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Posted at: Jan 14, 2018, 1:43 AM; last updated: Jan 14, 2018, 1:43 AM (IST)

Symbol of defiance

The serene ambience of Tamil Nadu’s Vellore Fort, where the first protest against the British took place, belies its rebellious history

Kavita Kanan Chandra

The ramparts of Vellore Fort, 125 km from Chennai, are surrounded by a wide moat filled with water, overlooking the verdant rolling hills and the town of Vellore at its foothills. The Indian Sepoys attack on British barracks inside Vellore Fort was the first major act of aggression against the British. The Vellore mutiny of July 10, 1806, though shortlived and quelled within a few hours, killed 113 Europeans and 350 natives. The resentment among Indian sepoys was spurred by the introduction of a new dress code by the British Adjutant General Agnew. The sepoys turbans were to be replaced by round caps with a cockade that was presumably made of cow hide. Any religious marks, jewellery and beards have to be removed. This did not augur well with the soldiers and they revolted. Though the uprising was unsuccessful, it remained historically significant as the first-ever open defiance against the British hegemony. 

The fort had been an English garrison since 1760 when the British used it as be a base to counter Tipu Sultan. After the fall of Srirangapatnam, Tipu’s family was imprisoned there. As Tipu’s sons were urged by the sepoys to participate in the Vellore mutiny, they were banished forever to Calcutta to live a life of ignominy.  

Another royal prisoner happened to be Vikrama Rajasinha, the last ruler of the Sinhalese monarchy of Kandy in Sri Lanka, deposed there in 1815.

The fort has also witnessed the macabre assault on the Vijayanagara royal family of Sriranga Raya. The various such narratives of rebellions, coup, imprisonment and murder, no matter how far-fetched, still found its echo as you stroll along its green premises.

Built in 16th century AD (around 1566 AD) by the local chief Chinna Bomma Nayak of the Vijayanagara Kingdom; it was a militarily strategic fort made of granite stones.

There is much excitement as you walk around the fort ramparts that have a wide walkway lined with stone parapets. The strong defensive fort walls, impressive arched fort entrance, the battlements for shooting through the gaps, the bastions and the skirting moat below with a circumference of 8,000 feet and depth of 200 feet is formidable. It might fill you with horror to hear that during its heydays, nearly 10,000 crocodiles were let loose in the moat as first line of defence.

Thankfully, the grisly years have passed. The intimidating moat is not only bereft of any deadly reptiles but is also not much deep. Its shallow calm water allows people to take pleasure boating around the fort. Inside, a number of public offices and hospital replace the military garrison of past. The shady branches and hanging prop roots of the banyan trees, the vast stretches of open grounds and wide roads inside lend a quiet relaxation as you amble around inside the walled space.

One of the most impressive architectural building is the Jalakanteshwara (Lord Shiva residing in the water) temple built in 16thcentury in the late Vijayanagara style. It towers over the fort and its lofty gopuram (entrance) has vivid detailing in its exquisite carvings. The large open courtyards and mandapas (pillared halls) and the low ceilinged main shrine with a closed ambulatory passage around has a powerful aura and tranquility. The fact that later invasions have desecrated the temple and occupied it as an arsenal storehouse appears repulsive.

As you wander around marvelling at the beautiful carvings of men on horseback, elephants, cows, deities and flowers, you appreciate the medieval temple architecture of the South. One of the open pillared hall of the Kalyana mandapa in the southwest corner is spectacular with embellishments, art motifs of its pillars, ceiling and plinth mouldings. It is, however, intriguing to learn about a subterranean link to the fort moat from another mandapa in the northwest corner.

The Vellore fort has passed through successive rulers from Bijapur, Marathas, Mughals to the British, and thus, influences of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam can be seen in its temple, church and mosque. A government museum inside is also worth a visit housing stone sculptures from Pallava and Chola dynasty, historical antiquities, bronze artefacts and glazed potteries.

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