Forts, fish curries and a few missing birds… Nellore in Andhra Pradesh offers you an excuse to return
Words & photographs: Anjuman Deodhar
It’s been a strange afternoon… The drive through the Andhra countryside has been exhilarating, as expected, and now we’re at our destination. But, since we’ve gotten here, the last hour has been spent trying to locate Udayagiri Fort, which the townsfolk, for some reason, seem determined to keep us away from. The first person we ask points us right back in the direction we’ve come from, waving vaguely towards a few hills far away on the horizon. Still, I’ve been about these parts for the better part of a week, and know by now it’s best to ask for a second opinion. Especially when Google Maps doesn’t help. And, sometimes, even when it does. So, we’ve pressed on into town. A good move, it turns out. Although we’re headed in the general direction of the fort now, the news hasn’t been very encouraging. The general consensus is that it’s going to take us at least four hours to get to the top. Worse still, we’re liable to run into wild elephants after sundown. Our best bet, we’re told, is to come back early the next morning.
It’s 2.45pm, we’re 100km north-west of Nellore, and sunset is three hours away. I do the only logical thing there is to do. I make sure my water bottle is full, and start climbing the broken steps leading up to the fort. Surprisingly, Shariff, the young chap who’s been driving me around, decides to come along. Perhaps he’s as intrigued by the possibility of elephants as I am.
It’s an oppressively hot day, but, minutes into the climb, we’re engulfed in thick vegetation, and it’s pleasantly cool in the shade. Shariff soon starts lagging behind, and I have the forest all to myself. Painted francolins shriek noisily in the valley below, and, every now and again, something slithers away into the dense undergrowth. The incline is steep and I’m starting to flag a bit when, suddenly, I round a bend and walk into a wall of butterflies. There’s thousands of them, and they’re everywhere. They’re crowding every branch of every bush, they’re huddled on blades of grass, and they’re taking to wing from underfoot. Clearly not many visitors here. My grapple with gravity quickly forgotten, I gently set myself down on a rock. I wait, happily, till they get back to their business, and then, as gingerly as I can, continue onward.
The history of Udayagiri Fort is quite fuzzy, but, from what I gather, it was built some time around the 14th century by the rulers of Kalinga, the erstwhile kingdom of Odisha. It seems to have been left to its own devices for a while, though, and nature is busy reclaiming it as its own. Long, sinuous roots make their way up and down crumbling walls, and stones lie in heaps all around. It’s been just over an hour since we began our climb, and I’m almost at the top. Restoration efforts seem to be non-existent, but a few ramparts have survived the onslaught of time. They look absolutely marvellous in the evening light, framed by overgrown foliage, making the exertion totally worth my while. The valley opening out into the plains far below presents unforgettable vistas.
I’m glad I didn’t pay heed to the fatalists.
“The fourth most populous city in Andhra Pradesh” weighs Nellore down with unnecessary expectations. In fact, it’s just like any tier 2 city: crowded, un-unique, on a one-way ticket towards prosperity and loss of identity in equal measure. Fortunately, I’m here well in time. Nellore still crackles with character, and the surrounding countryside is strewn with wonder. My list of places to go check out is long and time is a-wanting.
To the south-west is the Venkatagiri Estate, which traces its history back to the 13th century as part of the erstwhile Madras Presidency. Though the pomp and grandeur is long gone, an 18th-century palace still stands. The sheer historical significance definitely warrants a visit. And I am told that some descendants of the royal family still reside on the premises. Sadly, the palace is more a grim reminder of present-day realities than of the days of yore, and I don’t get audience with the royals, either. I do get to witness the intricate craftsmanship of a handloom weaver, though – against all odds, this industry still survives here, probably because of the demand for Venkatagiri handloom sarees .
Unlike Venkatagiri, I have scant expectations from the Penchalakona Temple. It’s not that the temples in and around Nellore aren’t beautiful. It’s just that there are so many of them, and they start to resemble each other after a while. I’m having a hard time keeping up with the names of the deities. I’ve already sought the blessings of Lord Ranganathaswamy, Kamakshiamma, and Narasimhaswamy, among others…
The Bara Shaheed Dargah stands apart. Although what those 12 martyrs laid their lives down for, 1,200-odd years ago, is unclear, the scale and simplicity of the structure make an impression.
Somasila Dam, in its turn, is surprisingly rewarding. Not content with taking a stroll along the wall of the dam, or gazing across the vast expanse of the reservoir, I climb down to the other side and unexpectedly stumble upon the riches of the Penna River. Tiny coracles manned by fishermen burnt black by the sun come to shore bearing a rich bounty, the number and size of which is rivalled only by their variety. It is little wonder that fish is a staple of Andhra cuisine. Shariff rattles out some names: gendi, koramenu, jilebi, bombadai. I have no idea if he’s bluffing, but he manages to keep a straight face through it, so I’m going to take his word for it. He also mentions that these fish are much sought after by connoisseurs, especially the koramenu (red snapper).