I had wheels for feet and hibernated for too long, thanks to the irksome Chennai weather and lack of appropriate company to go on a jaunt. The travel bug in me begs for an outing and I pull myself out of lethargy’s cocoon to heed the call. But where do I go and for how long?
Sekhar, our chauffeur of many years, who is entirely aware of my penchant for travel, comes to my rescue. “Madam, why don’t we go on a day trip, to begin with, out of Chennai?” he suggests.
“Senji, perhaps,” he adds. “You could spend an entire day at the fort there. Don’t you remember that MGR film Raja Desingu with wonderful songs that was based on the famous fort of Senji?”
My decision is instantaneous. A few bottles of water, some snacks and my digital device packed in, with Sekhar as chauffeur and guide, I leave on the two-hour, 160 km-drive from Chennai to Senji. We motor down for the most part on NH 45 before turning into well-laid, tarred village roads, towards Senji, which lies on the Dindivanam-Tiruvannamalai route in Tamilnadu’s Villipuram District.
The tales associated with Senji are as colourful as the men who ruled it. The most prominent name that crops up at the very mention of Senji is that of Raja Desingu, as the Tamils chose to call Raja Tej Singh, the Rajput prince who ruled the region in the 18th century.
At the young age of 22 he lost his life, but not before creating history, battling the powerful army of Nawab Sadatulla Khan of Arcot.
The young prince mounted his favourite horse Neelaveni, and along with his friend and general, Mohammad Khan, valiantly fought the Nawab’s huge army of 8000 horsemen and 10,000 sepoys with his own meagre strength of 350 horses and 500 troopers!
Senji is also known by various names, each with its own meaning and etymology. ‘Genji’ meaning crab in the Tulu language, seems one choice of name since the place was once ruled by the Vijayanagara kings. The city, some believe, owes its name to Senjiamman, one of seven virgin sisters and the presiding deity of the temple that stands on a hillock.
Legend has it that the actual name of Gingee is ‘Sengiri’ meaning the ‘Red Hill’ in Tamil, that has got corrupted into Gingee. The myth associates Sengiri with Hanuman, who carried off the humungous Sanjeevi Hill under his arm with great ease, as he was not sure which herb growing on it was needed to save his master Lakshman, lying injured on the battlefield.
Nestled on three hills – Rajagiri, Krishnagiri, and Chandrayandurgam, also called Chakkalidurg, Gingee Fort is a gargantuan structure spread over 3 km and enclosed by a huge rampart, 60 feet thick. It stands at a height of 800 feet and looks regal, even in ruins!
The fort continues to be known for its rich secular architecture and magnificent military history. It was declared a National Monument in 1921 and since then enjoys the status of an ASI-protected monument.
The capital of the Nayaka rulers, Senji was once a flourishing fortified city and one of the few big cities of peninsular India, that was compared to Lisbon and Amsterdam by some Europeans who visited it in the late 16th century.
Father Pimenta, a Jesuit priest, supposedly gave the epitaph Troy of the East to Gingee Fort for the indomitable courage and valour displayed by its erstwhile rulers! It has been suggested that Gingee was modeled on Hampi, the capital of the Vijayanagar kings. Some historians date the fort city to the 12th century and others refer to its inception in the 16th century, from when it flourished till its decline in 1761.
No matter its origins, what is certain is that a string of dynasties held sway over Gingee. Stone sculptures and inscriptions point to Gingee having been inhabited by Jain monks, and Jainism prevailed there as far back as the 2nd century.
From 600 to 900 A.D the Pallavas held sway, followed by the Cholas, whosupreme in Gingee till 1100 A.D. The Pandyas, Cholas again and then the Hoysalas ruled Gingee till 1190, which then came under the suzerainty of the Yadava kings who remained dominant till 1330.
The Vijayanagar rulers were supreme for 150 years, from the end of the 14th century. Treason enabled the Maratha king Shivaji to take over in 1677 what he himself deemed “an impregnable fortress.”
The Chhatrapathi met a similar fate a couple of decades later when the Mughals seized Senji. Finally, the French ruled the roost at Gingee and when they surrendered to the English in 1761 and abandoned the fort, Gingee died a natural death and even passed into temporary oblivion. Though the British warded off valiant efforts by Haider Ali to seize the fort, they themselves displayed apathy towards it.
Krishnagiri, the smallest of the three inselbergs, also known as the Englishman Mountain, was largely occupied by the British. The scorching sun slows down my progress as I trudge up the steep, uneven steps leading to the citadel atop Krishnagiri.
The view from the top is spectacular, with the lush verdure of fields assuming an emerald sheen under the blazing sun. We climb a good many flight of steps to reach the different levels of the fort, within which are located a pair of stone granaries, a pillared hall, two temples and the Audience Durbar, an edifice of brick and mortar.
While the fort had been built over several phases and decades by different rulers, Vaiyappa Nayaka, the General of Krishnadeva Raya, it is said, was the first great builder who mobilized 12000 stonecutters, 6000 carpenters, 6000 blacksmiths and 6000 navvies to erect the fort.
The Nayakas who prevailed upon Gingee for almost a century, introduced profound changes in water management and also in the art of defence.
They developed powerful artillery based on circular and semi-circular structures, which they built especially around the solid towers of the fort. Though the area outside Gingee fortification is arid land, with no cultivation ever having taken place, the region within Gingee itself had been arable, thanks to the intelligent water collection system established by the Nayakas. The barren hills surrounding Gingee, made of volcanic, jagged rocks, today attract adventurers and climbers seeking an adrenaline rush.
There are several attractions at the foothills of Rajagiri, most of them temple structures dedicated to Lord Venugopalaswamy, Hanuman and Venkataramana. Visiting these edifices allows us some respite before we again begin the laborious climb to the top to reach the citadel.
The eight storey Kalyana Mahal or Marriage Hall is one of the most attractive ruins at ground level, built in characteristic architectural style of the Nayaka rulers of Vijayanagar. It seems it has had a makeover in recent times, at least with fresh paint, if not anything else. The hall has a square court in its centre with a pyramidal roof and high tower measuring 27 mts.
Barracks, stables, granary, gymnasium, the elephant tank, an open air museum with several sculptures and ponds, are other attractions here. Close to one of the ponds is a platform believed to be the area where Raja Desingh’s funeral pyre was lit and where his young wife immolated herself, lending popularity to the practice of sati.
The sun assumes a harsher tint and seems determined to thwart my efforts at exploration. I am equally stubborn not to give in to the whimsical sun giant above. I get myself a couple of lemons from a vegetable seller close by, squeeze half a fruit into my water bottle and keep sipping from it.
Feeling sufficiently rehydrated, I begin the arduous ascent through 1100 odd steps to the top. Sekhar peps me up with his incessant jabber, making sure I ignore my sagging spirits as doubts surface a couple of times as I wend my way up!
My attempts to remain unperturbed are complicated further by a host of monkeys that cast greedy glances at my camera. Sekhar tells me they are harmless but he is not convincing enough, as I see these creatures pounce on a fellow tourist’s handbag.
On the top of the Rajagiri hill, within the main citadel are two granaries, a treasury, an audience hall, a huge cannon and the famous Ranganatha Temple. The granaries, I learn, could store about three million kilos of rice, which was useful during a siege.
The audience hall is built in typical Indo-Islamic style and has a domed roof supported by a series of graceful little pointed arches. The Vijayanagar-style Ranganatha Temple and the magazine building are other important constructions within the citadel.
The carvings on the temple walls remain pretty distinct despite the years and speak volumes of the glory it must have enjoyed in its heyday. A huge iron cannon, 4m long with a circumference of 2m adorns the watch tower and a local, self-appointed guide tells us that this is similar to the one in Malik-i-Maidan at Bijapur.
On our return to base, I visit the Sadat-ullah Khan Mosque, built by the Nawab to commemorate his victory over Desingh. I feel a sense of achievement, having witnessed yet another site of historical significance, and having learned something of an edifice that symbolises the glory of Indian architecture.
The sky is a tranquil canvas in pastel shades of peach-orange. A flutter of a breeze brings respite to my drenched being and fans me cool. I merge into the evening ambience and greedily gulp down, yet again, the sweet water from a couple of tender coconuts.
I stand enchanted by this living legend of a bygone era, replete with sagas of chivalry and the inevitable deceit and intrigues of court politics.
As I leaf through the pages of history for a recap, I feel I can hear the sounds of marching feet, of battle cries and echoes from the past, that reveal tales of treachery and valour, and the characteristic bravery of the Rajput clan in the form of Desing.
The place that witnessed blood and gore and created such beauty, sleeps in peace today, waking up occasionally to the footfalls of a few history buffs and enthusiastic rock climbers, all entranced by its legends.
The tales associated with Senji are as colourful as the men who ruled it. The most prominent name that crops up at the very mention of Senji is that of the Rajput ruler Raja Desingu, also known as Raja Tej Singh, who ruled the region in the 18th century.