Today, very few Indians know that, in the eighteenth century, the southern part of the
peninsula was richly studded with fortifications, great and small, as most of them were dismantled by the British at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
These strongholds, some of which had considerable administrative or political
importance, were once crowded with large bodies of troops and resounded to the blaring noise of the guns; now they are completely abandoned and silent. In addition to this, temples, edifices dedicated to the service of gods, were also used as forts, though no vestiges of military structures are found around their enclosures today.
Fortunately, eighteenth-century French engineers have drawn the plans of several of these defence works. These magnificent watercolour plans preserved in the French Archives are presented here: they illustrate in an extraordinarily precise and explicit manner the technological level of the South Indian fortifications and enable us to comprehend the role they played in the life of the Tamil country.
Jean Deloche, former head of the centre for history and Archaeology, Ecole, francaise d’Extreme – Orient in Pondicherry, has devoted his entire academic career to the study of Indian History. He is presently a senior associate member of the Ecole francaise d’Extreme – Orient and of the Institute Francaise dPondicherry
Why publish the eighteenth-century French plans of the ancient fortifications of
the Tamil Country? Because historians, as well as the general public, ought to know
that these innumerable and remarkable defence works existed. Of great extent, with
curtain walls, tall and massive, composed of huge blocks, strengthened by bastions
of enormous size and very powerful gateways, they often formed circuits that were
many kilometres around, defended by wide, deep ditches, with an impressive and
formidable aspect. These settlements, some of which had considerable administrative or political importance, were once crowded with large bodies of troops and resounded to the blaring noise of the guns; now they are completely abandoned.
Two of them, Senji and Vellore, have been preserved;' the majority were partly
or fully demolished by the British in the first half of the 19th century,' Many of
these strongholds, particularly those surrounding large towns, have been completely
obliterated and all traces of their structures removed. Today, on the site of their
stone enclosures, regarded as powerful strongholds during the 'Carnatic Wars', you
can hardly find a piece of rock, as the whole area is either covered with buildings,
under cultivation or buried beneath bushes.' For a few of them, however, some scattered vestiges of enclosures and ditches remain. And the worst thing is that almost
nothing is known of their history, except for a very short period in the days of the
In addition to this, temples, edifices dedicated to the service of god(s), were also
used as forts, though no vestiges of defence works are found around their enclosures
Fortunately, European engineers have drawn the plans of some of them.
R. Orme in his History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan,
published in 1763-1778, has given a series of very useful plans of the fortifications
built in this part of India which appear to be accurate (we have used several of them
in a previous publication"),
In the French Archives (Aix-en-Provence and Paris) there are a number of water-
colour plans of these works and other military structures which give more information
and closely spaced image elements with complete details." Some of them are sketchy,
but in most of the representations we get a clear picture of the defence works.
These plans are therefore refreshing and stimulating documents. They illustrate
in an extraordinarily precise and explicit manner the technological level of the military works, and enable us to comprehend the role played by these fortifications in
the life of the Tamil Country. They deserve careful thought."
In this study we only analyse the plans of Indian fortifications. The strongholds
built by the French, English, Dutch and Danes in their own settlements, according
to the European system of fortification, are not mentioned here."
A Priceless Set of Documents
Most of the French plans have been made with care and relative accuracy. The various features of the settlement are distinguished by numbers corresponding to identical numbers in long keys or legends outside the drawings, listing and. explaining
each prominent object. The scale is in toises (1 toise = 2 m).
A few examples of the original water-colour plans are given here (pls. 1-4).
For clarity, and to ensure that the documents are usable, we have removed the
(usually decorated) keys and reproduced the captions in English on the plan itself
opposite each landmark; details which have no relevance to our study have not been
included. Regarding the orientation of the plans, to conform to modern usage as
much as possible, we have reproduced them with North at the top of the page.
With regard to the descriptions of the various parts of the fortifications that
no longer exist, besides the plans, we have used the accounts of the time extensively, particularly the correspondence between the French commanders and the
Company, and R. Orme's narratives in his History of the Carnatic Wars.
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