It was embarrassing, but we could not find the fort we had come to visit! Golden fields of ripening grain skirted the foot of a thickly forested low hill, which rose gently at first and then steeply upwards. A small placid lake was hemmed in between the fields. A few mud houses with roofs of thatch huddled in a clearing across the pathway, but the occupants seemed to be away. We knew that the fort had to be somewhere on the hill but we could see no trace of the fortifications among the dense forest cover or the rocky patches that stood out in the upper reaches.

We were taking a break from studying the prehistoric monuments at the megalithic sites of Nilaskal and Byse, near the town of Nagara in Shivamogga District. Though we were primarily interested in these rough looking ancient monuments, it was difficult not to notice the various monuments from the more recent past that dotted the land. For we were in the dominions of the erstwhile Keladi Nayaka dynasty, who ruled this region from 1499 – 1763 CE, initially as vassals of the mighty Vijayanagara Empire and as independent rulers after the fall of Vijayanagara in 1565.

Menhirs of the megalithic monument at Nilaskal

The verdant landscape hereabouts has a rich history of human occupation. Stone tools from the Neolithic or New Stone Age have been found at several places near Tirthahalli. The megalithic monuments we were studying had been erected in the Iron Age, roughly between 1500 – 500 BCE. At Nilaskal, Byse and at least 3 other sites in the vicinity, Iron Age inhabitants had erected huge stones, possibly to commemorate ancestors. Sharing the landscape with these remnants from the hoary past are several monuments of the Nayakas. 

A view of the fort at Nagara (Bidanur)

A view of the largest tank at Devagange

The Nagara Fort, by the side of the main road leading to Hosanagara, is hard to miss. This imposing structure at Bidanur, as Nagara was called in those days, was the last seat of power of the Nayaka rulers, from 1640 onwards. A little harder to find is Devagange – a beautiful complex consisting of a small temple and a series of seven inter-connected tanks, said to be the sporting pool of the Nayakas. In a dark, shaded grove close to Nagara town, among the brooding trees and leaf litter are the memorials of several Nayaka rulers and their consorts.

A mound and a hero stone act as a memorial for one of the Nayaka rulers

However, there was one monument that intrigued us because of an associated story recounted to us by the local residents – Kavaledurga, the Sentinel Fort, near Tirthahalli, where the Keladi Queen Chennamma had granted refuge to the Maratha Prince Rajaram, who was fleeing from the Mughal Emperor Aurangazeb. We took a break from our surveys at Byse and set out to visit the forest fortress of the Nayakas. When we were at the foot of the large, forested hill where the fort allegedly was but could detect no sign of it, we spied a woman working in the fields and sought her help to locate our fort. Amused, she told us that we were approaching the fort from the wrong side (west). To our surprise, she cheerfully offered to set us on the right path, which involved scaling a few fences and balancing along the little raised dividers of mud in the fields. The right track she set us on snaked through the forests till it took one more turn and the fort wall with its bastions suddenly loomed up.

Bastions of the Kavaledurga fortress

Visitors to the fort are advised to take a deviation from the town of Tirthahalli, where a road with ample signposts will take them to the make-shift parking lot to the southeast of the fort. The trail then leads over rocky patches and fields, skirting a marshy ground contained by a wall in typical Vijayanagara masonry, which must once have functioned as a moat. The best time to visit is just after the monsoon, in September or so. The fields are then lush green with paddy and the fortifications are festooned with forest vegetation trying to reclaim lost territory. The pathway leads up through gateways set into three lines of fortifications, each flanked by guard rooms.

The fortifications at Kavaledurga festooned with monsoon vegetation

One of the gateways in the fortifications, flanked by the remains of guard rooms

The first building that one encounters immediately after the gateways is the Shikhareshwara Temple. This temple, in typical Keladi Nayaka idiom of construction with merlon-like projections over its roof is set inside a walled compound approached through a colonnaded entry preceded by two free-standing columns on platforms. Opposite the Shikhareshwara Temple is a little rounded outcrop of rock, at whose summit is located a small Lakshminarayana shrine. The view from here, of the rolling hills stretching away to the horizon and the forest beyond the clearing with the temple, is stupendous.

A view of the Shikhareshwara Temple at Kavaledurga

The trail leads on beyond the temples through yet another gateway into a clearing hewn out of the hillside, with massive retaining walls on two sides. Here one finds the remains of an extensive palace, of which only the plinth and the toppled columns survive now. Preserved among the remains of the palace is a firewood stove made from a single piece of stone and a stone toilet. A T-shaped tank with steps leading down to the water is located behind the palace.

The massive retaining walls, built in Vijayanagara style masonry, near the palace, with a part of the stepped tank in the foreground

The path steepens now, even resorting to steps in patches, till it leads to a picturesque gateway set cunningly into the inner fortification wall. From here pathways lead to parts of the outer fortifications, beyond which stretch breath-taking views in every direction, with the waters of the Varahi Dam clearly visible at most times of the year. The view inwards towards the fort is equally rewarding, with the vista of the Lakshminarayana shrine set against endlessly rolling forests.

A gateway set into one of the lines of fortifications

There is one more shrine near the outer fortifications perched atop a huge boulder. Ruins of a structure, maybe an armoury, lie nearby – a rectangular structure with stone masonry walls.

View towards the inner part of the fort from the outermost line of fortifications; the outcrop with the Lakshminarayana shrine is clearly visible

Kavaledurga, also known as Bhuvanagiri Durga, was a reliable forest stronghold for the Nayakas to fall back upon during times of duress. In 1677, the forces of Bijapur attacked and captured Bidanur after the death of the King Somashekhara Nayaka. His widow, the Queen Chennamma retreated to Bhuvanagiri Fort to recoup and she successfully won back Bidanur later. However, Chennamma’s finest hour was when she faced the wrath of the Mughal army under Aurangazeb’s general Jaan Nisar Khan following her granting safe passage for the Maratha Prince Rajaram through her dominions. The Mughals laid siege to Kavaledurga for months, but the tricky terrain and torrential monsoon rains of Malnad aided the guerrilla warfare tactics of the Nayaka army, who held off the enemy successfully. By then, Rajaram had reached the fortress at Gingee safely and the wearied Mughals sought a truce with this small kingdom in Malnad of Karnataka!

The view from near the outer fortifications

Today, centuries after those dramatic events, it is easy to empathise with the Mughal soldiers, for whom the dense jungles and the ferocious monsoons must have equally intimidating as the Nayaka army. As one bids good bye to Kavaledurga, one cannot but admire those ancient planners and builders who conjured up this impregnable fortress in the wilderness.