March 24, 2013

Rayakottai - Tipu Sultan's Forgotten Fort

Probable entrance at the top of the fort

(An edited version of this article was published in Deccan Herald dated 24-Mar-2013)

Ibn Battuta, one of the first and greatest travellers, said about traveling
“it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller".
And this was the exact feeling after visiting Rayakottai.

Scouting for possible one-day getaways from Bangalore, I stumbled on Rayakottai in the Krishnagiri tourism website. This was followed by a curious search in the Internet which gave me limited information about the place and its history. And we, a group of motorbikers, decided to explore this place on a lazy Saturday morning. The NICE road was almost empty and we cruised through the broad-deserted road. We continued riding through NH-7 (Bangalore-Chennai highway) only to be halted near Hosur wherein one of the Bullets(Royal Enfield) had broken down. The rest of us continued and we reached the town of Rayakottai in an hour.

The sun was slowly catching up, as if it was still not sure whether to wake up from the morning slumber and perform its routine schedule. We spotted a huge rocky hill on the right of the main road as soon as we entered the town. A quick enquiry at the road side tea stall confirmed that as our destination. I picked up a conversation with one of the guys sipping tea and asked him about approximate time to summit the rocky hill. He smirked and said that it would take a few hours for ‘city-dwellers’ like us, whereas he can climb up and return in within an hour. I smirked and carried on.

We parked our bikes near the base of the hill and without much excitement started the ascent on foot. The sun was bright but less tormenting. The serrations formed on the boulders and the rocks laid out in the form of steps aided us in getting to the top in an hour. A dilapidated structure, in what should have been the main entrance to the fort, greeted us and we could spot the fort walls at a distance. The walls overlooked the entire town of Rayakottai at its base. The adjoining cliffs looked threatening.

We climbed further up along the trail formed by crushed grass, with a few cave-like structures formed due to boulders on the sides and reached the top of the hillock. We could see some structures emerging out of the tall elephant grass and other thorny shrubs – it was as if we were just getting into a treasure hunt.  Most of the structures wore a beaten look, with no ceilings with an overgrowth of shrubs and grass everywhere. The small lake at the top had totally dried up.

With hardly any information boards from the ASI(Archeological Survey of India) educating the public and the crumbled state of the structures, we really felt that this place should be better preserved and promoted. I spotted a kid who was writing down something in his notebook in the shade of one of the bushes and asked him why he had climbed all the way up. For him, this was the perfect resting spot to finish off his homework as it was too noisy ‘below’. I felt a certain aura in him. When I quizzed him about the place and its history, he did tell me that it was once Tipu Sultan’s palace and then he went blank. I shared a few biscuits with him which he humbly refused and moved on from his present resting place – I felt as if this ‘city-dweller’ had indeed disturbed his fabric of tranquility.

I moved on. Goats roamed around and the ramshackled state of affairs here on the top was disheartening. From the top of the hill, one could see the whole town of Rayakottai and also spot the distant Krishnagiri Dam. After an hour of exploring the different structures, we thanked the clear skies and descended down along the rocky path.

My post-travel research educated me about this forgotten fort. It is believed that this fort was one of the most important and strategic places in the Palakkad Pass and commanded the road to Carnatic. The Mysore armies, during the 18th century, could invade the Carnatic via this route. The fort fell to Major Gowdie during Lord Cornwallis’s attack. The sultan’s troops tried to blow up the fort, but the Major's advance was so sudden that they failed in the attempt and the fort was later occupied. It is believed that the Commandant of the garrison took a bribe from British on the condition of a safe passage to him and his family and that is how this ‘strong and complete’ fort fell into the hands of the British Army. The forts at Rayakottai, Anchetidurga and Oodiadurga formed an important triumvirate in this region guarding the entire route, and the latter two too soon fell to the British.

I could now reenact every piece of history associated with Rayakottai in my mind with the hillock as the perfect backdrop. The threatening cliffs being used as a perfect spot to throw away the prisoners from the top and the British climbing up , made the landscape part of a sordid past was etched in my mind now.

View of the entire layout from the top
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