The Best Forts to Visit Near Chennai

The entrance of the Gingee Fort with a view of its three surrounding hills
The entrance of the Gingee Fort with a view of its three surrounding hills | © Karthik Easvur / WikiCommons
Photo of Arun Venkatraman
19 May 2018

The region around Chennai has greeted several cultures in its history – from Dutch and Portuguese merchants to British colonialists. And over the centuries, these cultures have left their signatures on the city, both culturally and architecturally. Most notable among these are the number of historical forts near Chennai, each representing a portion of the region’s intriguing history. Here are some of the must-visit forts near the city that offer a window into history.

Fort St. George

Church, Museum
1280px-St_Marys_Church_altar (1)
St. Mary's Church, located inside Fort St. George, is the oldest Anglican Church in India | © PlaneMad / WikiCommons
We can’t talk about the history of Chennai without first mentioning the landmark that marked the birth of modern Chennai as we know it. The story of Fort St. George starts in 1644 when the British felt it necessary to protect their trade interests with fortifications. It was constructed at a cost of £3,000 to include 20 feet-high walls, a garrison (still in working order), a bank office (that now houses the Fort Museum) and the famous St. Mary’s Church, which is the oldest Anglican church in India. One of the finest examples of British architecture in the city, the fort still houses the main administrative office of the Tamil Nadu government and serves as its state legislative assembly.

Sadras Fort

Archaeological site, Natural Feature
The entrance of the Sadras Dutch Fort with a belfry on top | © Arjun Duvvuru / WikiCommons

The Dutch fort town of Sadras is without a doubt one of the most historically intriguing places to visit around Chennai, primarily because it serves as a window to the city’s lesser-known Dutch heritage. Built to be the centre of Dutch trade in the Coromandel, the fort features high encircling walls that surround a once well-functioning town replete with a granary, stables and various other important structures. While the fort fell into disrepair in the 19th century, recent efforts from the Archaeological Survey of India, along with the help of Dutch patronage, have helped the fort become an important historical attraction in the city. Of particular note is the cemetery within the fort compound, which features several beautifully engraved tombstones of Dutch colonialists and traders who died here between 1620 and 1769.

Fort Geldria

Archaeological site
The Dutch Cemetery at Pulicat features several beautifully engraved tombstones | © Destination8Infinity / WikiCommons
Located at a distance of just 50 kilometres from Chennai, on the border between Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, is the historic Dutch fortification known as Fort Geldria. Built overlooking the enormous Pulicat Lake (India’s second largest brackish water lake), Fort Geldria is the first Dutch fort in India and one of the earliest structures of India’s colonial history. Much like the Sadras Fort, Fort Geldria, too, has fallen into disrepair, although efforts have been taken in recent decades to strengthen the structure. Constructed in 1616 over the foundations of an earlier Portuguese fort, Geldria was once home to a garrison of nearly 130 Dutch soldiers and some 30 guns, making it a formidable fortification in the region. The area surrounding the fort is also home to a cemetery, which features beautifully engraved tombstones of Dutch soldiers and traders.

Vellore Fort

Archaeological site
Vellore Fort
A view of the moat at Vellore Fort, Tamil Nadu | © HaneeshKM / WikiCommons
The sprawling and architecturally marvellous Vellore Fort is not only one of the largest and strongest forts in South India, but also a treasure trove of this region’s history. Constructed in 1566 by the Nayaks under the Vijayanagara Empire, the fort is a great example of South Indian military architecture and features imposing granite walls, grand ramparts and a wide moat, which is said to have been the home of thousands of crocodiles. A ready-reckoner for the fort’s unique and fascinating heritage is the fact that over the course of the last 400 years, it has been under the control of at least five different kingdoms, none of which were indigenous to Tamil Nadu. As a result, the fort features a confluence of cultures that makes it unlike any other in the country.

Gingee Fort

Archaeological site
Kalyana Mahal is the central structure of the Gingee Fort | © Karthik Easvur / WikiCommons

Located in the small town of Gingee in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district, nearly 150 kilometres from Chennai, the Gingee Fort is a true marvel of the region’s military architecture. Its foundations were first built as early as in the 8th century by the Konar Kings of Tamil Nadu and remained under the control of the Chola kings for a few centuries as a minor fort. It was the Vijayanagara Kingdom and their feudatories, the Gingee Nayaks, that set about improving the existing fort into the present grand structure. Featuring high walls and ramparts, the fort has often been dubbed nigh impregnable, earning it the name ‘Troy of the East’. A unique feature of this fort is that the construction makes use of three surrounding hills by building intermittent encircling walls, giving the fort a natural defence. Today, the fort serves as a shining reminder of the military might of South India’s Vijayanagara Dynasty.

Fort Dansborg

Archaeological site
Fort Dansborg is the second largest Danish fort in the world | © Sumansukumar745 / WikiCommons
Located nearly 160 miles south of Chennai along the Coromandel Coast, Fort Dansborg is a forgotten jewel in the heart of Tranquebar, a quaint village that was once home to the Danes. One of the few remnants of Danish influence in India, the fort – and its surrounding town – is a great example of Danish architecture and boasts several unique structures such as the New Jerusalem Church, the Zion Church and Rehling’s House, which belonged to the Danish governors way back when. The fort was first constructed in 1620, making it one of the earliest colonial constructions in the region. The fort has now been converted into a museum and displays rare artefacts from the Danish Empire.

Alamparai Fort

Archaeological site
The ruins of the fort along the backwaters of Alamparai Fort | © Djoemanoj / WikiCommons

This scenic seaside fort is located between Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry and is one of the only forts along Tamil Nadu’s northern coastline that doesn’t have a colonial origin. Originally constructed during the Mughal-era, the fort was under the control of Nawab of Arcot, before falling into the hands of the French as a result of the Carnatic Wars. The fort, although in ruins now, is a popular attraction in the region primarily for its scenic views of the Bay of Bengal. The backwaters surrounding the fort are also popular for activities such as boating and paddleboarding.

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