About four hours’ drive from Bengaluru is the beautiful hill station of Sakleshpur in the lush Western Ghats in Karnataka. While this is a popular weekend getaway, not many who visit know that it is also home to a unique, 18th-century fort, a marvellous example of French-military architecture in India.
The Manjarabad Fort is an eight-point, star-shaped fort built in the 1790s by Tipu Sultan, the then ruler of Mysore, on a hill that gives it a commanding view of the surroundings. In fact, it is said that on a clear day, even the Arabian Sea can be seen from atop the fort.
This region was once under the Balam Palegars, who had their capital at Maninagapura (present-day Aigur). From these Palegars, the area was annexed by Sivappa Nayaka of Ikkeri in 1659, and ultimately by Tipu Sultan in 1792. This was a time when Tipu was establishing his sovereignty over Mysore and fighting the East India Company, which had aligned with the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad.
Thus, in the midst of his expansionist plans, Tipu felt the need to maintain command over the highway leading from the port of Mangalore to resource-rich Coorg, and his capital Srirangapatna. He chose the elevated site at which the Manjarabad Fort stands today, overlooking the vast plains on one side and the ghats of Malnad on the other.
To build a modern fort, Tipu sought the help of French engineers, who were ranged against the British and had allied with Tipu’s father Hyder Ali. The French had also helped him train his army. In Europe, this was a time when military architecture was influenced by Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), France’s most famous military engineer and commissioner of fortifications under French King Louis XIV. Since weapons such as bows and arrows, and spears and swords had been replaced by gunpowder and cannons in warfare, Vauban saw a need to change structures as well to keep up with the times. The tall, thin walls of forts needed to be replaced by short, broad ones for easy use of cannons.
Bastions that projected from the walls were key features of these new-age forts, and were designed so that soldiers could fire on anyone who got too close to the fort walls, unlike the traditional, rounded bastions, which had dead-zones. A dead zone is a space between two bastions where the enemy is relatively safe from being attacked by those inside the fort. Vauban designed arrow-shaped bastions with sloping walls, in case there was a need for a manual attack with stones and fireballs. And this is exactly the kind of design found in Manjarabad Fort.
The fort is constructed of large granite blocks and mud, and is surrounded by a deep moat, which was probably filled with crocodiles and snakes. The French design beautifully merges with Islamic decorative elements as can be seen on gateways which have ornate arches and columns. The interior buildings, which accommodate army barracks, an armoury, stores etc, have been built with fired bricks. At the exact geometric centre of the fort is a tank shaped like a cross to collect rainwater. There are also two rooms to store gunpowder, and interestingly, they remain cool even during summer. All along the northwestern and northern sides are arched cells that served as resting places for the guards. There’s also an underground magazine to store arms and ammunition.
Manjarabad Fort is just one of many examples of how Tipu Sultan embraced new innovations. Another example is his use of rockets during the Anglo-Mysore Wars, making his army the first in the world to use deadly, iron-cased rockets in war. The British were so awed by these ‘Mysorean rockets’ that they took the technology back to Europe, reverse-engineered it and used a version of these rockets against the Americans in the Anglo-American War of 1812. But that is another story.
The Manjarabad Fort today, although protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, lies in ruins and in dire need of promotion among Karnataka’s tourist destinations.
DID YOU KNOW?
At the time of its construction, Manjarabad was not the only star-shaped fort in India. Kolkata’s second fort, Fort William, built in the late 1700s, was also built to a star-shaped plan.
Cover Photo credit: Aakash Prabhu
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