The Hidden Forts of Bengaluru
Bangalore or Bengaluru today, is known as the capital of India’s IT industry. With a vibrant pub culture, it is the mecca for youngsters, attracted by its promise of good weather and good times. But beyond the walls of glass, steel and concrete offices, there exists a Bengaluru which few take time out to explore. Not many, who live in the city today, are aware that Bengaluru is home to as many as six forts.
Bengaluru was founded in 1537 by Hiriye Kempe Gowda, more famously known as Kempegowda I, a vassal of the Vijaynagar Emperor. Kempegowda built a mud fort , enclosing an area of roughly 2.24 square kilometres, surrounded by a moat, at a place that is now called Bengaluru Pete. Within this, he created roads running in the cardinal directions with the fort’s gates at the ends of the two main streets. Inside, he created specific residential and commercial areas and tanks for water supply. This area now forms the heart of the modern city and is known as Bengaluru Pete. Many of the markets that Kempegowda laid out are still in use and some of the tanks still survive. Also surviving are the Gavi Gangadhareshwara Temple, the Ulsoor Someswara temple, the Dodda Ganapathi temple, the Nandi or Bull Temple, the Karanji Anjaneya temple, the Mahakali temple, the Veerabhadra temple, and the Vinayaka and Kalabhairava temples are in vicinity of around 33 kms around the city.
During the construction of the fort, a portion of the wall repeatedly collapsed and it was said that a pregnant woman needed to be sacrificed to appease the Gods. Kempegowda would not permit it, but seeing her father’s predicament, it is said that his daughter-in-law Lakshmi Devi sneaked out in the middle of the night and killed herself. In her memory, Kempegowda constructed the Lakshmamma Devi temple which still stands in Koramangla. Of the original fort though, nothing remains save 4 of the 7 watchtowers erected by Kempegowda’s son. The watchtowers marked the edge of what was then Bengaluru city, but today they are in the heart of the city. They can still be seen behind the Bandi Mahakali temple, in the botanical gardens in Lalbagh, in the Kempegowda Tower Park at Mekhri Circle and next to Ulsoor Lake.
Kempegowda’s fort was expanded under the Wodeyar kings of Mysore between 1673 and 1704 CE. In 1761 CE Hyder Ali strengthened the fort and enlarged it further, replacing the mud walls with stone. In 1791, the armies of the East India Company, led by Lord Cornwallis laid siege to Bangalore Fort. After a siege that lasted 6 weeks and cost more than 2000 lives, EIC forces breached the walls near the Delhi Gate of Bangalore Fort and successfully stormed it. After Tipu’s death in Srirangapatna in 1799, the British began a process of gradually dismantling the fort. Parts of it were demolished for widening roads, building hospitals, schools and bus stands.
Today, all that remains of the Bangalore Fort are it’s Delhi Gate and a couple of bastions. Most of what remains is blocked off by the ASI and one can see the little that is accessible in around 10 minutes. Through the gate, the first structure one sees is the Ganapathi Temple which dates back to Tipu’s time. Around the walls, if one looks carefully, it is possible to find bas relief figures, including erotic sculptures. To the east of the Delhi gate, on the wall is mounted a tablet which states :
‘Through this breach the British assault was delivered March 21, 1791’
About 550 metres to the south of the fort is Tipu’s Summer Palace.
Begur can probably be described as the last surviving village within Bengaluru’s city limits. To the south of modern day Bengaluru, and completely surrounded by modern high-rise apartments, Begur still retains its rustic character. The earliest settlements around Begur were ruled by the Ganga Dynasty, between the 6th and 9th century. This was a time when Jainism flourished in Karnataka and Nagattara, the Ganga chief of the region was Jain. The statue of a headless Jain Tirthankara has been recovered from the area, indicating that a Jain Basadi once existed here. Also discovered here was an inscription from 890 CE, written in Halegannada (ancient Kannada), which talks about “Bengaluru kadana” or the battle of Bengaluru between the Jain Gangas and the Shaivite Nolambas. Nagattara’s son, Buttanashetty was killed in the battle according to the inscription. This is the earliest known reference to a place called Bengaluru, which would seem to indicate that the city is more than 1100 years old.
While Begur is famous for its Panchalingeshwara temple built by the Cholas, the Begur Fort gets little attention. The Begur Fort is a perfectly circular fort, covering an area of approximately 1.4 square km. The low walls of the fort are made of mud and are now completely covered in vegetation. The entrance is through a stone gateway to the northeast. Inside are two temples dedicated to Kashi Vishwanath and Krishna.
On the southern side is an old well and to the west is a termite mound that also seems to be the object of veneration. Inscriptions discovered nearby mention that Nagattara’s daughter Tondabbe ended her life through the Jain custom of Sallekhana, or fasting unto death at the fort. Begur Fort is said to be 400 years old, but little research has been done on the fort and no steps have been taken to preserve it. With the nearby Electronic City rapidly expanding, there is a very real possibility that Begur Fort will fall prey to real estate greed.
Located on top of a hill to the south of Electronic City, Bettadasanpura Fort is a rectangular fort with stone walls and what appear to be 8 bastions. Inside are a large pond and two temples – Thimmarayaswamy temple and a Shiva temple. Arun Bharadwaj writes in his book ‘Seen & Unseen Bangalore’ that the fort was probably constructed during Kempegowda’s rule, while the Thimmarayaswamy temple dates back to the reign of the Cholas.
A local ruler apparently had a dream in which Lord Thimmarayaswamy appeared. The ruler took it as a sign and had the temple repaired during Kempegowda’s time. The Mysore Gazetteer mentions that the Thimmarayaswamy temple was probably built by the Wodeyar kings of Mysore. There seems to be no way to say for sure.
Both temples are currently active and while a portion of the walls of the fort have collapsed, it remains in pretty good shape. The fort walls are constructed of roughly cut granite rocks and it is possible to climb the walls. Doing so rewards one with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and Electronic City. A modern gateway and road have been constructed to the east of the hill allowing cars to drive up to the fort’s gate, which looks very similar to the gateway of the Begur Fort.
Although it is marked as Chikkajala Fort in Google Maps, the mysterious structure at Chikkajala is probably not a fort at all. Variously mentioned as being ‘prehistoric’ or even ‘3000 years old’, Chikkajala ‘fort’ consists of a circular walled compound with a large pond or ‘kalyani’ in the centre. On the eastern side of the pond is a small Hanuman temple with stucco decorations in the 19th century Mysore style.
To the south and east of the pond are two large pillared halls, connected by a passage. Both the halls and the passage are built of stone. Archaeologist Tathagata Neogi is of the opinion that this was never a fort, but simply a walled temple complex. The lack of bastions and the fact that the walls are simply not thick enough to withstand cannon-fire, make it unviable for defensive purposes. There are also many intriguing inconsistencies in the complex. The pillars in both the halls are in a pre-Islamic style, but the temple is considerably more modern. Compared to the rest of the compound the temple is also much smaller, which indicates that there was once a larger temple, which may have collapsed and was replaced by this smaller one. The two halls may have been intended to accommodate pilgrims. However, to the south of the compound, there is a small door in the wall and adjacent to the wall there appear to be two Muslim tombs.
While it is not strictly speaking within Bengaluru City, Devanahalli Fort is located in the Bengaluru rural district. It is perhaps the most impressive and largest of all the forts of Bengaluru. Devanahalli Fort has 11 bastions, a large gateway to the west and covers an area of 20 acres. Inside the fort there are a number of temples, chief among which is the Sri Venugopala Swamy Temple, immediately to the east of the entrance gateway
About 400 metres to the south of the gate lies the birthplace of Tipu Sultan. It is a small walled compound containing a ‘chhatri’ with a memorial plaque under it. Midway to Tipu’s birthplace, to the west of the road, is an ancient ‘kalyani’ or pond.
While Devanahalli, previously known as Devanadoddi, was a settlement from the 15th century, a mud fort was constructed there in 1501 during the period of Vijaynagara Empire. The present stone fort was probably constructed during Hyder Ali’s time. Tipu Sultan is said to have renamed Devahalli to Yousufabad. The fort has been conquered several times over the years. The British under Cornwallis laid siege to the fort in 1791, during the third Anglo-Mysore war. Rumours exist about Tipu’s dewan, Purnaiah having lived in the fort at some point. While locals point to a very old and now abandoned house within the fort as having belonged to the fort’s dewan, they say it was definitely not Purnaiah.
As Bengaluru continues to expand and as Indians play fast and loose with heritage, it seems almost certain that at least some of the forts of Bengaluru will disappear in a decade from now. A combination of real estate greed, lack of publicity and government apathy, will lead to this tragedy and with the forts will disappear several chapters of Bengaluru’s history. If Bengaluru is to be remembered for something more than IT and pubs, then these forts must be protected and researched. Who knows what we may find out about our own history, if only we make the effort?
Deepanjan Ghosh is a broadcast professional from Kolkata, India. A history buff, a landscape and architecture photographer and blogger, he has has been writing about Kolkata since 2013 and hopes to release a book on Kolkata's history soon.