Situated at the head of the present-day state of Tamil Nadu, in the city of Vellore, this fort was built in the 16th century CE under the Vijayanagara Empire. Its history has been affected by two decisive political battles- the Battle of Talikota (1565) and the Battle of Toppur (1616-1617 CE). After the Vijayanagara rulers, the fort became a site of contestation for the Bijapuri rulers, Marathas and British and the French till India gained independence. Historically known for the coup of 1614 CE, and the famous “Vellore mutiny”, the political significance of this fort is complemented by its robust architecture. One can fully comprehend this by diving deeper into the fort’s history.
In the absence of written historical records, stone inscriptions found in the region have been used to reconstruct its history. Chinna Bommi Reddy and Thimma Reddy Nayak (who were subordinate chieftains under the Viajayanagara ruler Sadasiva Raya , the last ruler of the Tuluva dynasty) are believed to have constructed the fort in 1566 CE. The year preceding this, i.e., 1565 CE, is known for the historic battle of Talikota. In this watershed battle, the Vijayanagara kings lost to the combined forces of Ahmednagar, Bijapur, Golconda and Bidar sultanates. After the defeat, they shifted their capital to Chandragiri which was in close geographical proximity to Vellore, giving the region a strategic location and setting the stage for the construction of the fort.
The Tuluva dynasty was succeeded by the Aravidu dynasty, and Sriranga the 2nd (r.1614 CE) was nominated as its fifth ruler by his predecessor Venkatapati Raya. Venkatapati Raya had no natural heir to the throne and Sriranga was his nephew. However, Bayamma, the wife of Venkatapati, had adopted a brahman boy called Chenga Raya whom she wanted to be made king. This situation prompted a civil war led by the ranks of Jagga Raya (Bayamma’s brother in her support) on one side and Yachama Naidu (Venkatapati’s loyal viceroy) on the other side. Jagga Raya kidnapped Sriranga and his family and imprisoned them at the fort of Vellore. Yachama Naidu managed to free Sriranga’s 12-year-old son and also attempted to free Sriranga and his family. An underground tunnel was made to ensure their escape. However, Jagga Raya discovered this plan and ensured that Sriranga and his family were killed within this fort.
This brutal massacre led to the Battle of Toppur in 1616-1617 CE where Yachama Naidu went against Jagga Raya. While Naidu won this battle, constant warfare caused the near destruction of an already declining empire. The Battle of Toppur is one of the major battles in Indian history as it used cannons on a very large scale causing heavy destruction. This was the first time cannons were used in South Asia.
In the 1650s, Thirumali Nayak of Madurai, against the threat of an attack by the Vijayanagara rulers, persuaded the Sultan of Bijapur to attack the Vijayanagara stronghold- the Vellore fort. Henceforth, the Bijapuri Sultanate gained control of the fort. However, in about two decades, the Marathas under Shivaji marched southwards for their campaigns. The year 1676-77 CE saw a 14-month-long siege at the Vellore fort. Shivaji’s commander, Sardar Sabnis Narhari Rudra marched with a cavalry of 2000 and an infantry of nearly 5000. He strategically built two small forts called “Sajra” and “Gojra” at a distance of about two kms from the Vellore fort. Situated at a higher elevation, they overlooked the Vellore fort and allowed them to keep a watchful eye. In the bombardment which followed, it is said that about 400 of the 500 people who were guarding the fort were killed before Abdullah Khan, the then general defending the fort, surrendered it to the Marathas on the 21st of August, 1678 CE.
The fort was briefly under Daud Khan, a Mughal commander and the Nawab of the Carnatic post the death of Aurangzeb in the beginning of the 18th century. He marched with an army from Delhi and wrested it out of the hands of the Marathas. Following the battle of Plassey in 1757 CE, the British gained dominance over major areas in India and took control of the fort with relative ease. The British defended the fort against the forces of Hyder Ali in 1782 CE and after defeating Tipu Sultan here in 1799 CE, even detained his sons, daughters, wife and mother here.
The Vellore Fort also became the final destination for the last ruling monarch of Sri Lanka, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha (1798–1815 CE) when he and his family were kept here as prisoners of war at this fort for 17 years. His grave can now be found in the fort along with the last Raya kings of the Vijayanagara Empire.
The fort was also a critical marker in India’s struggle for independence. The famous Vellore Mutiny or the Vellore Sepoy Mutiny of 1806 CE occurred here. This rebellion pre-dated the revolt of 1857 by nearly 50 years. The causes that led to it were as follows. The Indian sepoys stationed at the Vellore fort were prescribed new round hats which were believed to have been made from cow hides. This hurt the religious sentiments of many Hindu sepoys. Moreover, other arbitrary orders such as the removal of turbans, all caste markings, beards and jewelry were perceived as offensive to their religious beliefs by the soldiers. Hence, on 10th July 1806 CE, the Indian sepoys attacked the European barracks killing about 15 officers and nearly 100 British soldiers. The news travelled to the military commander at Arcot who arrived with artillery to suppress the revolt. It was put down harshly by the afternoon of 11th July. Even though the revolt lasted for just one day, it involved about 800 mutineers and shook the British to their core.
The rich history of the fort is only complimented by its strong architectural features. The fort was built in the Dravidian style of architecture. It had a deep wet ditch (moat) where around 10,000 crocodiles once swarmed, waiting to grab every intruder. It has huge double walls with bastions, projecting irregularly, and ramparts on which two carts can be driven abreast. Resting on an unbroken mountain chain, this fort was constructed using granite sourced from the quarries of Arcot and Chittor.
This fort complex further exemplifies a secular understanding of our past. It comprises a mosque, a church, called the St. John’s church as well as a temple which has received considerable attention. This Jalakandeswarar Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is famous for the exquisite carvings, large wooden gates and stunning monoliths. It is said that Chinna Bommy Reddy, who was one of the builders of the fort, had a dream in which lord Shiva asked him to build this temple at the given site. The site is said to have contained an ant-hill suspended in the middle of stagnant water. A wanderer is believed to have placed a shiva lingam here which came to be highly revered. Interestingly, the term “Jalakandeswarar” is translated as “lord Shiva residing in water”. Later, this magnificent temple was also used as an arsenal. While the mosque is a contested space today, the church was never officially consecrated. Built in 1846 CE, by the Government of Madras for the British East India Company’s officers, it was dedicated to St John the Evangelist.
The fort of Vellore is at once an architectural marvel, a historical legacy, a military stronghold and an important site for the articulation of the Indian freedom struggle. It represents the skills of our artisans as well as our composite culture. There is indeed no exaggeration in stating that it is one of the most important and fascinating forts in the Indian subcontinent.