In the northwestern corner of the district of south Arcot in Tamil Nadu lies the Gingee Fort, the impregnable fort which has stood for centuries watching the numerous wars of successive dynasties, braving hordes of invaders from Islamic sultanates to the mighty French and of course the British Empire.
Three hills – Krishnagiri to the north, Rajagiri to the west and Chandrayandurg to the southeast constitute a mammoth 11 square kilometres Triangular fort complex. On Rajagiri, lies the citadel of the Kings.
The fort has changed hands many a times. It was ruled by Kurumbha Chiefs who were succeeded by Nayaks of Gingee who ruled as vassals of the Vijaynagar Emperors, The Bijapur sultanate took over Gingeee after that and it was claimed by Marathas after it. It was finally held by the British.
Gingee Fort has stood the test of times standing magnificently over centuries and bearing witness to several of acts which were later immortalized as regional ballads and local folklores.
The Nayaks of Gingee along with the Nayaks of Madurai and Tanjore were the strongest vassals of the Vijayanagar Empire. After years of battles among themselves for supremacy after the fall of the Vijaynagar Empire and then with the Deccan Sultanates, the three Nayaks became very weak. This led to the repeated Islamic invasions which led to first breakthrough under Ranadullah Khan of Bijapur Sultanate. After years of power tussle with local chieftains Gingee was finally annexed by Bijapur Sultanate. Marathas under the excellent chieftainship of legendary Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj captured the Gingee Fort after that.
The fort was captured by Shivaji Maharaj in 1677 during the Carnatic Expedition. The Carnatic expedition can be considered as one of the most daring expeditions of Shivaji Maharaj’s life. This was for the first time that Shivaji Maharaj had moved far from his stronghold. Away from the western Ghats and his Capital of Raigad, Shivaji Maharaj moved into southern plains with an Army of 50,000 (30,000 cavalry and 20,000 Infantry).
According to the testimony of a Jesuit Priest “Sivaji arrived at the neighbourhood of Gingee with 10,000 troops and encamped at Chakrapuri on the banks of the Chakravati river; and soon the fort opened its gates to him. He is said to have fallen upon the place like a thunder-bolt and carried it at the first assault”
Before embarking on the conquest of Gingee by Shivaji Maharaj, Raghunath Pant had made secret agreement with Rauf Khan and Nazir Khan for surrender of the fort and they were bestowed with Money and jagirs elsewhere for cooperation. This plan made it impossible for Bijapur Sultanate to counter Shivaji Maharaj.
Shivaji Maharaj was well aware of the situation and he decided to seal an alliance with the Qutub Shahi rulers of Golconda and convince him about the need for a Carnatic invasion for strengthening the kingdom against impending Mughal Invasion.
Nicolo Manucci, the famous Venetian traveler in his reference to the activities of Shivaji Maharaj in the region has written: Sivaji having no idea of allowing his arms to rust, asked the king of Golconda to grant him a passage to his campaign in the Carnatic and obtained by his valor and determination the great fortress called Gingee. He, like a dexterous falcon, pounced on many other fortresses belonging to Bijapur “.
The victory of Shivaji Maharaj at the Carnatic campaign impressed almost all contemporary writers. Although Shivaji Maharaj died in 1680 only three years after capturing the Gingee fort but his contribution to the fort is immense.
The Jesuit letter of Andre Freire, dated July 1678, corroborates other records in Shivaji Maharaj’s conquest of Gingee also refers to the fortifications effected therein by him. According to the letter Shivaji Maharaj is said to have devised every means for strengthening the Gingee fort. Extensive ramparts were built around it, with deep and wide ditches surrounding them. The place was built very compact and strong and was also fully garrisoned and provisioned for long sieges.
The following are the relevant extracts from the Jesuit letter of July 1678:
“Sivaji applied all the energy of his mind, and all the resources of his dominions to the fortifications of all the principal places. He constructed new ramparts around Gingee, dug ditches, erected towers and executed all the works with a perfection that Europeans would be ashamed of.
Martin’s Memoirs also give ample testimony of the fortifications of Sivaji. It says “Sivaji after having examined the site of Gingee which offered great protection gave orders to cut off a part and to erect new fortifications.” They also add that, by February 1678, a large body of workmen were vigorously laboring at Gingee for demolishing a portion of the wall and to fortify the area enclosed by it.”
From the above writings it is evident that Shivaji Maharaj converted the fort into a modern fort and in the process, took personal interest and used all resources available to him. Shivaji Maharaj was farsighted and the strategic motive behind the move has been explained by the Mr C.V Vaidya who writes “it is not strange that Shivaji with his advanced wisdom and high political and military genius foresaw that a life-and-death struggle with Aurangzeb was inevitable and that a strong and extensive fort like Gingee in the distant south would afford him the last stand even if Panhala and Raigad were lost.”
In his dream of establishing Hindavi Swarajya Shivaji Maharaj was helped by many Hindus among them the contribution of Madanna is noteworthy. Madanna was the Prime Minister of Qutub Shahi Sultan of Golconda and had helped Shivaji by making the alliance in favor of Shivaji. Madanna worked for the greater good of establishing a Hindu Kingdom in Carnatic despite the fact that this plan could have endangered his position and made him vulnerable. In words of Martin “Madanna’s views were to place this part of the Carnatic once again under the domination of the Hindus, and by facilitating its conquest for Shivaji, to make of him a powerful protector.”
Gingee fort played an instrumental role in the protection of the Maratha state and all this was possible because of the farsightedness of Shivaji Maharaj and his allies like Madanna and Raghunath Pant.
After the fall of Raigad and capture of the family of Sambhaji Maharaj, the second son of Shivaji Maharaj, Raja Ram was crowned as the king. He on the advice of his courtiers strategically moved the capital to Gingee. Soon Raja Ram Maharaj moved from Vishalgad to Gingee, this was done so that Mughals would have to man a very long supply line and it would give the Maratha field army ample opportunity to strike blow after blow and weaken the Mughal army.
The Ginjee fort remained the capital of Maratha Empire from 1689-1698. Rarely in the world history do we see a fort withstanding such a long siege that too when the opponent is as strong as the Mughal Empire which was one of the strongest as well as richest empire on Earth.
The Story of Gingee would remain unfinished without reference to the story of Desingh the 22-year-old Bundela Prince who fought against the mighty Mughal Empire for protecting traditional right over the fort after the death of his father. The Bundelas played a vital role in the Mughal army.
Gingee fort shall always be remembered for protecting the Maratha empire at a time when it was the most vulnerable. The history of Gingee didn’t end after its capture by the Mughals. It went to become the most prized possession of Mughals until it was captured by French and then by the British East India Company with whom it remained till 1858 when it became part of the British Indian Empire. It is hard to find a fort with legacy as rich as Gingee.