Sometime during middle school there was a plan afoot to take us to Gingee fort and Sathanoor dam for annual excursion. However, thanks to an uncharacteristic lapse in my memory, I can’t recollect if that plan was executed. I do however, remember that I never went on that excursion. Fast forward about three decades; I finally had time to make this trip a couple of weeks back.
The ever reliable Google maps told me the trip should take about 2:30 hrs without traffic and my sometime reliable friend said the roads for the most part were pretty smooth. Since the wise people of TripAdvisor said it is a very hard climb and “impossible for women and children” I decided my elderly mom and I will of course climb it. We figured if we left at 7:00 am we should be there by 10 at the latest and it shouldn’t be too hot to do the climb.
So off we set, only 30 mins later than our intended departure time on a nice little Tata Indica with the A/C on and the Sun shining a deceptively mild light through the distant trees. We quickly took the NH45 that was as smooth as silk though pretty crowded at this early hour too. After an hour and half of driving by innumerable coffee shops** we finally stopped at a road side restaurant for a quick breakfast of uthappam and vada. The good thing about these quick pit stops are that they are truly quick. It took about a minute to take our order, about 5 mins to get piping hot food and 2 mins to pay and leave. So the rate limiting step of the whole process is your eating speed. 20 mins after we stopped for food we were back again in the car and zooming along the beautiful highway again, keeping a wary eye on the Sun that was indulging in a playful hide-and-seek game with some fluffy clouds and being generally meek. The only bottle neck until we reached Tindivanam is the toll house that is a choking, honking mess. After taking the exit to Thiruvannamalai, one turns left at the board that says “Gingee 20km” and go about a kilometer on newly laid road. After a km the road disappears for about 200 ft and then reappears for another km or so when it disappears again. This way, the 20 km stretch takes you about 1 hr and with the help of random people on the street, you reach the Krishnagiri fort.
Obligatory history lesson: The Gingee (or Senchi in Tamil) fort encompasses three hills : Krishnagiri, Rajagiri and Chandrayandurg. Earliest fortification in this area was built by an Ananda Kon, a local chieftain of the shepherd clan but later fortified and made larger by the Marathas, Carnatic Nawabs and Mughals. It was briefly under Maratha rule but was wrested from them by the Mughals who placed Rajput rulers as their local representative. The most famous ruler of these was Raja Tej Singh, locally called Desinghu Raja*** who was a mere teenager when he died a glorious death defending the fort and is immortalized in Tamil folklore songs for his pains. Krishnagiri is the smaller fort and comes first on the road, it’s also called the Queen’s fort. It is easier to climb as it is smaller and has well defined, albeit rough hewn stone steps. It has a temple, granaries and preserved citadels. The Rajagiri is the larger and more imposing fort, the site of Desingh’s valour. It has among other structures a marriage hall****. It used to have a large moat and one side of the fort is a sheer drop to a great big chasm. Connected to Rajagiri is the third and smallest hill, Chandrayan durg also called Chamar Durg for no apparent reason, although wiki thinks it could be because chamars or cobblers set up there to supply the army of Rajagiri.
We reached Krishnagiri at eleven o’clock. The Sun, like a good government employee quit its silly games with clouds and got down to the business of the day, shining bright and hotly at us. Having done our TripAdvisor research, we were well prepared for this. We came dressed up in trek friendly clothes and quickly dug out our hats and sunglasses, secured our water bottles to our packs and strode out bravely with, as the song says, heel for heel and toe to toe. After paying the ridiculously small sum of Rs.10/person that gets you admission to both the forts, we commenced the great trek up.
We were pleasantly surprised to find hand rails right at the start of the stone steps and decided that we can conquer this fort after all. Like all silly assumptions this one too bit the dust as soon as we turned the first corner.
At the end of the “hand rail-ed” portion is the very first rest stop where you can catch your breath and take in the glory of the surrounding fields and cityscapes.
There are four such pit stops spread over the climb and are an essential hideout from the Sun and the views are breathtaking enough to make the rest not seem too time consuming. More importantly the higher you get the cooler the breeze that helps mitigate the effects of tropical heat of interior TN.
After cooling ourselves for about 5 minutes we resumed our climb, this time without handrails, under the unrelenting heat only to run into hordes of people returning from their climb. Everyone of these groups would stop when they see us and exclaim at my cruelty for bringing an elderly lady on such an arduous trip. It was not the exhausting climb that bothered them, but the fact that there was nothing when you reach the top. “Oh! look at that poor Aayah*****”, they would exclaim at each other, stopping short. Then turn around at me and say accusingly,” Why are you taking her all the way up there ma! There is nothing to see, but broken down ruins!” They would promptly discard my palliative, “it is to see the ruins and enjoy the climb that we go,” with a dismissive flick of the hand and shake their heads, “what climb?! what ruins?! you only get knee pain for all this”, sigh, and resume their downward journey leaping over the steps like mountain goats. It didnt matter that there were Aayahs among them too, they would stop by my mom and advice her in a stage whisper, “turn back right now! there is nothing to see. They cheat by saying there is a temple, it is nothing! There is no God, only pillars!”
You would think at least the ascending crowd would be encouraging, but you would be wrong! We seem to have hit the ideal time for romantic couples’s ascension and the men of each and every couple would pass us by and remark to his girl, ” even this aayah is climbing and you make such a big deal!” and the woman in every couple will invariably give me killer looks as if I am solely responsible for her current predicament! Nevertheless, we finally reached the third rest stop breathless and burning with the heat of the mid-day Sun. At this point, my mother gave up, being defeated by the Sun and I decided to forge on ahead to conquer this bloody peak. So off I went after catching my breath and drinking half my water.
Apart from the people mentioned in this post, there was another set of travelers that I haven’t mentioned so far. These were the young men traveling in groups of 4-5 whom we met at most rest stops. They were by far typical youths who had a typical youth attitude of staring one out of countenance. It is not the curiosity stares that you get in trains which is typically Indian and is indicative of nothing more than idle curiosity to while away the often tedious journey. This is the more offensive stare and accompanying rude comments of the college going Chennai male at bus stops and is exclusively reserved for young women/collegiate girls regarding her looks, attire etc . As long as my mom was with me, this was just a minor annoyance, akin to the buzzing of a particularly persistent mosquito, that neither bites nor flies away in search of better prey but insists on buzzing by your ear. Once I left my mom behind, this buzzing got more interfering and in-your-face. Determined to avoid this unwanted attention, I quickened my pace to the last rest stop and sat facing my phone with the hope that studied ignoring will defeat the most persistent of them. The longer I sat staring at my phone and gasping for air, the angrier I got at the situation. I started composing angry and frustrated blog posts in my head and did not notice a change in my surroundings.
The first I knew of my immediate surroundings was when someone said, “Hello, what is your name?” I looked up angrily, ready to do battle, only to be confronted by about 10 school kids sitting across from me eagerly looking in my direction. The buzzing annoyances were nowhere to be seen. I quickly regrouped and responded by asking the speaker his name in return. The kid jumps up, strikes a pose with his hands on his hips and says, “my name is Gaudaman”! His classmates and I burst out laughing and that attracts the rest of his class and his teacher. After such an opening who can resist a good long conversation? Not I, for sure. From our conversations, however, it was clear that going by my attire the kids and their teacher had decided that I was “foreigner” and were trying to have a conversation in English with me. I indulged until I asked them what class they were in. For which the chorus answer was quite unintelligible, and so had to be repeated twice. I finally got it but our hero, Gautaman, decided that I needed help and so drew the number “8” in the air quickly followed by the letter “A”. Before I could assure him that I definitely got it, he kept repeating his little mime until I gave up and said in Tamil, “purinjidu, thambi!******”. There was a second’s shocked silence while they assimilated that I could speak their language after which Gautaman’s face took on an expression of exaggerated surprise. He jumps behind his classmates and shouts out in Tamil, “she can speak Tamil”! After this their teacher prompts them to have a conversation with me in proper Tamil. They chat, try to get a bet going with me on the name of the hill we were on (I refuse), take group pictures with me and shake my hand (INDIVIDUALLY!) and leave, promising to say hello to my mom on the way down. 15 minutes of pure unadulterated entertainment. The rest of the trip was done on a high completely unfazed by buzzing aggressive mosquitos and burning hot sun.
As promised by others the hilltop had a temple with only pillars and citadels, and as anticipated by me the view was spectacular and the breeze cooling and gentle.
Travel Tips: The ASI in its infinite wisdom allows you to climb these forts only from 9 to 5. In other words, just when the sun is at its hottest. To make matter worse, the Rajagiri fort entrance closes at 3 pm and the Krishnagiri at 4 pm, so there is no chance of you beating the heat! My suggestion is get there by 9m, attempt the larger one, Rajagiri, first. Take rest at the near by traveler’s lodge and come back to climb Krishnagiri at 4 pm.
Krishnagiri is an easy climb as long as there is no Sun!
Remember the route from Tindivanam exit to Gingee is very poor and takes a long time to cover, so be prepared for that.
Wear good firm shoes as the stones are worn smooth by the passage of many feet.
* A take on the name of a movie called Vanji Kottai Valliban in which a tinsel town handsome youth, aka Gemini Ganesan warms the cockles of the princesses’s heart. Read the story to understand the reference.
**If you ever need proof that Tamils are coffee fanatics, take the NH45. Not for us the Starbucks and Seattle coffee houses, we swear by our filter coffees. And to cater to us there are a gazzillion Kumbakonam Degree Coffee outlets, interspersed with a million Lip and Sip, Only Coffee shops, abutting a hundred 99Degree Coffee s. In case you missed these, there are also Cafe Coffee Day s.
*** cue this song.
**** and why not? One can want to get married during a siege, it is entirely possible!
*****Women of a certain age are automatically “Aayahs” or grandmothers irrespective of the presence or otherwise of actual grandchildren. In Indian culture this is a form of respect.
****** Understood, little brother