Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A star fort

I had been to Puttur in Dakshina Kannada a few weeks ago. A lovely place, with farms, groves, forests and lovely traditional houses, all set amidst undulating hills. The drive down to Puttur took us via Sakleshpur and just about 10km from Sakleshpur was a little gem of a fort in a place called Manjarabad.
Here's what the fort looks like in Google Maps:

To my knowledge, this is one of the most complete star-shaped fort you can see in India today, and certainly the most accessible. Back in the 1600s, star-shaped forts were all the rage in Europe, especially France and Italy. In that period, the French were universally acknowledged as being authorities on military architecture. The General Commissioner for Fortifications (yes, there was such a post!) under Louis XIV, Sebastien Vauban, had written treatises on the subject and was considered the foremost expert on the subject. His designs were used by military engineers everywhere. Fort McHenry in Baltimore, in the US, built around 1799, is a great example. The British built star-shaped fort in a town called Ninety-six in South Carolina dates from the mid-1700s. There are plenty of other examples from Europe, too.

Photo credit: miuina / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Photo credit: miuina / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
In India, both Tipu Sultan and his father Hyder Ali before him had alliances with the French. Both had regiments of French soldiers in their armies and both used their services in the renovation and building of their forts. Most of the forts in their kingdom, such as the forts in Bangalore and Nandi hills, for example, were those that had been built earlier and which they renovated during their reign. Manjarabad was one of the few forts that was built from scratch in 1792. And it appears that when not constrained by a previously existing structure, Tipu and/or his French engineers decided to follow a European pattern much more closely.  Everything from the plan to the design of some of the elements within the fort, such as the turrets at the corner of each bastion, seems to betray a French influence. Compare the turrets or sentry-boxes at Manjarabad (left) with those in a Vauban-designed fort in France (above).

In India, Fort William in Calcutta, built in the 1700s, was also star-shaped. Here's a picture of it taken from Wikipedia. A lot of the original walls still stand, but as it is the headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army, most of us cannot get to it. There is also a star-shaped fort in Jhansi, again inaccessible to non-military folks, and another in Potagada in Orissa, which as far as I can tell, is mostly in ruins. In other words, Manjarabad's star-shaped fort is one of the best-preserved and perhaps the only example of 17-18th century French military architecture that you can see in India.

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