A quick trip down to a little known but brilliant battle fought in the 18th century near Bangalore
South India in the latter half of the 18th Century resembled a mobile dance-drama troupe of incessant warfare among the dominant powers of the English East India Company, the Marathas and the Muslim usurper of the ancient Mysore Kingdom, Hyder Ali who was supported by the French.
When we arrive at the timeline of our story, the Maratha Empire had long since transitioned into the hands of the Peshwas after the end of Shivaji’s short-lived dynasty. A few decades later, it had received a fatal blow in Third Battle of Panipat in 1761, losing vast swathes of territory, wealth, and prestige, and began an irreversible descent which in turn was hastened by internal strife. Yet, its ambition remains as strong and as unquenchable.
At this juncture, Shreemant Peshwa or Madhava Rao Peshwa I ascended the imperial Maratha throne and fastidiously began to reassert the Empire’s shattered prestige and prowess. In February 1762, he embarked on a twofold mission of sorts: first, to conquer Mysore from the usurper Hyder Ali and next, to wrest the Hyderabad Nizam’s dominions.
The Maratha army under his leadership began an unstoppable, whirlwind expedition to wipe out Hyder Ali. Beginning with Adoni, Madhava Rao stormed Bellary, Kurnool, Devadurga, Rayadurga, Kolar, Bhairavgad, Devarayanadurga, and reached the nearby hill-fort of Nijagal near Tumkur, about 60 kilometres from Bangalore. Madhava Rao's final destination was Srirangapattana, Hyder Ali’s capital.
The Nijagal fort was built on the summit of a steep, craggy hill and resembled a massive, treacherous embrace of boulder. It was intimidatingly decorated in all directions with gigantic, slippery boulders jutting out and effectively sealing it off from assault. The altitude of the fort was beyond the reach of cannon fire. Physical scaling of the fort was near impossible—any such attempt would be met with a sudden flood of boiling oil and water and excreta from specially-constructed holes peeping from the burj or bateri (an oval-shaped construction made of stone, sand and mortar and serving as a watch tower and assault point), which had military guards patrolling round the clock. A large, deep and wide fosse circumscribed the base of the mountain and was filled with thorns. The moat at the base of the mountain was home to a generous swarm of crocodiles, yet another layer of security.
More importantly, Nijagal was never in the danger of running out of water. Three freshwater mountain streams named Rasa Siddara Doni (Doni= pond), Kanchina Doni (Brass pond), and Akka-Tangira Doni (Sisters’ pond)–provided ample water supply.
Nijagal was also a secondary gateway of sorts to the northern frontiers of Hyder Ali's kingdom. It lay strategically between Sira--for long an administrative Suba of the erstwhile Mughal Empire--and Mysore.
As weeks turned to months, the siege of Nijagal became a question of Madhava Rao’s personal and military eminence. More critically, it was also a matter of survival for Hyder Ali whose morale like his treasury at that point was almost barren. He had recently suffered unexpected and repeated thrashings and humiliations in the battlefield. En route to his usurpation of the Mysore throne, he had splashed money like water, bribing and paying enormous sums to various parties who had offered their support to his unscrupulous ambition. At this point, Hyder could trust no one and his stress had pushed him into a desolate sanctuary just outside his palace at Srirangapattana.
This vulnerability coupled with the confidence emanating from serial victories elsewhere, had solidified Madhava Rao’s decision to attack Hyder Ali. However, none these earlier victories in far stormier battles had prepared him for Nijagal.
Madhava Rao's siege of the Nijagal fort lasted two months at the end of which he was thoroughly frustrated. Neither was his own condition getting any better. In fact, his ammunition and supplies were dangerously low.
At the time, the Nijagal fort was commanded by Sardar Khan, Hyder Ali’s vassal. A ruthless ruler, Sardar Khan, like most Muslim chieftains, had mercilessly stripped the region through extortionate taxation and had hoarded enormous wealth in the form of both money and supplies enough to last him for two years.
It was then that Madhava Rao I requested Madakari Nayaka the Palegar (Chieftain) of Chitradurga, for aid. The history of Chitradurga is the stuff of romantic, warrior-legends and few if any, have immortalised it with the passion, warmth, and intimacy of the late Kannada writer, T.R. Subba Rao.
Madakari Nayaka agreed, and en route to Nijagal, he was moved by the remorseless rape of the entire region that spanned over a hundred kilometers.
When he reached Nijagal, Madakari Nayaka quickly reconnoitred the surroundings. His first break came when he discovered that the fort had two entrances for people to move into the town and back. These were the heavily-guarded northern and eastern entrances. An assault plan began to take shape in his mind.
Because it was impossible to physically scale the fort during daytime without incurring substantial causalities, he decided to scale it at night. But then his army regulars were ill-trained for the task. Madakari Nayaka's knowledge of the layout of the fort had also equipped him with the foresight to marshal great numbers of his loyal and special hunter-force that he had selected for the mission.
Indeed, the Nayakas (or Palegars) of Chitradurga originally descended from the hunter tribes that inhabited the mountainous and densely-thicketed regions of Chitradurga. Despite becoming sovereigns in later years, they never lost touch with their roots. They preserved and nurtured generations of fierce, fearless hunter-warriors for use in special occasions like this. These hunter-warriors were exceptionally trained to instil fear deep into the enemy’s heart . They used hideous camouflage, emitted blood-curdling war cries by producing an eerie medley of beastly sounds, fought in the most daunting conditions, were expert mountain-climbers and had no fear of death.
That night, Madakari Nayaka’s hunter-warriors encamped not too far from the base of the fort and made a fire from dried wood. By its light, they gorged on a potent diet of both roasted and raw meat which they gulped down with toddy and smoked marijuana. After dinner, they wrapped thick and coarse rugs around their bodies, dangled a rope made of fibre on their shoulder, and secured a bag comprising Giant Monitor Lizards around their waist.
When they reached the moat, they killed a couple of horses they had brought along, and threw its flesh into the moat to distract the crocodiles. Then they slithered into the moat, swam noiselessly, locking their lips tightly together lest any poison in the water kill them, and climbed up the shore on the other side. Next, they fastened the fibre rope to the feet of the lizards and flung the creatures upon the rocks.
They tugged hard at the rope and once they were confident that lizards’ grip was firm, they began a steady, swift, and silent ascent.
After about an hour, Madakari Nayaka’s hunter-warriors were waiting in the pregnant darkness outside one of the two doors atop the fort, for their leader’s signal. And below, five hundred soldiers comprising the Maratha and Madakari Nayaka's forces had now surrounded the Nijagal fort from all directions.
After timing his response, Madakari Nayaka screamed a shrill battle cry and led the charge from the frontline below. The surprised guards who rushed to open the fort door upon hearing the noise saw the hordes of death tearing towards them.
The coordination was perfect.
Atop, Madakari Nayaka’s force of hunter-warriors immediately began colouring the quiet night with a riot of blood and mayhem. With their well-honed bestial yawling, the hunter-warriors pummelled the door open and chopped everybody in their path with their battle axes. They sliced Sardar Khan's soldiers like leaves on a twig.
Madakari Nayaka’s lightning onslaught left no chance for Nijagal’s defenders to even realise what was happening much less respond to it. Heads and necks and hands and arms and fingers and legs flew. The ill-prepared Sardar Khan’s force simply watched itself being butchered indiscriminately. And after they had attained a bloody and decisive foothold, the hunter-warriors opened all other avenues, and it was pretty much effortless for the regular military force to capture the fort.
Nijagal was awash with a perennial flow of fresh enemy blood. While his hunter-warriors were busy slaughtering at will, Madakari Nayaka stormed directly into Sardar Khan’s bedroom, violently roused him from sleep, and engaged him in a man-to-man sword fight. It was an unequal contest: Madakari Nayaka was already intoxicated with the high of battle and raring to slay more while Sardar Khan was struggling to shake off his slumber. In one blow, Madakari Nayaka chopped off Sardar Khan’s hand, forcing him to surrender. Even as he kneeled down, the question plagued Sardar Khan: how was his impregnable fortress ever breached?
In the morning, Madakari Nayaka delivered Sardar Khan to Madhav Rao I.
Hyder Ali’s military successes owed to a combination of treachery, bribe, cowardice, sheer unscrupulousness, military prowess, and most of all, luck. When we read his blood-soaked biography and visualise the conditions and life of that period, we find it inconceivable that this unlettered mercenary for hire actually usurped political power in Mysore and declared himself the sultan. Luck served him a lion's share.
The defeat at Nijagal marked one of the lowest ebbs in his military career. However, Madhav Rao I died of tuberculosis a short period after he won Nijagal. The Maratha Empire that had sputtered to some kind of revival immediately relapsed into internal discord giving Hyder Ali enough time and resources to systematically recuperate his losses and resurface as a major power in South India.
But he neither forgot nor forgave Madakari Nayaka, a mere chieftain who had mounted this colossal humiliation on him. With the entire might of his army, Hyder Ali attacked Chitradurga in 1779, decimated it, and put an end to the glorious Nayaka Dynasty that had protected it for so long.
The full story of this tragic decimation of Chitradurga is the subject of T.R. Subba Rao's magnum opus, Durgastamana, a historical classic to which I am indebted for much of the source material.