Gingee Fort located in Tamil Nadu has a very fascinating history. It played a significant role in the Hindavi Swaraj of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. The fort is currently under the aegis of the Archaeological Survey of India.
Gingee – the impregnable fort
The ASI states that the construction of the Gingee hill fort is traditionally ascribed to a local chief named Ananda Kon. It, however, acquired prominence under the Gingee Nayaks who were vassals of the Vijayanagar empire.
It is the geography of the Gingee fort that makes it an impregnable fortress. Gingee is surrounded by barren volcanic rock hills. Every hill has a craggy peak and a central stratified rock with large boulders. The land is dry and barren with thorny shrubs being the lone vegetation found here.
The Gingee fort is spread over three hillocks known as Rajagiri, Krishnagiri, and Chandragiri (Chakklidurg). The fort is spread over an area of 11 square kilometers.
The Hindu says:
The Gingee Fort was the seat of power of the Pallavas from the 7 to the 9 century, the Cholas from the 10 to the 11 century and the Hoysalas in the 12 century. Much of the fortress was built when it came under the Vijayanagara rule at the fag end of the 14 century.
The Gingee Fort was well laid out, taking into consideration the possibilities of a protracted siege. To gain entry into the citadel one had to cross a chasm with the help of a small wooden draw bridge which was drawn only after getting a signal from the sentries posted on the watch tower.
The inner fortification runs around the royal buildings located at the foot of the Rajagiri hillock that include the Kalyana Mahal, the rows of enclosure for the royal staff, the huge granaries, remnants of the king’s exclusive quarters, King’s audience hall, and the private chambers for holding meetings of the council of ministers, a palace complex, a huge tank known as the Elephants’ tank located at the foot of the hillock. One can find pleasure pavilions and the Krishna temple atop the Krishnagiri.
The lower fort is enclosed within a 60 feet thick defensive wall and an 80 feet wide ditch. The walls have been constructed using granite blocks. It has a boundary of about 5 kilometers with two main entrances known as the Arcot or Vellore gate and Pondicherry gate.
Chhatrapati captures Gingee fort from Bijapur
The Gingee fort was the stronghold of the Pallavas (7th-9th centuries), Cholas (10th-11th centuries), Hoysalas (12th century), Kurumba chiefs, and Gingee Nayaks who were the feudatories of the Vijayanagara rulers (14th century). It then passed into the hands of the Bijapur Sultanate from whom it was captured by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in 1677 during his Carnatic expeditions believed to be one of the most daring campaigns by Maharaj. Maharaj had 20000 infantry and 30000 cavalry at his disposal.
Maharaj had already made arrangements through Raghunath Pant to ensure that Bijapuri nobles Rauf Khan and Nazir Khan surrender the fort in exchange for money and jagirs. Maharaj also sealed an alliance with the Qutub Shahis using the good offices of Qutub Shahi Prime Minister Madanna. Martin states in his memoir that Madanna facilitated the conquest of Chhatrapati in order to place Carnatic under Hindu domination once again by making Maharaj its powerful protector.
The conquest of Gingee Fort by Maharaj has been recorded by a Jesuit priest who notes that Maharaj camped along the Chakravarti river bank at a place named Chakrapuri and conquered the fort like a thunderbolt. Andre Freire’s July 1678 letter mentions the extensive fortifications carried out by Maharaj. Among the fortifications carried out by Shivray was the construction of huge ramparts along with deep and wide ditches that strengthened the fort. Provisions were also made to ensure that the fort would be able to withstand long sieges.
Shri C.V Vaidya 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.”
Mughal siege of Gingee Fort
The brutal murder of Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj at the hands of Aurangzeb and Mughals left the Maratha throne vacant and a large number of Maratha forts fell into Mughal hands between February when Chhatrapati Shambhu Raje was murdered and June/July as the Marathas went into mourning. Maharani Yesubai and 6-year-old Shahu (Shambhu Raje’s son) were at Raigad at the time.
Keeping Shahu’s age in mind, Maharani Yesubai got 19-year-old Rajaram crowned as the Chhatrapati in March 1689 in view of the Mughal threat. These were testing times not just for the Maratha kingdom but also for Hindavi Swaraj itself.
Aneesh Gokhale says:
So essentially, they had lost most of their forts, their Chhatrapati was killed, their new Chhatrapati did not know anything about Administration so far, he had not really participated, he knew, because he was trained under that, but he had not participated in any kind of government or governance duties so far, and Aurangazeb was closing in on the capital.
So now came Chhatrapati Shivaji’s real test as to whether his policies were going to stand the real warfare with Aurangazeb, because we are now having a kingdom without a king, a capital which is about to be lost and a bunch of soldiers, army which is totally demoralized. This was all happening at Raigad.
With Mughal commander Zulfikar Khan closing in on the capital Raigad, the Marathas felt that the best course of action would be for the newly crowned Chhatrapati to move away from raigad. Gingee in Tamil Nadu was selected and Chhatrapati Rajaram made good his escape going through few forts he finally reached the Gingee fort.
Gingee Fort was under Ambikabai Mahadik, wife of Maratha sardar Hariraje Mahadik and half-sister of Rajaram. The gates of the fort were thrown open for Chhatrapati Rajaram in November 1689. Gingee was made the Maratha capital and a new cabinet was formed heralding a new era of the Marathas.
Zulfikar Khan was sent by Aurangzeb to besiege Gingee and in 1690 Khan surrounded Gingee. It wasn’t before another 8 years that Gingee fort would come under Mughal possession. At the forefront of defending the Maratha kingdom were such brave men as Santaji Ghorpade and Dhanaji Jadhav among others.
In 1698, Chhatrapati Rajaram escaped the Gingee siege and returned to Maharashtra to launch a fresh offensive against the Mughals. Essentially, the Gingee fort afforded protection to Hindavi Swaraj at a time when it was at its most vulnerable by sheltering the Maratha Chhatrapati and keeping him from falling into Mughal hands.
Association of Gingee fort with Raja Desingh
Although the fort had been under the possession of several dynasties from the Vijayanagar empire to the Marathas and later the French and the British as well, the most popular legend of the fort celebrated in the folk ballads of the villages around Gingee is related to that of Raja Desingh (also known as Tej Singh), the lone Rajput ruler of Tamil Nadu.
Desingh was the son of Raja Swaroop Singh and belonged to the Bundela Rajput clan. He faced the attack by Nawab of Arcot and defended the siege laid by the 20000-strong Nawab army with a mere 700 men at his disposal. That the siege lasted for 7 years speaks volumes of not just the bravery of Desingh but also highlights the unassailable nature of the fort.
The Nawab even tried to imitate the Maratha trick of climbing the rocky walls of the fort using monitor lizards. However, Desingh outsmarted the Nawab as his men had trained kites and falcons to snatch lizards from the rock face. However, famine forced the king’s hand and he is said to have mounted his steed Bara Hazari and galloped down the fort along with his men one afternoon.
The Rajput army fought bravely till the end and had inflicted massive casualties on the Nawab’s army before giving up his own life. Desingh’s young queen committed sati and his horse that embraced death along with its master was cremated in a pyre alongside that of Desingh.
- Gingee Fort – IAS CK Gariyali (Source)
- A history of Gingee and its rulers – CS Srinivasachari (Source)
- Gingee Fort – How Shivaji Maharaj Captured it From Bijapur Sultanate and Turned it into an Impregnable Fortress by Bismay Ray (Source – TFI)
- Maratha-Mughal war – Talk by Aneesh Gokhale (Source – Indic Tales)
- Chhatrapati Rajaram Maharaj – Hindujagruti.org (Source)
(Featured Image Source: Google Images)
Did you find this article useful? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.