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Forgotten fort

Vattakottai: Elegant and steeped in history, says SHALINI UMACHANDRAN


THE EXCESSIVELY upholstered, diesel-smoke spewing Ambassador we hired in Kanyakumari sweeps off the main road and on to a narrower track. I'm eagerly looking out for our first glimpse of the 18th Century fort, Vattakottai. The road is lined with thatched huts, square cement houses and ubiquitous coconut trees and shrubs. Suddenly the car comes to a halt in front of a huge, stark white wall. We're here, announces the driver.

Surprise. For all I've read about it, the fort is extraordinarily unassuming. No fort-like ramparts or crumbling walls or huge lookout points, instead a lone ice-cream seller tries peddling vividly coloured ice-lollies. The massive outer wall bears the symbol of two elephants and a conch shell above the words "Vattakottai" in English. But surprise soon gives way to delight, as I realise that Vattakottai is an example of understated elegance. The moment I step through the high, narrow gate, there's the feeling of being transported to a world that was once bustling with activity. Standing in the stone pathway to the central courtyard, I can imagine uniformed soldiers wandering to and fro, cleaning weapons, drawing water from the well...

A uniformed caretaker-cum-guide jumps up from his chair under the shade of a tree and offers to show me around. In his lilting, almost-quaint Tamil, particular to the area, he tells me that the fort was the last in a string of coastal forts belonging to the Tranvancore kings. The walls, the guide says, are about 25 feet high and 29 feet thick in the front, reinforced under the orders of DeLannoy... but that's getting ahead of the story. He breaks off and asks me to follow him up the stone steps on the left. The well-worn stairs lead to an arch in the front wall, set with a tiny square peephole. I clamber up to look through the square spyhole at the wide view of coconut trees and hills — right up to Marunthuvazhmalai (where medicinal herbs are said to grow). Centuries ago, the area around the fort was clear and observers could see right up to the Padmanabhapuram Palace. In fact, there's supposed to be a four-foot-wide tunnel that runs from the fort to the palace — a distance of nearly 25 km — but it caved in and has been closed for years.

The guide then points out the watchtowers, rest rooms and weapon rooms. The fish motif — symbolising the Pandya kings — is engraved on many of the walls, leading archaeologists to believe that the fort was used by the Pandyas. Though it's not too clear how the Marthanda Varmas appeared on the scene, what historians are sure of is that the Dutch general DeLannoy and his Navy attacked Vattakottai when it was controlled by Marthanda Varma, and were defeated miserably. Apart from the natural advantage the fort enjoyed, the Dutch were intimidated by the seemingly massive `cannons' — tall, spiralling coconut trees that seemed threatening when seen from the sea. The Dutch surrendered to Marthanda Varma (a lovingly restored painting capturing this scene hangs at the Padmanabhapuram Palace) and DeLannoy became one of Varma's most faithful generals. DeLannoy is supposed to be the person who introduced the "Left, Right, Left Right" parade ground call. Until then, the soldiers' drill was conducted with calls of "Olaikaal, Seelaikaal" — the soldiers would tie coconut fibre around one leg and cloth around the other, on which parade ground commands were based.

Squinting in the bright sunshine, I head up another set of stairs, next to a steep slope, which was used to haul cannons up to the parade ground. Elephants would use the stairs on either side to drag the cannons (real ones, not coconut trees) up the slope. Just as I'm picturing this completely awesome sight of elephants harnessed to colossal cannons, straining their way up, the guide interrupts saying that a sequence for the film "Raja" was shot here. The raised parade ground overlooks the sea — the Bay of Bengal on one side and the Arabian Sea on the other. On the Arabian Sea side, the water is calm, and the sand streaked with the red and brown of copper and uranium. The Bay of Bengal appears rougher, with tiny coral clusters visible just under the water's surface. Sitting on its parapet and staring out to sea, you can almost see and hear the cannons booming, arrows flying from the ramparts of the fort, the battles that raged across the walls and the Dutch ships with full sails and pointed prows that bombarded the fort in a vain attempt to capture it.

Definitely a road less travelled at present — catch it before the touristy hordes from Kanyakumari invade.

How to get there:

Vattakottai is six km from Kanyakumari town

Nearest railway station: Kanyakumari

Nearest airport: Madurai

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