In search of the forts of Madura

Madurai Kanchi describes thus the massive fort around Madurai — ‘the four entrances were so lofty that a full-grown elephant with a man on its back entered the gate without the man having to lower the flag post he held!’ Perhaps that’s why Madurai came to be known as naan-mada-koodal (meaning, the city with four entrances). “Sangam literature bears many references to fortifications and palaces in ancient Madurai. Inscriptions by Pandyas and Cholas also refer to a fort wall,” points out V Vedachalam, historian and epigraphist. “For instance, the Silapathikaram notes that flags fluttered atop the fort walls as Kannagi and Kovalan reached the city. Ilango Adigal even goes on to create a visual imagery where he says the flags were signalling an evil omen to Kannagi, as if asking her to go back ahead of the misfortune she was destined to undergo.”

However, if you take a stroll around the city’s heritage district today, there are hardly any walls or forts. Historians say that forts were built and fortified over three periods — the Early and Later Pandya and the Nayak periods and that the fort of the Early Pandyas stood at the place where the Meenakshi Temple stands now. “The ruins of ancient Madurai can be discovered only through an archaeological excavation but that’s simply not possible as the present city is so thickly developed,” says C Santhalingam, retired archaeological officer. “But, there are small clues that lead to not just one fort but two that were in existence — one belonging to the Pandya period and the other to the Nayak era.”

One among them are the four Pandiyan Agazhi Streets that run concentric to the Masi Streets. “The word agazhi in Tamil means moat and that indicates that the streets were once the moats around the walls of the Pandyan fort,” says Santhalingam. The Vitta vasal, a stone archway on the Amman Sannadhi Street and Mela Vasal (West Gate) near the Periyar bus-stand are parts of the Pandya and the Nayak forts respectively. An engraved stone plaque installed atop the Vitta Vasal by British engineer GM Philip in 1935, notes that the monument was the eastern gate way to the Pandyan fort. And another stone plate on the West Gate says that the building was part of the old fort of Madura.

Santhalingam says that Madurai was once a double-walled city that finds mention in the accounts of Yusuf Khan (Marudhanayagam). “The inner fort belonging to the Pandyas was made of granite stones while the outer fortress built by Krishnappa Nayak in the 16th Century was made of brick and lime mortar paste. During Tipu Sultan’s conquest of the south, he captured Dindigul but returned from Sholavandan failing to penetrate the double fort of Madurai. Likewise, it’s also said that Veera Ballala III, during his fight with Ghiyas-ud-din of Madurai Sultanate, was beheaded and hung at the entrance of the Madurai fort.”

Vedachalam adds that the Nayak fort had 72 bastions that were guarded by warriors of the 72 Palayams that the old Madurai country was divided into. “There were also many guardian deities enshrined in the fort wall. The Kottai Muniswarar Temple in Thavittu Sandhai found today, indicates that the area was the southern limit of the Nayak fort. Beyond the moats, there was also a protective patch of forest called as Kaval kadu. Debris of the demolished wall was used to fill the moat which later became the Marret Streets.”

One peculiar aspect of both these forts were that they were pulled down by the people themselves and not by any invader, says Pandurangan, Tamil historian and author of Ariyapadatha Madurai. “In 1842, Blackburn, who was the collector of Madurai, ordered to pull down the fort walls to pave way for expansion of the city. But as it might have cost the government a lot, the English engineer Marret and one Perumal Maistry suggested that the people demolish portions of the fort walls and in turn enjoy the piece of land they help recover. That’s how the glorious forts of Madura was brought down. Streets named after Marret and Perumal Maistry can still be found in the city.” He says that this piece of history is recorded in the annal 75 Years in the Madurai Mission, published by Theological Seminary. “There, it’s noted that the population inside the fort area was 35,000 which, after the pulling down of the fort rose to 1,25,000.”

Sivasamy Karthikeyan, who has a collection of few hundred black-and-white pictures and paintings of ancient Madurai, says that the fort wall has been clearly depicted in many images. “There’s even a detailed map showing the top-view of the city and the fort around it. A couple of 18th Century paintings by one French artist George Waight show the fortress in detail and the temple and palace inside it. There are also photos of the north gate of the fort near Yanaikkal and the west gate.” Visit his Facebook page @my.ancient.madura

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 7:12:19 AM |

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