Tour de forts: Meet the photojournalist who trekked to 116 citadels across Karnataka
It cost him ₹8 lakh and took 18 months, but Vishwanath Suvarna has made a lifelong dream come true.
Six years ago, the photojournalist set out to document the lost and forgotten forts of Karnataka, armed with just a map, a camera and the will to literally scale mountains if need be. It’s easy to see what got him interested. As he puts it, there are far too many forts in the state and not enough stories told about them.
And so, towards the end of his long career, with his three children grown, Suvarna, then 58, hit the road. In August, his effort bore fruit with a coffee-table book, The Golden Views of Karnataka, released in English last August, with a more concise version in Kannada released earlier in 2017.
Golden Views… contains 600 photographs of the state’s 116 citadels and fortified palaces. “There is more to the state of Karnataka than the ruins of Hampi and Mysuru, I wanted to show that to people,” Suvarna says.
The adventure was all he had thought it would be. Some citadels were so remote, he had to create a path to reach them. He tracked down little gems like the 14th century Mudgal fort in Raichur district, built along both hill and plain, and spent hours by the remnants of fort walls within fort walls at Banavasi, Aihole and Chitradurga — where later fortifications still hold bits of the citadels first built here by the Satavahanas of the 1st to 3rd centuries CE.
In the dense forests of northern Karnataka, he sought out the forgotten Mirjan fort in Uttara Kannada district, said to have been built during the reign of the 16th-century Queen Chennabharadevi, known as the Pepper Queen of India. And he spent days photographing the uniquely star-shaped Manjarabad fort in Hassan district. He spent hours at the 30 monuments within the fort complex of the 700-year old Bidar fort, a showcase site in the state maintained with care by the state government.
“The hilltop Chandragutti fort was the most difficult to reach — it was from here that the Kadambas of Banavasi ruled from the 4th to 6th centuries CE,” Suvarna says. “Here, I had to walk alone for three hours in a forest with no paths.”
Suvarna began his project with the state’s two best-known forts — Gulbarga and Bidar, both elegant examples of Islamic architecture dating back to the Bahmani kings of the 14th century. He managed to convince his boss at the Kannada daily newspaper Prajavani to let him take two weeks of leave each month to pursue the project. Days would go just surveying each area, mapping what times would be best for which angles, and finding the best spots from which to capture each fort.
Suvarna began to expect at least one misadventure per fort. At the 9th-century Kavaledurga fort in Shimoga, for instance, he couldn’t find the car and driver he’d arrived with. He ended up walking 6 km, through forest, in the dark, with just his cellphone torch to guide him. “When I found the driver out on the main road, he told me there were predators in the forests and the villagers advised him to leave,” Suvarna says, laughing.
A combined passion for photography and history drove him. Each image in the book is accompanied by a small note on the fort, its architecture and who occupied it (the text is earnest, if not impeccable). What the book does offer is a stunning overview of Karnataka’s political history, all the way from the Satavahanas, through the Kadambas, Chalukyas, Hoysalas and the Vijayanagara empire, to the Sultans of Bijapur, the Nayakas and the British colonial takeover. What’s also remarkable is how many forts bear signs of the occupation of Hyder Ali and his successor Tipu Sultan, even though they only ruled for a combined 38 years in the 18th century.
At the Surapura fort, Suvarna met descendants of the royal family of the Nayak Dynasty of Surapura, all of whom now have day jobs. “It occurred to me then how times have changed. This was a family that once ruled over this land,” Suvarna says. At Gulbarga, he saw encroachers in the fort with homes that had electricity and water supply. “It’s tragic to see how some of these historical sites are being misused.”
More than anything, he says, his journey revealed to him how much the state of Karnataka holds that even he — a lifelong resident — didn’t know of. “Many forts do not have proper roads nearby. Many are having the stone taken out of them for local house construction,” Suvarna adds. “If immediate action is not taken by the government, many of these may survive only in my book.”