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The fort is located in the heart of Vellore city, the headquarters of Vellore district of TN state, lying on the banks of the Palar river. The district is part of a region known since the ancient period as Thondaimandalam.  The city’s name derives from the Tamil word Vel (spear), with which the deity Murugan is associated, Vel-Vur or the place of the Vel. An inscription discovered on Bavaji Hill, near the city, throws light on its etymology. Dated to 963 CE, it belongs to the Rashtrakuta king, Kannaradeva (Krishna III-940CE-968CE) and mentions the name of the city as Velurpadi, a suburb of the modern township.

History of the fort

The fort’s history begins with the Sambuvarayars, feudatories of the Cholas of Thanjavur. They gradually rose to prominence, ruling as semi-independent entities from 1254 CE-1379 CE. Shri A.K. Seshadri, in his book “Vellore Fort and Temple through the Ages”, mentions Rajakula Sambuvarayar (1236-1268 CE) as the dynasty’s founder. The next prominent figure is Vendrumankonda Sambuvarayar (1322 CE-1339 CE). The Sambuvarayars became feudatories of the Vijayanagara kings in 1361 CE after Thondaimandalam became part of their empire. The author suggests that the inner fort wall was first constructed by Vendrumankonda Sambuvarayar, though there is no evidence for its confirmation. During the reign of Krishnadevaraya (died in1529 CE) of Vijayanagara, successor states existed under the Nayakas or military governors, implying that authority was weakly decentralized. Chandragiri (in AP state), Gingee, Thanjavur and Madurai emerged as autonomous entities, with allegiance to the sovereign at Hampi, the empire’s capital & its heart. They would become independent only after the destruction of Hampi, following the battle of Talikota in 1565 CE, by the confederacy of the Bahamani successor states.

Vellore was under the rule of Vaiyappa Nayaka of Gingee (Senji) from 1526 CE onwards. He appointed a chieftain for the region around Vellore fort, who also bore the title of Nayaka. The local rulers controlled the region from 1526 CE-1604 CE. The first ruler was Bomma Nayaka (1526CE-1539CE), followed by his younger brother Chinna Bomma Nayaka (1540CE-1595CE). It also appears from epigraphic evidence that the outer fort wall was constructed during the rule of the Vijayanagar sovereign, Sadashiva Raya (1542CE-1576CE). This points to the local rule of Chinna Bomma Nayaka. The Vijayanagara empire was resurrected by Tirumala Deva Raya, the brother of Aliya Rama Raya, who fell in the battle of Talikota. The former distributed the responsibilities of state amongst his three sons, of whom the youngest, Venkatapati or Venkata, assumed charge of the Tamil country. He faced a revolt from Lingama Nayaka, the Vellore chieftain and the son of Chinna Bomma Nayaka, who assumed charge in 1596 CE. Venkata marched into Vellore, captured the fort on 2nd May 1604CE and brought it under the empire’s direct control. Vellore fort was captured by the Adilshahis of Bijapur in 1644 CE and remained in their possession until 1676 CE, when the Marathas under Shivaji seized Vellore, along with Gingee, during the southern campaign. It remained with them until the Mughal invasion of the Deccan under Aurangzeb. With the fall of Gingee in February 1698 CE, control of Vellore fort passed into Mughal hands. The Nawabs of Carnatic were given possession of the fort till the British turned it into a garrison town in 1768 CE after their victory over the French.

After the fall of Srirangapattana in 1799 CE & Tipu Sultan’s death in battle, the last vestiges of armed resistance by local rulers to British rule in the sub-continent were removed. Tipu’s family members were shifted to Vellore fort as prisoners. The rebellion of the sepoys serving in the British army, which would later culminate in the 1st war of independence of 1857 CE, took place inside the fort premises on 10th July 1806 CE. They fired the first shots, killing 14 officers and 115 men of the 69th Taking possession of the fort by dawn, the sepoys hoisted the flag of Tipu Sultan on its ramparts and declared his second son, Fateh Hyder, as their leader. British reaction was swift, and they quickly regained control of the fort. Hundred mutineers were summarily executed and the surviving members of Tipu’s family shifted to Calcutta.

Defense Architecture of the fort

The fort is the finest and one of the best-preserved specimens of military architecture which takes into account the advances in military technology. It was initially thought that its design was the work of Italian engineers in the service of the rulers of Vijayanagara, but it now appears that the technology was based on local know how. Let us now take a look at its architecture:

It has an irregular shape, consisting of the main (inner) enclosure, interrupted by semi-circular towers and rectangular projections. Below the inner wall is the lower outer enclosure, punctuated with semi-circular towers. The outer enclosure design, which was adopted after cannons were developed, helped protect the base of the main inner walls, and the moat. The entire structure is surrounded by a broad ditch (moat) which is supplied with water by a system described below. Access to the fort was provided by a drawbridge across the moat, which no longer exists.

Plan of Vellore fort showing the enclosures and the east side entrance

It is a true land fort which meets the requirements of an Ekamukha Durg, constructed on the banks of a river and having a single entrance. The classification of forts located close to water bodies into Ekamukha, Dvimukha and Chaturmukha, depending upon the number of entrances, was proposed in the treatise (probably dated to early medieval period) on architecture titled Vishwakarma Vastushashtra. The structure, in its present form, stands on the southern bank of the Palar river and has a single entrance facing east. The entrance is part of the inner enclosure and their design belongs to an earlier period of construction. The inner enclosure is a thick revetted earthen rampart with a walkway approximately 9m wide, and protruding towers, 10-13m in diameter. The walls are revetted with granite blocks locked together in cyclopean fashion. At a later period, the British engineers modified the rampart by using brickwork with lime plastering and widening the embrasures (openings in the rampart wall) to accommodate cannons. Loopholes were also provided in the inner wall to facilitate the use of muskets.

View of the fort, with the moat, outer and inner enclosures
  • The outer enclosure, located 9m away from the inner wall, is topped by rounded merlons, with elegant box machicolations (box type structure protruding from the bastion wall resting on corbels or brackets) spaced at regular intervals along the curtain walls and towers. The design belongs to the late Vijayanagara period (Nayaka phase). The towers are sentry posts, with a rectangular box type structure and a door below it opening into the machicolation and facing the inner wall. The upper portion was used to mount guard. The lower portion was probably used as a store room by the sentries.

The east facing entrance to the fort.

The fort had an elaborate facility for supply and drainage of water. An ancient tank called Suryakulam located on the southern side of the fort, supplied water to the moat. The tank was in turn fed by a canal (called Otteri) located further south of the tank and fed from the drainage of the hills. Water supply to the moat was controlled by an iron sluice gate at the inlet on the south side. Excess water was let out into the Palar river through an underground drainage system provided at the outlet, which was also controlled by an iron sluice gate on the north side. The tank is now choked with debris and water supply to the moat is available only to its north side.

Outer enclosure with sentry post and box machicolation
The sentry post with the door facing the inner enclosure
The Jalakanteshwara temple-twin gopurams & outer sanctum wall

The grandeur of Vellore fort is also due to its monuments. Below are some of the structures of note:

  • The Jalakanteshwara Shiva temple is built in typical Dravidian style with twin prakaras or enclosures.
  • The museums run by ASI and the state archeological department. Both have an impressive collection of inscriptions, hero stones, cannons and associated missiles which will interest the heritage lover.
  • The palaces for housing the exiled families of Tipu Sultan and the king of Sri Lanka- Tipu Mahal, Hyder Mahal, Kandy Mahal, Badshah Mahal and the Begum Mahal. Some of them have been converted to government offices.
Author: Ganesh Iyer
Web Editor: Kshitija Pande

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