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.