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Vol. XXV No. 20, February 1-15, 2016

Know your Fort better

by Sriram V.

Continuing north from the Wallajah Gate, we walk along the western periphery of Fort St George. There is no name to the street that takes us through. On the right are several barracks, most of them unoccupied and in various stages of collapse. On the left is the massive western wall of the Fort. As you walk by you will not fail to notice a long ramp built on the wall, making its way to the top. This was once used for wheeling the gun carriages up to the ramparts. This is the western face of Fort St. George and on the other side of it you have the massive quadrilateral, St George’s Bastion. This is historically significant, for it is one of the few portions of the wall that can really be dated with accuracy. Though no longer visible, H.D. Love has it that on the southern face of this bastion is a stone with a Greek border that bears the following legend:

“Saint George’s Bastion, Erected in the Year of Our Lord MDCCLXXIII, and the Thirteenth Year of the Reign of His Majesty King George III, Under the Auspices of the Hon’ble Alex Wynch, Esqr, Governor. Designed by Lieut. Col. Ross, Chief Engineer.”

Ross, it will be remembered, designed much of what we see today inside the Fort. Crossing this bastion, we come to the northwestern face of the Fort and this is where we see the next major point of entry/exit – St George’s Gate. Unlike its southwestern counterpart – the Wallajah Gate which was (and continues to be) one way right through its history. St George’s was always a two-way arch. It was also the only gateway to the Fort that remained open at all hours of the day and night. It probably continues to be that way for its massive doors show no sign of ever having been put to use. Though it was accorded the status of the principal entryway into the Fort, St George’s Gate is not as impressive as St Thomas, the Wallajah or the North Gates. Unlike the first two it does not have a road leading up to it, thereby making it lack a vista. Also, it appears to be lower in height and is in reality three tunnels, thereby diminishing the central one of its power to overwhelm. The two flanking tunnels have been closed by grilles of an ugliness that only the Archaeological Survey of India could have designed. Walking down the central bay you can see that the two enclosed bays are only used for dumping rubbish. Like the other gates, St George’s is also made of laterite stone with the arch being faced with black granite.

st-georges-gateSt George’s Gate.

On the other side of the tunnel you emerge into a road that bends sharply and leads to the St George’s Ravelin that has the outer gate. That leads you to Fort Station and from there on to Old Black or George Town. A bridge, known variously as Triplicane and St George’s, also connected this gate to The Island and from there to Mount Road. It must, however, be remembered that the present St George’s Gate is not older than the 1770s. The older one, that stood between the Lawrence and Pigot bastions, was on the western face of the Fort, diametrically opposite the flagstaff and the Sea Gates. A road connected the eastern face of the Fort to the west and this was known as St George’s Street. Today it is much truncated – it runs from Parade Square to the western end of the Fort to a point between the Wallajah and St George’s Bastions. There is no exit there, the St George’s Gate now being to the right, on the north-western wall of the Fort.

What happened to the Laurence and Pigot bastions? When did they get replaced by the Wallajah and St George’s bastions? When did the West Gate become a northwestern gate while still retaining its old name? All of these changes were based on Col. Ross’ designs. And the way they came about has much to say about the location of the old St George’s or West Gate. It was the closest to Black Town and during the French siege of Madras, led by Lally in 1758, this was the area that saw the most action.

Early in the morning of December 14th, Lally led his troops via Vepery and Vyasarpadi and encircled Black Town where systematic plundering began almost immediately. ‘Thousands of natives then fled from their houses to the glacis, and implored for admittance to the Fort, but were refused.’ It is clear that this must have been at St George’s Gate. Col. (later General) William Draper, on receiving reports that the ‘French soldiers were getting gloriously drunk with arrack’ resolved to make a sally before they could recover. A crack regiment of 500 men and two field pieces emerged from St George’s Gate and marched into Devaraja Mudali Street where pitched fighting broke out. The British troops soon retreated and then followed a two month long series of skirmishes, culminating in the departure of the French in February 1759.

Once the siege was lifted a debate began on strengthening the western face of the Fort. Various plans were submitted, but it was left to Col. Patrick Ross who arrived in Madras in 1770 and was to leave the city only in 1803! Ross devoted much of his time to the reconstruction of the Fort into the shape that we know it today. It transformed from being a half decagon into semi octagon, the principal change being on the western face where he created the St George’s Bastion and reduced the number of faces on that front from three to two.

There are some fascinating accounts of processions down St George’s Gate. It would appear the visiting Indian nobility were received here, the Sea Gate being reserved for Governors and Governors-General. A report dating to 1801 is on the arrival of His Excellency Meer Allum Bahadur, ambassador of His Highness, the Subahdar of the Deccan, and his son Meer Dowran. Troops were drawn out in parade and the visitors were received at 7.00 am at St George’s Gate by William Petrie (he of the Madras Observatory fame) and E Fallowfield, both Members of the Council. Seventeen guns were fired and the nobles, together with ‘their numerous train’, were taken to Admiralty House, where they were received by Lord Clive.

Like the Wallajah Gate, the St George’s Gate too was accessed from outside by a wooden drawbridge, till well into the 20th Century. This has now given way to a maca­damised road. By the 1920s, this gate had become the most frequented entrance, perhaps because it led to Poonamallee High Road where stood several public amenities including Ripon Building, the General Hospital, People’s Park, Moore Market, VP Hall and the Central Station.

Today, St George’s Gate remains as busy as ever with vehicles and pedestrians fighting for space under the tunnel. If you feel adventurous enough, do climb over the Outer Gate, for a panoramic view of the old Fort glacis and some very green parts of Madras.

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