“Magadi! Where is it?” remarked my friend when I told him of the plan to visit the town. Only when I mentioned Savandurga, one of the popular trekking spots in Magadi, did he show a flicker of recognition. Once a bastion of Kempegowda clan, Magadi town is now a sleepy hamlet, situated 49 kilometres from Bangalore. In the days of yore, it would have taken Kempegowda and his men a couple of days to reach the town from Bangalore on horseback. Today, one has to drive along the Magadi Road (starting at Vijayanagar Toll Gate junction) for an hour to get to Magadi. Distances have surely reduced in this time and age.

A view of Magadi Fort

A view of Magadi Fort (Pic: Poornima Dasharathi)

The drive towards the town encompasses many winding roads around the hills. Magadi is a small town surrounded by huge granite hills. It is situated in a valley which facilitates cultivation. The Tippagondanahalli reservoir, once the sole source for Bangalore’s water supply, is just a few kilometres from Magadi. Driving on these roads is smooth in parts. Roads are under repair currently and there are some stretches on the highway where you would like to keep the windows raised to avoid the dust.

In 1638, the Sultan of Bijapur won Bangalore from the stranglehold of Kempegowda II. From then on, Kempegowda made Magadi the capital of his territories. For nearly ninety years, Kempegowda and his successors ruled the Magadi region, including Magadi town, where Kempegowda II built a fort that housed the offices of his administration and the stone fortress of Savanadurga.

According to B L Rice in Mysore Gazetteer, the Gowda rule ended when the Dalavayi Deva Raja, a general in the Mysore Army, captured the last of the rulers. In 1728, the Mysore army breached the weak fort of Magadi and captured Kempa Veerappa Gowda (also known as Kempegowda). The last scion of the Kempegowda clan spent his last days in the prisons of Srirangapatnam. The then-impregnable fortress of Savandurga, with the accumulated wealth of nearly 200 years finally fell into the hands of the Mysore kingdom.

Inglorious anonymity

Magadi Fort

Magadi Fort (Pic: Poornima Dasharathi)

Back to the present, we enter Magadi expecting a stone or a mud fort that might exist with some inscriptions of Kempegowda’s rule or the earlier Chola, Hoysala and Vijayanagara rulers. Words cannot describe my shock and disappointment when I witness the crumbling fort wall that is all but gone except for a small section. We cannot enter the fort since there is no entrance! A huge gap in the wall reveals the town’s bus stand – a far cry from the horses and the armies that rode this area with great pomp.

There are no houses or buildings that can take us back in time to a glorious past. Granite stones strewn in the area shows that reconstruction of the fort walls is in progress. ‘If you cannot maintain historical forts, recreate them’ seems to be the motto. If the concerned authorities maintain the old architectural style with stones dating back to that age, then reconstruction is good. However, I doubt if there has been much research into history here since the granite used is brand new.

The only redeeming feature is the temples - the small Rameshwara and Someshwara temples built during the reign of Kempegowda II in Vijayanagara style.

Away from the fort, near the town entrance stands another old Vishnu temple built by the Cholas. Though the main deity is a ‘standing Vishnu’, the place is famous for ‘Belayo Ranga’ or ‘Magadi Ranga’, a small stone sculpture of Lord Ranganatha that keeps growing according to local myth.

If you visit this temple, take a lot of loose change along. Right from the gurkha who leads you to the deity to the women at the temple entrance who watch over the footwear, everyone wants a few rupees. Add to this the recent phenomenon of young boys who crowd around you for a donation for Ganesha habba.

Magadi Fort Bus stand

Magadi Fort Bus stand (Pic: Poornima Dasharathi)

Disappointed with the near-complete wiping out of history in Magadi, we drive uphill towards Savandurga, 11 kilometres from Magadi town entrance. The famous twin hills ‘Karibetta’ and ‘Bilibetta’ loom large in the landscape. All along the drive, I can spot the stone fort in various stages of dilapidation. At one spot, a stone entrance stands as mute witness to huge granite quarry work, possibly illegal since there is no official board.

Near Savandurga is ‘Kempegowda Vanadhama’, a natural forest area maintained as a park by the Forest Department. There is an entrance fee of Re. 1 (surprising that the coin can still buy you something). It is a good place to open that packed lunch or stretch your limbs cramped during the drive. A board here explains the history of Savandurga in Kannada and (poor) English. The board informs that Savandurga is part of a massive granite hill range that rises 4000 feet above sea level and surrounded by 6000 acres of forest area. The earliest reference to the place is found in a record dated 1340 AD.

Savandurga is a popular place for rock climbing, trekking, boating and bird watching. Set at the foothills of Bilibetta, the town has a few temples - dedicated to Narasimha, Veerabhadra and Basaveshwara deities. A Kalyana Mantapa next to Lord Narsimha temple and a lone Masjid completes the city centre. The place also sells the sweetest tender coconut water I have ever tasted. Further away stands the slope of Bilibetta, from where the trekking groups start their climb. Half up the hill are a few remnants of the fort walls.

Magadi with its rich history and hilly terrains is now a sleepy hamlet with a crumbling fort, beside the vast Bangalore city. The town’s importance now exists only in the history books. It will be great if we can market these places better, increase tourists, create local livelihoods and help in preserving our history. Perhaps we have much to learn about tourism from the small hamlets in Europe that market their innumerable ‘old Roman forts’ or ‘old churches’.