Posted in Karnataka

Vikramaditya: Revenge of the Chalukyas

The Crown Prince of the Chalukyas looked down on the ruins of Vatapi from top of the hill. The broken walls of the city, the temples which the Pallavas had destroyed. The caves of Vatapi had survived the pillage off the Pallavas. The damage to the pride of Chalukyas was more significant than the financial losses.

His ancestor, Pulakesin had taken the taken the Chalukya dynasty to its greatest heights when he defeated the Lord of North India, King Harshavardhana. He had wiped the smile of “Harsha’s” face. He was the Lord of all of India. All of India, except Kanchipuram. He had been blindsided by the Pallavas of Kanchipuram when he turned his attention North. He had underestimated them and did not think a minor kingdom ruling just one city could challenge the mightiest king of India. The oversight cost him greatly. The young Pallava king, Narasimhavarman had not only defeated the Chalukya army which had gone to capture Kanchipuram, but for good measure marched across the Deccan and destroyed the Chalukyas capital of Vatapi. Pulakesin was killed in battle. The Pallavas turned to dust their city and their name.

Vikramaditya picked up a rock and threw it in to the lake. He would avenge the Chalukya name. He would make the Pallavas rue the day they crossed the Tungabhadra. He would make them regret turning their eyes towards Vatapi. That was his vow. He was Vikramaditya; named after the legendary emperor of ancient India, he would write a few legends of his own. He stood up and walked towards the wooden palace of his father. He would ask for his permission to march his armies down to Kanchipuram and avenge the death of his hallowed ancestor.

Vikramaditya bowed down before his father, the Chalukya king, Vijayaditya. Vijayaditya grimaced uncomfortably at his request to attack Kanchipuram. He slowly climbed up from his throne and came down the stairs. He put his hand on the shoulders of the bowed form of Vikramaditya.

“Find out three things and I will fund your campaign myself against the Pallavas. Find out why you should attack the Pallavas, find a good reason so that out kingdom doesn’t face the wrath of the gods for an unprovoked attack. Find out when it is a good time to attack the Pallavas. Find out who would help you in your campaign. Return to me when you have answers to these three things.”

He turned and climbed back up his throne.

Vikramaditya understood. His father was far more clever than he had anticipated. He wanted him to be truly ready before the attack on Kanchipuram. He wanted him to find a good excuse to attack Kanchipuram so that the brahmins would not protest the desecration of a holy city. He wanted to sow the seeds of discord among the Pallavas and weaken them. He wanted him to find an ally in his campaign against the Pallavas.

The Pallava king, Paramesvaravarman II, did not have an heir. He sent his ministers and commanders on an expedition to all the nearby nations, to find a suitable heir. Vikramaditya invited Chitramaya and told him about his plan. Chitramaya was the nephew of the Ganga dynasty prince, Ereyappa. He was the ambassador of the Gangas and descendant of the great Pallava king Mahendravarman through his mother. Vikramaditya encouraged Chitramaya to put forward his claim as the rightful heir of the Pallava throne after Paramesvaravarman II.

Chitramaya went to Kanchipuram for the great sabha where the discussions for the next heir of Kanchipuram were considered. The Cholas, Pandyas and Cheras had sent their delegations with their choice candidates. Chitramaya came representing the Chalukyas and the Gangas. The king of Kabujadesa (Cambodia) had also sent a candidate, a 12 year old boy called Nandivarman, who claimed to belong to the collateral Pallava line of the Kadavas.

Parameshvaravarman stood on a platform overlooking the arena. He leaned on his walking stick. He turned towards his ministers and nodded. The Prime Minister walked forward and raised his hands. The arena fell quiet.

“The great king Paramesvaravarman, the second, the Parameswara, Satyashraya, Prithvivallabha, and Dakshinapatheswara, thanks you all for presenting yourselves as we decide the question of his heir. I would like to announce at the onset that the ones who are not chosen to be the heir will be killed. We cannot afford anyone to challenge the heir once he is chosen. Anyone who wants to withdraw can withdraw now.”

The delegated princes looked at their sponsors in disbelief. Murmurs filled the arena.

“We the Pandyas withdraw our nominee.”

“The Cholamandalam withdraws its nominee.”

“The Chera nominee withdraws.”

The arena started to empty itself. In the end, only two delegates were left. Nadivarman, the Cambodian delegate and Chitramaya the Ganga delegate, backed by the Chalukyas. Paramesvaravarman turned to his General and nodded his head. The General gave a command and two archers shot at the probable-princes. The 12 year old Nandivarman nimble moved out of the arrow’s way as it dug in the ground behind him harmlessly. Chitramaya who was looking at Vikramaditya in the gallery was not so lucky. The arrow caught him the throat. His collapsed, spluttering blood over the ground, died.

Vikramaditya smiled. He had all three answers. He now had an excuse to attack Kanchipuram. He had an ally in the Ganga king, who’s nephew the Pallavas had killed and the timing was perfect with a 12 year old foreigner boy-king as the crown prince of the Pallavas.

Vikramaditya removed his footwear as he entered the temple complex of Pattadakal. If Vatapi was the heart of the Chalukya empire, Pattadakal was its soul. Built on the banks of Malaprabha river, the only river in the area to flow in a north-south direction. It was the place of coronation of the Chalukya kings. Flanked by his two queens, Vikramaditya bowed down before the priests and thee courtiers. His father put the ‘patta’ around his forehead, anointing him as the crown prince and the commander of the Chalukya armies. A loud cheer filled the complex. His queens, Lokadevi and Trilokadevi came in front of the gathering and held their hands out in the fire..

“We vow with agni as our witness that if our lord Vikramaditya returns victorious from his campaign, we will each build a temple.”

The people cheered for their crown prince and his consorts. The old king Vijayaditya smiled and blessed him.

He saw the Ganga king Sripurusha among the dignitaries. He walked up to him and bowed.

“We go to avenge the death of your grand-nephew. Will you aid us in the battle?”

Sripurusha nodded.

The city of Kanchipuram was busy with preparations of coronation of the adopted king, Nandivarman. The city was covered in colours and flowers. A million scents mingled through the streets and the walls. Music permeated the atmosphere. At night a thousand lamps lit the city up and it seemed that the night sky had come down on earth to celebrate the coronation of the new king. The city overwhelmed all the senses.

Parameshvaravarman sat in his throne room looking over the finances of the upcoming coronation when a messenger ran into his presence and fell on his floor. His clothes were mud-stained and he almost collapsed out of exhaustion.

“Oh great king, I have ridden without rest for a hundred miles. My horse collapsed and died near Raja-vellore, I have run the rest of the way. I bring you an urgent news. The Chalukya army has been mustered and they are marching. I saw them crossing the Tungabadhra. They ride fast and ride lightly. They are marching south. They ride to Kanchipuram.”

The king dropped his ledger as his stood up.

“Who leads them? The Chalukya king Vijayaditya is old and weak. He is in no state to lead an army.”

“My king, it is not Vijayaditya, but the crown prince Vikramaditya who leads them.”

The king remembered the ambitious young prince with a fiery gaze, who had accompanied the Ganga delegation.

“Summon the generals and prepare the war room. Sound the bells. Close the city gates. Suspend the festivities. We prepare for war”, Parameshvaravarman commanded in a quiet voice.

“Vikramaditya is a fool to attack in the summer. His army is going to die of exhaustion. His army is travelling light to gain speed and surprise. That will be against him in this weather. He will run out of food and water. We will face a half-dead army and we will rout them like your ancestor Narasimhavarman did. Do not fear my king”, Sivapadam, the general of the Pallava army assured him.

The king rubbed the ruby on his finger.

“But why is he rushing in the summer? What advantage does that provide?”

“The river Palar is dry. When Pulakesin attacked Kanchipuram in the past, the river delayed his assault and the delay cost him the city. He wants to avoid fording a full river. May be that is why he is attacking the city in the heat of the summer.”

The commanders nodded in agreement.

“Prepare the defence. Mount the spikes on the walls. Prepare the vats of pepper which we used to repel their elephant forces the last time. Do not meet them head on in the field. Starve them out. They can’t maintain a siege for long in this summer”, the king said as his stood up and walked out of the tent.

“Long live Parameshvaravarman. Long live the defender of our faith.”

Vikramaditya watched across the bank of Palar to the city of Kanchipuram. The doors were shut and the walls were well defended. His army was tired and thirsty. He had already lost a hundred men to the heat and exhaustion. The river was dry as he had expected, which proved as a blessing and a curse. It was the season for the rice harvest and food was not a problem for his army. The army was living off the fertile Pallava land; but there was no water.

He walked back into his tent and summoned his commanders and generals.

“The city is shut in and we do not have the supplies or the time to maintain a long siege. The summer heat and the lack of water is hurting the morale of the troops. We need to find a source of water and we need to provoke the Pallava army to come out of the city and meet us in battle on the plains outside. A siege will be a disaster for us.”

The master of the scouts asked for permission to speak. Vikramaditya nodded.

“Oh king, 30 miles to the east at Arcot, the Pallavas have built an anaicut on the river to store water for irrigation. That could sustain our army for a month or so till the monsoon rains arrive. We could move our camp there. We will return with supplies and siege material after the rains.”

Vikramaditya held his forehead as he considered the advice.

“We will move our camp to Arcot, but we will not wait till monsoon. Once the river flows we will be trapped on either of its banks and we will be ripe fruits to be massacred by the Pallavas. They are currently stunned by the rapidity of our advance, but the more we stay here, the more they will recruit allies and we will be left in the dark.”

“Oh king, what about our allies?”, asked Jeyasimha, the commander of the cavalry.

Vikramaditya frowned and looked towards the North in silence.

Parameshvaravarman watched the empty plains around Kanchipuram. The Chalukya army had retreated back to Arcot. He asked the Chola and Pandya ambassadors in his court to ride to Thanjavur and Madurai to ask for help in this war. His generals were standing behind him and discussing what would be the best course of action now.

“Rajan, should we pursue them to Arcot and attack them. They are weary and tired. They will be easy meat for our army. We don’t need the Chola and Pandya allies to wipe them out.”

“Rajan, I think we should stay in the city and wait for them to attack. They do not have the resources to maintain a siege. The longer we draw them out. The more they will suffer.”

The king turned to the court-astrologer and asked,

“Aiya, what do the stars suggest?”

“Rajan, the auspicious time for the prince’s coronation is near. If the coronation does not proceed on time, I see dark times for the Pallavas in the future. The way ahead is not clear to me, but, I see that the coronation must proceed.

“Prepare for the coronation”, Parameshvaravarman announced.

The generals and the courtiers bowed in agreement.

At the moment, a loud noise like a rumbling thunder from the east caught their attention. They saw a cloud of dust rising from the east. Vikramaditya was mad. He was attacking.

The war horns sounded and the bells rang. The generals looked to their king for their orders.

“We do not have time for a siege, the coronation must proceed as planned. Muster the armies, meet Vikramaditya on the field and wipe him from the face of this earth. Show them what it means to provoke the Pallavas.”

The summoning horns were sounded and the commanders rushed to their troops.

Vikramaditya could not believe his eyes. The Pallavas could not be foolish enough to meet him on the field. He had sent a portion of his troop as a bait to drag the Pallavas out of the security of their walled city. He hadn’t expected it to work, but it had.

The entire Pallava army had been mustered. The elephant troops in the front, the infantry behind them and the cavalry in the flanks. The archers were in the back. They outnumbered the Chalukyas by three times.

The advance troop of the Chalukya army turned around and retreated. The Pallava army gave them a chase. Vikramaditya gave the signal. The main army which was hidden in the southern woods came out of their hiding and attacked the Pallava army from the rear. The archers and infantry were poorly defended. The fast Chalukya cavalry cut them down and retreated back to the forest.

The Pallava formation turned around to deal with the attack from the rear. The retreating Pallava advanced force which was fleeing from Pallava attack, turned around and smashed into the elephant troops.

The surprise attacks caused chaos in the Pallava ranks, but they recovered themselves. The right cavalry turned around and attacked the Chalukya calvary from the forest while the left cavalry advanced and took on the Chalukya advance troops. The archers had regrouped and firing volleys into the forest.

Vikramaditya sat on his horse and looked at the destruction around him. His army in the woods was getting cut down by the archers. The advance force was almost decimated and the elephant troops had turned their attention towards them. The end was near. He had dreamed big, but the reality was crumbling around him. This was going to be his end. That is when he heard them.

The horns.

Horns from the North.

The Gangas had come. King Sripurusha had come. His allies had not abandoned him.

An arrow took him through the shoulder and he fell off the horse.

Vikramaditya entered Kanchipuram on his elephant. His shoulder was in a sling made of cotton and filled with medicinal herbs. He was flanked on his right by the Ganga king Sripurusha. The combined Ganga and Chalukya forced had beaten back the Pallavas. The Pallava army had surrendered and the gates of Kanchipuram had been opened.

The Chalukya armies yelled in triumph. Cries of plunder and destruction of the city went through the army. They were thirsty for revenge. They wanted payback for Pulakesin’s death.

“No! No plunder, no destruction”, Vikramaditya commanded his troops.


“This is a holy city and we have had our revenge. I will offer my prayers at the Kailasantha temple. That is all we came here for. No one will steal or slaughter anyone in this city.”

A cheer went forth, this time from the people of Kanchipuram. The priests of the temple came out and chanted prayers for him.

The conqueror of Kanchipuram entered the city he conquered with flowers raining on him.

Vikramaditya was crowned as king after his father passed away. His wives built a temple each commemarting his victory. The Pallava King Parameshvaravarman pledged fealty to him. His son was promised in marriage to Sripurusha’s daughter.

He turned and looked towards heaven.

“Oh Pulakesin, my most hallowed ancestor. I have avenged your death.

The town of Vatapi, now known as Badami, lies an overnight bus journey away from Bangalore. It reached its heyday under Pulakesin, when it was the capital of all of India. After Pulakesin’s defeat and death at the hands of the Pallava king Narasimhavarma (to read the story of Pulakesin’s defeat and the fall of Vatapi, click here), it slowly faded into obscurity, till the Vikramaditya brought it back to its glory. Vikramaditya attacked Kanchipuram and defeated the Pallavas three times in his life, once as a crown-prince, once as the Chalukya king and once when his son was the crown prince. Each time he made sure that his army did not destroy or sack the town.

The town of Badami is a semi-circular hill around a lake. The cave-temples of Badami are a sight to behold. A series of caves with beautiful Hindu and Jain carvings built in a stepwise pattern on the hillside. Another wonder to behold is the Bhootnath temple complex on the shore of the lake. The surrounding hill was used a fortress by Tipu Sultan and can can be trekked up to.

The town of Pattadakal (now an UNESCO world heritage site) is 20 km away from Badami. Situated on the banks of river Malaprabha, it was the site of coronation of the Chalukya kings. It is called an university of architecture and filled with temple complexes in both northern and southern styles. One can see the Chalukya architects experimenting with different styles in the same place. The temples built by Vikramaditya’s wives, Lokadevi and Trilokadevi are still surviving. The temples are filled with carvings of Mahabharata, Ramayana and even takes from Panchatantra.

At the center of the monuments is a stone pillar, installed by Vikramaditya, describing his victory over the Pallavas and his capture of the holy city of Kanchipuram.

Posted in Karnataka

Srirangapatinam – ‘The Tiger’s Bane’

The dust and smoke made my eyes burn. The British canons were relentless, but the walls of the fort held. The sultan was standing over the ramparts overseeing the defence. I climbed the stairs to convince him to come down. As his bodyguard, I had to keep him safe from some stray British bullet.

I wish I could have convinced my wife and son to leave the fortress before the siege. I remember their faces as I loaded my musket. We will not lose. We cannot afford to lose.

The war has gone badly for us till now. The Marathas and the Nizam, who helped us defeat the British in two wars have betrayed us and have joined the British. The French Emperor, Napolean Bonaparte promised us help, but he was busy fighting his own war with the British in Egypt. We have lost almost all our territories, but Srirangpatinam still holds. It will hold till the last Mysore soldier takes breath. It will hold till Tipu, my sultan, lives.

Srirangapatinam, our river fortress has never been breached before. Our sultan’s father, Hyder Ali had built in on a river island, surrounded by the river Cauvery. In preparation for the siege, Tipu had destroyed the dam upstream. The river was in spate and the British had to cross the river to lay siege. Their canons were unable to aim clearly and their muskets were falling short. I heard our rockets whizzing overhead. The rockets were causing confusion in the British ranks.

I aimed my musket at an opening in the British ranks on the river bank.

“Don’t waste your bullets. Every bullet should take down a British soldier”, ordered Tipu. I lowered my gun.

A sudden commotion in the back caught my attention. I turned around. A blood-splattered soldier pushed his way through the ranks. His helmet was dented and he was bleeding from a wound on his scalp.

“The fortress is breached! The fortress is breached! The Water Gate has been opened. The British are inside!”, he yelled and collapsed. I rushed towards the solder, but Tipu beat me to him. The sultan lifted his bleeding head in his hands and screamed for water. One of the soldiers gave him his water pack.

“What happened?”, asked Tipu.

“Sultan, the fortress has been breached. We have been betrayed. Mir Sadik and his men opened the Water Gate. The enemy is inside the fortress”. The soldier coughed out blood and fainted. We heard the sound of muskets and screams behind us, from the Water Gate.

Tipu unsheathed his sword and held it in the air.

“Come with me, my tigers. We shall wipe the British out from this land. We will chase them till the island they call home and burn that too to the ground. Come, my men, today we shall become immortal.”

The men cheered for the sultan. I screamed until my voice went hoarse. We were tigers. Tigers of Mysore.

We formed ranks and started marching towards the water gate. The British were ready. Musket balls tore through us. I saw the man marching next to me fall. I had to protect the sultan. I ran up to him stood next to him. I saw a red-coated soldier aiming at Tipu I pointed my pistol towards him and shot. He crumpled on the ground. The dust and gun-powder made it difficult to see the battle. I could hardly make out Tipu. Standing near me and shouting orders. Our ranks were breaking. Our men were dying in hordes. We were running out of ammunition.

I stood next to Tipu and slashed at anyone daring to come near, but we were surrounded. I saw British soldiers in all directions. Their bayonets were pointed towards Tipu. They were screaming for his death.

A Maratha soldier charged towards me. I blocked his sword swing and pushed him to the floor. It turned around. Tipu was surrounded. A British soldier had knocked his turban. His clothes were torn by men around him. I yelled and pushed at the soldiers. I swung my sword and beheaded one.

Tipu looked at me. His eyes were red and full of tears.

“Ali”, he gurgled my name. A British soldier ran him through with his bayonet.

“No!”, I yelled in desperation.

Another soldier took his gun and shot him through the head.

I collapsed on my knees. My sword hand limp.

“My sultan! My sultan!” I cried. A sword tip pierced through me. The blood poured out in torrents. I tried closing the wound with my hands. I looked at the crumpled body of Tipu Sultan lying next to me. The Tiger of Mysore. My sultan.

That was the last thing I saw as my vision faded to black.

The fall of Srirangapatinam under the combined forces of The British, the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad during the Fourth Ango-Mysore War is one of the saddest chapters in Indian history. It was the last battle in history in which a king died in the battlefield.

The fortress town of Srirangapatinam is built with only one goal – defence against a siege. The fortress is built on an island in river Cauvery. The dam upstream is opened during a siege which floods the island till the walls of the fort, making it siege engines redundant.

The British were unable to take the fortress of Srirangapatinam by force. They finally managed to bribe Mir Sadik, a courtier of Tipu to open the Water Gate and let the army inside.

The town of Srirangapatinam is situated 25 km from Mysore and is easily accessed by bus, train or cab from Mysore. Tipu’s original palace, Lal Mahal was razed to the ground by the British after the battle and only the foundations can be seen. Tipu’s summer palace still survives and has beautiful murals and pictures of the Mysore’s rulers. The entire wall is covered with murals of the First and Second Anglo-Mysore war which Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan won. A picture of the traitor, Mir Sadik has been vandalized and defaced. The palace contains coins, weapons and clothes of Tipu Sultan.

Gol Gumbaz is a Taj Mahal-esque tomb of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. It was built by Tipu for his father, and later he was also buried there. The tombs are surrounded by a beautiful garden.

The outer walls of the fortress surrounds the entire island and scattered with places of historical importance. This include the site from where Tipu’s army launched rockets at the British; the Water Gate, through which Tipu was betrayed and the British army let in; and also the site where Tipu Sultan’s body was found.

Tipu’s jail has also survived the purge of history. The subterran jail was used by Tipu to imprison and torture British officers captured during the First and Second Anglo-Mysore Wars.

Posted in Andra Pradesh

Chandragiri – Dying of the light

Raja Venkata Raya, sat hunchbacked in his chair. Every breath was painful. The bouts of evening fever had left him skin and bones. Food had lost all taste. He coughed into the silk cloth. Blood. How had it all come to this?

The Vizier came in the room and bowed. He bid him come closer.

“Your highness, a group of traders from England have come seeking an audience with you. I have asked them to wait. Shall I tell them that you are indisposed?”

He turned and gazed slowly at the bronze statue of Raja Krishna Deva Raya.

“No!”, wheezed the king, “Tell them to wait. Help me get dressed.”

He coughed again. More blood.

He stood up slowly and walked to the window. The Fortress of Chandragiri was all that was left of the once mighty Vijayanagar Empire.

Vijayanagar. The Diamond of the Deccan.

He had heard his father talk about the beauty of that city. The blue jewel on the banks of Tungabhadra. The light of the south. A city paved with gold and adorned with diamonds. The successor of the Cholas, Cheras and Pandayas. Greater than all of them combined. The last great Hindu kingdom of the South. An empire that stretched from Krishna to the Indian Ocean. Trade had flourished under their grace. Food was plenty and hunger scarce. Great temples and forts dotted their kingdom. They even rebuilt the Meenakshi temple at Madurai. Art, music and poetry had flourished under their rule.

It had all come undone at Talikota. The Sultanates of Bijapur, Bidar, Berar and Ahmednagar had joined forces against the Vijayanagar empire. Even the combined might of all the Deccan Sultanates was outnumbered 3 times by the vast and well-armoured Vijayanagar army.

The court historians were silent on how they had managed to lose to a such a small and fragmented army. His grandfather, Aliya Rama Raya, was captured and beheaded on the battlefield. Some whispered that his commanders had betrayed him and changed sides. Some said that he was betrayed by his pride. Some said that the gods punished him for betraying his father-in-law.

His father had escaped with his family and his household to Penukonda. The Sultanate armies sacked, pillaged and burned Vijayanagar. The City of Victory. It burnt for days. The once prosperous and bustling city became a haunted ghost town within months. They didn’t even call it Vijaynagar anymore. That name was a lie. They called it Hampi.

The Empire fragmented after the loss. The governors of Mysore, Madurai and Tanjore had declared their independence. The Nayaka kingdoms splintered out from the ruins of the Vijayanagar empire. The Golconda sultanate had taken advantage of Vijayanagar’s fall and attacked Penukonda. They had to abandon that fortress and finally reach Chandragiri.

The minstrels still called him the ruler of the Vijayanagar empire. He knew it was a lie. He held swath over only a few hundred kilometers of land far away from Vijayanagar. The Nayakas still called him Emperor but it was an empty title. They owed him no taxes or allegiance. His nephew had joined the Bijapur Sultan and was plotting to depose him.

He had no children. With him the empire would die. It was his fate to see the dying of the light of his kingdom.

“What do the English traders want?”, he asked his Vizier as his put a robe around him.

“They want to buy a fishing village on the coast to build a trading outpost.”

Selling a village would bring some relief to his almost depleted treasury. And what harm could handful of foreign traders, thousands of miles from their homeland do to him?

He nodded his head. He asked his messenger to summon the Englishmen.

As his sat on his chair, he asked the Vizier, “Which village do they want?”


The fortress of Chandragiri was the last capital of the Vijayanagar Empire. The quiet and quaint fort is situated 20 km away from the crowd and bustle of Tirupati. Built in Indo-Saracenic fashion, the fort now hosts a museum.

The Raja’s Mahal is the most imposing structure with a smaller Rani’s mahal nearby. The fort walls enclose a tank and few temple ruins.

There is a remnant of an old house inside the fort which legend say was the home of Tenali Raman, one of the greatest poets in Raja Krisha Deva raya’s court.

It was here that the British bought a piece of land on the Coromandel coast from the the king and built Fort. St. George. They called the place Madras and thus began the history of British colonization in India.

Chandragiri Fort:

Posted in Tamil Nadu

Kanchipuram – The Pallava Lion

Twelve kings. Tales tell of twelve kings throughout the history of India who never lost a battle.


Part 1: The Lord of the South

Pulakesin sat enthroned in his splendour. His red military tent stood on a mound on the banks of river Palar. They called him Dakshinapateshwar “The Lord of the South”. The Deccan was his. The empires of Kadamba, Ganga, Konkan and Kalinga had crumpled under the might of his military. Only the fabled Pallava empire stood against him. Across the river stood their capital, Kanchipuram. The siege had gone on for months now but victory was near. The summer heat had depleted the city’s water stores. His army had laid barren the land around the city. The walls of the city were strong but the people inside were starving. It was time for the final push. He longed for the cool weather of his capital, Vatapi. He drank his sherbet and called for his Senapati. It was time for the Pallavas to feel the full force of the Chalukya might.


The walls of Kanchipuram shook under the renewed attack. The archers on the city wall were running out of arrows. The main gate had almost collapsed under the last barrage by the elephants. The army had started moving. The end was near. The city would soon fall.

King Mahendravarman sat in his war room surrounded by his generals. He looked around at their worried faces. The heat, hunger and the war had drained them of all strength and courage. He sighed in resignation.

His son ran into the war-room and climbed on his lap. He hugged the king tightly; the noise of the war had scared him. A tear rolled across Mahendravarman’s cheek. He was never a king for battles. His love had always been art and culture. He had made Kanchipuram the centre of art and architecture in the world. The rock-cut temples in Mahabalipuram and the rock-temple at Trichy were testaments to his love for beauty. It had all come to naught. He looked with despair at his son, Narasimhavarman. Only a miracle could save the Pallava line from failing. He closed his eyes and said a silent prayer.

The noise outside stopped.

A messenger came running into the war room. His helmet was dented and he was bleeding from a dozen wounds. Mud, sweat and blood stuck to his body. He fell on the king’s feet.

“Your Majesty! The Chaluka army is withdrawing. The Pulakesin has folded his royal tent and has ordered his men to march back to Vatapi.”

It was like a flash of lightning had crashed into the room. The generals and commanders rose up in attention. Mahendravarman stood up and almost lost his balance. What was this sorcery? Why had Pulakesin withdrawn when he was so close to victory? Was he feigning?

“You Majesty, King Harshavardhana of Kanauj is marching south towards Vatapi, the Chalukya capital, and has crossed the Ganges. Pulakesin has ordered to troops to march back immediately.”

Harshavardhana. One of the greatest kings of Northern India. What Pulakesin had done to the south, Harsha had done to the north. The entire north was his. The bards called him Uttarapatheshvara, “The Lord of the North”.

River Narmada was the border between North India and South India. The battle between the Uttarapatheshvara and the Dakshinapateshwar was fought there. The battle for all of India.


Part 2: One of the twelve

The Chalukya army marched in all its glory. Songs and slogans boomed across. Glorious in battle and undefeated. Their king marched ahead on an elephant. They would talk about his battle with Harshavardhana for ages. Harshavardhana’s armies had been laid to rout. A Chinese traveller, Xuanzang come had witnessed the battle and spread the story across the world. The bards sang about how Harsha lost his harsha (joy) when he confronted Pulakesin.

King Pulakesin, the Parameswara, Satyashraya, Prithvivallabha. The possessor of all he surveyed, the abode of truth and the ruler of earth. He was now the Lord Paramount over India.

All of India except Kanchipuram.

After a decade consolidating his rule, Pulakesin turned his attention to the old thorn in his flesh. The Pallavas. His army marched across the Deccan again. It was time to raze the Kanchipuram to the ground and end the rule of the Pallavas forever.


The fighting pits of Kanchipuram were abuzz. Two men were wrestling. One was a sinewy youth and another was the reigning champion. The young boy groaned, lifted the seasoned wrestler and slammed him on the ground. The wrestler was 20 kilos heavier than the youth but could not break his hold. The referee counted down. The crowed cheered. “Mamallan! Mamallan! Raja Narasimhavarman. Mamallan!”

Mamallan. The wrestler.

King Mahendravarman died of a weak heart soon after the Pulakesin withdrew to meet Harshvardhana. Narasimhavarman took up the Pallava crown after his death. He remembered the day he clinged to his father in fear during the siege.

He would never put himself in that situation again.

One of the first things he did after taking over the reign was to renovate and re-train his army. He the befriended the Sri Lankan prince, Manavarma, and invited him to oversee defences of his city. He strengthened the gates and walls of Kanchipuram. He heard tales about a young Shaivite monk, Paranjothi, and his knowledge about the art of war. Narasimhavarman appointed him as the General his army. “Mamallan” was ready for his fight.


Pulakesin looked at the burning catapults and trebuchets in despair. The siege was not going as he had hoped. The Pallavas had launched a night raid and set his siege engines alight. They had poisoned the water of the river and his soldier were writhing with stomach cramps and dysentery. The Pallavas themselves did not touch the river and stockpiled water in the city.

The city seemed at peace till the attackers reached the very edges of the wall; then fire and oil fell upon them. His soldiers sick or burnt. His siege engines turned to ashes. The Lord Paramount of India felt fear for the first time in his life. He was the scourge of Harsha. He could not lose to the insignificant Pallavas.

The Chalukya cavalry and elephants geared up. They would push down the walls of Kanchipuram with their sheer numbers if need be. A cheer rang through the army. Their king was joining them.

The elephants were the first to reach to walls of the city. The horses and infantry followed them. The city did not retaliate. The Chalukyas had covered the elephants with wet sheets to protect them from fire and oil. The elephants charged towards the walls. Not a single arrow was shot in return.

As the elephants reached the walls. A black dust descended on them from above.

Pepper powder.

The elephants trumpeted in pain and ran amok. They trampled the cavalry which followed them and the unwell soldiers in the rear.

The army was routed without a single arrow shot.

Pulakeshin ordered his troops to regroup at the camp at Manimangalam, but horror awaited them. While they were attacking Kanchipuram, the Pallava soldiers had sneaked out through a tunnel and burnt the camp. The diseased and dishevelled Chalukya army lost heart and scattered.

A cheer ran through the Pallava army. The Chalukyas were defeated.


The dancing and cheering were short lived. The soldiers noticed that the king and his commanders were not celebrating. The army fell silent. The job was not yet done.

“To Vatapi”, yelled Narasimhavarman.

The soldiers looked at him in disbelief. Defending against the Chalunkya onslaught was one thing. To take the fight to their capital was something else.

“Mamalla! Mamalla! To Vatapi”, yelled Paranjothi.

The soldiers took up the chant. The army started their march to Vatapi, the heart of the Chalukya Empire.

The scattered Chalukya army could not make it to Vatapi before the Pallavas. Paranjothi burnt the city to its foundation. The retreating Chaluka army could not believe their eyes as they saw their city turned to ashes. The Pallavas fell upon them again with renewed energy. The demoralized Chaluka army dispersed again. Narasimhavarman fought Pulakesin in single combat. He lifted the Chalukya king and slammed him on the ground. Pulakesin could not break his hold. Narasimhavarman took his sword and plunged it in his heart. The Lord Paramount of India breathed his last outside the burning embers of his city.


There were twelve kings in the history of India who never lost a battle. Ajatashatru, Chandragupta Maurya, Karikala Chola, Cheran Senguttuvan, Kochengannan Chola, Rajasuyam Vaetta Perunarkilli of the Cholas, Nedunchezhian Pandyan, Samudragupta, Rajasimha Pallava, Rajaraja Chola I and his son Rajendra Chola. None of them fought against odds so high or a foe so mighty as Narasimhavarman I of the Pallava dysnasty.


Kanchipuram, the rustic Pallaval capital lies across the now dry river bed of Palar river. It was once the heart of Tamil culture and architecture. Its artistic reach extended till the Ajantha and Ellora caves in Maharashtra. Its religious hold extended to China. Bodhidharman, a Buddhist Pallava prince took Buddhism to China. He is credited with starting Zen Budhism. He started teaching martial arts to monks in Shaolin monastery. The current Kanchipuram is a town lost in time, stretching on its hinges pulled by both past and the future. The Kanchipuram silk is still sought after and the weaver’s village is worth visiting.

The Pallavas were masters of bending stone to their will. The Pallavaram architecture consisted of three styles:

1) Rock cut temples: These were temples hewn from a single rock, as seen in the Pandava Rathas at Mahabalipuram.

2) Bas-relief: Intricate carving on a rock face, like Arjuna’s penance at Mahabalipuram.

3) Traditional stone black temples: Shore temple at Mahabalipuram and Kalaisanthar temple at Kanchipuram.

Kanchipuram is dotted with temples and ponds. The most beautiful is the Kalaisanthar temple; one of the oldest temples in South India. The sculptures and carvings are spell binding.

Kanchi-kudil is a 100year old house built in typical Kanchipuram style and is definitely as place to visit.


Twenty kilometres from Kanchipuram are Mamandur caves. These were built by Mahendravarman, Narasimhavarman’s father. The caves are covered with inscriptions, considered to be the earliest evidence of the Tamil script.

Mahabalipuram was the port of the Pallava empire and their financial hub. The rock cut teples and shore temples are mesmerizing. The bas-relief showing Arjuna’s penance is a piece of art which shows the past glory and splendour of the mighty Pallavas. Mahabalipuram is also called Mamallapuram in honour of Narasimhavarman I, the Pallava lion.


Indian history curriculum has a prominent North-Indian bias. Most people have not even heard of great southern kings like Pulakesin, Narasimhavarman, Vikramaditya, Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola.

I have just skimmed over the battle between Harshavardhana and Pulakesin. It was one of the most significant battles in the history of the subcontinent. It pitted the ruler of North India against the ruler of South India. Harshavardhana’s defeat set in turn a series of complex socio-political changes that ended the golden age of northern India; which was ushered in by the Gupta Empire.

Posted in Tamil Nadu

Tranquebar – ‘The land of the singing waves’

Admiral Ove Gjedde was going through the ship’s log when the king’s summons came. He hurried to the audience hall. The King of Danes, Christian IV, was dressed in his royal finery. There was a gleam in his eye and a smile on his face. He had never seen his king this excited.

“Admiral Gjedde, meet Marchelis de Boshouwer, the royal envoy from the Emperor of Ceylon”, said the king, “He brings to us an interesting proposition.”

Gjedde turned around. The king was not alone in the audience chamber. A man came forward from the shadows. He was sun-tanned and looked travel worn. His face was wrinkled beyond his years and his eyes were weary. He wore an ivory necklace and had gold rings on his fingers. The jewels stood out in stark contrast from his Dutch navy uniform. He bowed to the King.

“I have been sent as an envoy by His Majesty, Senarat of Kandy for military assistance. The kingdom of Ceylon is plagued by the Portuguese, who are laying waste to island. The king offers monopoly on all trade with the island in return for military assistance against the Portugese.”

Gjedde understood his king’s excitement. The success of the Dutch and British spice trade in India was a source of envy for the Danes. The king also wanted a bite of the luscious apple. Now, opportunity had come knocking at his door.

The Admiral had his doubts. The Dutch had the resources and the men in India to help out the Lankan king. Why did he come all the way to Europe? Why was a Dutchman approaching the King of Denmark instead of his own king? Why did he not have any documents or the king’s seal to prove his credibility?

King Christian IV was too tempted and excited by this opportunity to pay heed to his Admiral’s doubts. He ordered the Danish navy to sail to Ceylon and offer assistance to the Lankan king.

The voyage was long and arduous. The journey was punctuated with storms, shipwrecks and sickness. Gjedde cursed to his luck and kept on sailing. In the end, only half his crew managed to reach the shores of Sri Lanka.

A lot had happened in the two years that the Danish naval expedition took to reach Lanka. The political climate had changed. The king of Kandy and the Portuguese had signed a peace treaty. The king did not need any military assistance any more. The trade deal was torn and thrown out the window.

Gjedde stormed out in rage. The Danish navy had no where to go. They occupied a village near the shore called Koneshwaram. The Lankan king had warned him to the leave the island at the earliest. He had lost a lot of good men on this fool’s errand. The rest of his crew were seething. A mutiny was close at hands. They were far from home with no place to go. He had to do something before all was lost. He told his orderly to summon his Trade Director, Robert Crappe.

It had been two months since he had sent Crappe on a scouting mission on a freighter. Gjedde knew that turning back and going to Denmark was impossible. The rough seas and an imminent mutiny meant that he would never make it home alive. If he somehow managed to reach home by a miracle, the king would likely chop his head off for failing on the mission. He could not go home without a trade deal.

That was why he had sent Crappe to make contact with the Indian kings on the Coromandel coast and secure a trade deal. Why was there no news from him?

The news finally arrived. Gjedde’s hands were trembling as he read the letter from Crappe.

The Danish freighter was attacked by the Portuguese at Karaikal and sunk. Most of the ship’s crew had either died at sea or were captured by the Portuguese. The heads of the sailors were mounted on spikes. They were placed on the beach as a warning to the Danish Navy.

Crappe and a dozen of his crew escaped drowning by hanging on to flotsam. They made it to the shore. They tried to escape capture by the Poruguese under the cover of darkness, but ran head-first into an armed Indian encampment. They were captured by the Indians and taken to their king; the Nayak of Thanjavur.

The capture by the Indians turned out well for Crappe and his surviving crew. The Thanjavur king was enthralled by the Danes and was interested in trade-treaty to Denmark. The king gave the Danes the fishing village of Tharagambadi to build a ‘stone house’.

Gjedde collapsed on his chair. His prayers were answered and he had found a way out. The Danish contingent left Koneshwaram and set sail for Tharagambadi.

Gjedde and his navy finally reached Tharagambadi in 1620. They named the place Tranquebar and built a trading center there. They built Fort Dansborg on the seashore. He sent a message back the king of Denmark. The Danish East India company had arrived.

P.S. – It did not survive long.

The fishing hamlet of Tharagambadi is off the beaten path and not an easy place to reach. It has the distinction of having the first Protestant church in India, the first printing press in India and the second largest Danish fort in the world (after fort Kronborg in Helsingør).

The fortress on the beach is a beauty to behold. It was recently renovated and has a museum inside. The rusted canons still face the sea. Old churches and Danish bunglows are scattered around the town. The Danish Collector’s bunglow is refurbished as a hotel, and staying there takes you 300 years back in time.

Tharagambadi, the land of the singing waves, captures the imagination.

Posted in Tamil Nadu

Vellore – ‘Fierce and Fain’

The summer sun bore down up on the pains of Vellore. Dust clouds rose to the commands of the fickle breeze. Grass and shrubs shriveled in the heat. The Fortress of Vellore gleamed like a pearl in the barren plain. The sunlight reflected from the moat gave sparkling silver outline. A stray goat wandered about and decided to quench its thirst in the murky waters of the moat. An arrow shot from the rampart put an end to its hydrophilic dreams. Mutton was on the day’s menu.

There was silent but constant buzz around the fort. Whispers were passed about. The soldiers looked at their new uniforms with disgust. Leather tops and round hats. To wear clothes made of cow hide. Inconceivable!

The soldiers thought the new uniforms and laws were made to insult them and their religion. They complained about the uniforms and refused to shave their beards, but their protests fell on deaf ears. Every soldier with a beard and without an uniform was tied to a post and given 90 lashes.

This new law was the final snowflake on the mountain top. It fell on the suppressed anger of the sepoys. Something rumbled and gave way. It was an avalanche of rage. The sepoys decided to sink their teeth in the heels of the East India company.

After Tipu Sultan had died. His sons and daughters were brought from Srirangapatanam and imprisoned in the garrisoned Fortress of Vellore. The wedding of Tipu Sultan’s daughter, in 1806,  gave the soldiers a perfect excuse to get together and plan the mutiny.

On the night of the wedding, under the cover of chaos and celebration, the cry of revolution rose from the ramparts of the fort. A bonfire was lit from the highest tower of the Fort. A signal for the mutineers. It was a bonfire of the new uniforms. The 1500 strong garrison rebelled against their British overlords.

Fire and gunpowder rained upon the British officers, drunk on the festivities of the wedding. The fireworks in the sky were overshadowed by the gunshots on the ground. Blood stained fort walls. More than a hundred British soldiers were killed in mutiny. Col. John Fancourt, the British commander of the Vellore Fort was also killed. In the chaos, Major Coopes one of the British officers, slipped away. He jumped into the moat, swam across and escaped to the British garrison at Arcot.

Unaware of this, the sepoys were celebrating their victory. The Union Jack was lowered and the Tiger-standard of Mysore was hoisted. Sehezada Fateh Hyder, the son of Tipu Sultan was crowned king of Vellore. Wine flowed freely. Cheers and Chants made round. .

Major Coopes in the meantime trekked 25 km overnight and reached Arcot. He informed COl. Gillespie, the commander of the Arcot Garrison of the fall of Vellore. Once informed of the mutiny, the British cavalry at Arcot rode forth swiftly to Vellore. They covered the 25 km distance in two hours. They blew apart the gate of the fort with canons and unleashed Hades on the celebrating sepoys. Within a couple of hours, all the mutineers were either dead or in chains. Canons and firing squads sounded the entire day. Retribution was swift and certain. The Fortress of Vellore was back in the hands of the East India Company.

Thus ended the first ever Indian mutiny against the East India Company.



The hot and barren town of Vellore is still dominated by the Fort and its serene moat. The wide ramparts and the tall walls provide a daunting obstacle to any attacker. The fort was used by the British to imprison Tipu Sultan’s sons and daughters.

The Sepoy Mutiny at Vellore was a prelude to the greater and more famous Revolt of 1857. The controversial dress codes were revoked after the mutiny.

Some interesting reads:

  1. First hand account of Lady Amelia Fancourt – the wife of Col. John Fancourt, the commander of the Vellore Fort who was killed by the mutineers: An Account Of the Mutiny at Vellore, by the Lady of Sir John Fancourt, the Commandant, who was killed there July 9th, 1806. (
  2. The poem ‘Gillespie’ by Sir. Henry Norton, depicts the muster of the cavalry of Arcot and the recapture of Vellore:
Posted in Tamil Nadu

The Battle of Sadras

The French admiral watched the horizon from the deck of his ship, the Héros. Nine. Nine British ships between him and glory. A large wave broke at the hull and spattered his face with spray. He wiped his face with a silk napkin. He sent word to the captains of his fleet to meet him in his war-cabin.

It was 1782. The French supported the Americans in their struggle for Independence, much to the chagrin of the British. The Dutch also allied with the French inspite of British threats. The echoes of the dispute found their way to India where the British forces were capturing French and Dutch outposts along the Coromandel coast. The French dispatched Admiral Balli de Suffren, with his fleet to keep the British forces at bay.

French Admiral – Bailli de Suffren

The Admiral’s fleet had eleven ships of the line, seven transport ships filled with troops, and a corvette to escort the transports They set sail from Brest and had planned to siege the British stronghold at Madras. The Admiral had found the British fleet, under the command of Sir Edward Hughes anchored at Madras and had turned south. He wanted to land his troops at the Dutch colony at Sadras and attack the British troops from the land. The British raised their anchors and set sail after Suffren. Both the navies faced each other at Sadras.


Suffren put his napkin away and peered at the map. The cannons in the sea fort at Sadras would prevent the British from landing. It seemed like the battle would be easy. The French had the wind on their side and had the numerical advantage. But he knew that the British Navy was force not to be taken lightly. They were the masters at sea-battles.

Suffren realized that he was hampered by the need to protect the transport ships containing the troops. He had to safely get them away from the conflict. He diapatched his corvette to protect the transport ships and decided to draw Hughes away from them. Suffren thought the British would chase his fleet while leaving the transport ships to land the troops safely. The troops would then wreck havoc from land.

The plan was going perfectly. The British fleet had turned their attention towards Suffren and his ships while the transport ships were making way towards the coast.  The wind was against the British and they were unable to engage in a battle with the French. The sun was setting across the Indian coast. The sea shimmered in orange. He made sure that the watch-outs were in their post and went to sleep in his cabin with a smile on his face.

The French Admiral woke up next day to chaos. His crew was running amok on the deck. The British fleet was nowhere to be seen. Under the cover of the night, they had changed direction and were now pursuing the transport ships. Suffren yelled in frustration. He gave the order to set sail and give the chase.

By late afternoon, he caught up with the British ships. The battle lines were drawn and the canons were readied. Suffern lead the charge in his ship, Héros. The tide was high and waves made maneuverability difficult. Héros caught up with a British ship. It rained cannonballs and hell on it. The British ship was no match for the French speed and could not outmaneuver. The sailors jumped off the deck as the burning ship sank to his watery grave.

Satisfied with his attack, Suffren looked around to see how the rest of the battle was going. His eyes widened with horror. He wiped the salt out of his eyes to see if his eyes were deceiving him. They were not.

Only five of his ships had followed him in the battle. The other six had moved back and were watching the battle from the sidelines. He made his messenger to signal the other ships to join the battle. Two out of the six ships reluctantly joined the battle. The other four disobeyed the order and remained at the sidelines. The French Admiral threw his sword down in fury. If he got out alive out of this, he would make them pay. Dearly.

The angry Admiral, turned his attention towards the battle. Sir Hughes ship, the Superb, was making way towards him. He yelled at his crew to charge at the British ship. If he was going down, he would go down all guns blazing.

The Admiral stood tall among the smoke, salt and screams. The two ships passed each other by with their canons tearing wood and flesh apart. Once the smoke cleared, Suffren surveyed the damage. He was surprised to see his ship still standing. The hull and the mast were still intact. A creaking noise caught his attention and he looked back. It was the mast of the British ship crashing. They were not so lucky. The canon-ridden British ship raised the white flag of surrender.

That night Suffren sat silently on the ramparts of the Sadras fort and looked across at the silent sea. There were no more canons and smoke. Only the sound of waves caressing the shore. The broken British fleet had set sail to Triconamalee for repairs. His fleet also had suffered damages and undergoing repairs at the Dutch port.

His thoughts were broken by the sounds of footsteps. He turned around. He saw the captains of the ships who had refused to join in the battle, brought in chains.

“Tie them to the canons and fire”, he said as he stood up and walked to his cabin.


After the Battle of Sadras, the Frech troops who were escorted by Admiral Suffrens, joined forces with the Dutch and Hyder Ali against the British spawning the Second Anglo-Mysore war.

Sadras, once a busy Dutch sea-fort and a naval colony, is now a tiny fishing hamlet, a stones throw away from Kalpakkam nuclear power-plant. The ruins of the sea fort still stand towering high along the sea shore, though much of its glory lost. It is easy to lose track of time waking along the ramparts watching the tall grass that now covers the fort, bend and twist in the sea breeze.


Posted in Tamil Nadu

Gingee – ‘Troy Of The East’

The Nawab slowly drank the wine from his cup. The commanders of his army lowered their eyes. The siege was not going according to the plan. It had lasted seven years. He had thought that capturing Gingee from the young Raja Tej Singh would be easy. Only seven hundred men were with Raja Tej Singh and they had defended the fort for seven years against Nawab’s twenty thousand strong army. The Nawab threw the cup down in anger.

The Mughal Emperor Aurangazeb had captured the famous Gingee fortress from the Marathas and handed it over to his Rajput general, Raja Swaroop Singh. After the death of Aurangazeb, the Mughal empire crumbled. The Deccan sliped like butter from the Mughal fingers. The Mughal governor in the Carnatic, the Nawab of Arcot declared his independence, but Raja Swaroop Singh refused to accept his sovereignty. He swore fealty to the Mughal emperor in Delhi, but the Mughal army was too far and too busy to pay his request any heed.

The fortress of Gingee was just 90 kilometers away from Arcot, the Nawab’s capital. It was fabled to be the greatest fortress in the country. Even the great Maratha, Chhatrapati Shivaji, called it the ‘most unassailable fortress’. Its location and strong defenses tempted the Nawab. Raja Swaroop Singh died of a fever and his fifteen year old son, Raja Tej Singh was crowned king. The Nawab had decided to strike the hot iron.

Unfortunately, the siege wasn’t going well.


The fortress was living up to its name. It stood on top a hill with seven layers of battlements surrounding it. One solitary path wound around the mountain and it was overlooked by archery towers. The top of the fortress could only be reached by crossing a tiny drawbridge built, over a rocky chasm, hundreds of feet deep.

The Marathas were ingenious folks, they had tied ropes to monitor lizards, climbed the rocky walls of the fortress and captured it. The Nawab decided to try the same trick, but Tej Singh’s men were ready. They trained their kites and falcons to swoop down and snatch the lizards from the rocks. The Nawab cursed the blasted birds.

(The drawbrige on the top of the hill)

The hot summer sun was beating down upon the land. It had not rained for the past two years and the river Palar had run dry. Drought had hit Arcot and Gingee. Rebellion was breaking out in the kingdom. An army living off the land during a drought didn’t go well with the local people.

Inside the fortress too the situation was bad. Tej Singh had only 700 men. Most of his men were twice as old as him, but they respected him. They were even ready to die for him. The food stores had run out and there was no water either. The fortress was strong enough to withstand an army, but not a famine.

The king put on his iron armour and mounted his favorite horse, Bara Hazari – The winged horse of heaven. Not a word did he utter, but his men knew. Seven hundred pairs of feet turned and followed him on the dusty path. The beats of a lonely drum was the only sound. Vultures were circling in the skies knowing that the time of their feasting was near. Raja Tej Singh had heard tales of his Rajput ancestors’ bravery from his grandmother. He was now going to write his own. His helm bit into his forehead. He looked up to the harem quarters, he could feel his young queen’s eyes looking at him. He closed his eyes and muttered a silent prayer for strength. He pulled the reins of his horse and broke into a gallop.

When the drawbridge was lowered, the king saw a lone horseman in a wedding dress standing outside. It was Mohammad Khan, his best friend. He had walked out of his own wedding and had come to help. Tej Singh jumped off his horse and hugged him.

The small army galloped down. The hillside resounded with the old Rajput war cry.

Life is cheap. Honour is not.

The Nawab was not expecting an attack. His army was out searching for food and water when the gates of the fortress were thrown open. Cannonballs fizzed into the Nawab’s army. The Nawab’s elephants stampeded in the noise and crushed  his own men. By the time the Nawab’s army could regroup, Tej SIngh’s men had penetrated deep into their formation.

Blood and glory followed the Rajput sword. None of the Nawab’s soldiers could keep up with the winged horse of heaven. One of the Nawab’s horsemen galloped towards the Nawab with a lance. Just before he could run into Tej Singh, a bolt of green lightning passed them by and the horseman slid off his saddle. Headless.

It was Mohammad Khan. Tej Singh held out his sword to thank him. Mohammad Khan barely raised his sword in acknowledgement when a stray arrow pierced his neck. He fell down in a pool of blood.

Tej Singh jumped off his horse and rushed to his dying friend. He took Mohammad Khan in his lap. He looked at his friend, who had come to help him out in the battle even on his wedding day. Tears streaked his dirt-stained face. Mohammad Khan gave a slow smile. The light went out form his eyes. Tej Singh’s scream was swallowed by the noise of the battle.

The young king looked around with bloodshot eyes. The Nawab’s army had surround him and his men. He slowly mounted on his horse and whispered ‘Death’ in its ears. The horse seemed to understand and raised its forelegs. His men rallied around him. There was no noise. No trumpets, no drums, no war cries. There was only a whisper which was louder than any cry.


They were no longer fighting for victory.


The Nawab surveyed the battlefield in the light of the setting sun. The red hue of the dusk mingled with the blood on the battlefield. Raja Tej Singh and his 700 men had died, but they had inflicted massive casualties on his army. Half his army was either dead or dying. He looked at the arrow-riddled body of Tej Singh on a funeral pyre. Near him was the pyre of his faithful horse. A priest was lighting the pyres and chanting a prayer. Tej Singh’s young queen had slumped on the ground and was sobbing into her saree. The Nawab looked at her. She was pretty and would make a good addition to his harem. The young queen looked at the Nawab and seemed to understand his thoughts. She stood up wordlessly and jumped into the orange flames of her husband’s pyre as sati.

The Nawab slowly walked back to his tent. If this was victory, why did it taste so bitter.

(The fortress of Gingee)

Gingee is located near Villupuram in Tamil Nadu. It is a small town situated in a barren plain, overshadowed by the tall fortress. The hills look like some giant had once lived in this land, collected rocks together and put them up in a pile.

Gingee was one of the greatest fortresses in India, impressing even Shivaji. The Nawab of Arcot did capture the fortress; but the siege, Tej Singh’s attack and the drought left his power in tatters. The weak Nawab found himself caught in between the clashes of the rising powers in the Deccan. The British, the French and Tipu Sultan. The Nawab lost Gingee to the French who took the fortress’ treasures to Pondicherry. The English later captured Gingee from the French. The British called Gingee, ‘the Troy of the East’. Gingee lost its former charm under the British and became a small, idyllic, agrarian village.

The fort complex is massive. It has three separate forts on three hilltops. The largest of the three is called Rajagiri, which was used by Raja Tej Singh. It is an imposing citadel built on the top of a 800 feet hillock. The base of the hillock has a fortification wall with a dried up moat.

When I visited Gingee, the fortress reminded me of Minas Tirith from The Lord of the Rings. Both have seven layers of defenses with the gates for each level situated in a different direction from the next level. The top has a tiny drawbridge which leads to the crown of the hill.

Raja Tej Singh is still famous among the local people who call him Raja Desingu. People sing ballads of his bravery, his faithful friend Mohammad Khan and his winged horse of heaven. Quite a few shops here are named after him and even a college. It is amazing to find a Rajput king loved by a people so far away from his home.

Gingee Fortress

Posted in Punjab

‘Qila Mubarak’ – The Queen of Hearts

Razia sat warily sat on the throne of Delhi. The first woman to become a Sultan. The men of the court were not comfortable with that notion. She felt a thousand eyes staring at her. Six months ago, the same people rejected her claim to the throne and made her brother Sultan. They were now bowing before her. Her brother had been a bad ruler. he had spent his days either in his harem or drinking wine. They had assassinated him and reluctantly made her the Sultan of Delhi.

Razia proved to be an efficient ruler. She dressed like a king, wore no purdah and wore a turban. She was wise in her judgments and was loved by her people. She even lead her armies into war, riding atop an elephant. She was also a shrewd politicians. She managed to make the rebel factions fight among themselves to oblivion. She refused to be addressed as Sultana, the wife of a Sultan, but only responded to Sultan Razia.

The nobles and courtiers of the court did not like to bow before a woman. They were waiting for her to make a mistake. Like hyenas in the grass, waiting for the buffalo to slip. Razia was careful not to fall into their hands; but no one can tame the human heart.

She first saw him in the kitchens. A slave. His name was Yaqut. The queen felt her cheeks redden when she saw him. She wished she had worn a purdah so that the others didn’t see her blush. She ordered hat the slave be made her personal servant. The queen and the slave became close, meeting in secrecy at the banks of the Ganges. She even promoted him to the be the superintendent off stables.

The hyenas scented blood. When the nobles and the provincial governors heard about their queen’s affair, they took up arms. She had disgraced the throne by falling in love with a slave. The clouds of war gathered over Delhi. The rebels, lead by Malik Altunia, the governor of Bathinda, clashed with the queen’s army. In the battle, Yaqut, the slave who loved the queen, was killed. Razia was taken prisoner and imprisoned in Bathinda’s Qila Mubarak. To escape death, Razia agreed to marry Altunia.

Razia and Altunia were waylaid by a troop of Jats on their way to Delhi and were killed near Kaithal in Haryana.

Qila Mubarak still stands tall in Bhatinda. In the center of the town,with wide walls and silent courtyards. The queen spent her days in captivity inside here. The gurudwara inside lends an added charm to the calmness of the fort.

The fort was also visited by the Guru Gobind Singh.

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Posted in Pondicherry

‘Aayi Mandapam’ – A tale of a King and a Prostitute

King Krishnadevaraya, the ruler of the prosperous Vijayanagara empire, ruled over the Deccan. His empire stretched from Karnataka to Kanyakumari. One day, the king set out from his capital at Hampi and went on a tour of his kingdom.

While traveling through Pondicherry, a trading city and a sea port on the eastern coast of his empire, a beautiful building caught the king’s eye. The king looked with amazement at the building’s architecture and it carvings. The religious king thought it was a temple. He knelt on the street and bowed down before it with folded hands.

The people around looked at the king with surprise. There was a stunned silence. The young men and women were hiding behind their elders and giggling. A wise old man walked up to the king and asked him, “Your Majesty, why are you bowing down in front of a brothel?”

The king looked up in horror. He caught the old man by his throat and demanded an explanation. The old man croaked, “Sire, this is a brothel. It is run by a prostitute called Aayi”. The king loosened his grip. The old man collapsed on the street.

The embarrassed king roared with anger. He ordered his soldiers to bring the prostitute to him and tear the building down from its roots. The soldiers got hammers and axes and started demolishing the brothel.

The prostitute, Aayi, was brought to the king in chains. She fell on the kings feet and asked for mercy. She begged the king to spare the house, but the king’s ego was deeply bruised. He did not listen to her. Aayi, in a desperate plea, asked the king, the permission to break down the house herself. The king agreed.

The prostitute broke down her beautiful house and in its place dug a water tank for the people around. The place was known as Aayi Kulam in her memory.

Years later, the French made Pondicherry their capital in India. The French town on the sea shore faced an acute water shortage. All the wells they dug had only salty water. The French King, Napolean III, sent an architect, Monsieur Lamairesse to sort out the problem. The architect built a 5 km long tunnel from Aayi Kulam to a park in the French part of the town. The French king heard about the story behind the water tank was was deeply impressed. He ordered the architect to build a monument for Aayi. The monument was built in French architectural style at the center of the park

The Governor of Pondicherry sent a letter to the French king thanking him for sending the architect, Mon. Lamairesse. The King told him to thank Aayi and wrote that she deserved a monument.



Aayi’s monument is still present in Pondicherry. It is flanked by important buildings like the French consulate, the secretariat and the Governor’s bhavan. Built in Greco-Roman style, it is located at the center of a circular park. On top of the monument is a French fleur dde lis.

A stone plaque written in traditional Tamil and Latin, pays tribute to Aayi’s deed and thanks her for providing water for the people of the town.