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

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

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