A Nanadesi merchant caravan halted at the foot of the hill. After touching land at Motupalli he had tagged along with their convoy on Ongeru Road, one of the busiest trade routes in India. It was safer as those convoys were protected by large troupes of Vira Balinjas, a clan of merchant warriors.
He climbed up the steep path cut into the hill to have a better look at the lay ahead. A dark shadow of hills rose before him, a thousand foot high and stretching endlessly, ‘Is that Kondavidu?’ he asked a young shepherd girl in front of a small shrine. As she nodded yes, her face broke into a wide grin at his foreign accent, curious, ‘where’re you from?’ she asked.
‘Faraway,’ he said spreading his hands, ‘beyond the seas, it’s called Tavoy, an island two months on ship.
He calls himself an architect.
Many years ago his ancestors migrated from Kona at the mouths of Godavari, to Pegu, and for generations worked as gardeners at the mansions of Telang guilds there. He was young, strong and very skilled in the art of gardening, particularly in his ability to tend to new varieties of plants. Canals, orchards and exotic gardens, he had many to his credit. But that wasn’t the main reason why he got this job. It was his knowledge of Telugu, language of the mercantile elite, gave him an opportunity to make a fortune and also a chance to go abroad.
‘Have you seen the ocean before?’ he asked looking into her puzzled eyes.
‘Oh! I know,’ she chirped with a pout, pointing east, ‘it’s there somewhere, but what’s in it to see anyway?’
He laughed teasingly, knowing well that the girl could not have seen anything outside that little village. In those troubled times rarely did country folk travel, more so a girl as pretty as that. ’So tell me, what are you doing here alone?’ he tried chatting her up.
‘I brought buttermilk for Gopala,’ she pulled him by wrist into the shrine, the idol was Krishna in the form of an infant, fashioned out of polished granite, an impressive piece of art. She untied the two pots balanced across her shoulder, scooped out a lump of butter, placed in the outstretched hand of the idol, and sat down with folded hands. He stood, politely amused, watching her lips mumbling a serious prayer.
‘So what’s your name?’ he asked her.
‘Mutyalu,’ she said, offering him a scoop of butter. Then she poured some buttermilk in a boat made of palm leaf. It was refreshing. They spent an hour in the shade of a mango tree gossiping, she was good with the stories of the kings, noblemen and their heroics, and even those of common village folk and their romantic escapades. They were as raunchy as they were innocent. He laughed a lot, enjoying every moment he spent with her. But it was time to go.
‘I have nothing now to offer in return,’ he said finally, ‘but come tomorrow to the fort and ask for me, Ananda is my name, I’ll leave a word for you at the gates. Also I’ve something to show, which you haven’t seen in your life. Why only you? No one in this country had seen it before,’ he smiled meaningfully, tempting her.
‘Yes, same time tomorrow,’ she responded bashfully, it was an invitation she couldn’t refuse.
The crown prince Anavema Reddy was very precise in his instructions to him, ‘the people of the town must never suffer from hunger even if a seize lasts indefinitely… for years.’
The kingdom was surrounded by enemies, the Rayas in south, the Bahmanis to the west with their allies beyond the river, and Gajapatis of the east, his brother was fighting a three pronged war. A battle on one side leaves the capital vulnerable from other sides. Without a safe base the future of the kingdom is in jeopardy.
Ananda surveyed the hills from a vantage point, seventeen hundred feet high, kissing the clouds. In his mind… the wall ran for twenty miles of undulating terrain, encircling the town perched at thousand feet above sea level. There would be more than a thousand families living permanently within the fort wall. In times of war, another thousand households, from neighboring villages, would move into the fort for its protection, that’s around ten thousand mouths to feed, not counting the garrison.
Food to eat and water to drink … his job was to ensure just that.
First thing that he did was to find a likely place for nursery, a verdant wood near a mountain spring, and pitched a tent there. His supplies were brought up and were carefully spread out in lots, in a shelter built on clear ground. Men, he had unlimited supply, as the crown prince had assured, but the job required planning. He set out to do just that.
His first task was to conserve water, he began thinking. But the stream from the spring runs steep on a bedrock of granite, then an idea struck him, suppose the rock is hollowed out? They need blocks of stone anyway for the fort walls. He looked down the way the stream ran … three steps, that’s three large tanks, enough water to last a year. He smiled contentedly.
Then the girl arrived, as promised, and he was distracted.
She sat on a rock at the edge of a pool, her toes making smooth ripples on icy cold water. They chatted, mostly nothing, and she was curious about what he’s doing, he explained the grand plans of a city the prince wanted to build, and how he would carry them out. He had even given her a short tour of the shelter where his supplies were stored – seeds, cuttings and saplings – making no sense.
But finally now he gave her a fruit, Sweet Apple, pale green about the size of his fist. She had not seen anything like that before, it was round with bumps and soft to touch, little powdery though on surface. It yielded easily when squeezed open, and he gave her a scoop of its creamy white pulp. She tasted it.
‘Sweeeeet,’ she exclaimed. ‘We must call it ‘Venna Mudda’, butter scoop fruit,’ she said about to spit out a stony seed.
‘Don’t spit it out,’ he held out a leaf, ‘here.’
‘I plan to plant these, they’re so prolific, in four years no one in the fort shall die of hunger,’ his face glowed.
She held out a dark shiny seed in her fingers, ‘I shall plant this at my home,’ she said teasingly.
In those four years … the friendship between them blossomed. And in those four years the kingdom was visited by many vicissitudes. The king was killed in a battle, his brother Anavema came to the throne and the first thing he did was, move his capital from Addanki to Kondavidu. Now, Ananda owned a house in the western quarter with a sprawling garden, a nobleman, rich, beyond his wildest imaginations.
War clouds gathered from south, a seize force of hundred thousand was surrounding the hills. Bugles and drums sounded and the people from the nearby villages made a beeline through the two gates with every item of food and value they could carry.
He rushed to the western gate, no sign of her.
He ran down four steps at a time. The village was deserted. He knew where she would be at that hour… the shrine. A battalion of the enemy forces was pitching tents readying for a long wait. He ran still unnoticed. The tree and the shrine, where they met for the first time, came into view… and there she was. He was more worried than relieved.
He stood before her, wordlessly, gasping for breath.
‘I brought a butter scoop, for Gopala. It’s new, even He hadn’t seen before,’ from the folds of her upper garment she retrieved a ripe fruit, first of the tree she had planted at home, and gave it to him.
He knew that it was impossible to make a run for the fort. They were stuck.
In spite of their predicament, he smiled… thinking about the trees, thousands for every season that he had planted in the fort, now grown enough and bearing fruits. The enemy forces were in a seize formation, but they would fail, he knew.
He looked at the sweet-apple in his hand and placed it in the outstretched hand of the idol.
His smile grew… it was a smile of triumph.
Kondavidu, the name echoes in the ballads of heroes, the lyrics of musicians and dancers, and the verses of the greatest poets. An impregnable stronghold perched on top of a group of hills whose peaks overlooked the central plains of Andhra country, it was a city unparalleled in ensuring the safety and sustenance of its denizens in the face of enemy. The city was built in the regnal years of Anavota Reddy, and during the reign of his brother and successor Anavema Reddy, it became the capital of Andhra Coast from Visakhapatnam to Nellore. A fort wall over thirty kilometers long with over twenty watch towers at heights of 400 meters above MSL, guarded the city. In spite of warring factions within, and enemy forces without, the city had enjoyed peace and prosperity and became the focus of Telugu culture for a century or so.
The environmental planning, in the construction of a city that large, was unprecedented in the annals of Indian history. The builders ensured that the scarcest of the resources were conserved to last long periods of seize warfare in those troubled times. A series of tanks constructed in three levels to capture the runoff of a small stream is a marvel of environmental engineering.
Kondavidu forests, now surrounding the fort in ruins, is a habitat of some exotic varieties of fruit bearing trees. Cheese Apple (Noni) a species native to South America occurs wild, and so does Custard Apple or Sweet Apple (Sanskritized as Seetaphal), imported from Central America through the islands of Southeast Asia. These drought resistant species were deliberately planted to serve as famine food for those stuck inside the city for long durations. In South India, during the long seizes of towns and forts, common in the medieval times, the invasive and famine resistant Seetaphal must have saved more lives than the greatest heroes in history.
Kondavidu built in the 14th century, stands today as a testimony to the city planning and environmental management skills of Telugu people.