Attur Fort: Salem’s Little, Big Fort
Nestled in a rustic setting in Salem district in Tamil Nadu, Attur fort is as low-profile as a historic monument can get. Yet this little gem has witnessed crucial events in the history of Mysore, including the Anglo-Mysore Wars.
History of Attur
Going by the Puranic sources, during the Kaliyuga a dynasty was established by Thirthagiri, whose command was handed to Ananthagiri, from whose name ‘Attur’ is derived. Historians also believe that Attur was part of Kongu Nadu, which was initially under the Chera dynasty in the Sangam Era (1st-4th CE).
Attur is located in the Western Ghats and, in the 1st century, it lay on the famous Roman trade route that extended from the port of Arikamedu on the east coast of India, to Muziris on the west coast. It prospered as a result of the thriving trade.
By the 10th CE, Attur came under the Chola Empire and then under the Vijayanagara Empire by the 15th CE. After the Battle of Talikotta in 1565 CE, when the Vijayanagara Empire crumbled, the Madurai Nayak rulers, former military governors of the Vijayanagaras, became the new masters of this region.
The Inception of the Fort
In the late 16th CE, when the need to protect territories from neighbouring kingdoms and the growing European power in nearby coastal areas became a matter of concern, the Nayaks began constructing forts on territories that they occupied. Attur Fort was one among them.
This small fort is believed to have been built between 1580 and 1650 CE by Ramachandra Nayakar, a Polygar feudatory under the Madurai Nayaks, and hailing from the Gatti Mudaliar dynasty. Centered at Taramangalam, his rule extended till the present-day districts of Salem, Karur, Erode and Coimbatore.
An almost perfect rectangle, the fort had excellent natural defences – the Vasishta River in the east, moats on the western side and ditches on the other two sides. Built from stone sans mortar and solid bricks, the fort was protected by walls that were 30 feet high and 15 feet wide. The fort included a harem as well as a court and a roof supported by pillars with obtuse, pointed arches. A striking feature of the fort was a water-gate, the source of water for the pool located inside the fort.
In 1641 CE, the fort came under Mysore ruler Kantireva Narasa Raja Wodeyar, when he captured some territories from the Gatti Mudaliars. In 1667CE, Dodda Deva Raja Wodeyar captured the remaining territories and Attur was renamed ‘Attur-Ananthagiri’. In 1761 CE, the fort and the surrounding region became the property of Hyder Ali, who displaced the then Wodeyar ruler from his throne.
After losing the Battle Of Buxar in 1764 CE, the then Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II gave the Diwani of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha to the British East India Company along with the Nizam-ruled Northern Circars as a free gift. The Nizam surrendered his dominions on condition that one of his brothers would be stationed in Guntur and the Nizam would be paid seven lakh rupees annually.
The Company eventually agreed in order to have the Nizam turn against Hyder Ali, who was getting more and more powerful in Southern India. The Nizam was granted troops by the Company and the English troops, under Col Joseph Smith were sent to Hyderabad to ‘assist’ the Nizam’s troops. On his way, Col Smith learnt of the Nizam’s secret negotiations with Hyder Ali, after which the Company deployed more troops towards Hyderabad.
As the First Anglo-Mysore war commenced in 1767 CE, the cat and mouse game between the forces of the Company and the combined forces of the Nizam, Asaf Jah II, and Hyder, broke out. The turning point came on 23rd February 1768 CE, when the Company secretly concluded a treaty with the Nizam. As a result, the Nizam withdrew from the battle deserting Hyder and retired in their royal court.
Deserted, Hyder Ali had dispatched a battalion under his 18-year-old son Tipu, through which he regained some territories, like Mangalore. Hyder Ali launched attacks in Bangalore and surrounding areas, only to incur some losses, which included the surrender of Attur Fort to Wood, a Madras Council representative. He regained it a year later, after he signed the Treaty of Madras on 29 March 1769 CE. The treaty brought an end to the First Anglo-Mysore War. Attur Fort was among the possessions that Hyder Ali regained and it was a crucial fortification for him to keep a check on the growing influence of the British East India Company and its local allies within the area.
During the reign of the Wodeyars and of Hyder Ali, the fort didn’t witness any major additions. It was used mainly as an arms depot and watchtower.
After the Third Anglo-Mysore War, followed by the Treaty of Srirangapatnam in 1792 CE, Attur and some other forts were transferred to the British East India Company. It was after the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War in 1799, when the British took charge of the Mysore region, that Attur fort was used to station the 23 Madras Battalion.
On the recommendation of Lord Richard Wellesley, it was made an ordinance station and remained a crucial military base till 1854. It was during this time, when the British added two bomb-proof chambers, that the Gatti Mudaliar court was used as a Roman Catholic chapel. More bastions and even flag-batteries were added, and it contained the tombs of some British officers. The arms depot was updated.
When the British Government took over the reins of India from the East India Company in 1858, Attur became part of Salem district under the Madras Presidency, and the fort was abandoned by the troops who had been stationed there. After that, the premises were encroached till 1921, when the fort was taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India.
Since then, minor repair work has been undertaken periodically. At the south-western and western areas, parts of the fort that were damaged during Hyder Ali’s time, restoration is underway. But this historic fortification is still under threat from the elements, encroachers and even vandals.