Once upon a Fort (Part 1)

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The Architect rose as the King entered the empty tent that was erected for visitors, inside the fort. Though the Architect had constructed special reception centers decorated with frescos, the King had decided against entertaining guests there until he deemed fit.  The Architect’s own camp was almost empty. His men had started leaving the camp some days ago, slowly, one group after the other, looking forward to, and at the same time despising the long journey back to their homes and their wives.

“I am pleased with your design and construction of the fortress, Architect!”

“I am honoured, Majesty”, the Architect murmured, bowing low to the king.

“The Chief Minister and General take care of these things. However, I hear that you insistently requested to speak with me?”

“Yes, Majesty”

“I care very little for such impudence, young man. What is it?”

The Architect lifted his averted eyes, a quiet smile played around his mouth. “I waited many days to meet you. Because what I want to share with you cannot be spoken, only shown. And what I show must be for your eyes only, else it would be futile.”

Intrigued, the King sat himself down on the diwan.

“Go on”

“I have built fortresses for many a Southern King. Their mighty armies do not discount their fears- and those are rightful fears. In most cases, the enemy lies within, not beyond, for the greatest of kings have been murdered, not in the battlefield but in their beds.”

A shadow crossed the King’s impassive face.

“What is your point?”

“The value of a Kingdom is measured by the life that beats in its King’s chest.”

The King gave the briefest of nods, which caused his body guards to exit the tent.

“I have created two escape routes for you from within this fortress, and it is my duty to show these to you, before I leave. They are for your use, should your life be in peril, because of an unfaithful friend or a greater foe, which is very unlikely under your powerful reign” said the Architect.

The King’s eyes gleamed.

“You will show them to me now”img-20160902-wa0011

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“I am delighted with your work, young man!” the King exclaimed, as the Architect showed him the second escape route. He removed a large diamond studded ring from his forefinger and handed it to the Architect, “I want you to keep this, and you will construct every fort that I commission from today!”

“You are very generous, Majesty” the Architect bowed low again.

The Architect and the King were now by the well, within the fort. It was large, empty and deep, with stone steps leading to the bottom.

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“I see you have timed the construction well. The rains approach and the well will fill in a few days”

“Yes, and the well is at considerable distance from the third darwaza and I have given it watch guards, should anybody try to poison the source of water for the fortress.”

The Architect took a step closer to the King. Before the Architect knew it, the King had unsheathed his sword.

The Architect’s passive face betrayed no emotion.

“Lord, here is the last route you should take, should all else fail”

The King was taken aback.

“There is one more?”

“Yes, Lord. My men know the escapes I showed you. They created those. These are not mere escapes. These are two entry points into the castle as well, hidden though they are. My men are trustworthy, but are men after all. But this last one- this one was designed by me. And the man who laboured for this particular route sleeps beneath the floor of the well. I killed him with my own hands and buried him”

The King’s sharp, kohl lined eyes looked at the Architect’s own with appreciation.

“Lead me to it”

The men climbed down the steps to the floor of the well. The Architect felt the blocks of stone with his hands, one at a time, as he walked around the perimeter. He gestured to the King when he found the right rock. When the King touched it, the ingenuity amazed him- it was cold granite, unlike the other warm, sun soaked stones, yet it looked pale brown like the others.

The Architect effortlessly pushed the rock inside a few inches until he heard a click, and then he moved it to the right. There were discreet abrasions that enabled him to claw his fingers and pull or move the rock.

The men lunged themselves up. The King saw steep steps leading into the darkness above.

“There are 162 such steps. They lead into the palace of your concubines, by the river”

“The last place a King would expect to be found during war”

“Where arrangements can be made should there be need for escape” concluded the Architect

“What about the water from the well? Would it not rise?”

“It will rise, but it will not beyond the seventh step.” They had reached the seventh step where the wall had provision to hold a flame-torch, a bowl of oil and some matches.

The men walked through the tunnel, and after a few minutes they could smell and hear the river. The Architect released a trap door and saw the King’s triumphant face in the sliver of sunlight that entered the tunnel.

“We will return now” announced the King, and the Architect shut the trap door enveloping them both in darkness once again.

**********

(To be Continued)

W-Warangal Fort

*Failed attempt to complete the A-Z Challenge 2016

In the middle of a sweltering state is a treasure trove of history- that is Warangal for you.

At 150 kms away from Hyderabad is this (once) glorious capital. It was later rampaged by Muslim invaders and all that remain now are ruins.

Warangal was first ruled by the Yadavas, and was later by the Kakatiya Dynasty. The kingdom flourished under the latter. To give you an idea about how prosperous the kingdom was, and how advanced these kings were back in the 12 th century, I’m describing the fort for you.

The Warangal fort was built in the centre of three concentric levels of fortifications. The first exterior defence was a wall, this had a diameter of 2.5 kms. There was a deep trench in front of this wall that had to be filled with dirt or mud before it could be surmounted. This surrounded a moat, the width of which was around 150 feet. Invaders would have to swim across this, keeping an eye out for the crocodiles. Finally there was a wall made of stone. This wall was around 1.2 kms in diameter, and the fort, which also served as the capital city was located within this embankment.

Such an impenetrable fort was eyed by the sultanate of Delhi and was laid siege during the rule of King Pratapa Rudra II. After 6 months of constant battle, both parties agreed to a truce.  Pratapa Rudra could retain his kingship and land, and in reparation he had to surrender all the wealth his dynasty had accumulated over all these years. When the Sultanate general left Warangal, it is said that he carried the loot on the backs of 2000 camels, back to Delhi.

2000 camels. Somewhere on the back of one of those camels was the controversial Koh-i-noor diamond, which now glints from the British Queen Mother’s crown.

But our story does not stop there. Pratapa Rudra was asked to pay an annual tribute to the Sultanate which he failed to, twice.. The first time he failed, he was warned with an army on the doors of his capital. The second time he failed- (Reading about him, I am pretty certain it was his insubordination that caused this) a bigger army, led by Mohammed bin Tughlaq, by now well-versed with the workings of the fort and its battlements, forced its way into the capital. Every structure that had any religious symbolism on it (in this case-almost all structures) was destroyed. The four gateways- unique looking and free standing now, were spared because they were adorned with neutral figures. This archway is now the symbol of the Telegana tourism department, and a visitor will see replicas of these in the main streets of Hyderabad. Pratapa Rudra was taken captive, and was being transported to Delhi when he killed himself in the banks of the river Godavari en route.

Enough of History, though.

Warangal, an unsung little town, took my breath away. The fort stands ruined, but the air weighs heavy with pride. If you stood there and listened hard, they would tell you tales of a dynasty that did not need a king at one juncture- Queen Rudramadevi, who ruled before Pratapa Rudra II, could have taught us a thing or two about empowerment. The winds would sing praises about a king who refused to succumb to men of another land, and inevitably lost his life in the process. And if you listen carefully, you might also hear a stifled wail- at how unfair the past and the present have been. It is truly unfortunate that we decided to visit a city so glorious because we had nothing else to do- and not because it was spoken about with reverence, or given the respect it deserves.

 

Paris

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People who know me know what an incorrigible Francophile I am. Having studied the language and culture for over ten years, I cannot help but love the country. So people around me have gotten used to me yelping when I hear French dialogues in movies, and correcting them when they pronounce something wrong (“It’s ronday-woo!”)

The sad part of this tale is that I have never been to France. Yet. N has been there, though. He visited Paris when he was studying in the UK and never misses an opportunity to brandish that on my face. But it wouldn’t stop there. It would continue to:

“Oh what is that called- Champs Elseeeeey?”

“How very Borgoisee of you!”

“How is black pronounced again? Noh-iree?”

The effect this has is not very different from scratching one’s fingernails on a black board. I imagine that I have died and have been resurrected many, many times. Who ever said words couldn’t kill.

Lakshadweep

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The first place that N and I visited after the wedding was Lakshadweep. We had a couple of places in mind, the common factors amongst all these were that they were economical, not commercial/ touristy and by the beach. We had a well deserved break. Lakshadweep was just the perfect getaway- this was further cemented by the fact that no mobile networks other than BSNL work there.

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Image Source- Internet

Given that there were no direct flight routes from Chennai, we had to fly to Cochin and switch to another Air India flight to Lakshadweep. One cannot just fly into Lakshadweep. It involves obtaining a permit from the island prior to landing, and we had this facilitated by an agent. The view was amazing! The archipelago is a sight to behold, from air.

There are some islands that are off limits, and few that non-Indian nationals can stay in. The Ministry of Tourism has complete monopoly and should they know that you stay in a home stay (like we did, in Agatti island) they will not allow access to water sport in the main islands (Kadmat, Bangaram, Minicoy)

Long walks along the length of the island was what we did every day. We would fill our tummies with fresh sea food, walk around the little island, hire a jetty and travel to the neighbouring islands, come back, eat, lounge on the beach, eat and sleep. It was the most relaxing vacation, ever! The beaches there were some of the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. From the main road, which is like the spine of the island, we could see the coast on either side. And there were waves lashing the coast on both sides!

These islands are known for their coral reefs. How could we not scuba dive! We did two dives with our trainer (who regaled us with tales of finding ship wrecks beneath the oceans) and till date, the memory of that first practice dive is what I cherish the most. Words cannot describe the beauty of the ocean floor. Fishes of every imaginable colour, size, shape and dimension swam by, shoals and shoals of them, twisting from our grasps. I run out of adjectives to describe the corals- colourful rock like creatures that popped small craters open when we snapped our fingers close to them. I must mention the sea anemones here! Sticky, prickly jelly like tentacles swished around our fingers as we tried to touch them; and pretty clown fish swam around them blinking at us, unable to see the smiles beneath our masks.

Too soon, it was time to leave. As we were saying our good byes, we chatted up with the son of the man who owned our homestay. This young man’s ambition was to join the CISF.

‘But why on earth would you want to leave this amazing island?!!’ we asked him, with shock.

‘But what is there here.. it is just the beach and the island and the homestay. There is nothing to do here!’

What we wouldn’t have given to trade places with him!

Biking to Bhongir

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N professed undying love for automobiles and his own motorcycle so much that they seemed like competition once. We have completed numerous trips the past year; the destination would usually be a day’s ride or around 300 kms away. We are pushing limits, but now that summer has hit us, we will not be riding much until July.

One of the more recent trips was to Warangal, a city filled with very interesting history. Now Telengana is a state known for its rocks, and it is very common to see huge rocks, some 500- 800 metres high, by the highway. When we were riding to Warangal we noticed one such massive rock, at the head of which we even saw building structures. The town was called Bhongir and we made a note to stop there on our return.

Welcome to Bhongir fort, built in the 10th century AD, on an isolated monolithic rock by a Chalukya king Tribuvana Vikram Aditya (from which was drawn the word Buvanagiri- which then became Bhongir) The fort gained prominence during the reign of the Kakatiya Dynasty. According to legend, there once was an underground corridor connecting Bhongir Fort to the famed Golconda fort. The fort has a unique egg-shaped construction with two entry points protected by huge rocks, so the fort was considered practically impregnable by invading armies.

I would second that because from any spot on the top  of the hill, one can have a good view of the flat lands below. It would have been very foolish to even attempt to take the fort down.

One look from the foot of the hill and we deliberated if we ought to even attempt the trek. We were not exactly our fittest selves at that point, and there were no refreshments available anywhere else but at the entrance.

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Once we started however, there was no stopping us. The ruined fort had steps carved into the rocks for visitors. The otherwise smooth surface made us wonder how it was climbed when it was in use. There were many stone fortresses built on flat surfaces as we gained altitude- Imagine bringing blocks of stone up a massive, smooth rock! Every turn gave me goosebumps as I spun hypothetical tales pointing ruins to a tired, panting N- “This mght have been the granary- this could have been the temple! Look at these ponds hidden from sight- to avoid poisoning, maybe?” My head felt light knowing that the very air we breathed there might have once been filled with the sounds of neighing horses and the clangs of swordsmen practicing their craft. These very walls would have seen celebrations of victory, beheading of enemy spies and royal weddings.

We found canons that might have smoked once. The sun was right above us and we couldn’t see our own shadows. Yet the canons felt cold.

Above is the palace on top of the hill.  The photo with the pond (source quoted) is what it looks like from behind and I am sure it must have housed the ladies- the attached pond might have been where the women swam, humming tunes, basking in the sun.

I later looked up the limited literature about the fort. Its glorious days eventually drew to a close and the fort was used as a prison for some time, after which it fell into disuse. I also read that in the nights locals hear odd sounds from the fort and it is supposed to be haunted by the soldiers who protected it once.

We loved the serenity of the fort- this was a beauty and it was such a shame that we did not get to know more about its history. If you are in Hyderabad and have no plan for a weekend, please visit this!

MCD- Tranquebar/Tarangambadi

‘How much farther?’ I scowled, clenching my jaw, my butt protesting in pain. Who would have thought that sitting pillion for so long would hurt? But it wasn’t just that. It was my first time on a bike, on a distance this far, and whoever said it was about the journey, not the destination, was clearly nuts.

Ours being an arranged wedding, we (after all the trials and errors) had our own checklists that we quizzed each other about on our very first date. From lighting the house yellow to checking if I would be okay with a liquor cabinet, we got all the tiniest details sorted. One such detail was travel. Of course- I said I enjoyed traveling but had to look sheepish when his list out-did mine. So it was no surprise that soon after our wedding, N decided he needed to test all those vehement assertions I had stated about adoring travel. Within a couple of months, he got very skeptical when I gave excuses for plans twice. So one Friday night, when he threw open a plan to ride to Pondicherry, I took it one step further and upgraded it to a ride to Tranquebar aka Tarangambadi making N’s eyes glisten with happy tears.

It is surprising how quickly one can get to Pondicherry from Chennai when the sun is just about rising. We reached the Union Territory in 90 minutes and sat twiddling our thumbs, waiting for somebody to open shop for breakfast. The promenade was chilly yet welcoming, teeming with folks jogging or walking. We watched the sun rise and quickly made our way out to beat the traffic.

(Nongu and tender coconut water vendors on the ECR/ Breakfast by the beach in Pondicherry)

Riding on the ECR is always smooth- towns pass you quickly and we stopped for intermittent breaks to stretch ourselves. I was just done with Ponniyin Selvan (a book set in the era of the Chola dynasty) and we were riding by towns mentioned in the book. All was fine until we crossed Cuddalore, and the roads started getting worse. We crossed Chidambaram and I was very excited, waiting to cross the Kollidam river (as one of the protagonists in Ponniyin Selvan dramatically swims across this river in spate at one point) My disheartenment knew no bounds as we rode over a bridge built across a barren river bed. I was picturing a river in all its glory in my head- and well, it stayed that way.

In my head, I have little rooms where I box different types of people. It is my head and these are my rooms, so judge me all you want. The point here is, had I not married N, I would have boxed him in the room marked ‘Peters’ (Non-Tamil folks would not get this but you could take a guess) This is good because we have a plethora of things to talk about. Like for instance, the Silappadikaram as we crossed Poompuhar. As we drove south, there was a change in our breaks as well. From stopping for some coke and chips, we started halting when we saw someone selling tender coconut juice or fresh, juicy nongu (the Borassus flabellifer fruit)

By the time we took our fifth break, we had been on the road for a good five hours…and had crossed a whopping 280 kilometres. It was around this time that I caught my reflection on the rear view mirror, and saw a red faced, frizzy haired baboon under my helmet. ‘How much farther?!!’ I croaked and N’s voice reached my ears, along with the whistling wind, reminding me that I was handling the GPS and shouldn’t be so lax and did I want us to reach our destination safely or not.  I swallowed my anger but kept my baboon face. After all, it was my idea riding to Tranquebar.

It was around 2 pm when we reached Tarangambadi. You find the beach, reassuringly familiar; the Tranquebar fort, and the Bungalow on the Beach, which was previously the residence of the Danish Governor (later the residence of the British Administrator of the colony). As you would have understood by now, Tarangambadi was a Danish colony. The Bungalow on the Beach is now a luxury heritage hotel (the rates are on an average Rs 6500 a night plus taxes). We chose not to halt there for the night and instead only had lunch (fish, prawns and some rice- very good). The Bungalow has a colonial feel- as we walked around it, I could imagine an evening ball, with men and women in their finery dancing through the night. The rooms are also aptly named- after counts and princesses, presumably of that era.

We sauntered to the fort, it is more of a local haunt than anything else. It is small for a fort (I am comparing it to Golconda here) and with not much history, I found it disappointing. I love forts that I can weave a story about, with walls that have seen romance, treachery and war. Some fort walls appear pregnant with untold stories, looking like all they want is for somebody to sit near them and listen to their tales. More about such forts soon!

(Clockwise- top left to bottom left: The Tranquebar beach, some areas cordoned off with brick walls/ The Bungalow by the beach as viewed from the fort/ Dining area with the colonial pillars in the Bungalow by the beach/ View of the Fort from the entrance)

With nothing much else to do in Tranquebar, we decided to head back before the sun set. We rode another 120 kilometers back to Pondicherry for the night, and drank to our record 400 kilometers in a day at Le Club.

Our version of The Motorcycle Diaries has thus officially begun!

ABC Challenge #21: U for Up

All our lives, we can’t wait to grow up, to move to the next level. When we were toddlers, we couldn’t wait to get to school. At school, we couldn’t wait to go to college. Couldn’t wait to get the ‘love of our lives’. Then we couldn’t wait to make our own money. Buy our own car. Get the next promotion. It has always been a race, and the climb up has always been enticing. The promise of something better than now keeps egging us upward, like it should, I must add!

Right now, I would say that I am at a place I am proud to be at. From the outside, it looks fascinating. At any given point, I believe, any role that is not yours looks incredibly interesting, but I digress. This blog was about what I feel, from up here.

There is more time. There is more stress too, though. There is the privilege of getting some help with work, but it comes with responsibility of ensuring that the work is up to standards. Time flies. Very fast. Yesterday, a colleague and I were talking about how we had begun losing track of places we had been to on work, hotels we had stayed in. It has become a jumble of flights and travel plans, check ins and check outs, complimentary breakfasts and corporate in-flight meals. These days, sandwiches make me retch, and innumerable boxes of cup noodles have given me the ability to just imagine the taste in my mouth.  Travelling light has become an art. In my sleep I can list the number of items I carry in my vanity case, and with one glance can figure out what is missing. From being somebody who has carried three kurtis and conveniently forgotten her denims that she intended to wear them with- I have come a long way. Sometimes, I have dreams featuring numbers and revenue figures. They dance around a bush (me) and give me a headache. Despite all that, most times all I want to do is sleep. All the eating out side is taking its toll on me and as I am genetically fine-tuned to accumulate all my body fat on my middle, I see the waist line increase embarrassingly, to the point where my best friend told me, ‘okay, 30 days to my wedding and that is all the time you got to get toned!’ There is no time for men, if there is anybody remotely interesting though, I think he either gets intimidated or I get bored, or he gets bored or I get into my crazy-me mode. There is no effort because there is simply no stamina, really! But there is a lot of time to hit the spa. And a lot of money to pay at the gym and skip it. Owing to all the travel. More guilt.

As I type this from yet another hotel room, this time in Trivandrum, I realize, the laptop has become my current best friend. My friend in need. With all the movies it has been crammed with. And MS Word. And the magical internet stick. I realize-in horror, that I don’t need much more, right here, right now.

It makes you crazy, remember how they warned you against the altitude? Contrary to that though, it is a High pressure zone. But the beauty is just breathtaking. You start reinventing yourself to adapt to the milieu. Every day is a new challenge, every next step is victory. This new you- you wouldn’t recognize her after a point..but keep telling yourself, it is all for the good!