The Gingee or Senji Fort, located in Villupuram District of Tamil Nadu, is one of the most impregnable fortresses of peninsular India. Its might and impenetrable nature have earned it the appellation of the “Troy of the East” from the English. This fort has imbibed within itself layers of history and has witnessed the rise and fall of successive empires. During its history, spanning over centuries, it has been under the possession of several political powers of note such as the Vijayanagar Nayaks, the Bijapuri Sultans, the Mughals, the Marathas, the French and the English, and served as a strategic stronghold for each one of them.
A mere look at this formidable fortress, even today, allows one to comprehend the strategic significance of this structure. Built across three large hills and reinforced by fortifications and structures by successive rulers, this fortress developed into a nucleus of defense that powerful dynasties vied for the control of. The three hills: Rajagiri, Krishnagiri and Chandrayan Durg are encompassed by a large rampart which is almost 60 feet wide and a moat that is 80 feet in breadth. There also exists a smaller hill in the vicinity known as Chakkili Durg. The three main hills form a rough triangle. The rampart encloses an area of about 11 square kms which is known as the Lower Fort. The three hills contain individual citadels along with several other structures. The Lower Fort area also contains structures such as temples, mosques, pillared halls and tanks. Together they form the Gingee Fort complex.
The Rajagiri (also known as Anandagiri or Kamalagiri), which is almost 800 mts tall is the tallest of the three hills. The hill can be approached by a fortified path. One of the most significant features of the hill is a deep chasm (60 feet in depth) that separates it from the surrounding area. Access to the hill is controlled by a wooden bridge that lies over this deep fissure. The summit contains a citadel and the temple of Ranganatha whose sanctum is now empty. On the path leading to the hill is situated the shrine of goddess Kamalakanni which is believed to be much older than the fort. Another shrine is that of goddess Senji (who lends her name to the fort as well as surrounding area). Kamalakanni and Senji (often worshipped interchangeably) are a part of a pantheon of seven virgin goddesses that are worshipped in this region. The Krishnagiri citadel follows Rajagiri, in terms of strategic significance. This hill also contains an empty shrine to god Ranganatha. Constructions on this hill exhibits traces of Indo-Islamic architecture especially in a structure that has been interpreted as a king’s audience hall. The structure, open on all sides, has a domed roof and beautifully carved arches. The Chandrayan Durg and Chakkili Durg are also believed to have been fortified at one point of time. However, today they mostly lay in ruins.
The Lower Fort complex contains the Venkataramanaswami temple which has a beautiful doorway embellished with carvings of legends from the epics and the Puranas. Close to the temple is a tank called Anaikulam also known as Elephant tank as it was believed to have been used for bathing elephants. Two other tanks called Chakrakulam and Chettikulam are located on the west of the Elephant tank. One of the most significant structures of the Inner Fort area is the Kalyana Mahal, regarded as an architectural jewel. This structure consists of a beautiful tower-like structure of eight storeys topped by a pyramidical shikhara or summit. The tower is situated on a square platform surrounding which are several rooms believed to be the residential quarters of the royal ladies. A notable feature of the Fort complex is the abundant water supply (available throughout the complex) enabled by two perennial springs located on the Rajagiri hill.
The beginnings of Gingee are shrouded in legends and mystery. Most historians believe that Gingee did not become a full-fledged fort until the 13th century. However, this is not to say that the site itself was not considered significant for purposes of defense. The Cholas, the Pandyas, Hoysalas and the Kakatiyas were powers which were active in the Tamil country during the early medieval period and their jurisdiction included the region of Gingee. One of the important sources for the study of the early history of Gingee is the History of Carnataka Governors. This text was a part of the Mackenzie Collection- an archive built by Colin Mackenzie, a high-ranking official of the East India Company in Madras, who spent a lifetime collecting manuscripts written in both indigenous Indian and European languages, maps and drawings.The History of Carnataka Governors was composed by Narayana Pillai, a descendant of Ananda Kon (who ruled Gingee) in the beginning of the 19th century, at the request of Col. Mcleod, the Commissioner of Arcot at that time. According to this account, the first fortification of note was built by Ananda Kon who was a political adventurer originally belonging to the shepherd community, in the beginning of the 13th century. Ananda Kon built a citadel on Kamalagiri (present Rajagiri) and renamed it Anandagiri. His successor Krishna Kon fortified the northern hill in 1240 CE and called it Krishnagiri. Further fortifications were built by Koneri Kon and Govinda Kon, who were succeeding rulers.
The next notable phase and perhaps the most comprehensive constructions at Gingee were done under the auspices of the Vijayanagara Empire. The Vijayanagara Empire by the 15th and 16th centuries held sway over the entire deccan plateau. The Vijayanagara state was based on the Nayankara system, an administrative institution under which the king assigned territories to military chiefs or Nayakas in return for troops and a fixed tribute. The Nayaka fiefdoms were especially significant in terms of expansion of the Vijayanagara empire in the Tamil country. The Nayaks of Gingee, Tanjore and Madura were three of the most powerful feudatories of the Vijayanagara empire. Over time they came to amass great authority and started ruling as virtually independent chiefs. Gingee became a stronghold of a line of Nayaka rulers who ruled over a territory extending from Palar (river) in the North to Coleroon (river) in the south.
Tubaki Krishnappa is believed to have founded of the Nayak line of Gingee kings sometime in the beginning of the 16th century. He is credited with building the Kalyana Mahal, several granaries and with reinforcing the wall surrounding the hill forts. Muthialu Nayak, a succeeding ruler, is believed to have constructed the Venkataramanaswami temple. During the reign of Krishnappa Nayaka, the famous Jesuit preacher Father Pimenta is said to have visited Gingee towards the end of the 16th century. Father Pimenta’s account is also considered to be an important primary source for tracing the history of Gingee.
The growth of the Nayaks considerably undermined the central authority of the Vijayanagar Empire and weakened it. The Battle of Talikota of 1565, a decisive battle fought between the Vijayanagar Empire and the successors of the Bahmani Sultanate, and the defeat of the former, also led to its eventual collapse. A civil war in 1614-17 in which the Nayakas played a disruptive role destroyed the remaining vestiges of the empire. Gingee itself was overtaken by an invasion of the Bijapuri Sultanate in the middle of the 17th century. Gingee was now renamed Badshahabad and Sayyid Nasir Khan was appointed as the first qiledar of the fort. Two Persian inscriptions in the inner fort area dated to Hijra 1063 (1651-52) bear evidence of the Bijapuri rule. Under the Bijapuri sultans too the significance of Gingee as a strategic military base continued.
Gingee remained under Bijapuri rule for a period of 28 years after which it fell to the Maratha King Shivaji in 1677. Gingee was called Chandi or Chanji in the Maratha records. Shivaji after occupying it left it in the hands of his general Ramji Nalage. Records from the period mention extensive fortifications made by the Marathas. A Jesuit letter of 1678 mentions that, “He (Shivaji) constructed new ramparts around Gingee, dug ditches, erected towers and executed all the works with a perfection that the Europeans would be ashamed of.” The Marathas are credited with having built ramparts as wide as 20 feet behind the original walls and also added guard rooms and barracks at regular intervals.
The Maratha occupation of Gingee lasted for 22 years. The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb who made comprehensive efforts to strengthen the Mughal empire in the Deccan, had a long and protracted struggle with Shivaji’s second son Rajaram. During his war with the Mughals, Rajaram retreated to the fort at Gingee which for a while became the seat of the Marathas. Gingee was finally captured in 1698 CE by Mughal general Zulfiqar Khan after a siege that lasted for nearly 8 years. Under the Mughals Gingee was rechristened Nusratgarh. In 1700 Aurangzeb chose a Bundela Rajput chief named Swaroop Singh to rule the fort on his behalf. After the death of Swaroop Singh in 1714, the Nawab of Arcot, Sadatullah Khan claimed that the former owed him a great deal of money and laid siege to Gingee. Raja Deshing, the son of Swaroop Singh, who died defending his father’s dominions has been the subject of many legends and lore describing his heroic qualities. After the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, Daud Khan assumed throne as the Nawab of Carnatic and acquired control of Gingee.
The historical as well as military importance of the fort, its vicinity to the coast as well its nearness to the rising commercial settlements of the European trading powers further enhanced its prestige and strategic value. In 1750 CE, the Fort was taken over by the French from the Nawabs. The French maintained the fort well and added important constructions in the form of a royal battery (stock of artillery and ammunitions) and two gates: the Arcot Gate and the Pondicherry Gate. The fort also became an important setting for the Carnatic wars that involved the French on one side and the British on the other, with contenders for the throne of Carnatic pledging allegiance to either of the sides. In 1761, along with the fall of Pondicherry (a major French settlement) to the English, Gingee too was captured by the latter. Gingee came under the control of Tipu Sultan from 1780-99 CE. However, at the end of the fourth Anglo-Mysore war in 1799, Gingee was recaptured by the English and remained in their possession thereafter. The English did not add to the existing fortifications and in fact did not pay much attention to its upkeep.