Another wet morning and the mist settles on the grayish-green hillock eclipsing the rugged landscape overlooking the heavily wooded rolling hills interspersed with lush green fields and sombre lakes. The mist paints the canvas white crawling over black walls washed green by moss and lichen and peeking through gun-slits watching over the lonely stone-laid paths. Concealed in this sea of milk the clatter of a horse’s hoofs echoes in the narrow pathways, smell of burnt torches aromatizes the young morning, music of trinkets rings in the woods complimenting the melody of birds and the sound of laughter infuses life into this serene milieu. The senses are curious but impaired by the haughtiness of the mist; frustrated by the opacity of the scenery, the heart yearns to witness the secrets hidden in the belly of these hills. Eventually the mist yields as it disappears in the warmth of the sun but there aren’t any horses cantering down the slippery trails, an odour of rotting plants and chemicals lingers, birds coo in the distance breaking the haunting silence which grips the numerous decaying structures spread all over this hill. The ruins of a splendid palace here, a pond there, a semblance of a temple standing amidst overgrown grass and sordid walls which stretch in all directions are some of the meagre remains of the legacy of proud kings. Here in the Kavaledurga Fort, tucked in a remote corner of Western Ghats in Karnataka, even the hasty time pauses and admires the aspirations of mortals who have vanished in the fleeting mist.
Nestled in the Western Ghats rising between the coastal region of Malnad and inland Karnataka is the sleepy town of Thirthahalli which is characterized by pouring rain during the monsoons and a pleasant chill throughout the year. The opaque jungle, muddy streams, green paddy fields and grey skies recount the legend of a beautiful hill fort in the heart of a dense forest near the village of Kavaledurga, around 16km from Thirthahalli. An embodiment of the desire of Cheluvarangappa—a Belagutti King in the 14th century, a symbol of strength of Venkatappa Nayaka—a Keladi King and a prized possession of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan the fort is now reclaimed by the persistent jungle. It is accessible by a trail which threads a lake with blooming lotuses, inundated crop fields bordered with flowers and towering trees swaying to the music of birds and insects. In the monsoons the extremely slippery trail is teeming with leeches and invites caution but the sight of the raging clouds unleash the raw power of rain, wind and lightning on this once glorious stronghold of nobles is a humbling experience; however post-monsoon is the ideal occasion to explore the fort when it is bathed in green and is complimented by blue skies.
It is evident that the contours of the land which shelter the fort from the preying eyes of onlookers and also serve as a powerful vantage point must have prompted successive rulers to strengthen it. The fort is not visible from the base of the hill and even along the trail the walls are inconspicuous until the path abruptly disappears at the first of five gates. Flanked by two round bastions this is the entrance to the fort and extends to sordid walls of massive stone blocks with occasional carvings. A cobbled path skirts the ruins of a temple and clambers to the second gate lined with compact rooms, presumably for guards, and worn out sculptures adorning the doorway. As one ascends to the third and the fourth gates one notices, through the canopy of bushes and scrubs, a Nagi Kund (water tank) to the left of the path and Nagi stones rising from the dense undergrowth. Beyond the fourth gate the fort spreads its wings and widens into an open space dotted with numerous ruins namely of the palace and the Kashi Vishwanatha Temple. Built in the architectural style of the Keladi Nayakas, the temple is a modest structure decorated with carvings of armed warriors, three-headed birds, snakes, sun, moon and elephants on the outer wall. Two lofty pillars, in the courtyard, stare longingly towards the neatly-laid walkway anticipating the arrival of soldiers dressed in quilted tunics of silk and brocade and riding their tempestuous steeds. The Lakshminarayana Temple, a small shrine, rests on a huge rock to the east of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple and offers exciting views of the surrounding hills. The trail continues its journey with the dense jungle on the right and a series of stepped wells to the left and culminates in the main Palace area which has been excavated recently. Tired plinths and columns lean gingerly on the now remaining stone foundation which appears lost without the company of the palace which once stood here. For a moment the beholder is catapulted to the past—a gathering of nobles in the brightly coloured main hall where the curtains sway amidst the gilded pillars, the aroma of a lavish meal being prepared in the kitchen, the sound of music and dance and the banalities of human life. But today winds howl along the rickety brown dilapidated walls and the uneasy corridors, an eerie quietness resides in the kitchen, the stone water tanks are dry, broken artifacts lie neglected in the grass and a charming stepped well with turquoise water drowns in gloom.
Beyond the palace area the fort has been swallowed by time. A narrow path runs to the summit of the hill fighting a losing battle with the resolute jungle. Vines and creepers strangle small gates, bastions, walls, wells erasing all traces of civilization. At the summit is a small temple positioned on a huge boulder commanding spell-binding views—a maze of hills to the east and a wide expanse of backwaters of the Varahi Dam to the west. Somehow in this magic of nature the tragedy of human existence is forgotten, for nature’s serenity soothes the sorrow of the withering bygone. The scarred land bleeds nostalgia for the days of yore and evokes a desire to re-visit the past but the heart recognizes this as foolish; glory has forsaken these desolate relics, only memories remain awed by the shadow of the jungle.