It had been six months since we moved to Chennai and we had already covered the most popular weekend escapes from Chennai, Pondicherry and Mahabalipuram. Now, Chennai does have some really beautiful temples in its vicinity but we were not yet keen on a temple tour. So, the Easter weekend of 2015, leafing through the pages of Lonely Planet, we came across Gingee. It’s description was enough to get our interest going:
“Somewhere 37km east of Tiruvannamalai, nature sprinkled a smattering of marbles – rounded boulders and lumpy rocks – in shades of grey, brown and red over the flat green paddies of Tamil Nadu. Then man turned two of these stony protrusions into the Rajagiri and Krishnagiri (King and Queen fort).”
It went on to say, “These edifices, poke out of the Tamil plain like castles misplaced by the Lord of the Rings.”
Lord of the Rings! Really? OK… So, the next morning we packed our stuff into the car and set out towards Gingee to find for ourselves if it was indeed a page out of Lord of the Rings.
We took the NH 32, driving past Vandalur Zoo (apparently the largest zoo in India), past the automobile giants in Chengalpattu to Tindivanam. At Tindivanam, we left NH 32 and turned right onto NH77. Progress was slow as they really seemed to have forgotten to lay the road here! As our tiny car made it’s way over the craters and loose rubble, we were tossed around our seats like lettuce in a salad bowl. But as Gingee drew closer, our attention was drawn to the peculiar hills around us. They were unlike anything we had seen before. They looked less like hills and more like giant heaps of stone chips deposited hurriedly at a construction site. Grey and denuded, they were quite a contrast to the green paddy fields surrounding them. Here, we decided to take a break from the churning and spend some time admiring the outlandish landscape around us.
By the time we reached Gingee town, the sun was at it’s peak and we were famished by all the tossing. The town was a haphazard jumble of buildings clustered around the crossing of two big roads. We quickly had lunch in one of the two restaurants situated opposite the bus depot where most of the patrons seemed to be people catching a hurried meal before boarding the bus for onward journey. When we stepped out, the sun was still unrelenting and the car had turned into a furnace. We realized that trying to climb the bald hills at this time of the day would imminently mean risking dehydration or a sun stroke. We drove to both ends of main street trying to find a refuge from the harsh sun but in vain. Finally we had to take shelter in the town church. Since Lonely Planet had mentioned that the fort was open to public from 9am to 5pm, we decided to wait it out till late afternoon.
At 3pm, we stepped out of the church and set out towards the fort. One by one the town buildings fell back to reveal chains of low hills in the distance but what caught our attention were two standalone boulder strewn giants in the foreground. Set almost a kilometre away from each other, the first one on our right had gently sloping sides with a cluster of buildings on top. The dome topped arches seemed to suggest the existence of a palace or royal quarters. A steady flight of granite stairs rose up its front to the buildings on top. While this hill seemed to open it’s door and beckon all those who choose to set foot in Gingee, the other taller one was distinctly unwelcoming. It’s smooth dark pinnacle rose steeply out of the boulder strewn base like a massive pillar. Soon the road passed through an opening in an ancient looking wall indicating that we had entered the fort precincts.
We parked the car in the almost empty parking lot, purchased the tickets and started walking towards the intimidating looking hill. The grounds of the fort were well maintained with carefully manicured gardens and gigantic banyan trees. Here and there were scattered big and small remains of what was once a thriving settlement: a small temple under the banyan shoots; on the left, a large tank with steps; two huge warehouse like structures next to it; faraway to the right an open courtyard surrounded by arched galleries on three sides and a multi-storied tower at one end. Underacted, we made our way to the hill only to be stopped by an officious looking man. “3:30 ke baad upar jaana mana hai”, he said in clear Hindi (No one is allowed to climb up the hill post 3:30pm) But isn’t the fort open till 5pm? Yes it is, he said, you can roam around the grounds but can’t climb the hill to the upper fort. We were dismayed. I don’t know if it was the disappointment on our faces or the opportunity to earn a quick buck that prompted the man to offer to tell us the history of Gingee.
The story goes that Gingee fort originally consisted of three hillocks: Rajagiri, the intimidating looking hill; Krishnagiri, the hillock with the palace like structures on top and Chandragiri, a flater unremarkable hill next to Rajagiri. The three hills were connected by a wall (through whose crumbling remains we passed on the way here) that enclosed the grounds of the fort consisting of granaries, armoury, shrines, meeting halls, tanks, stables and a seven storied Kalyan Mantapa (Marriage Hall). A total of 11 sq kms.
Rajagiri, the King Fort had historically been considered impregnable. Surrounded by a natural chasm that acted as a moat, it could only be accessed via a wooden bridge. At the top of the hill were the royal quarters and the temple of Chenjiamman, the presiding goddess of Gingee.
Krishnagiri, the Queen Fort was primarily the living quarters of the queen and Chandragiri served as the living quarters of the Chamar warriors.
Gingee traces it’s history back to 1200AD when a group of local warriors fortified and started ruling from there. Overtime, the reins of Gingee passed from the local chieftains to the Cholas, the Vijayanagara Empire, the Bijapur Sultans, the Marathas, the Carnatic Nawabs, the French and finally to the British. It seems that the fort had briefly even served as the seat of Maratha empire and it took the Mughals seven years to capture it from the Marathas.
After thanking the man, we took some time to walk around and click photos. Lonely Planet wasn’t too off the mark when it equated Rajgiri and Krishnagiri to the fantastical forts of Lord of the Rings.
The sun was setting and Gingee’s silent grounds had suddenly burst into activity with the arrival of a bunch of school going kids. With one last glance around, we set out towards Pondicherry where we intended to stay for the night. Driving away, the reflection of Rajgiri loomed large in the rear view mirror. It saddened us a little that a fort that was once considered a strategic military bastian by generations of rulers was now fading into oblivion. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is doing it’s bit (though a tad overzealously) to maintain and preserve the structures but given the remote location and lack of promotion, it remains relatively unvisited.
Getting there and around:
Gingee is great for a day trip from Chennai or Pondicherry. It is situated about 160 kms away from Chennai and 70 kms away from Pondicherry.
From Chennai take the NH 32 and drive to Tinidivanam 130 kms away. At Tindivanam, turn eastwards and drive for 30 kms to reach Gingee. Google Maps works just fine in this part of the world so don’t worry about losing your way.
From Pondicherry too, take the NH 32 and then the NH 77 from Tindivanam.
As the fort is significantly unknown, there are almost no tourist facilities around it. No restaurants, no hotels and not even tourist guides. You can catch a quick bite in one of the few restaurants in the town, 2 kms away. Simple South Indian fare served by fast moving hands on a banana leaf. As for the lack of guides, spot one of the caretakers appointed by ASI, offer him a tip and hear Gingee’s story from him.
Make sure you start early and reach there well before noon so that unlike us, you see everything and also manage to save yourself from a sun stroke.
So, the next time you are planning a trip to Pondi, take a little detour and go to Gingee. I promise you will come back awestruck.
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