By Vaishna Roy
Once upon a time, a few kilometers away from modern Chennai, was a prosperous weavers’ settlement called Rajanarayanan Pattinam, named after a Sambuvarayar chieftain who ruled the area. The Vijayanagara empire called it Sadiravasagan Pattinam (a reference to the local deity). People began to refer to it as Sadurangapattinam, and then Sadirai. And then the English came, with their penchant and need for anglicizing Indian names and lives, called it Sadras. For the past 200 years the name has remained unchanged, but few Indians know of Sadras or it’s fort.
The Sadras fort is not a tourist attraction. It is not mentioned in the ‘Must-See-in-Tamil Nadu’ lists. Families don’t go there to picnic. College students don’t go there to discuss the meaning of life. Lovers don’t go there to be alone. Poets don’t go there for inspiration. And I can’t imagine why. In my experience, it’s an excellent place to spend a vacant afternoon. I shall elucidate why.
One can’t call reaching this fort an adventure (like the forts of Sivaji that almost always demand an uphill trek) but getting inside it isn’t as simple as it could be. This ASI-protected monument has no watchman. Or rather he was missing in action the weekend my friends and I decided to visit the fort. He’d been gone for a few days now as the nearby shop-owners revealed (someone attributed his absence to an extended drinking session in near-by Pondicherry), and when the oblivious police next door to the fort was consulted, they said he must have gone home for lunch, and that it wasn’t locked anyway (it was a Saturday, and the fort is supposed to be shut on Mondays only) and that we could enter. But it was locked.
But we were young… Strong of body and agile of limb, light of heart and sharp of mind… so bravely, we went forth – to break into the fort.
We soon found out we didn’t need to be young or strong or agile or light to enter. But being ‘sharp’, one of us noticed that the barbed wire had been cut a few feet left of the first big gate. So we had now entered the restricted area of cow excreta and weeds. There was another gate now (flanked by two not-so-splendid cannons), much easier to scale (even for a 5 footer like me), but being ‘agile of limb’ (and over-zealous in our exploits) we decided to find a way to get in, the proper ‘intruder’ way.
And immediately failed miserably. Not even the tallest and most athletic amongst us could scale the lowest aberration (holes) we found in the moss-ridden fort wall. But do the young and restless ever give up?! No sir, they do not, sir! So with an “AAOOGAA” (war cry) onwards we marched.
We went round the fort, braving the warm sea breeze, resisting the incredible temptation of the inviting waves (within splashing distance), and skipping over more excreta, and we found another ‘aberration’. Nature must have been on our side in this battle because although this one was high as well, there were also sorts of wide-apart and irregular rock-steps that we managed to stretch and use as foothold. The ambush had begun and one-by-one, we trooped silently into enemy territory (albeit abandoned).
And what a territory it is. My first thought was that it would be an excellent place to throw a party! Nobody else seems to like it anyway; it would be an incredible spot for a theme party – you could have a Spook Fest at night or a Battleground Bash by day! Seriously though, it’s massive and can truly feed your imagination, but as a fort, it’s not really spectacular. But there’s something impressive about the huge empty granary and eerie chambers with shafts of light boldly gate-crashing the slightly damp atmosphere; the stables with ghosts of their former occupants mingling with the salty breeze; the corridors leading to secret underground passages where many a plot has probably been hatched; the cemetery and the stone inscriptions leaving you to imagine the valiant lives of those that died protecting the fort… Well, it’s history may not actually be that romantic. The fort was a weavers’ settlement, inherited from the Carnatic rulers by Dutch traders who manufactured and exported muslin from here around 400 years ago. In 1818, the British pooped the party and took over the fort, and razed it. What remains is in ruins, but there’s such a quality about ruins that makes them so irresistible to story-hunters. Especially since the Archaeological Survey of India has recently found some ‘treasure’ underneath the rubble.
The ASI’s excavations have uncovered some exciting stuff like some bluish-green bottles… intact! They also found smoking pipes made in Holland, Chinese porcelain, some stone tiles and coins belonging to the East India Company. Who knows what a visit to the Sadras fort can lead to? Especially for children.
There’s a lovely tamarind tree and nobody to stop you from feasting on it. There are some stone benches around the same area, near the entrance, incase you want to rest your feet while the more ‘agile of limb’ discover the many delights of the medieval elephant mount (my personal favourite part of the complex) If only the ASI could see the magic like we could!
Nevertheless, the Sadras fort and it’s varied charms give tourists, as well as locals of Tamil Nadu, a place to truly get away – into a place and time left to your imagination; where only you can see, with your mind’s eye, the lives of people that once dwelt the ground you walk on; and who are eternally bound to this foreign land, 6 feet under the tempting tamarinds.
PS: After Sadras:
Once you’re done with exploring the fort, you should hop across the road on to the beach for a quick hello in response to the ocean’s inviting waves. I insist. It’s a great way to cool off and it’s quality time with nature’s incredible power to lighten your shoulders. I highly recommend getting completely drenched; and also holding any children, that may accompany you, really tight!
If you have some more time, do make a quick trip to nearby Mahabalipuram and it’s famous (and much better preserved) Pallavan architecture. I recommend Moonrakers or any of the other restaurants in Mahabalipuram for lunch because there isn’t much cooked food to eat near Sadras, although you can buy packaged snacks near the fort.
PPS: How to get to Sadras
Sadras is inside the town of Kalpakkam, on East Coast Road, 16 kms from Mahabalipuram, 70 kms south of Chennai.
Nearest Airport: Chennai
Nearest Rail Hub: Chennai