Perched atop a 300-foot high canyon, nicknamed the Grand Canyon of India, overlooking the Pennar river, the mighty Gandikota Fort, once the capital stronghold of the Pemmasani Nayaks, stands testament to the rigidity of the structure amidst the untamed wilderness of the Western Ghats. The fort derives its name from the Telugu words: ‘Gandi’ which means gorge or canyon and ‘Kota’ which means fortified city. Literally translated, Gandikota simply means ‘Fort-city atop the canyon’. Often overlooked by travellers looking for offbeat destinations near Bangalore or Chennai, it remains a hidden destination retaining its wilderness and charm. Except to those wishing to camp. This is probably for the best as hordes of tourists would mean that the wilderness and rugged charm of this place would no longer exist, but the facilities would improve. Though we do not care much for the name, the place is more famously known as the ‘Grand Canyon of India’. Our travelogue here should help you plan your one-day itinerary and guide you through your tour through the unexplored Gandikota Fort. If you are looking for a trip to Belum Caves as well, visit this page.
The wilderness around, the mighty Pennar river canyon as a barrier and the relative difficulty in accessing the terrain are what drew its founders to the mountain. The Sthalapuranam (Site history) of this place states that a certain king, Kaka Maharaju, established the village of Gandikota some time around 1290 AD. ‘Kaka Maharaju’ seems to be a title that has been given to either the Kakatiya king Ambadeva or his viceroy. The king, on one of his hunting expeditions noticed the terrain and the potential it held for a fort. Upon enquiring, he found that the place was sacred and decided to build a fortified village here which was aptly named Gandikota.
The lineage of the founders ruled Gandikota till the Islamic invasion from the north, of the Khilji dynasty, which threw them out of power. The fort then passed into the hands of the Khilji dynasty which ruled till 1336 AD, when they were forced out by the Vijayanagara empire. They Vijayanagara rulers utilised the placement of Gandikota and developed it into a centre of trade as it was an important stop along the trade routes leading to the south. The effective water-management techniques such as aqueducts and canals led to a growth in agriculture and the agri industry as well. The cotton textile industry blossomed as the region enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity till the battle of 1565 AD at Talikota. The battle of Talikota found fame as one of the most treacherous battles of Indian history where the once prosperous Vijayanagara kingdom was defeated by its treacherous allies who sided with the enemy on the battlefield.
The outcome of the battle was the plunder of Hampi and the exposure of Gandikota, which was relatively peaceful till then, to the invaders from the north. Suddenly, Gandikota was on the forefront of attacks from the Qutb Shahi kingdom of Golconda, near present-day Hyderabad. Successive attacks weakened the fort till it succumbed to the Qutb Shahi general, Mir Jumla in 1650 AD. After changing hands from the Qutb Shahis to Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan, the fort went over to the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1790 AD, who eventually handed it over to the British. And suddenly, the mighty Gandikota was reduced to a mere village from a bustling economic centre. The periods of the Vijayanagara empire and Mir Jumla are historically significant because of the construction or destruction that occurred during these two periods.
BEST SEASON TO VISIT:
The hot climate here is as rugged as the terrain; Gandikota, being in the southern part of India, remains hot throughout most of the year and the best time to visit it would be between the months of August and February when the weather is pleasant. If you wish to watch a flowing Pennar river, then head over to Gandikota sometime after July, but be warned that the area is prone to insects and mosquitoes at this time.
We have an image of a board that was displayed at the fort and this should suffice.
HOW TO REACH:
Gandikota is usually done in conjunction with a visit to the Belum caves nearby as a day-trip from Chennai or Bangalore, the two major cities nearby. A day-trip from any of these cities is the easiest option and can be done using a hired taxi, but you have to start really early if you want to make it back on time. The nearest major railhead is Gooty which is a good 130 km from here, the smaller station of Muddanur is much closer though very few trains pass through here. From Gooty, taxis are available as part of package tours; and from Muddanur, buses ply regularly to Gandikota. Another rather unorthodox option is to travel by bus from Chennai or Bangalore to Jammalamadugu. You could use this website to book your bus tickets to book an overnight bus and reach early in the morning.
Haritha resort, which is run by the Tourism Department of the Andhra Pradesh government, APTDC, is the only option if you want to stay at Gandikota itself. If, you do choose to stay elsewhere, the nearby town of Jammalamadugu provides a few decent accommodation options, but you must head over to Prodattur if you are looking for a comfortable room. The resort with its stone construction looks like an outpost of the fort, replete with stone buildings and pathways.
However, if adventure is what you seek, then you could check out an operator who provides camping options near the river. If you are a seasoned camper, we recommend staying at the bottom of the canyon for an amazing view of the morning sun. We even saw a couple of campers who had pitched their tents right outside Haritha resort, but it was extremely windy and not suggested that you do this.
People here speak Telugu with a few borrowed Tamil words, you could get by easily if you know any of these languages. The staff the resort spoke English, Hindi, Telugu and Tamil, which was quite impressive whereas our guide knew English and Telugu
Stack up on food supplies before you head over here as the only option is the food at the resort itself which may or may not be available. We ourselves faced problems as no cook was available at the resort. Jammalamadugu has quite a few eateries that provide a variant of the southern delicacy ‘Dosa’, the ‘Karam Dosa’ that is made using a paste of ground Tomato and Onion spread on the traditional ‘Dosa’. If it is summer, expect to dig into the famous Banganapalle mangoes, ones that are so delicious that have even earned themselves a GI tag.
Gandikota is not so big and can easily be covered on foot, if you carry lots of water. If you have arrived here by your own hired taxi, then it becomes easy to get to the fort, but do note that a few spots can only be covered on foot, including the canyon. The terrain here is difficult to navigate, but the difficulty was the primary reason why the fort was built here, so expect to see a lot of wasteland and terrain that can only be navigated on foot.
PLACES TO VISIT:
The fort complex, with a circumference of 8 kilometres, and its peripheral regions contain everything there is to see at Gandikota. If you are staying at Haritha APTDC resort, then you can walk to the entrance of the fort where you will be greeted by the three-layered walls made of thick stone. The gateway of the first wall can be reached through a small, but sharp turn from the path. The zigzag roads from the barbican gates are built strategically, to prevent a charge of rushing enemy forces. And so is the road, which was so bumpy that we felt we were on a 19th century locomotive ride, but we chugged along anyway on our taxi, crossing the huge wooden doors laden with metal spikes. These spikes are strategic too, to prevent elephants from tearing down the gates.
On to the Grand Canyon of India
The first sight that we passed by was the Charminar, a tribute to the grand monument at Hyderabad, although this bears scarce resemblance to it. This is the first object of attraction here, it is somewhat unappealing when compared to the original at Hyderabad. We were rushing through to catch the sunrise at the canyon and paid not much attention to it. When we had our fill of the early-morning sun, we returned to this structure to begin our formal tour of Gandikota. As the name does suggest, there are four pillars which give it its name; slender and tall, these pillars at the corners of a rough square rise to a height of nearly 20 metres including the two storeys on the top.
Behind the Charminar is the Jail, an underground prison that goes down to nearly 50 feet with a vent on the ceiling just wide enough to let in air. The stairs leading to the bottom were closed when we were here, but we found a helpful person from the archaeology department who offered to be our guide. We set about exploring the fort with him, he seemed knowledgable about the local customs and the fort as well.
Behind the Jail at a distance is Madhavaraya Swami Temple, easily spotted by the towering four-storied Gopuram (gatehouse tower) at the entrance. Built by the king of Vijayanagara, Harihara Bukkarayalu, this temple along with its east-facing Gopuram is a classic example of the Vijayanagara style of architecture. As the name suggests, the temple is dedicated to the Hindu god, Lord Vishnu, though no Vigraha exists in the temple now. In an insensitive manner, Mir Jumla ordered that the Vigraha from this temple be removed and melted to be used in making cannons and so there exists this temple without a deity. The circumference of the temple is covered by a pillared walkway that doubles up as a shade from the sun. Walking through the corridors, we couldn’t help but imagine what this place must have looked like before it was ransacked, with its colourful walls and paintings probably.
The pillared hall at the centre containing the Garbagruha (sanctum sanctorum) is another captivating feature to look at. As we climbed up the steps, we noticed the carvings on the steps and the finesse with which it had been executed. The trip up the steps was like a trip into the past, to when when the common folk of the Vijayanagara empire would have visited this temple. The lotus-petal design is predominantly found at various points in the temple, on the floor at the entrance, on the pillars and on the doorways as well. The decoration of Torana (gateways), the presence of Dwarapal (gatekeepers) and depiction of erotica on the walls are features that we find similar to the temples at Khajuraho (Read our Khajuraho experience and see the Khajuraho canyon here). Numerous statues of Narasimha, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, in various poses and forms decorate the pillars here in addition to scenes from Mahabharata and Ramayana. We recommend spending half an hour here, enough time to appreciate the beauty of this temple.
From here, we proceeded to visit the mosque, Jama Masjid, which, coincidentally, is also the last spot which is accessible by car. At first look, the mosque reminded us of the Charminar at Hyderabad. We somehow feel that this is the mini-Charminar that was being to referred to in the travellers’ accounts, rather than the poor imitation that is currently named so.
This spectacular structure is not readily visible when approached from the entrance which looks pretty bland when compared to the magnificent structure behind. Similar to the Madhavaraya Swami Temple, the Jama Masjid too has a pillared walkway around its circumference. The entire structure is built in typical Deccani architecture style with the domed roofs and towering Minars.
Just opposite the Jama Masjid is one of the ponds inside the fort, Kattula Koneru. ‘Kattula’ in telugu means swords and this pond was probably used by the army to wash their swords and other weapons. The steps leading to the bottom of this tank are in a dilapidated condition now and while we decided to not get to the bottom, a few local kids could be seen jumping into the The region, being an arid region, experiences slightly lesser rainfall which made the presence of large ponds on the fort a necessity. The main source of water and a much bigger body of water is the Rayala Cheruvu which is in the south-west corner of the fort.
The tall building next to the mosque is the Bungalow Granary, which at first sight looks like a model cuboid, it’s nearly 8 metres in height and could hold enough grain to feed 4000 people for more than 8 months. The windows of the granary help prevent the accumulation of moisture and the height at which they are placed ensures that the granary remains rodent-free. The granary is three-floors high and when in full capacity, the top floors were probably used first. This structure would have witnessed quite some usage during the many sieges that were laid to this fort.
The last manmade marvel on our way to the natural marvel is the Ranganatha Swami Temple. Even with just an arched entryway and not a Gopuram at the entrance, this temple is as impressive as the other. The Vigraha here too were utilised in making cannons for Mir Jumla and so the temple is bereft of Vigraha. The steps leading to the shrine are decorated with Yala, another Vijayanagara classic. But the inclusion of slender Greek pillars inside one of the halls of the temple is surprising, yet adds to the beauty of this temple. The pillars of the shrine, intensely decorated with sculptures of gods and goddesses, are of Chitrakhanda type. The outer walls of the Garbagruha are decorated with line drawings of the ten avatars of Vishnu.
Tip: Many blogs erroneously refer to this temple as Raghunatha Swami Temple, remember this when searching for info about this place, not that you will be needing any after reading our blog. 🙂
And last, but not the least, the prima donna of the Gandikota travel experience is the canyon itself. The trek to the extreme edges of the cliff is somewhat tiring and equally dangerous as well, but it is definitely worth it. Trust us when we ask you to go the extra boulder here and climb on to the outer boulders here and you will be rewarded with a gorgeous view.
There are steps to get down to the bottom of the canyon, but it is quite dangerous. The best way to get down here is by walking down alongside a black pipe used to pump up water. We would advise you to not try this, unless you are very sure of what you are doing.
We concluded our trip to Gandikota some time around 10 AM and proceeded to Belum Caves nearby. The fort had just started heating up and so did our tummies which were in need of a healthy breakfast. And so we bid goodbye to the fort, the red sand and the many windmills that adorned the hills. Do read our post on the wonderful cave system of the Belum Caves. The other places nearby are Vontimitta, Lepakshi, Ahobilam, Srisailam, Tadipathri and Nallamalla forest. One place that we wanted to visit, but could not, is Gooty Fort; it is an hour’s journey from Belum caves and is definitely worth a visit. It boasts of a beautiful European cemetery and a fort.
So that’s it about the Great Canyon of India, Gandikota. We recommend this place as a weekend getaway from Chennai or Bangalore. Visit here during the right time and feast on Banganapalle mangoes, watching a magnificent sun rise above the Gandikota canyon.
This book by the Telugu author, Tavvā Ōbulreḍḍi, was very useful when reading about the history of the Cudappah region and Gandikota in particular.