Every time we drive to Pondicherry – which, as you all know, is often, though not so frequent or regular – we pass by Gingee Fort. It’s an old, thick wall that runs up to the road on both sides, and a small collection of ruins atop three small, abrupt hills that stand guard over the highway.
When we drove to Pondicherry for the (non)hearing last week, we planned to stop at Gingee on the way back. It was a good idea – after all, this would be the “last time” we went to Pondicherry; we’d be returning full of excitement and a sigh of relief; and we could at least make a small outing of the long weekend we would otherwise be wasting.
As we all know – in great detail – things didn’t turn out quite the way we’d expected and we were returning to Bangalore with all the weight of the mountain of pending documentation to be collected. Our mood was far from jubilant, excited or even relieved. I was inclined to drop Gingee right off the agenda.
And yet… next time would be bang in the midde of the week and that trip promised to be quite a bit more hectic than usual. And who knows… it might even turn out to be the actual “last time” – for real. “Let’s go, anyway,” said Amit. “At least for a short time.”
So when we came to the old wall, halfway between Tindivanam and Thiruvannamalai, we looked for a path to turn off on to. My very cursory research had indicated that the hilltop we wanted to visit would be on the left, but the only path we saw was on our right. We turned off and parked. A long flight of stone steps showed the way to the top. We stepped out of the air-conditioned car and reeled back as the heat assaulted us in no uncertain terms. It was only 10 a.m. Ahead of us, a light-skinned foreigner stepped out of his car and squinted up at the steps, grasping an ice-cold bottle of water for moral support. “One hour,” I heard him ask the taxi driver in a weak voice. A moment later, he was back in his seat and his car was heading back to the highway. Following him pronto seemed like the sensible thing to do.
So we sat down on the old wall and traded our city shoes for a good pair of hiking shoes. We filled a knapsack with water, bread and jam, and more water, and Amit shouldered the camera. And we set off to climb the hot, steep, jumbled, stone steps.
First, we had to buy tickets. Yes, there was a ticket booth here, in the middle of nowhere, and the ticket collector tried his best to charge us foreigner rates. I had to test out my rudimentary Kannada on him to persuade him that we were, in fact, Indian.
If I’d thought that the climb might be too much for the girls, in this heat, I’d have been completely and utterly wrong. They walked up it without stopping, without gasping, without holding hands (well, Tara did; Mrini held Amit’s hand quite firmly), and without any sort of fussing. They were more hardy and willing than I was.
And yet… despite everything, the magic of the place had me in its grasp in a few moments. All of a sudden, I remembered why I had ever wanted to study Archaeology. All of a sudden, I remembered the person I used to be. All of a sudden, time slowed down, and I almost forgot about the documents, the court case, the sweltering heat…
The steps probably took us about 20-25 minutes. At the top were various buildings offering some welcome shade, and nothing much else. The ASI board at the bottom mentioned granaries, wells for oil and ghee, and a temple or two, mostly built around 1200 AD. All of these I saw, clustered fairly close together. It seemed like an incongrous place to store grain, oil, and ghee. Who would want to come all this way up to deposit or extract them? It didn’t seem as if there were any residences here at the top.
I would have loved to lose myself in the place for half a day or so, but reality didn’t quite take a back seat and in a couple of hours we were back in the car and back on the road again. We did pass by a road that looked as though it would lead to the other hilltop, where the other parts of this fort could be seen, but by then there really was no time. This entire expedition would have to be planned for another time. The way things were going, we’d still have several “last time” opportunities to take advantage of.