Located around 160 km from Chennai, in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu, lies one of the most important and powerful forts of South India – the Gingee Fort, also known as Jinji or Senji. Once the seat of great medieval powers jousting for supremacy, its great fortifications and its reputation as being ‘impregnable’ led medieval European travellers to dub it the ‘Troy of the East’. In fact, the Mughal army could only capture it after a siege of eight years, the longest one recorded in Mughal history!
Today, the fort, with high walls spanning 13 km and spread across three hills, is eerily empty. It is only 60 km from Pondicherry but it has completely fallen off the tourist map and few even know it exists. However, wrapped in myth and legend, the story of Gingee deserves to be told.
The most comprehensive account of the fort is the book History of Gingee And Its Rulers (1943) by noted historian C S Srinivasachari. Apparently, the name ‘Gingee’ or ‘Senji’ in Tamil is derived from the shrine of local goddess ‘Senjiamman’, which predates the construction of the fort.
The origins of the fort are equally fantastical. Apparently, around 1200 CE, a local shepherd named Ananda Kon, while grazing his sheep, found a great treasure hidden in the cavities of Gingee’s western hill. With his new-found wealth, he gathered a band of warriors and carved out a kingdom for himself, building a small fortification called ‘Anandagiri’ (after himself!) on the very hill where he found the alleged treasure. Gingee would become the seat of the Kon Rajas, followed by a part of the Hoysala kingdom (14th century) and finally the Vijayanagara empire in 1383 CE.
By the early 15th century, Gingee became one of the most important cities in South India. The Vijayanagara empire was ruled by a three-tier system, with the emperor in Vijayanagara (Hampi); the nayakas or viceroys in Madurai, Gingee and Thanjavur; and the Polygars or chieftains at the local level. Thus, under the Vijayanagara rulers, it became the third city of the empire after Hampi and Madurai. It is the nayakas of Gingee, who strengthened the fort and built palaces and temples there.
The Battle of Talikota in 1565 broke the power of the Vijayanagara emperors and soon the nayakas of Gingee began to rule as semi-independent powers. Due to the thriving trade in textiles, a number of European traders would visit Gingee and dub it ‘Troy of the East’. Father Nicholas Pimenta, a Jesuit missionary stayed for a few days in Gingee, in 1597 CE, at the height of its glory. In his accounts, he offers a fascinating description of the city:
We went to Gingee — the greatest city we have seen in India and bigger than any in Portugal except Lisbon. In the midst thereof is a castle like a city, high walled with great hewn stones and encompassed with a ditch full of water. In the middle of it is a rock framed into bulwarks and turrets and made impregnable… The Naicus [Nayaka] appointed our lodging in the Tower, but the heat forced us to the Grove…
Describing the court of Venkatappa Nayaka (1570-1600), Father Pimenta writes:
“Before us, 200 Brahmans went in rank to sprinkle the house with holy water and to prevent sorcery against the king which they used every day, when the king first entered the house. We found him lying on a silken carpet leaning on two cushions in a long silken garment, a great chain hanging from his neck, distinguished with many pearls and gems all over his body and his long hair tied with a knot on the crown adorned with pearls. Some Brahmans and princes attended upon him. This shows the grandeur of the Nayak. He entertained us kindly and marvelled much that we chewed not the betel leaves which were offered to us.”
The Jesuits got what they had come for – permission to build a church at Gingee. By 1607, the Dutch had arrived in Gingee, pleading for permission to trade in sandalwood, camphor, nutmeg, porcelain and brass, for which the region was famous. They were soon granted permission as set up a factory at Tegnapatnam (Cuddalore), around 90 km away.
The wealth of Gingee also attracted the attention of the Deccani sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda. In 1648, the combined armies of Bijapur and Golconda marched on Gingee under the command of Mir Jumla and captured it. The accumulated wealth of the Gingee nayakas, worth around 4 crore rupees in cash and jewels, fell into their hands. The Bijapur armies took control of Gingee and renamed it ‘Badshabad’.
In March 1673, Elihu Yale, a British East India company official in Madras and after whom the famous Yale University is named, visited Gingee to negotiate for British trading rights in the region, with the Bijapuri governor. The mission failed, as the British were very edgy about establishing a factory so close to the French one at Pondicherry.
By 1677, Gingee came into Maratha possession, when Chhatrapati Shivaji conquered it from Bijapur. It would become a strategic outpost of the Maratha kingdom deep in the south. The Marathas built ramparts, around 20 feet thick, around the original fort walls. It was a wise, strategic move and would help them 12 years later.
In 1689, the Mughals captured and put to death Chhatrapati Shivaji’s son and successor, Chhatrapati Sambhaji, and captured the Maratha capital Raigad. Chhatrapati Shivaji’s younger son Rajaram and his wife Tarabai escaped and reached Gingee disguised as Lingayat pilgrims. With the kingdom and its capital in Maharashtra lost to the Mughals, Gingee would become the Marathas’ de facto seat of power and ‘government in exile’. The Mughal army reached Gingee in hot pursuit and laid siege to the fort for eight long years, from 1690 to 1698, the longest in Mughal history!
While the Mughals finally captured Gingee in 1698, Chhatrapati Rajaram and Tarabai had already escaped back to Maharashtra and continued their fight. In 1700, Emperor Aurangzeb assigned the fort to Raja Swarup Singh, a Bundela officer, and Gingee entered a new phase in history under the ‘Bundela Rajas of Gingee’. Swarup’s Singh’s son Raja Desing valiantly died fighting the armies of a local Mughal governor in 1714, and a number of ballads were composed praising his bravery.
This was the beginning of the decline and fall of the Gingee Fort. The end came, not at the hands of a great general but by the tiniest but most lethal of creatures – mosquitoes!
The area around Gingee was notorious for malaria. Plagued by the disease, in 1716, the Mughals shifted their headquarters from Gingee to Arcot. During the British and French wars for supremacy of the Tamil Nadu coast, the French conquered Gingee in 1750. For the 10 years that they held the fort, the French lost 1,200 soldiers to malaria.
The British East India Company, which took over in 1760, had no use for this unhealthy and notoriously malaria-prone fort. Governor George Pigot of Madras observed in 1775 that:
“ the prisoners could be sent to Gingee, a place to which nothing could tempt a state to doom any of its subjects, but the great advantages resulting from its situation and strength — a place whose pernicious air and water plunge into irrevocable sickness and pain almost all whom necessity compels to inhabit it for a time. That is the place you have chosen for your prisoners who would suffer there a lingering death.”
The fort had a narrow escape when in 1803, the British Collector of Arcot recommended that it be demolished due to its proximity to Pondicherry. Thankfully, the proposal was rejected. Even as late as 1860, it was notoriously unhealthy. According to an official report of 1860, “some years previously, the neighbourhood of Gingee was considered unhealthy (malarial) and became a shelter for thieves and a den for wild beasts. It remained an isolated spot dreaded by all and the fort and buildings became a prey to anyone who coveted the valuable store of finely worked ornamental stones.”
In 1920, the fort was declared a protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India. The Gingee Fort is spread over three hills – Krishnagiri, Rajagiri and Chandrayandurg, forming a triangle. Each of these hills has a self-contained citadel, with walls surrounded by a moat, encompassing all three citadels into a great fort. Inside are palaces, pavilions, granaries, stables, prisons and temples, remnants of a great township that existed within its embrace.
Sadly, despite such a rich and fascinating past, Gingee Fort remains relatively unknown to most Indians. It deserves to be recognized, at par with its North Indian counterparts such as Chittorgarh and Gwalior as one of the ‘greatest and most historic forts of India’.