I have just returned from a short trip to Murud-Janjira. While the beach resort (165 km south of Mumbai) was relaxing, by far the greatest experience was my visit to the Janjira sea fort. The only way to access it is by sailboat from the beach. There were several moments when I felt that it would capsize, but the expert sailors got us there safely. And a pod of three dolphins that kept us company helped keep my mind off the danger.
Built on an island a few hundred metres off the coast by the African spice trader-king Siddhi Jauhar about 950 years ago, Janjira is one of India's few unconquered forts. Till 1947, the flag of the Siddhi kings flew from its ramparts, replaced by the Indian Tricolour after Independence.
As the boat tilted and swerved through the water, many felt we wouldn't make it. But the Janjira sailors were more than a match for the wind and the waves, getting us across with just a tattered sail and a long bamboo for a rudder.
The rock for the fort was cut from a hill on the island itself. While centuries of pounding by the rain and the sea have eroded the stone by up to two inches at several spots, so good was the construction that the joints in the walls remain intact to this day. The architects also threw in a visual trick -- the rounded walls ensure that you can't see the entrance to the fort unless you are very close. By the time any invader found the entrance, much of his military strength would have been destroyed by Siddhi fire. No wonder the Portuguese, British and the Marathas failed to ever conquer it.
Here's where you jump off the boat. The sea swell made aligning the craft with the stone jetty tricky business, but, it seems, there's nothing a Janjira sailor can't do.
The first thing Siddhi Jauhar did was build a shrine for a sage who went by the name of Panjatan Paanch Peer. The rest of the fort was constructed around this shrine. Every time Jauhar needed to go to Africa he would pray here for the fort's safety during his absence. Like I said, the fort was never conquered.
At 22 tons, this is the second-heaviest cannon in India. No boat could tansport such a heavy object to the island, so the Siddhis brought metal rings from Africa and then sealed them together with molten lead. You can still see the joints between the rings.
A freshwater lake surrounded by miles of salt water? Strange, but true. As Jauhar chipped away at the rock, he struck a freshwater spring. The 60-ft lake that he built served the 2,500 people who lived in the fort. By the side of the lake, he built a sheesh mahal (glass palace) for his wife, Zubeida. The coloured glass refracted the sun's rays to form a rainbow on the surface of the water. Incidentally, this isn't the only freshwater lake on the island. There is another, which was used for washing before prayer.
The view from the highest point of the fort. People lived in it till 1972, when the government declared it a monument of historical importance and shifted the residents to the town on the coast. The town was called Rajapuri because the Siddhis ruled it. A Ganesh temple in the fort was shifted there and is a place of worship even now. The ruins of the Siddhis' elephant paddock can also be seen in the town.
Remnants of the royal darbar. Only three-and-a-half storeys of the orginal seven remain. The fort was home to three communities -- Muslims, the Kolis and Buddhists -- all ruled by an African. It doesn't get more diverse than that.
Padmadurg Kasa, the sea fort built by Sambhaji a few miles across the bay from Janjira. Padmadurg Kasa -- directly in front of my room, incidentally -- was built as a launchpad for an invasion of Janjira. Sambhaji never succeeded, and the fort turned into a ruin. At one point, it was even used as a jail. Janjira's original name, by the way, was 'Jalzeera' -- a combination of the Hindi word 'jal' (water) and the Arabic 'jazeera' (island). The region under the forts' jurisdictions came to be known as 'Padmadurg-Jalzeera', which was eventually corrupted to 'Murud-Janjira'.