Gazing over the valley of the Chitradurga district in the present-day state of Karnataka sits the Chitradurga Fort. The Chitradurga Fort is also called the “Kallina Kote'' or the “Stone Fortress.” The fort rests on the seven hills of Chinmuladri range which are some of the oldest granite formations of the Indian subcontinent. Located in the midst of a valley formed by the Vedavati River, the Chitradurga Fort is one of the country’s strongest hill forts.
The word Chitradurga literally means the “picturesque fort.” It was built in stages between the 11th and the 13th centuries CE. The initial construction of the fort was carried out by the Chalukyas and the Hoysalas. The later construction was undertaken by the Nayakas of Chitradurga of the Vijayanagara Empire who further expanded the fort between the 15th and the 18th centuries CE. The fort is spread over an area of 1,500 acres.
Twice-told tales speak of a man-eating giant called Hidimbasura who lived on the hill prior to the fort being built. Folk legends narrate how he terrorized everyone in his vicinity. It is believed that it was finally Bhima, one of the Pandavas from the epic Mahabharata who fought and defeated him and restored peace in the region. Bhima is also said to have married Hidimbasura’s sister, Hidimbi, with whom he had a son named Ghatotkatch.
The magnificent fort of Chitradurga witnessed the rise and fall of many dynasties during which it remained the seat of their reigns. The Chitradurga region was once, probably, under Mauryan rule as carvings of Ashokan Rock Edicts have been traced at the fort. The Satavahanas succeeded the Mauryas. After the end of Satavahana rule, the Chitradurga region fell under the control of the Kadambas. Inscriptions belonging to this period have also been found at the fort. Chitradurga was later ruled by other dynasties such as the Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas and Hoysalas. Around the 16th century, the fort was captured by the Vijayanagara Kings who wrested control of the region from the Hoysalas. However, the fort and the region of Chitradurga achieved eminence, as a feudatory state of the Vijayanagar Empire, under the rule of the Nayakas or Palaygars, who were local chieftains. The Vijaynagara Empire collapsed in 1565 CE. Thereafter, the Nayakas claimed their independence and ruled for more than 200 years until 1779 CE. Throughout the medieval period, the Chitradurga Fort remained a formidable military bastion of the region.
During the reign of Madakari Nayaka V, the last ruler of the Nayakas, the city of Chitradurga and the fort were besieged by the troops of Hyder Ali of the Mysore kingdom. After three clashes in the 1760s and 1770s, the fort finally passed into the hands of Hyder Ali in 1779 CE for a short duration. Madakari Nayaka V and his family were imprisoned at Shrirangapattana, where they died. After Hyder Ali, the fort passed on to his son, Tipu Sultan. Twenty years later, the British forces defeated and killed Tipu Sultan in the fourth Anglo-Mysore War of 1799 CE. Between 1799-1809 CE, Chitaldoorg, as the British pronounced it, was garrisoned by British troops as it was perceived to be a potentially useful base along Mysore’s northern line of defense. Later, the fort was handed back to the Mysore government. This stupendous fort has witnessed some of South India’s bloodiest wars.
The collective memory of the people of the region, still holds dear the story of the famous Onake Obavva as she fought against the troops of Hyder Ali. Obavva’s husband was a guard in the fort. One day as she was carrying water for him, Obavva saw Hyder Ali’s men trying to infiltrate the fort through a secret passageway. She heroically used an onake or a pestle to kill the soldiers one by one and drag their bodies out of sight. Although she could not prevent the eventual capture of the fort, she is revered as Kannada’s pride till today. The hole through which Hyder Ali’s men tried infiltrating the fort is known as Onake Obavvana Kindi. Her courage has been memorialized in Chitradurga by setting up the Onake Obavva Stadium and by an extraordinary sculpture near the District Commissioner’s Office in Chitradurga.
The fort is situated on massive rock foundations and the view from the fort features towering boulders. The structure has been built with seven concentric fortification walls each of which has narrow passageways and gates. Thus, it is also known as Yelu Suttine, meaning “fort of seven circles”.
These unique architectural features prevented the enemy’s elephants from breaking into the fort with the help of battering rams. The zig-zagging pathways were further instrumental in slowing down the enemy’s progress during any attack. In the outermost walls are situated 4 gates (called Bagilu in Kannada), namely Rangayyana Bagilu, Siddayyana Bagilu, Ucchangi Bagilu and Lalkote Bagilu. The battlements of the forts were infused with crenels and gaps which could be used by archers for attacking an ascending army across the plains below. The ramparts were built with heavy blocks of granite. It is intriguing to note that for some stretches in the fortified walls, no cementing agents were used to hold the granite blocks together. This illustrates the expertise of the builders of the fort who precisely trimmed the stones to fit and hold together without any gluing agent. This architectural marvel is believed to have been once replete with hidden passages, secret tunnels and about 2000 watchtowers. The entrance of the rocky gateway is adorned with engravings of Gods and a huge snake on the rock wall. Within the walls of the fort, are structures which supported the entire population residing inside the walls. We find a citadel, a masjid, a warehouse for storing food grains - especially used in times of war - within the fort’s perimeters.
The fort is largely divided into two parts, the upper fort and the lower fort. There are 18 temples in the upper fort and a huge temple dedicated to the tutelary deity of the Nayaka Palegars, Uchchangiamma or Uthsavamba, is situated in the lower fort. Some of the popular temples in the upper fort include the Hidimbeswara temple, Sampige Siddeshwara temple, Ekanathamma temple, Phalguneshwara temple, Gopala Krishna temple. The Hidimbeswara temple displays a stone shaped like a tooth which is believed to be the tooth of Hidimba. This place also houses a large cylinder made of iron plates which is perceived to be Bheema’s Bheri or Drum. A magnificent monolithic pillar and two swing frames are situated at the gate of the temple.
It is believed that this fort never encountered any water shortages. This proved to be a boon during the many battles that it sustained. This is substantiated by the impressive rainwater harvesting systems present inside the fort. Large interconnected tanks were constructed at various levels that stored the rainwater in such a way that the overflow from one would fill the pond below. Such an arrangement provided water all year round and ensured water supply despite the rocky and dry terrain.
Another intriguing structure inside the fort complex is the “Maddu Bisuva Kallu'' meaning “gunpowder grinding stone.” The quadruple mills had four massive grinders which were used to grind gunpowder. Elephants or bullocks used to rotate these in a central circular space.
The magnificent fort is now maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. Though signs of deterioration are visible in the fort today, its sheer size, complexity and detailed design and the valour of those who gave their lives to protect it, speak volumes of its glorious past.