Driving on National Highway 4 towards Tumkur shows several milestones of history erected so high and steep that you are compelled to listen to their story. Nijagal is such a milestone. It is an imposing, rocky hill that stares at your back miles after you’ve driven past it. I stopped and it made a substantial difference.
Nijagal is a few kilometres after Dobbespet (a little after the Kamat highway hotel if that’s how you identify it) to your left if you are driving from Bangalore. In all, a little over 40 Kilometres from the heart of Bangalore. The climb to the top costs you about two hours.
At the top lies the remnants of a once-impregnable fort, the site of a historic battle won with a mix of strategy and raw, barbaric warfare.
The later half of the 18th Century saw a fierce power struggle between the Marathas, Hyder Ali and the British.
The Maratha empire, which was till then torn by internal strife suddenly reasserted itself under Madhava Rao I. The Maratha army under his leadership began an unstoppable, whirlwind expedition to wipe out Hyder Ali. Beginning with Adoni, Madhava Rao took Bellary, Kurnool, Devadurga, Rayadurga, Kolar, Bhairavgad (near Bangalore), Devarayanadurga (near Tumkur), and reached Nijagal, en route to his final destination, Srirangapatana, Hyder Ali’s capital.
The Nijagal fort was built at the tip of the rocky mountain. Nijagal resembled an enormous, rocky semicircle placed atop a mountain decked on all directions with gigantic, steep, slippery boulders, effectively sealing it off from any sort of assault. The altitude of the fort was beyond the reach of cannonfire. Physical scaling of the fort was scorched by pouring enormous amounts of boiling oil and water, and excreta from specially-constructed holes (typically) near the top of the fort to make ascent impossible. A Burj/Bateri (an oval-shaped construction made of stone, sand and mortar and served as a watch tower) had guards patrolling round the clock. A large, deep and wide fosse circumvented the base of the mountain and was sprinkled with thorns. Crocodiles were bred in the moat to add yet another layer of security. Besides, Nijagal was never in the danger of running out of water. Three fresh-water mountain streams–Rasa Siddara Done (Done=stream/pond), Kanchina Done, and Akka-Tangira Done –provided ample water supply.
Example of a Burj : The oval-shaped (encircled in red) stone structures standing atop the steep boulders.
The seige of Nijagal was a prestige issue to Madhava Rao I and a question of survival for Hyder Ali. Hyder Ali’s morale like his treasury at that juncture, was almost barren. Unexpected, and successive thrashings and warfield insults saw him nestled inside Srirangapatana. On the other side, Madhava Rao’s confidence made it seem that Srirangapatana was waiting to be picked. However, none his earlier decisive victories in far stormier battles and under much tougher conditions had prepared him for Nijagal. At the end of about two frustrating months, Nijagal refused to yield. Madhava Rao I was left with a brother with one hand cut off, and his ammunition and supplies were perilously low.
Nijagal belonged to Sardar Khan, Hyder Ali’s vassal. A shrewd and ruthless ruler, Sardar Khan had mercilessly stripped the region by hoarding enormous wealth in the form of money and produce enough to last him for two years.
At this juncture, Madhava Rao I requested Madakari Nayaka, the Nayaka/Pallegar of Chitradurga, for assistance. Chitradurga’s history is the stuff romantic, warrior-legends are made of, but I’ll save it for another day. Madakari Nayaka, en route to Nijagal was moved by the remorseless rape of the entire region, a spread of about 150 Kilometres. The Maratha army had turned entire villages into smoking graveyards and charred prosperity.
Upon reaching Nijagal, Madakari Nayaka quickly reconnoitered the surroundings. His first break was when he discovered that the fort had two entrances for people to move into the town and back: the heavily-guarded Northern and Eastern entrances. His plan was as clear as it was immediate. Identify a relatively-less slippery route. Scale the fort at night. Use the special hunter-force he had selected for the mission.
The Nayakas of Chitradurga originally descended from hunter tribes that inhabited the mountainous and heavily-forested surroundings of Chitradurga. Despite becoming proper rulers in later years, they never lost touch with their roots. They preserved and nurtured generations of hordes of fierce, barbaric hunter-warriors for use in special occasions like this. These hunter-warriors were specially trained to impale fear deep into the enemy’s heart and camp alike. They used hideous camouflage, emitted blood-curdling war cries by producing a variety of beastly sounds, fought in the most daunting conditions, were expert mountain-climbers, and in general had no fear of death.
At nightfall, Madakari Nayaka’s hunter-warriors made a fire out of dried wood not too far from the fort. By its light, they gorged on a heady diet of roasted and raw meat, and liquor and marijuana. Dinner done, they wrapped rugs on their bodies, dangled a rope made of fibre on their shoulders, and secured a bag comprising Giant Monitor Lizards to their waists. When they reached the moat, they killed a couple of horses they had with them, and threw the horsemeat into the moat to distract the crocodiles. They dipped into the moat, swam noiselessly, closing their mouth lest any poison in the water kill them, and climbed on top the other side. They fastened the fibre rope to the feet of the lizards and threw the creatures upon the rocks. Once the lizards’ grip was secure, they began a steady, swift, and silent ascent. In about an hour, Madakari Nayaka’s hunter-warriors were waiting in the pregnant darkness at one of the two fort doors for their leader’s signal. Five hundered warriors had surrounded the Nijagal fort from all directions. In response, Nayaka let out a shrill battle cry by leading the charge. The guards that opened the fort door upon hearing the noise saw the hordes of death tearing towards them. Madakari Nayaka’s army of barbaric warriors had just begun to colour the silent night with a riot of blood and death. With their honed bestial yawling, the hunter-warriors broke the door and chopped everybody in their path with their incisive battleaxes. They sliced soldiers and non-combantants alike like leaves on a twig. Madakari Nayaka’s charge left no chance for Nijagal’s defenders to even realize what was happening much less respond to it. Heads and necks and hands and arms and legs and fingers flew. The ill-prepared Sardar Khan’s force simply watched itself being butchered indiscriminately. Once it attained this bloody, decisive foothold, the hunter-warriors opened all avenues to enter the fort to the rest of the awaiting army. Nijagal was awash with fresh blood. While his hunter-warriors were busy slaughtering at will, Madakari Nayaka made his way to Sardar Khan’s bedroom, roused him from sleep, and engaged him in a man-to-man swordfight. It was an unequal contest: Madakari Nayaka was already intoxicated with wanton murder and raring to slay more while Sardar Khan was struggling to shake off his slumber. More significantly, Sardar Khan could not fathom that his impregnable fortress could ever be breached. In one blow, Madakari Nayaka lumbered Sardar Khan’s hand, forcing him to surrender.
In the morning, Madakari Nayaka delivered Sardar Khan to Madhav Rao I.
In my readings, Hyder Ali’s military successes owed to a combination of treachery, payout, cowardice, and luck. The defeat at Nijagal marked one of the all-time lows in his military career. However, Madhav Rao I died of Tuberculosis a short period after he won Nijagal. The united Maratha empire lapsed again into internal discord giving Hyder Ali enough time and resources to systematically recuperate his losses and resurface as a major power. One of the side effects of this recuperation is the tragic fall of Madakari Nayaka and with him, the Nayaka dynasty of Chitradurga.