‘Monkeys are a huge problem at Senji,’ informs my grandmother. ‘They will snatch anything you take with you.’
Later on the bus from Puducherry on my way to Gingee, which is often pronounced in Tamil as Senji, I wonder when was the last time she visited this place. She is almost 93 now. The place must have looked quite different in her time of youth. It must have looked a lot different when it was first built, many centuries ago.
Forewarned of monkey menace, I head straight to Thiruvannamalai, quickly take a room, have a wonderful plate of lemon rice for lunch and return halfway by the same highway to Gingee. It is a brilliant afternoon. The sun is out but wandering clouds and strong winds are suggesting light rain. Being a weekday, the place is quiet. Monkeys are plenty but they are not all that troublesome in the afternoon hours; and I have judiciously avoided bringing any bags with me.
The ruins are spread spectacularly on rocky hills and high slopes strewn with boulders. These are the typical warm brown boulders that define a lot of the Deccani landscape, the same kind of landscape seen by the Tungabhadra in the great ruins of the Vijayanagar Empire. From early childhood, these hills had a magical allure to me. Whenever I saw them from a speeding train, I had imagined myself walking on these slopes, climbing to the highest peaks to savour wide views of this rural landspace. Like at Hampi, Mettur, Chitradurga or Nandi Hills, Gingee is one more place to relive that Deccani experience.
The fort wall, trenches and bastions lead to the hill on the northern side, named Krishnagiri Hill. An information board gives some details. Apparently, the fort was first built by Kone Chiefs of Gingee in the early 13th century but major additions came later during the Vijayanagar Period. Subsequently the fort changed hands into the Nayaks, the Marathas, the Mughals, Carnatic Nawabs, the French and the British. ASI has employed a ticket collector housed in a small office. A woman beggar is strategically seated nearby to make her entreaties to visiting tourists. There are not many on this Monday afternoon.
I buy my five-rupee ticket and walk up a long flight of stone steps. The steps have been built in between boulders strewn on both sides. There are as many as four gateways on the way up but only the higher two are part of walled fortifications. The hill isn’t steep by any means and even without these steps approach to the top is not a challenge. I am not impressed by the defences at Krishnagiri. I would not be surprised if history informed me that this fort was easily taken in the past with limited siege.
Granite stone blocks clearly show impressed toothmarks in the process of splitting. An orange headed lizard suns itself on a rock but ducks underneath on my approach. A monkey gorges on a packet of Lays chips as an Indian couple look at it helplessly. Other monkeys are idling on the ramparts above. Boulders huddle by these walls. It is not clear if they are kept out of bounds, they are crawling up in quiet inches or simply left to bolster the walls from below.
The view of surrounding landscape is superb. Paddy fields fill great stretches of land. Palms stand tall near the base of Krishnagiri Hill. Thorny plants spread their entwined branches nearby. Long lines of rocky hills define the horizon to the east beyond the town of Gingee. The rain is coming down in the distance in a drizzle. It won’t be long before it dampens the old fort walls. They must have seen these things a million times over. Coming to a place like Gingee is all about tasting history. The present is put in its right perspective and the past seeps through layers of scattered rock and crumbling stone walls.
The hills to the south and west are closer. The precipitous hill on the west is Rajgiri. The fort and citadel that sits atop Rajgiri look impregnable. In addition to these two hills, the third hill that defines the fortifications of Gingee is to the south, Chakkilidurg. Together, the walls span a circuit of 3 miles.
A couple of foreign women tourists are wandering amongst the ruins atop Krishnagiri. A couple of local teenage boys are teasing them in Tamil. The women ignore their remarks completely. One of them keeps busy making a pencil sketch of the scene before her. There are two temples on this hill. These are brick temples. The smaller one stands in an intimate courtyard with stone pillared corridors on all sides. There is a brick tank next to the large temple. There are pillared mandapas among which the Kalyana Mandapa has some stone reliefs. These reliefs are uninteresting except when the sun comes shining through the clouds and lights them to best effect. Standing out in the open, the reliefs seem to have wornout with age in the way of Hampi ruins. The effect of age is such that they appear to be completed in a hurry. Today in their restored states amongst fallen pillars and network of weeds or uncut grass, they seem to match the natural landscape perfectly.
Having changed hands so many times, the buildings on top are a mix of Hindu and Islamic structures. There is a dome right on top of stone pillared mandapas. The more impressive feature on this hill are the granaries, of which there are two. Each one is a wide closed space on the inside with a high barrel vaulting. A narrow stairway leads to the terrace. I climb up and take in the views. Coming here on a weekday has been worthwhile. The place is quiet. I come down and search for an oil well. I can’t find it. Perhaps I did not look in the right place. All I can see are puddles of water collected in smooth basins of rock.
As I walk back, I take a look at the hill one more time. From a distance, the image of mandapas in post-and-beam architecture on three levels, tapering at each higher level, reminds of the Panch Mahal of Fatehpur Sikri. The Panch Mahal is of course a successful adoption of Hindu architectural elements. What I see here at Krishnagiri are the originals of that architecture.
I pass the beggar. I cross the highway and soon pass a few guys assembled under a shade drinking beer. An auto-driver has parked his vehicle at the far end of the path towards Chakkilidurg. I see him squatting behind some bushes. There is a temple at the end right where the fort wall ends in a line and begins to climb the rocky slopes. The temple is closed this afternoon. It appears to be in active use.
I return to the highway and walk along towards Rajgiri. I realize that I am a little short of time. I need to hurry. I have taken a lot of time at Krishnagiri, which is in fact a smaller hill. I spend a lot of time at the ruins of a Siva Temple on the way to the fort. The spaces around this temple are neatly landscaped. When I enter the fort, it is already three.
‘It takes three or four hours to go up and return,’ tells me the guard at the entrance. ‘You cannot go up now but you can see the ruins below.’
I ignore his advice and climb quickly up the hill. It is quite an exercise. I reach the spot where a canon stands facing the flat plains below. I realize at this point that one really needs a whole day to see everything properly at Gingee. Like at Chitradurga in Karnataka, these ruins are vast and spectacular. They deserve a whole day each. I sit by the canon for many minutes looking at the hills, the changing light, the occasional blue sky and puffy white clouds that pass slowly. There is no rain now but the sun is setting. The colours of the landscape are changing quickly. I cannot linger here too long. There is still much to see.
I skip going all the way to the ruins on top of Rajgiri. I return to the base of the hill. I take pictures of a couple of mosques. The Mohabat Khan mosque is a multi-tiered airy structure with arched openings. It reminds me of the Bell Tower of Tanjavur. A pyramidal pagoda crowns it at the top. Corridors with pointed arches define a quadrangle at ground level. Near it are the old horse stables. These consist of an arched corridor that leads into separate walled spaces. The Saad-ad-Ulla Khan mosque is more traditional. Both mosques have been restored in recent times.
The elephant tank is a large stepped tank with pillared corridors around it. In these corridors close to the water, it can be a cool place even in the height of summer. Nearby is a gymnasium, a large space with a high ceiling. This has some brick decorative design on the outside. Less impressive is a structure where magazine used to be stored. Facing it is a large granary, much more impressive than the ones at Krishnagiri. It has four vaulted spaces, three parallel to one another and the fourth in the space behind and spanning the other three. Nothing much remains of the old palaces except for a bolster carved out in stone and placed on a high pedestal. It might have been the king’s throne and place of the royal court.
It is now the sunset hour. The primates have become really active. They have gathered in large numbers and are making a racket everywhere – on the lawns, in the trees and among the ruins. I leave this place quickly and head towards Chakkilidurg. At the base of this hill is a large temple which can be seen from Rajgiri. This is the Sri Venkatramana Temple. A shepherd is leading his grazing goats back to their home for the night. Two women are busy in the neighbouring fields of paddy where clumps of banana trees huddle in corners. There are two security guards at this temple. They are coming out and about to close the doors. It half past four.
‘See quickly. We close at five,’ tells me one of them.
The temple has two gopurams, one of them is massive. It has a stone base and a brick structure above casted over with stucco work. The inner gopuram has been restored to some extent. As I enter I see scenes in reliefs on the walls of the gateway – Ulagalanda Perumal, Gajalakshmi, crouching lions as if supporting the lintel on top, marriage scene of Lord Rama, Ram Darbar.
Although in a rush, my curiosity and imagination take the better of me. I stand lost in thought in front of two curious stone pillars standing apart from all other structures. They stand like stumps of a dead tree with crutch like form at the top. I wonder what they signify, for what purpose and since when. Though there are a handful of fine reliefs here, I am most impressed by the natural lighting within the mandapas. The evening light slants in. Dozens of pillars stand in various shades. This is one of the forgotten temples of India, once glorious but today a perfect candidate for a study of Indian architecture. There are no priests preying for donations. There are no gods demanding service. There are no vendors hassling for business. There are no beggars pleading for small change. There are no crowds to squeeze through. There is not even the distraction of artistic masterpieces. Just architecture in plain terms getting all the attention it deserves. I love it.