March 24, 2012

Impenetrable Sea Fortress of Maharashtra

One of my first outings while stationed in Bombay was to Alibag and its surroundings. An office girl from Chennai who accompanied me did all of the talking. Catching a ferry to Mandwa from the Gateway of India is the fastest way to get to Alibag. As the journey began, I narrowly avoided reconfiguration of my handsome face as the ferry collided with a boat anchored right beside it. I had to duck to avoid the protective tire barriers on the side of the boat from hitting me in the head. Forty five minutes later we docked. Most of the  passengers on the ferry immediately ran from the Mandwa pier to a bus that would take them onwards to Alibag. After the bus was suitably overcrowded, it ambled away to its destination. The stragglers, including us, were stuffed onto a shared rickshaw which quickly overtook the bus on its way to Alibag.

We were dropped off in the middle of a roundabout near the town center. A dozen meters away was the ticket counter for the return ferry journey. The lady manning the booth told us the tickets had been sold out a week ago and advised us to hang out at the beach and then take a bus back. We had other plans and told her what we wanted to see, including a mysterious Jewish settlement. She said none of that was interesting, reiterated that we should just hang out at the beach, but then provided us accurate directions to where we wanted to go. Five separate shared rickshaw journeys followed with a variety of co-passengers. On one segment, a mother was teaching her son how to properly throw garbage out of a moving vehicle onto the street. Due to the prevailing direction of the wind, his attempts were only resulting in his empty bag of chips landing back inside the rickshaw whenever he attempted to toss it outside.

We could not find the Jewish settlement anywhere, although all the locals were vaguely aware of knowing someone else who had heard of Jewish people. We were advised to ask for "Europe people" or "Portugal people" if we wanted to see any colonial ruins. Alibag was where the Bene Israel Jews first landed in India over 2000 years ago. Some meandering through ancient forts, beaches, and villages finally led us to some spectacular sites. One of these was Chaul, location of a famous sea battle between the Portuguese and Egyptian fleets in 1508. A rich delinquent had even built his mansion within some ruins, completely disregarding the Indian Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958.

After briefly halting at the palatial residence of the Siddi Nawab we had a delicious fish thali (mixed platter) at a popular beachfront restaurant. Hunger satiated, thirst followed. We had heard about a local concoction called maadi, made from coconut and fermented to perfection. A man overheard us talking about the beverage and took us to a shady clearing nearby. Another man climbed down from a coconut tree, took our empty water bottle and filled it up with some liquid from a petrol canister. It was very tasty. We then walked towards the next settlement in search of another rickshaw. For a while we could not find any, but as soon we got on a rickshaw and were on our way, two lost looking English beauties walked out of a back alley onto the main street. I groaned in disappointment. "Good thing we saw them now, otherwise you would have forgotten about me." murmured my travel companion.

Our final stop before heading back to Bombay was the impenetrable sea fortress of Murud Janjira. From the opposing shore we were hurried on to a barely seaworthy vessel, made even less so by the mass of humanity loaded onto it. As we approached the fort, it looked even more dark and menacing than it had from afar. Nineteen bastions holding cannons and thick walls rising a dozen meters into the sky loomed ahead. Inside it was much brighter, murky green ponds and shrubbery having taken over most of the man made construction. We climbed the staircase to the highest point. The entire fort as well as the bay surrounding it was clearly visible. Any ship approaching the area would have been spotted from kilometers away by the guards once manning this point.

Under the jurisdiction of it's Abyssinian Siddi rulers, Murud Janjira was never captured by Dutch, Portuguese, English, or Maratha forces, a distinction no other fort on India's west coast can claim. The name comes from the Konkani word for island, morod, and its Arabic equivalent, jazeera. If the fort at Murud Janjira was not spectacular enough, another floating citadel loomed out even further out to sea, constructed by Shivaji's son after he failed to conquer it by digging a tunnel into the fort. It is inaccessible to the public. On the way back to the mainland, a grown man started whimpering on the sailboat. "Is he scared?" I asked a man awkwardly crouching beside me and trying not to fall overboard. "I think so." he replied.