Castle at Hosur

This fort in Karnataka is the first and probably the only example of a British castle in India,
writes K.R.N. Swamy

A close-up of fort, Bret’s Folly, Hosur
A close-up of fort, Bret’s Folly, Hosur

HOSUR is a fast developing industrial town, 50 km from Bangalore. It is also historically important as it formed the border between British India and Tipu’s Mysore and history records that the British defeated Tipu Sultan and conquered Hosur twice in 1768 and 1791. In the 20th century it acquired fame as being the birthplace of the great statesman Rajaji (also known as C. Rajagopalachari)—the first and only Indian Governor General of India (1948-50). His ancestral house is well maintained with a number of memorabilia.

The Hosur fort was once a great stronghold. The southern wall of the fort is the location of the first and probably the only example of a British castle built in India and that too as a model of the grand Kenilworth Castle. As is well known, Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire is one of the historic monuments of Britain and figures widely in British history and the novels of Sir Walter Scott.

Today of its Indian counterpart—the Kenilworth Castle at Hosur—you see only a grand ruin, where the "castle" once stood. The reason why the castle came to be built is as follows: Hosur was the head quarters of the Salem district of the former Madras Presidency from 1830 to 1860. About the year 1855-56, Mr Brett ICS became the Collector of Salem. The story goes that he was engaged to a Scottish lady of noble birth. His beautiful fianc`E9 refused to come out to India unless she was provided with a residence as commodious and beautiful as the castles in Scotland. And she had a peculiar fascination for the Kenilworth Castle of Warwickshire. Mr Brett began the ambitious project of building a model of the Kenilworth Castle in Hosur. He had the plan prepared from England and employed skilled workers to take up the job.

He chose as the site for the building, the southern face of the fort at Hosur immediately over the moat. To supply chunam (quicklime) for the construction, chunam manufacturers were invited to reside in an adjoining hamlet (still called the Chunam Jeebi) near the Bangalore road. The cost of chunam alone, used in the construction, was Rs 17,000. At ten rupees to the British pound, the cost of the castle was estimated at about Rs 1,70,000, which was a fantastic figure in those days and would be one hundred million rupees at the 2006 purchasing power of the rupee. A Tehsildar (revenue official) at Hosur was asked to maintain accounts and look after the construction. He kept no accounts after the expenditure exceeded one hundred thousand rupees!

The construction, which began about 1857-58, was completed by 1860-61. But unfortunately the Collectorate was shifted to Salem in 1861 and thus the Collector, who had spent so much money and devoted so much effort to fulfil the desire of his wife never had the opportunity of living in the building. It is said that his wife, on hearing the change of the location, refused at first to come to India and live with him at Salem. Mr Brett too lost much of his earlier enthusiasm for his work. Finally his wife came unwillingly to India and died in Salem after a short stay. Her grave is to be found in St John’s cemetry in Bangalore.

Kenilworth Castle, also called "Brett’s Folly" was an impressive structure. It is really a Scottish Castle in Indian setting and seems alien to its surroundings. It had a lofty tower, which stands only partially now. Large elegant windows adorned the walls of the huge central hall. It provided a wide view of the miniature lake nearby and its stained glass windows were beautiful in the light of the evening sun.

As Hosur still housed the offices of the sub-collectorate, it became the residence of a number of British sub-Collectors till 1935. The building, though outwardly big and impressive, had weak foundations and contemporary writers have mentioned this. It was declared unfit for habitation in 1935 and then sub-Collectors began to reside in the guesthouse attached to the Castle, till the present Sub-Collector’s bungalow was built in 1938.

There are a number of stories connected with the abandonment of the building. One of them is that a large snake, considered sacred by local Hindus, was shot by one of the Salem Collectors. The snake, which lived on the grounds of the Castle, had according to reports, a peculiar three-pronged marking on the head and killing of such a special snake boded no good. The Collector, who shot it, is said to have lost the use of his limbs. Thereafter the castle also fell on bad days. The entire building and grounds were sold for a paltry sum of Rs 2,050 (`A3 150) in 1936. The buyers demolished most of the building and sold the exquisite woodwork and furniture, so that only the skeletal remains of the building stand today.

One of the subsequent owners excavated an armoury with about 500 iron cannon balls. The vast vaults and underground chambers of the castle have yet to be explored. The subterranean chambers also remains sealed. A detailed investigation by the Archaeological Department may bring to light all the secrets of the Castle. A few years ago T. S. Nagarajan, one of the famous photographers of India, had photographed the castle ruins for the Taj magazine of the Tatas. (With inputs from the Indian newspaper archives of the British Library-U.K.)