Led by will and perhaps spirit, Sandeep Silas discovers an Abyssinian wonder in the Arabian Sea

The necessities of one age are the wonders of another! That is precisely the feeling I had when I saw Janjira Fort, standing proud and undefeated in the Arabian Sea. Off the coastline of Murud in Maharashtra, it is a testimony to the spice destination that was India.

The travel bug inside me seeks not the normal, but the extraordinary, and this time it led me to Janjira. The route from Mumbai is via Panvel, Pen and Alibaug. The red Coral Tree flowers (Erythrina Suberosa) brightened the brown earth. Colour always does it. The leaves had left the trees but the flowers had stayed on. So, it was a romance between the flower and the twig. Alone, no music and by the road! After Alibaug the road became coastal. It was inhabited all through till I neared the ghats of Kashid.

As the road turned downhill, the beach of Kashid appeared suddenly at a bend in between the cluster of teakwood forest. A long white line of sand attracted me almost instantly. I rushed to the edge of the mountain, tearing through stones, burnt grass, trampling twigs, thrusting aside branches those stood in the way, and stared at this beauty emerged out of the wilderness. There were many unlike me who had come only for the water and a portion of the beach was definitely crowded. A seafood lunch by the Kashid beach was delicious.

With my imagination of Janjira, firmly ensconced in my eyes, I was in no mood to be tempted by wayside delights anymore. Janjira, the marine fort, built by the Abyssinian Siddis, who had established a kingdom this side of the coast, was teasing my thoughts. Do I approach it by boat? Is it far into the sea? How big it would be? What would the ruins look like?

Another uphill bend brought me to a beautiful panoramic view of the sea. Far ahead into the sea, I could make out a flat structure, not very high, but some ramparts were visible. Not so appealing, I thought. This side of the coast at the eastern side, a palatial building gripped my attention. It was revealed that this was the palace of the erstwhile Siddis and was still in the possession of the 12th generation descendant. The fort in the sea was Padmadurg, built by Sambhaji, son of Shivaji Maharaj, the great Maratha warrior king. This was done to keep an eye on the Siddis as Janjira could be conquered by none. Even Shivaji had tried six times and failed. So he built another of its likeness. If you cannot seize it, build it was the Maratha war strategy.

Janjira was still part of my imagination till I reached Murud-Rajapuri village. The first look from the hill was pleasing. All views from the top make everything look small. It is only when one stands below something, does one get the actual dimensions of size. Of course, I was comparing it with the Mughal Red Fort at Agra, my birth town, and I think that was a wrong comparison. Some quick photographs and I walked the dusty village of Rajapuri right up to the jetty. A small tourist office in the village distributes tickets for the boat and the fort. The journey is upon the waves and should the boatman feel the wind going the other way he is sure to swing the sail with a stunt he performs hanging precariously over the sea, clutching the bottom rope of the sail.

The Siddis of Janjira were Abyssinians by origin. What brought them to India? Well the story goes like this. In 15th Century, some local fishermen of Rajapuri built a small wooden fort called Medhekot on a huge rock within the sea. The idea was to protect themselves from sea pirates. Ram Patil was their Commander. The Nizamshah of Ahmednagar had his eye on this fort. He sent Piram Khan, a general of the Ahmednagar military to capture Medhekot. Piram Khan came with three ships, masquerading as merchants, defeated the fishermen and captured the fort. Malik Ambar, the Abyssinian regent of Ahmednagar ordered its strengthening. Then Burhan Khan who succeeded Piram Khan, demolished the old fort and built an impregnable structure in 22 acres between A. D. 1567-1571. The fort was called Jazeere Mahroob Jazeera.

I reached the marine fort by boat. As the boat was nearing the fort, I was wondering where the entrance would be as all around one could only see ramparts and bastions. There are 19 bastions, I learned. Slowly, the boat edged to a wonderfully concealed entrance and the boat was parked literally on the steps for visitors to alight and enter.

A huge arched entrance greeted me with a panel to one side depicting six elephants trapped by a single tiger. This was the Siddi philosophy of might. On the other side were two tuskers fighting each other as two lions looked on. Once inside the Fort, one gets a mixed feeling of awe and remorse. From what I saw immediately at sight was a huge three and half storied wall with arched windows. It was the fallen Durbar Hall. What a marvellous structure it would have been! A perforated arched doorway of a small grave' enclosure was wonderful. The grave inside must have been of an important family member. The Mosque, the Jama Masjid of Janjira, overlooks the huge fresh water tank of the Fort. All around me were ruins of once splendid buildings. They have no roofs, somewhere only corners remain, but these are still forceful in their presence.

There is nothing divine in ruins but in their decay they have amalgamated with Nature so much so that it is difficult to believe that once human habitation would have kept the place spic and span. There is no one to weep on the decay as all inhabitants have left the place to ghosts of the sea and land. A Bollywood movie called Puraani Haveli (Old Mansion) has been filmed in the precincts, so perfect!

I explore a perfectly rounded water tank, the second one in the fort. The enthusiastic boatman-turned guide tells me that it had a coloured glass roof and the living quarters of the Queen were beside this water tank. It is amazing how two freshwater tanks survive in the midst of the salty sea! The Fort had close to 2,500 people living inside till as late as 1972, when finally it came to be in full control of the one and only watchman of the Archaeological Survey of India.

I negotiated past the madrasa (school) ruins to the secret escape door, which gives the impression of being a window from the sea. There was a feeling of adventure within, while walking on the ramparts, admiring the cannons, 200 of them once all around the 19 bastions. The three major cannons protecting the entrance are called Kalal Bangdi, Landakasam, and Bhavani. These were built of five metals and though now stilled in time, could lob a cannon up to 12 kms into the sea. It is a pity that poor conservation and neglect has allowed weather, seed and time to conquer it and ravage it so much that it is converted to ruins today.

The flag-mast is sans a flag today but from its position one has a commanding view. I look at a penile structure south of the fort, standing in the sea. I am told that it served as a rudimentary lighthouse as a lamp of oil was placed on its tip to let it do its job.

The Abyssinian rulers traded in spice and owed allegiance to the Mughals as long as the Indian kingdoms lasted. It became part of the Indian Union along with other princely States, but the descendants still hold respect and landed property, including the palace in Murud.

Reflection and imagination made me wonder upon the deceit, treachery and the dangers of attack that Janjira has faced. The brave people like Yahya Saleh and Sidi Yaqub are gone, their lives lost to the wind, their bones become part of the dust, but, in there, my camera captured a blob of light at a cemetery door and I pondered whether a soul had led me on this journey, to reveal its time and glorious life!