A few years ago, this correspondent attempted to climb the Gadekallu hill to the Jamlabad fort near Belthangady in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka. Rising like a butte from the flat lands that surround it, its dark hulk is visible from afar. Presumably, when Tipu Sultan built the fort in the late 18th century—he named it after his mother, Jamlabee—it served to alert soldiers to anyone approaching the fort from several miles around. To get to the top of the 1,700-feet-high hill, which is associated with many legendary tales, one has to climb more than 1,000 steps hewn into the rock. After ascending several hundred steps, this correspondent, who is in his thirties, was forced to abandon his climb midway.
However, the arduous climb did not deter Vishwanath Suvarna, who ascended the hill in 2016 when he was almost 60. Photographing this hill fort was part of a journey he set out on earlier that year to photograph all the forts in Karnataka. Sipping hot tea in the sylvan environs of the Bangalore Press Club, he said: “Yes, I climbed to the top of the fort. It was a little tough but nothing compared to some of my other experiences to reach forts which are located deep in the forests.”
Vishwanath Suvarna hefted his large coffee-table book, titled Golden Views of Karnataka Forts , and flipped its pages to reveal what lay atop the Gadekallu hill. A derelict stone gateway with a magnificent view of the rural hinterland is all that remains of the Jamlabad fort, now archived in Suvarna’s book. Golden Views… is a slightly expanded version of Suvarna’s 2018 Kannada book on the same theme.
While his ‘conquest’ of Jamlabad fort was admittedly a “trivial” expedition, what made a deeper impression on Suvarna was his trip to the forests beyond Soraba to photograph the ruins of the Chandragutti fort. This fort, incrementally built during the Kadamba, Vijayanagara and Keladi periods, is located 17 kilometres from the town of Soraba on the top of a hill, 6 km from the nearest road, in the dense forests of the Western Ghats. Suvarna had hired a cab to the base of the hill, which he began to ascend in the late afternoon. When he descended the hill at dusk, in fading light, to his surprise he could not find his cab where he had left it. Vishwanath Suvarna recounted with a laugh: “I had to walk through the forest, which abounds with wild animals, to the main road where I found the driver waiting in the cab. He told me that he heard some roars and drove away hastily.”
News photographers are an intrepid lot, and anyone who has worked closely with them will attest to their zeal and tenacity about getting the right shot. Vishwanath Suvarna, who hails from Mangalore and is now 64, retired as the chief photographer of Prajavani , Karnataka’s leading Kannada newspaper, in 2017. The year before he retired, he was away for almost two weeks every month, tracking down derelict forts in forgotten rural corners of the State. He would often scout a location before returning to it early the next morning, as photographers consider the rising sun as providing the best natural lighting.
He said: “I travelled to all the forts in the State, from Bhalki in the north, Bekal in the south, forts along the Andhra [Pradesh] border in the east to Sadashivgad in the north-west near the Goa border.” Bekal is in the border district of Kasaragod in Kerala, but Vishwanath Suvarna allowed this exception in his book as he was keen on photographing this fort which marked the southern boundary of the Keladi rulers who ruled coastal and western Karnataka.
Vishwanath Suvarna’s journey covered over 100 major and minor forts in 27 districts (out of the State’s 30, that is, except for the districts of Udupi, Chikkamagaluru and Chamarajanagar). He had a simple but effective method to identify the forts—he would land up in a district’s main town and make an extensive list of the forts, both known and unknown, based on interviews with local journalists, after which he would head out. Vishwanath Suvarna said: “This is the first time in the history of publishing in Karnataka that someone has brought out a book of photographs of all the forts in Karnataka.” While this fact could not be independently verified by Frontline , it is certain that Vishwanath Suvarna’s attempt is a pioneering one that speaks of a rare passion.
Vishwanath Suvarna’s motivation for this challenging task was his interest in history, combined with a desire to “do something different”. While the text that accompanies each photograph in the book is brief (though marred by editing errors), it is sufficient for a reader to appreciate the majesty and splendour of the many kings and dynasties who ruled parts of Karnataka in the ancient and medieval periods.
Forts have been built through human history to defend royal precincts and to signify the majesty of a ruler in a provincial town. Often a kingdom could not be deemed conquered until its chief forts were taken. Thus we hear of fascinating tales of sieges that extended for several months and years, with enemy rulers expending considerable resources to conquer a fort. Since many forts in the outlying territories of a kingdom were built at strategic locations, the taking of a fort was also an essential precursor for granting safe passage for the movement of merchants and wayfarers, which provided an important economic impetus for contestations over forts.
Forts as palimpsests
Reading Vishwanath Suvarna’s book, one appreciates the deep impact that forts have played in the history of Karnataka. Built across different landscapes, on hills, forests and plains, they reflect the diversity of Karnataka’s terrain. The notable aspect of fort architecture in Karnataka (as in other parts of India) is that it is often a palimpsest, with subsequent rulers adding a layer to the original fort. Thus it is common to find forts that have several layers of fortification built by different rulers and dynasties, and a close observer will be able to discern these layers and study the evolution of military technology over several centuries. For instance, a mud fort built by a feudal lord was often strengthened by a stone wall by a later ruler.
This is the case with several forts in southern Karnataka that bear the imprimatur of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan who, together, ruled Mysore for less than 40 years in the 18th century. Father and son contributed to the strengthening of several forts around Tumakuru in Karnataka such as the Pavagada and the Madhugiri forts, which are not so well known. A 13th century fort called Gummanayakana Fort, near Bagepalli in Chikkaballapur district, was fortified by Hyder Ali. Tipu is also credited with the construction of the Manjarabad Fort in Hassan, which is uniquely star-shaped with eight corners.
Some of the most majestic forts Vishwanath Suvarna has photographed are set in the hilly forests of the Western Ghats. These were built by the Nayakas of the Keladi dynasty that came to prominence after the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire in the 16th century. The ruins of the Chandragutti, Kavale Durga and Bednore forts, overrun by lush vegetation, appear like legendary cities that await rediscovery. Vishwanath Suvarna has also photographed the well-preserved forts of Ballari and Chitradurga, with their imposing stone walls, which were sites of crucial battles in Karnataka’s history.
In north Karnataka, we can see signs of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s influence in the construction of forts in the districts of Gadag, Belagavi, Uttara Kannada and Dharwad. In north-eastern Karnataka, we see the remains of several forts dating back to the Bahmani Empire and the Adil Shahi Sultanate of Bijapur (now Vijayapura). While the forts in Gulbarga (now Kalaburagi), Bijapur and Bidar are well known, the lesser known but equally imposing forts of that era in provincial towns such as Raichur and Mudgal, which were keenly contested between the Bahmani and the Vijayanagara Empires, find a place in Vishwanath Suvarna’s He emphasised that his book was a “gift” for the people of Karnataka. Asked about the most important takeaway from this project, Vishwanath Suvarna pointed to the fantastic architectural heritage in the north-eastern division of the State officially referred to as Kalyana Karnataka, the tourism potential of which remains untapped.
“Forget the south, look at the northern part [of Karnataka]. Everyone knows Hampi and Mysuru, now the tourism department in the State should develop the facilities in this [north-eastern] part of the State. Just look at the fantastic forts there and the poverty of the people in the region. If tourism is encouraged in the region, those people will get jobs,” he said.
The observations are apt, considering that people in the six districts of Kalyana Karnataka lag behind the rest of the State on all human development indices. Kalyana Karnataka also has spectacular architecture from the medieval period, vestiges of the architectural heritage of the Bahmani Sultanate and its legatee Deccan Sultanates, chief among which is the Adil Shahi Sultanate.
Vishwanath Suvarna considers the forts in Bidar (which was the Bahmani capital) and Mudgal (the southern outpost of the Bahmani Empire and the Adil Shahi Sultanate) to be among the “most prominent forts in Karnataka which are ignored by the public.”