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Tag Archives: Arcot

Vellore – ‘Fierce and Fain’

The summer sun shone on the pains of Vellore. Dust clouds rose up to the commands of the fickle breeze. Grass and shurbs  dried to hay in the heat. The Fortress of Vellore gleamed like a pearl in the barren plain. The reflected sunlight from the moat gave it a sparkling silver outline. A stray goat wandered about and decided to quench its thirst in the murky waters of the moat. An arrow shot from the ramparts put an end to its hydrophilic dreams. Mutton was on the day’s menu.

There was silent but constant buzz around the fort. Whispers were passed about. The sepoys looked at their new uniforms with disgust. Leather tops and round hats. They looked were against their tradition. The sepoys were ordered to wear the new uniform and shave their beards.

Inconcievable. The sepoys thought the new uniforms and laws were made to insult them and their religion. The sepoys complained about the uniforms and refused to shave their beards. Their protests fell on deaf ears. Every soldier with a beard and without an uniform was tied to a post and given 90 lashes.

This new law was the final snowflake on the mountain-top. It fell on the suppressed anger of the sepoys. Something rumbled and something gave way. It was an avalanche of rage. The sepoys decided to sink their theeth in the heels of the East India company.

After Tipu Sultan had died. His sons and daughters were brought from Srirangapatanam and imprisoned in the garrisoned Fortress of Vellore. The wedding of Tipu Sultan’s daughter, in 1806,  gave the sepoys a perfect excuse to get together and plan the mutiny.

On the night of the wedding, under the cover of chaos and celebration, the cry of revolution rose from the ramparts of the fort. A bonfire was lit from the highest towers of the Fort. A signal for the mutineers. It was a bonfire of the new uniforms. The 1500 strong garrison rebelled against their British overlords.

Fire and gunpowder rained upon the British officers, dunk in the festivities of the wedding. The fireworks in the sky were overshadowed by the gunshots on the ground. Blood stained fort walls. More than a hundred British soldiers were killed in mutiny. In the chaos of the mutiny, Gillespie, one of the British officers, slipped away. he jumped into the moat, swam across the muddy water and escaped to the British garrison at Arcot.

Unaware of this, the sepoys were celebrating their victory. Wine flowed freely. Cheers and Chants made round. The guardsmen at the Fort door had a little too much of the wine and they forgot to lock the Fort gates down.

Once informed of the mutiny at Vellore, the British cavalry rode forth swiftly to Vellore. They covered the 35 km distance in two hours. They rode down the unlocked gate of the Fort and unleashed Hades on the celebrating sepoys. Within a couple of hours, all the mutineers were either dead or in chains. Canons and firing squads sounded the entire day. Retribution was swift and certain. The Fortress of Vellore was back in the hands of the East India Company.

Thus ended the first ever Indian mutiny against the East India Company.

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The hot and barren town of Vellore is still dominated by the Fort and its serene moat. The wide ramparts and the tall walls provide a daunting obstacle to any attacker. The fort was used by the British to imprison Tipu Sultan’s sons and daughters.

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The Sepoy Mutiny at Vellore was a prelude to the greater and more famous Revolt of 1857. The controversial dress codes were revoked after the mutiny.

In the poem ‘Gillespie’ by Sir. Henry Norton, depicts the escape of Gillespie and the muster of the cavalry of Arcot. The link for which is provided below.

http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/sir-henry-newbolt/gillespie/

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Posted by on October 31, 2014 in Tamil Nadu

 

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Gingee – ‘Troy Of The East’

The Nawab slowly drank the wine from his cup. The commanders of his army lowered their eyes. The seige was not going according to the plan. It had lasted seven years. He had thought that capturing Gingee from the young Raja Tej Singh would be easy. Only seven hundred men were with Raja Tej Singh and they had defended the fort for seven years against Nawab’s twenty thousand strong army. The Nawab threw the cup down in anger.

The Mughal Emperor Aurangazeb had captured the famous Gingee fortress from the Marathas and handed it over to his Rajput general, Raja Swaroop Singh. After the death of Aurangazeb, the Mughal empire crumbled. The Deccan sliped like butter from the Mughal fingers. The Mughal governor in the Carnatic, the Nawab of Arcot declared his independence, but Raja Swaroop Singh refused to accept his sovereignty. He swore fealty to the Mughal emperor in Delhi, but the Mughal army was too far and too busy to pay his request any heed.

The fortress of Gingee was just 90 kilometers away from Arcot, the Nawab’s capital. It was fabled to be the greatest fortress in the country. Even the great Maratha, Chhatrapati Shivaji, called it the ‘most unassailable fortress’. Its location and strong defenses tempted the Nawab. Raja Swaroop Singh died of a fever and his fifteen year old son, Raja Tej Singh was crowned king. The Nawab had decided to strike the hot iron.

Unfortunately, the siege wasn’t going well.

‘Unassailable’.

The fortress was living up to its name. It stood on top a hill with seven layers of battlements surrounding it. One solitary path wound around the mountain and it was overlooked by archery towers. The top of the fortress could only be reached by crossing a tiny drawbridge built, over a rocky chasm, hundreds of feet deep.

The Marathas were ingenious folks, they had tied ropes to monitor lizards, climbed the rocky walls of the fortress and captured it. The Nawab decided to try the same trick, but Tej SIngh’s men were ready. They trained their kites and falcons to swoop down and snatch the lizards from the rocks. The Nawab cursed the blasted birds.

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(The drawbrige on the top of the hill)

The hot summer sun was beating down upon the land. It had not rained for the past two years and the river Palar had run dry. Drought had hit Arcot and Gingee. Rebellion was breaking out in the kingdom. An army living off the land during a drought didn’t go well with the local people.

Inside the fortress too the situation was bad. Tej Singh had only 700 men. Most of his men were twice as old as him, but they respected him. They were even ready to die for him. The food stores had run out and there was no water either. The fortress was strong enough to withstand an army, but not a famine.

The king put on his iron armour and mounted his favorite horse, Bara Hazari – The winged horse of heaven. Not a word did he utter, but his men knew. Seven hundred pairs of feet turned and followed him on the dusty path. The beats of a lonely drum was the only sound. Vultures were circling in the skies knowing that the time of their feasting was near. Raja Tej Singh had heard tales of his Rajput ancestors’ bravery from his grandmother. He was now going to write his own. His helm bit into his forehead. He looked up to the harem quarters, he could feel his young queen’s eyes looking at him. He closed his eyes and muttered a silent prayer for strength. He pulled the reins of his horse and broke into a gallop.

When the drawbridge was lowered, the king saw a lone horseman in a wedding dress standing outside. It was Mohammad Khan, his best friend. He had walked out of his own wedding and had come to help. Tej Singh jumped off his horse and hugged him.

The small army galloped down. The hillside resounded with the old Rajput war cry.

Life is cheap. Honour is not.

The Nawab was not expecting an attack. His army was out searching for food and water when the gates of the fortress were thrown open. Cannonballs fizzed into the Nawab’s army. The Nawab’s elephants stampeded in the noise and crushed  his own men. By the time the Nawab’s army could regroup, Tej SIngh’s men had penetrated deep into their formation.

Blood and glory followed the Rajput sword. None of the Nawab’s soldiers could keep up with the winged horse of heaven. One of the Nawab’s horsemen galloped towards the Nawab with a lance. Just before he could run into Tej Singh, a bolt of green lightning passed them by and the horseman slid off his saddle. Headless.

It was Mohammad Khan. Tej Singh held out his sword to thank him. Mohammad Khan barely raised his sword in acknowledgement when a stray arrow pierced his neck. He fell down in a pool of blood.

Tej Singh jumped off his horse and rushed to his dying friend. He took Mohammad Khan in his lap. He looked at his friend, who had come to help him out in the battle even on his wedding day. Tears streaked his dirt-stained face. Mohammad Khan gave a slow smile. The light went out form his eyes. Tej Singh’s scream was swallowed by the noise of the battle.

The young king looked around with bloodshot eyes. The Nawab’s army had surround him and his men. He slowly mounted on his horse and whispered ‘Death’ in its ears. The horse seemed to understand and raised its forelegs. His men rallied around him. There was no noise. No trumpets, no drums, no war cries. There was only a whisper which was louder than any cry.

“Death”.

They were no longer fighting for victory.

~

The Nawab surveyed the battlefield in the light of the setting sun. The red hue of the dusk mingled with the blood on the battlefield. Raja Tej Singh and his 700 men had died, but they had inflicted massive casualties on his army. Half his army was either dead or dying. He looked at the arrow-riddled body of Tej SIngh on a funeral pyre. Near him was the pyre of his faithful horse. A priest was lighting the pyres and chanting a prayer. Tej Singh’s young queen had slumped on the ground and was sobbing into her saree. The Nawab looked at her. She was pretty and would make a good addition to his harem. The young queen looked at the Nawab and seemed to understand his thoughts. She stood up wordlessly and jumped into the orange flames of her husband’s pyre as sati.

The Nawab slowly walked back to his tent. If this was victory, why did it taste so bitter.

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(The fortress of Gingee)

Gingee is located near Villupuram in Tamil Nadu. It is a small town situated in a barren plain, overshadowed by the tall fortress. The hills look like some giant had once lived in this land, collected rocks together and put them up in a pile.

Gingee was one of the greatest fortresses in India, impressing even Shivaji. The Nawab of Arcot did capture the fortress; but the siege, Tej Singh’s attack and the drought left his power in tatters. The weak Nawab found himself caught in between the clashes of the rising powers in the Deccan. The British, the French and Tipu Sultan. The Nawab lost Gingee to the French who took the fortress’ treasures to Pondicherry. The English later captured Gingee from the French. The British called Gingee, ‘the Troy of the East’. Gingee lost its former charm under the British and became a small, idyllic, agrarian village.

The fort complex is massive. It has three separate forts on three hilltops. The largest of the three is called Rajagiri, which was used by Raja Tej Singh. It is an imposing citadel built on the top of a 800 feet hillock. The base of the hillock has a fortification wall with a dried up moat.

When I visited Gingee, the fortress reminded me of Minas Tirith from The Lord of the Rings. Both have seven layers of defenses with the gates for each level situated in a different direction from the next level. The top has a tiny drawbridge which leads to the crown of the hill.

Raja Tej Singh is still famous among the local people who call him Raja Desingu. People sing ballads of his bravery, his faithful friend Mohammad Khan and his winged horse of heaven. Quite a few shops here are named after him and even a college. It is amazing to find a Rajput king loved by a people so far away from his home.

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2013 in Tamil Nadu

 

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‘Arcot’ – The Reason We Speak English

The soldiers looked at their young captain with awe. They had not expected twenty-six year old Clive to capture the fortress of Arcot, but he had defied all odds and managed it. He was now standing on top of the ramparts, surveying the fort’s defenses.

Robert Clive was a scribe, a writing clerk who kept records. He had been kicked out of the house for being ‘naughty’ as a child. He joined the East India Company and was sent to the British Fort St. George at Madras to copy texts and tally accounts. But then, destiny had other plans for him.

Muhammad Ali, the Nawab of Arcot and an English ally, was hiding in Trichy. His capital city, Arcot, was captured by Chand Sahib, a French ally. The French army marched out of Pondicherry, to lay seige to the Rock Fortress of Trichy and dispose off the Nawab for good. The Nawab begged the British governor at Madras for help. Trichy was far away. Help would not reach there in time to counter the French army.

Clive, the governor’s scribe, suggested that they attack Arcot and distract the French, instead of sending the British army to Trichy. The governor appointed the young scribe as a captain and sent him to Arcot, with a mere 100 soldiers, 120 sepoys and 3 guns.

The small troop and the lack of heavy artillery meant that Clive’s company could move quickly. He made his troops do forced marches. The garrison at Arcot scattered when the Clive made a surprise attack at night. Clive captured Arcot without losing a single man.

The Arcot fortress was weak. The walls were low, the towers crumbling and the moat dry at places. The mile long wall was too large to be defended by the feeble British force. The governor of Madras promised two artillary guns, but they would take time to arrive. Clive sent most of his force to escort the artillary guns.

Seeing the troop movement, Chand Sahib’s 2000 men attacked the fortress to claim it back. With a mere 70 men and darkness for cover, Clive managed to repulse the attack and hold on to the fort. Chand Sahib’s men fled the next day when the artillary guns arrived.

Clive’s ploy worked in distracting the French from Trichy. The French army turned towards Arcot. Chand Sahib’s men joined the advancing army. Chand Sahib’s son, Raza Sahib lead the army. Clive and his 300 men set to task, strengthening the Fort.

A 4000 men strong French-Indian army lay siege to the Fort. In the night, Clive made a daring move. He attacked the siege force and tried to steal their French guns. The plan almost backfired. Clive barely escaped with his life and lost 15 men in the misadventure.

Clive made no mistakes thereafter. Small British company successfully repulsed the siege for 50 days. A Maratha captain, Morari Rao, was impressed with the British bravery and promised to send them help in return for payment. The payment got delayed in the English bureaucracy. When Raza Sahib heard about the Maratha captain’s offer, he offered Clive terms and promised him a gift if he surrendered. Clive declined. The attackers fell upon the fortress with renewed frenzy, but the British held strong. Raza Sahib’s men fell by tens and dozens at the hands of the British. Chand Sahib’s elephants ran amok in the gunfire, trampling down his own men. The attackers gave up and retreated. They had lost hundreds of men while Clive lost only four. Cheer rang though the British contingent

The French defeat at Arcot signaled the decline of the French presence on India and the rise of the British. The British reinstated Muhammad Ali as the Nawab of Carnatic. The Treaty of Paris signed at the end of the Battle of Arcot gave the British right to most of the Indian territories.

The siege of Arcot made Clive famous throughout Europe. A British scribe with a handful of men had repulsed an attack by the French army. Clive was presented a sword by the British Prime Minister. His military career took off from that point.

Ten years later, Clive returned back to India and lead the British to victory in the battle of Plassey. That established the military supremacy of the East India company in India.

Arcot is now a small town on the Chennai-Banglore highway. Quiet and rustic, scattered with mosques and minarets. People stop over here on the highway for its famous Arcot biryani. The Fortress of Arcot is all but disappeared except for it gates.

(The Delhi Gate, Arcot)

Known as Delhi gate, the broad gate stands at the outskirts of the town. The dry bed of the river Palar lies across it. A forgotten stone plate mentions that it was once a part of Clive’s fortifications.The ground around it is scattered with fallen structures, paying tribute to the fact, that they were the reason we speak English today, and not French. Whether that is a good thing or not, I leave that for you to decide.

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Posted by on February 7, 2013 in Tamil Nadu

 

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