An interesting storytelling based on the mighty Janjira is hard. Becasuse the world has little knowledge of what went on inside this Fortress in the sea. A mere gaze at the sea fort evokes queries and you wish you knew the story behind it. You wish you could see all that these awesome walls have been witness to.
The princely state of Janjira fluttered its red flag with the crescent moon, until India won independence in 1947 and merged all the princely states with the union by the following year. The state of Janjira is noted as being among the smallest of the princely States in Menon's "The Story of Integration of Indian Princely States". However, compared to its size, the little state of Janjira played a disproportionately large role in history. The people manning the fort came from North Africa (Ethiopia/Somalia) and were followers of Islam. They were known to be the best sea fighters anywhere among the Muslim races and called themselves Siddis (a North African term of respect). While they were called Siddis in India’s west coast, they were known as Habshis in rest of India. After arriving via the sea as slaves in many different batches through the time, they served under several Muslim Kingdoms in India.

From ancient times, Konkan’s power was run from places that could be used to dock ships/boats. Elephanta had a glorious past. In the fifteenth century, Kolis’ most important fortification was Janjira. Late in fifteenth century, the Siddis (as agents of the Sultan) wrested control of Janjira from the local people who (as the history suggests) had defied the Sultan. Given its situation, the fort’s keepers held on for long. The takeover of Janjira became a long drawn military operation and was conducted directly under the supervision of the NIzam Shahi rulers of Deccan. On capture of fort, the “Koli garrison (was) tied to chains and thrown into, the sea” (Gazetteer). After gaining control of Janjira, Ahmad Shah built a fort, with the objective of complete control of the sea-route and placed his Siddi slave Yaqut as the chief. The one sq km large fort is built of solid rocks that have weathered the cruel sea for centuries.
JANJIRA: on a monsoon day
On my visit, I was amazed to see that the stone bricks held together so well, despite being tormented endlessly by the sea and sea winds. On closer examination, one could even see shining piece of cement filling the gap between rock bricks. A local informed me that the cement's ingredients were brought by the Siddis from Africa. There was no way of knowing the truth behind the cement. At least some of the Siddis are believed to have been sea pirates in the North African waters and had trade links there, though mostly as servants of Arabs. Almost all the Siddis were brought as slaves by the Arabs on to Indian shores. The slaves were converted to Islam on the ship, before being bought by their Muslim masters. Muslims kingdoms in India generated a constant source of demand for African slaves. Everyone remembers Dharmendra playing Yaqoot in the movie Razia Sultan. Yaqoot was among the earliest black slaves from Africa --- belonging to what are the Siddis. The slaves rose in power, as their skills were proven and the ocean skills of the Siddis was apparent to the rulers.

The Habshis were feared in India. They were physically powerful, known to be detached from personal bondings and were fearless. This last quality had probably created quite an impact. Habshi fighters would not be afraid of being outnumbered in a contest, even if it meant defeat or death. Their habits too had created a psychological impact. For example, Badr, governor of a province in North India during Ibn Battuta’s visit, was known for eating a whole goat for meal and killing and captivating “infidels” continuously and “single handedly”. Habshi bodyguards and slave fighters were used by their masters to intimidate their subjects and force them to submit, as needed. Even though in general they were mistreated by their masters, including being severely physically abused, a significant number of them rose to power while functioning on behalf of their masters. People in general feared them. In Bengal towards the end of the fifteenth century, Habshi military personnel of the King assassinated him, and Habshi Sidi Badr ruled the state with utmost tyranny and cruelty. This had probably the largest Habshi army of around 5000 strong. But people just couldn’t take it and fought them in few years. Badr was killed in the end and the Siddis were driven permanently out of Bengal.

With a Siddi as the fort's warden and some more as officers, a number of Siddis sought employment and settled in the land area around Janjira in the fifteenth century. The principal occupation for the Siddis was always fighting. They established a firm control over the area. Headquartered in Janjira, the Siddis were a menace to everyone at some point in time -- the Marathas, the Moguls, Bijapur, Portuguese and the English. The Siddis had a small territory in Gujarat too. And ferried their forces between these bases, raiding whatever came in their way in this sea route. In time, they tried to exercise independent control over the area spearheaded by its most prominent leader ever on Indian soil. This was Malik Amber. Early in the 17th century, Amber worked as a slave General for the Deccan empire of Ahmednagar. Towards the twilight years of the Ahmednagar dynasty, Amber served as the vizier for its Queen. After the Queen was murdered, Amber wrested control of the empire (of what was left of it), holding the city of Daulatabad. He imprisoned the throne's successor for life. The Mughal Emperor Jehangir sent many contingents to fight Amber to acquire the Deccan. Amber had mastered the art of Guerrilla warfare in these terrains. Emperor Shah Jahan continued the assault. But Amber evaded subjugation to Moguls. Even at worst of the times, Amber succeeded in holding the fort of Janjira and also the Danda fort opposite it on the mainland. After Amber's death, his successors continued to prove useful to the Deccan powers. Probably this influence of the Siddis helped them to keep the land mass around Janjira secured for themselves.

As Shivaji began to turn into a powerful force, the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb recruited the Siddis to head the Imperial Naval interests in the Arabian Sea. In any case, all Muslim empires in India by then depended on the Siddis to defend the Arabian Sea (commercial route) from pirates and more importantly, secure the Haj route. Ibn Battuta noted that so fearsome were the Siddis on sea that “let there be but one of them on ship and it will be avoided by the Indian pirates”. These men “are the guarantors of safety on the Indian Ocean”. Most sailors during that era on the Indian waters were Abyssinians (Siddis). Siddis continued to be source of constant irritation to Shivaji, submitting the land areas whenever the Maratha forces attacked them, to retreat into the fort of Janjira. And once the Maratha forces would be recalled, the Abysinnians would sail out of the Sea fort to raid the land areas around it, and recapture the lost ground. "As the Siddis formed a small military aristocracy dominating the vast alien population, their constitution provided for the rule of the ablest, and on the death of the Chief not his son, but the first officer of the fleet succeeded to the Governorship. The Siddi chief of Janjira maintained an efficient fleet, and throughout the 17th century he was officially recognised as the Admiral, at first of Bijapur and latterly of the Mogul empire. There was no native power on the West Coast that would make a stand against him at sea." Notes Sir Jadunath Sarkar, the historian.
Janjira rising from the sea: reaching by boat
Janjira's physical position made it extremely useful to keep a watch on the land areas around it, and to launch an attack at short notice. Its position in the Sea also enabled it to defend itself effectively and to hold on to the fort for months. With around 200 canons mounted on the top of the Fort’s walls, it was easy to fire effectively on enemy vessels, which were additionally vulnerable in open sea. We drove along the white sand beach of Kashid and then through the beautiful beaches of Murud. After crossing Murud, we crossed creek via a bridge and then began a steep drive up the hill. As the road descended from the hill, we were overlooking the Sea. A vast expanse of water and a massive fort far away guarding the waters, as waters entered from between the two hill flanks. We boarded a country made boat driven with oars and reached the fort's giant entrance in 30 mins. It was around noon, and some steps leading up to the fort's entrance were submerged in the Sea. As we climbed up, the vastness of the structures was overwhelming.

Amber was succeeded by Fath (Fateh) Khan. The Khan also held the two forts around Janjira. With these forts as the base, the cultivated area in the vicinity was defended by the Siddis and formed the base of their revenues. The balance is thought to be coming from their control of the Sea routes and taxes therefrom. Of course, we are talking of the medieval ages when the mighty alone could collect taxes and governments were formed with the power of sword and governments were dispatched with the power of the sword. By the time of the Khan, the Ahmednagar dynasty was gone and the other major power left was Bijapur (roughly a decade before Shivaji's battles). The Bijapur government eventually appointed Khan as the Lord of Danda, with the land mass around it forming his revenue base. But the years of such Lordship were limited. Shivaji was a young and ambitious man by the time the Khan had consolidated power. Shivaji had driven the Moguls out of North Konkan, and then out of much of their holdings elsewhere in what is present day Maharashtra. Bijapur had also lost territory and was pushed further South. The awesome myth surrounding the “Habshis” as invincible warriors with demon-like power took some beating, as Fath Khan lost almost all of his land areas to the Marathas and was forced to retreat to Janjira in 1670. And now the Marathas sieged the fort Janjira. With this, the Siddis were left with no piece of land, but for their sea fort. "To the Siddi, the loss of Kolaba (the coastal territory) meant starvation…” In the past, whenever the siege of Janjira by an enemy seemed to fructify, the Siddis had availed of help from someone in opening a warfront in inland areas to force the diversion of enemy’s forces. Against the Marathas, it was Bijapur’s help. This time, no such help was coming forth. The Khan was weary and was ready even for an unfavorable compromise.

The Siddis knew only one thing --- fighting. They were fighting machines. At Janjira, the wars were not for their masters. It was for themselves – a principality of the Siddis. The Siddis had enjoyed patronage from Sultans so far one way or the other. But with Hindu Marathas now becoming lords of all the landscape around them, the battle had more than a dimension. No outsider had ever set foot in this sea fort. And suddenly, now its survival was at danger. Shivaji was keen to depose the Siddis to acquire control over the waters and secure his lands from any possible aggressions from the sea.

Khan’s deputies differed with him. His three people revolted. “They told their countrymen that Fateh Khan was planning to give up the island, and, with their approval, threw Fateh Khan into chains” (Gazetteer). The new Siddi chief sought help from their masters in Bijapur, but were deserted, not wanting to take on Shivaji. But Moguls obliged, diverting the Maratha forces by opening a warfront inland. The siege was off and Siddis could once again breathe. Food stock was replenished inside the Fort and the Siddi now became admiral of the Mogul navy. Surat was the biggest trading center in the East and protection of its waters as well as the entire coastline became Siddi’s job. He had the entire Mogul fleet under his control now.

The fort’s entrance is from the eastern side of the fort, overlooking land across the waters. Once on the fort’s entrance, I realized that it wasn’t exactly what I had expected. Instead of a giant gate opening up straightway, there it was a rocky wall. There were staircases on either sides of the entrance leading up. (ENTRANCE) We climbed up to another level. It was wide open space and we were somewhere on the parapet of the fort. My guide told me that the entire lower level, including the entrance gate was a trap. He told me that the lower level/floor and gate went underwater with every high tide. Canons were mounted systematically on the ramparts.


FORT VIEW Standing there I could see a large part of the east side of the fort. This was a moment of privilege. No outsider had ever set foot in this invincible fort --- and now commoners like me were seeing it. There were large ruined structures inside. A 3-floor palace of the Siddi royal women, with only walls now surviving – the roof and floors gone.

The Tank

A fresh water lake! Fresh water within saline everywhere for as far eyes can see. The little lake was Janjira's lifeline. Fresh water and fish as supplies, whenever the fort was besieged for months from across the creek? In addition, there is another tank. I was told that the tank harvested rain-water to be used as a supplemental source of water in dry season. The water was deep green, opaque and covered with a layer of moss. The place of former marshal glory now seemed in complete decay. Every important piece inside the walls, now gone. You have to look at the fortifications to imagine what the place would have been.

My guide throughout avoided any reference to battles, struggles, ships, Islam. These were precisely the most interesting and important aspects of Janjira. I was a bit intrigued. He insisted that the Janjira rock was procured by a rich African merchant via lawful purchase, and fortified for the purpose of protection. I knew this was totally untrue. But why does he not talk the truth? Janjira probably assumed a delicate balance between the religions and between those who were rulers and those who were ruled.

Somewhere not far from the entrance, there is a shrine, rather small. It was dark inside and little could be seen. This Shia shrine relates to Peer Pachaitan – meaning five saints. However, this was more specifically dedicated to the saint called Shah Tahir. Shah Tahir, a Persian, was an important man in Ahmednagar court and influenced the sultan to declare Shia-ism as the state religion. More specifically, Shah Tahir practiced (perpetuated?) Ismaili sect/style. Murud area was allotted to Shah Tahir as his income. Probably that explains why the Siddi wardens of Janjira put a shrine in his name.

The Siddis repelled their enemies on many occasions. But as Marathas gained more and more land, demolishing Muslim powers in all of western India, it left the Siddis with ever shrinking options to find outside help from in case of a siege on Janjira. Given its strategic position, Janjira never found difficulty in fending-off small battalions. It waited in calm until the impatient attackers decided to enter water and make an effort to scale the walls of Janjira. The Janjira guns fired, sinking the boats. And water around meant wall scalers could never scale in numbers simultaneously that would help capture the ramparts.

The Western side of the fort overlooked the open, endless Arabian Sea. We saw a large plane-surface land beyond the fort walls. This was probably used to dock supplies from the boats, beyond the view of anyone from the land areas. The Siddis could sail in or sneak out, in the darkness of night without anyone being able to estimate the strength of the garrison. The guns pointed out in all directions, including the open sea towards the west-end. To the outsiders, it was not only difficult to make an estimate of how many people manned the fort, but also how long would their food supplies last, or anything about the supply replenishment from sea. Bombay was not far via sea. And the English kept allowing Janira ships to dock in their city, partly because Siddi was Emperor’s admiral and even when Mogul power faded, the Siddis were entertained by Bombay purely on the basis of usefulness.

The Siddis now patrolled the entire coast stretching from South of Janjira to Surat, at the mouth of Tapti. Janjira was constantly busy during this eventful peiod. The Siddis enjoyed the full support from the command at Surat’s Castle and gained influence in the city of Surat too. For nearly forty years until 1713, the Janjira lived through Glory. Backed with Mogul money and command, Janjira plundered Bombay (English), Thane & Vasai (Portuguese), and Raigad district (Marathas). At this point in time, the great seaman Kanhoji Angria* (former admiral of Shivaji’s Navy) joined hands with the Marathas, bringing Janjira’s best days to come under cloud. Angria would attack Siddis from sea and the Marathas on land. Janjira lost much of its possessions in Konkan and a new equilibrium was obtained which froze territories for the next 20 years. Then After the death of Siddi Surul Khan in 1734, a slave Siddi Sambal took over after murdering Khan’s son. Khan’s another son sough Maratha help in winning the power. Marathas aided with the help of their mole general. Now equations were changing with Janjira’s influence and power diminishing. Janjira’s generals acceded, Khan’s son was made the chief and Marathas took away more of Janjira’s land territories. Also with this, the tradition of inducting as chief, the first officer of fleet, ended. Instead, started a hereditary rule.

As the Mogul administration weakened, Siddis took over the command at the Surat Castle for a little while, but continued to be guardians of sea on behalf of Delhi and got paid for it. For the English, Siddis were an important ally because of growing Maratha power. In 1731, some local landowners of coastal areas had seized some of Surat’s ships. The Siddis arrested them and the landlords paid as ransom (to escape death as punishment?) a piece of land. This was the port of Jafarabad whose lighthouse is so popular with conservationists today. (Jafarabad is pretty close to the present day Pipavav Port --- an efficient private port of modern India, built recently). Jafarabad was important to the British as it supplied them with livestock for meat. Meat was not available anywhere else in the entire coast because Marathas (Peshwa) had shut all such supply in the Konkan. The last line of supply was the various Portuguese colonies. But in 1738 and 1739, the Marathas had erased the Portuguese out of the scene.

With less number of forces now left to aid Janjira (Portuguese and Moguls were gone), Marathas attacked Janjira once again. This was the year 1760. Marathas had been somewhat eroded because of Panipat and the English were emboldened after gaining India’s East (Plassey, 1757). Janjira pleaded and received British support. British flag was hoisted on Janjira and Marathas respected it. Thereafter, both the Marathas and the English left Janjira to its own – realizing that it was not capable of taking on anyone.

In time, British gained more of India. In 1834, Janjira (with its land areas such as Murud) became a princely state under the British. The chief was called Nawab, who subsequently built and shifted to a palace in Murud. But the British seemed to act like a moody lady in treating the chief of this little princely state. Sometimes with warmth in Bombay and sometimes not displaying any care. The Sidis were an important ally of the British for 200 years in the coast, when the British were struggling to set foot. But now with their power reduced, were being severely marginalized. Part of the blame lay with the Siddis whose infighting (between Nawab and Sardars) meant frequent calls for British intermediation in state matters. Each intervention resulted in more of British law and supervision being forced upon.

In 1948, the Janjira was merged with the Union of India.

As we continued our quest inside the fort, the most important part of the fort seemed to be the fresh water lake, which never dries up. Locals say that underground spring aids the lake water. The Lake’s boundaries are populated by ruins. The Palace and the Mosque – the two most important places within the fort, overlooked the lake.

Fresh water lake with the Mosque in background

The palace gate survives. A piece of historical description talked about the gate’s heavy Burmese Teak doors. The ruins clearly indicate that inside the fort, buildings must have been neck-to-neck. With the space being limited and number of inhabitants increasing, the requirement for additional building went up, resulting in crowded construction. After the British flag was hoisted on Janjira, there were no wars. Peace time combined with steady revenue probably added to construction. The west end of the fort was less crowded, with few structures visible. The gate of another unnamed building was gone too and its place was taken by a stone wall.

The fort was taken over by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) in the 1950s, after independence. But inhabitants of the fort continued to stay in their homes. The condition of all structures continued to deteriorate during the 60s. In 1972, the ASI had the fort evacuated and its inhabitants resettled on mainland. My guide told me that almost all wood was plucked off by the leaving inhabitants and so also the other building material as much as possible, including some stone bricks. As we descended through the staircase into the lake, we noticed a large verandah beneath --- that was used as a cool retreat sitting during summer. And there you think what the place must have been in its heydays.

*Angria is wrongly (in my view – even after taking into account personal bias) described in history as the greatest sea pirate of the East – undefeated for life. While Angria was undefeated for life, he was no different from all others in the vicinity including Portuguese and the English. The only difference was that Angria’s sole permanent enemies were the English, whom he tormented with great pleasure. He was made infamous by the British as a pirate, and most international historians wrote that way under British influence.

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