Muddling Around at the Sira Fort

Fort Entrance

The historic Sira Fort is a large, public, alfresco lavatory.

It was built in the time of the Vijayanagara empire, and it has had different masters thereafter: the Bijapur sultans, the Mughals, Haidar Ali of Mysore, the Marathas, Tipu Sultan, and finally, the Empire. Now the natives have possession of the republican asset, and they use it for their basic human need, performing in a space open wide to the sky, and flanked by two fair-size lakes, one (Chikkakere) on the north, the other (Doddakere) in the south.

I first made the discovery of what the fort has turned into while trying to arrange the Sira Lake (Doddakere) with the ramparts in my camera frame. Just in time I saw what I was going to step on.

It was late morning, and at that hour it was empty of people. Tall grass rules the fort area, smothering the last vestiges of what must've been a palatial building. A smallish gumbaz-like structure peers out of the wilderness it has sunk into. Those two structures are all that are visible from the ramparts of the fort that figures so often in the history of peninsular India. But I saw one more thing as I continued walking on the fort walls: on a patch of dry ground before me, below where I was standing, a stone had been stood up to serve as wickets for cricket. So there is a second use for the fort, in an area cleared only so wide as to accommodate the run-up of a spinner, and a long off, a long on, slips, gully, and maybe a fine leg—no more.

Gumbaz-Temple

It is not a large fort, and evokes none of the grandeur of the Mughals, or the mega-monuments of the Bijapur kings, or the mighty edifices of Vijayanagara. It is not a hill fort either, flat and square on the plains with a moat round it. It is not even as imposing as, say, the Chitradurga fort, or any of the numerous other forts in the Deccan. With Aurangazeb his monarch, what made Sira the preferred seat of the Mughal subahdar? Couldn't that governor have picked a better fort?

I took pictures of the straight lines of the battlements, aimed the camera into the wasteland bounded by the walls, tried in vain to fill my frame with the remains of what must've been large structures in their time and, giving up, turned and focused my lens on pledges of modern-day love carved into plaster in the stone-age style with stone-age craftsmanship. I aligned the triangular loopholes on the battlements, and with that shot depleted all my ideas. Seeing the fort was still empty, I started toward a ramp to explore the ground below—just when six children appeared at the bottom of it, laughing and being the thirteen-fourteen-year-olds they appeared to be.

"Stand right there," I told them, and shot them as they stood arms draped on shoulders, linked solid, best friends each to each. "Right," I said, "that looks good." They clambered up to see themselves on a 3-inch frame. Satisfied, they asked about me. I worried as I answered if they'd scratched my lone-standing car on their way in.

"Have you seen the tunnels, sir? Palace? Elephant well? Horse well? Raja-Rani's tombs? Anjaneya temple?"

I scanned the expanse. "No," I said, "I've seen nothing." "Come. We'll show you," they said, tugging at me. "We'll show him everything, kano," they told each other, and came to instant agreement. "Houdu! Houdu!"

Indeed there were what seemed like tunnels. They showed me two, which flank the brow of the main gate of the fort, and are on the inner corners of the battlements. "They run until Chitradurga," the boys said. That would've been a long walk; the passage didn't have the height for a horse rider. "You can go in," they said, urging me into it, and themselves scurried into the first one, and the second one afterward. I did try, crouching with my coveted camera and bag and seeing that I couldn't go as far inside as they had, I said: "No. Some other day."

"Okay. Come on then. To where they were making gunpowder." At the first bastion we came to, they pointed to hollows on stony ground, big hollows for large pestles. "There's treasure beneath these stones," they said. "People come at night to dig them out. Do you know how the police come to know about it? They hear the tung, when the iron rod hits the stone. They come chasing when they hear the sound." The tung rang sweet in their teenage throats.

To the tombs we had to walk the entire length of one wall, and a half-length of the next wall. There was not a structure in sight—except for creeper and grass and shrub. "Here," they said, leading me down crude steps. "There," they said, pointing to a knotted mass of creepers and thorny jaali. I saw nothing. "Look in," they said, and held apart the creepers, raising them. There was a clutter of bricks, some small slabs, and such evidence of a broken-apart structure abutting the fort wall. A structure not so large, not too small.

"Kasturi Rangappa Nayaka's tomb," they said. "And the queen's and the rajkumara's," they added, with the breathlessness of excited children. "The British dug up the graves for treasure." But they changed that to robbers. "They still come to dig." I couldn't ask them the question that came to mind. Did the sultans who captured the fort allow Nayak tombs to stay on? Sira was taken from the Nayaks in 1637 by Afzal Khan, general of Sultan Adil Shah of Bijapur, the same Afzal Khan who was clawed to death by Shivaji in hand-to-hand combat. The Bijapur sultanate held Sira until Aurangazeb ousted them fifty years later. Haidar Ali gained the fort next, lost it to the Marathas, and his son Tipu took it back again, and lost it to the British, who held it for a century and a half.

Anyway, the excitement shifted toward the wells. "There are two, sir!" "We'll take the short cut," one said. "No," said the others. "There are thorns there." "Not a problem," the first one argued. His name was Lakshmana. I followed him, and the others came round the long way. Lakshmana wore no slippers, and indeed there jaali thorns on the path, thick and long and coniferous, which he pulled from his soles and walked on. "You aren't wearing slippers," I exclaimed. "He's not a human sir," the others who'd joined us by then told me. "Throw him from any height, hit him with anything, nothing will happen to him."

I considered Lakshmana. He was thin, dark, and positively undernourished.

It was a large well, and quite deep to the water level, and I couldn't guess the depth of the water itself. Green moss covered it, and hanging over the water from an overhanging branch was a geejagana goodu (weaver's nest). I took shots of it from several angles. The boys waited, and said after a while, "sir, here's only one, come to the other side." Indeed, there were more than a dozen weaver nests there, and, framing them, I felt underserving of the respect the kids were giving me.

Weaver's Nests in Well

The boys, though, had taken to beating down butterflies, killing a good many of the pale green creatures that flew around. They used fresh-plucked sticks unshorn of branches and leaves, and the poor things were easy prey. Each swish of the stick got at least one of them. "Stop it," I told them. "Stop, it," they told each other, "cruelty to animals is a maha-sin!" Pausing after the proclamation, they recovered from it, and waited until one of them resumed the killing, and one after the other they joined him.

Two more kids appeared in the distance. The red T-shirt of one of them was striking in the sun and was in strong contrast to the masses of green and granite. "Thuth!" my six companions said. "Those two are terrible. They kill puppies. That's all they know to do." The pair made straight for us and merged with the six, grinning wide and looking frail and incapable of killing anything.

"Come," they tugged again, "the elephant well is better." The second well appeared of a sudden, its mouth far wider than the first, and deeper, the water covered in just as much moss, and no wall or parapet around to stop the unaware from walking right into disaster. The kids ran to the opposite bank, where, sitting dangerously on a ledge cantilevered far into the mouth, they shouted for a picture.

And dragged me to the horakote, the outer wall, for another shot. "At the Anjaneya temple we'll sit on top for the pictures," they planned, even as they packed themselves tight into small door of the inner wall and posed. The temple had appeared like a gumbaz from the ramparts, and now, inside, it seemed even more Islamic, but the kids were confident it had been a temple, and they showed me where the deity had been. "A murder happened here," they claimed. So the murthi was moved to the court as an exhibit, and then to another temple in town.

I heard them out, believing and disbelieving, and distracted. I had a challenge on hand, now at the end of the tour they'd given me. They'd spent more than two hours with me, and had been kind and respectful and helpful to a measure that made me worry how I'd repay the debt.

"Will you join me for a cool drink?" I asked. "No," they said in unison. "But you must," I said. "No," they said again. "It costs fifteen rupees, sir. Why do you want to waste so much money? Don't want." By now another young one had come by, riding a bicycle. He was older than the others by perhaps two years, and his grown eyes were a meld of respect, curiosity, and a wry kind of humor. I found myself wary of him a bit, in spite of his likable face with its sharp features and pleasing lines.

Inner Entrance to Fort

"If I give you money will you buy yourselves something to eat, or drink?" I asked. "Don't give money," the older boy said sharply. "Okay," I said, and shook hands with every one of them. They were happy to shake hands, and disbelieving to be doing it. "Let's take a final picture," I said, "before the car." They were ready. I took a few shots and, firmly this time, I said, "come, we must have a drink."

They came, even the older boy, sitting on his bicycle and pushing himself forward. We went to a store across from the main gate of the fort. Some ordered for "cool drinks" and some asked for puliyogare, and I left as they refreshed themselves, knowing my debt remained unpaid. I looked in the rear view mirror. They were still waving goodbye.

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