You never really think about the whorls and loops on the soles of your feet. I didn’t until I needed the grooves to help me cling on to the rough serrated rock that is home to the fort in Madhugiri.
At the topmost layer of this wedding cake-like fort, the faint honks of buses mingled with the sigh of the constant breeze. In the distance was the small eponymous town filled with matchbox buildings of bright pink, green, and yellow. There were vast lakes on three sides and State Highway (SH) 33 wound its way past the one on the right.
A view like this would remind you of how arid this part of the world really is. Tiny spots of reluctant green are splattered very sparsely on a shade of brown that made me thirsty when I looked at it. Huge rocks are stacked precariously on their tiny comrades in a manner that seems to defy physics. These are the kind of formations that you pass by when you travel through Karnataka on a train. They look insignificant from a distance, but when they are right in front of you they make you wonder what glue is holding them in place.
Madhugiri literally translates to honey hill. The surrounding town was named after it. The story, I soon found out, goes that a man named Raja Hira Gowda built it sometime in the late 17th century. Since the region was, and still is, so arid, any source of water was extremely important. Gowda raised goats and they would graze around the hill. One night, one of the goats went missing. It eventually returned in the morning. The surprising part was that it was completely drenched. This made Gowda pretty certain that there was a spring on the hill, and as he had hoped there was. So he built a fort around it. And now I had embarked on a mission to find that spring.
The village folk had warned my friend and me that the climb was steep. But we had disregarded their words with our city girl pride and walked through the big archway that led to the fort.
We found ourselves surrounded by old, abandoned-looking buildings. All the dusty doors were held shut by rusty padlocks. Faded paint revealed signs which indicated that we were in the judicial section of town. Lawyers and legal analysts had left their names on these signs and our feeling of trespassing intensified.
Monkeys roamed the tall, hefty stone wall that surrounded this part of town. They ran and jumped onto branches that reached out like they wanted to get out of these bounds.
Past these stood a building with an air of the ancient. Long pillars of stone held up more stone. Every side was a hollow hallway with a simple flower carved into the stone on top of the doorway. It offered shade but no relief from any other elements. And so it became a refuge for a sleeping man with his bag under his head and his towel over his face.
An enormous iron gate loomed ahead and next to it, its humble stone predecessor: an archway that had the same flowers carved in the stone. We entered through the gate and I already felt like I was cheating on the experience. A curved cobbled path led up to a big rock with grooves cut out for grip.
Initially, it was just big stone steps. When I say big I mean that I, a female of average height (5’5” to be exact), had to lift my knees almost to the level of my chin to climb up. The whole winding set of stairs kept bifurcating. We decided to take the shadier (literally) route. We found ourselves descending into a relatively flat area. The walls of the fort held onto the rocks at the very edges of the hill and we ran to look through the decorative depressions in the wall. We could see a lake and a road and tiny people in tiny buses.
On the outermost edge were more steps leading to what looked like the peak. These steps looked enticing but further up we noticed the lack of steps at various intervals. We’d have to climb the treacherous rocks.
The biggest trail led us back to the intended path and straight to a railing that wasn’t upright. This looked familiar. It was the scene featured on a website we’d looked at. The website had reviews, even for a place like this. Most of the reviewers raved about the fort. Some mentioned that the climb was really steep and even recommended a certain kind of shoe for good grip.
At that point, we thought that these people were a bunch of whiners. The rock was steep, yes, but there were grooves for your feet and the railing for your hands. And at the edge of the rock, what looked like the peak was in sight. It was actually very anticlimactic. Maybe the view would be killer.
One foot over the other, we made our way up. The grooves were helpful, the railing not so much. It shook like a six-year-old’s tooth.
But we’d made it.
And found that it was not the top.
There were more stone structures here, an arch leading to a small corridor. People had vandalised every surface they could find with wild proclamations of love and names of all who had been here. Surprisingly they’d even brought white paint all the way up to do this. It wasn’t an afterthought, but the whole mission.
Through the shade and out again, we were confronted by another huge expanse of rock. There were more grooves but they weren’t going straight up like before. Instead there twisted and curved like one of the snakes from ‘Snakes and Ladders’. Except there was no ladder, and the snake led to the finish.
The winding railing had given up halfway to the end. This area was a sheer fall into scary territory. You’d probably reach the bottom of the hill if you rolled down that way. Some wise person had somehow brought a piece of cable wire up here and tied it to the railing on either side to patch up the gap.
We headed up again, faltering now and then, and stopping to catch our collective breath. At the end-of-railing point, there was a bunch of assorted colourful chappals. All of them were neatly arranged in pairs and leaned against the rough surface precariously. They couldn’t have been a remnant from the past, their blatant brightness and planned positions betrayed the fact that someone had deliberately taken them off. Was it because they weren’t the kind of special shoes that the disgruntled reviewer had mentioned? I was slipping despite the fact that I was wearing the prescribed shoes. But where were the owners of these chappals?
We heard voices and laughter up ahead. A group of about six guys was heading down. They were all barefoot. They laughed and talked and descended with ease. When they spotted us they stopped. “It’s easier if you take off your shoes!” One of them yelled. “Just hold the wire.”
Leaving our shoes there didn’t seem like the best thing we could do with them. The worst thing we could do with them was to carry them in our hands because we needed both of them to hold onto anything that could provide support.
So we marched on and slid past the loud owners of the colourful chappals and into another small archway. A look out on the other side confirmed that this wasn’t the top. More rocks and more grooves. But we had reached another plain on the hill which had the border wall to peek over.
After a short exploration of this area, I decided to go up higher. We’d come this far and I really wanted to go all the way up. It was my sole intention at that point, and I thought I saw the peak at the end of the next rock we had to climb. But my friend was tired and told me that I could go by myself if I wanted. She would wait here.
This was the worst part. There was nothing to hold and there weren’t any grooves to aid the feet. I kept slipping and decided to take my shoes off.
The soles of my feet were numb from what I assumed were some degree burns. And the twisted trail had ended leaving only one way to go: up. At various points, there were white arrows showing the way and giving hope that I wasn’t lost.
I was losing faith in the existence of the peak when, after about 40 minutes of climbing without my friend, I saw the ultimate edge. You could only go down from there. And right on this round peak (it wasn’t like those pointy triangle hills you draw with the sun setting in the middle), there was the last bit of the fort. A room with a courtyard surrounding it. Pillars had fallen in places.
I sat on the steps outside and had a thorough conversation with myself.
I felt like I had conquered something, the something being a voice in my head that said stop and go back. After a short rest, I ventured into the courtyard. There were around 8 people inside, all lying down and staring at me. I guess I wasn’t having a conversation just with myself. I walked proudly past them and their suitcase full of food, eying their water bottles that glistened in the sun, taunting my parched throat. Past them and to the other side.
On the way, there was a deep crevice in the ground. A happy-looking tree had made its way out of this and into the sunlight. A look into the crevice and I realised that this was the spring. It wasn’t magnificent like you would imagine. The word spring makes me think of forceful water gushing out from the earth and rolling down the hill in trickles. This was just a pool of brown, stagnant water. I could imagine the glory of it if it had caused a man to build these magnificent structures on such unyielding slopes.
And as I wondered if it had been worth it despite the feeling of achievement, I saw the view on the other side. There were no buildings or people. The highway was a squiggly worm in the far left corner of my vision. In front of me stood magnificent green hills. The green seems unnatural for this area. It was bright like moss that hadn’t been stepped on. The sun was high and the sky was blue. It had been worth it after all.