricted access.

Leaving the fort behind, we walk towards the Coromandel coastline, where a cloudless blue sky meets a quivering sheet of inky blue that is the Bay of Bengal. The first thing that hits me even as I notice there are no waves, is a salty whiff mingled with an unmistakable stench. “That's kadal paasi (sea algae),” says a local, pointing to what looks like several yards of dried cow dung and hay leading into the sea. I take a step and almost lose balance as the algae gives like quicksand. One group that dared to wade through the mush are telling us, ‘Just follow the path we took' and ‘Take your shoes off' (this from someone at a comfortable distance from the odorous algae). I roll up my jeans and stagger knee-deep through the squelching clumps of black moss.

Finally I wade out to an anchored boat in the shallow waters. While all around me the undisturbed sea sparkles like a thousand diamonds in the sunlight, below I can spot squirmy fish, sea weed and stray linen. We wave out to a couple of boatmen revving up the motor and they promptly turn their backs, muttering ‘boating not allowed', ‘Sunday afternoon' and ‘only fishing'.

As I returned to land, crestfallen, a group of women with children in tow console me with memories of times when the fishing hamlet was more tourist friendly. “One year back, the place was so packed you would have been hard put to get a boat on a weekend,” says Mumtaz. “The park was better maintained and there were thatched shelters with seats for visitors.” She points to the bare coconut trunks.

If you can find beauty in the coconut groves bordering the fort, blue fishing nets sprawling on fine sand, children playing on colourful boats jutting out of a cove fringed with shrubs, or a single stork winging across the blue, then you will return with more than a picturesque photo album. At Manora, tranquility is offered on a platter while history breathes down on you along with the whooshing wind.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2021 9:37:43 AM |

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