The name that struck fear in the heart of every European Imperialist at sea

At close to 4 in the afternoon, we had already travelled in the autorickshaw for nearly 45 minutes. A long ride. Four of us sat at the back, with little Neel on his mom’s lap. My friend was kind enough, as he crammed himself in the front seat, sharing it with the driver. Even in Konkan, the summer afternoons are not quite the kind and comforting variety, with hot gusts pounding.

Then there was an abrupt turn bringing us on a wide beach. The rickshaw drove through its firm sands and moved off to a rocky road up. What was in view against the backdrop of burning sun, was a lighthouse of antiquity. Old, yet gracefully guarding the seas from a cliff. As the rickshaw ramped up closer to the light-house, we were in view of a bay, flanked by basaltic-hill-cliffs on either sides, and terminating in a gentle beach. A magnificent view behold-ed us, as what seemed to be over 150 fishing trawlers crowding the bay, running riot with their colors. The larger ones had cabins and the Indian tricolor fluttered atop (understandable, given that bigger vessels are deep sea trawlers). But there were also a host of other flags on each vessel.

This wasn’t still the breathtaking sight I had longed to see. The sea fortress Suvarndurg (The Golden Fort) hid behind the cliff that hosted the lighthouse. The Bollywood would have us believe that fishermen on the Bay were to be found in their famous loincloth, dancing and singing. But the men sported shorts and bermudas of different kinds and so also mobile phones. They seemed busy with their business. Times have obviously changed. But some things haven’t changed. I was soon to find out. Several boatmen sat on the rocks that dotted the shoulders of the lane. The lane itself merged into a jetty. We inquired for hiring of a machine-boat. Pandhari Raghubir appeared authoritative, when he instructed one of the boatmen to show us the sea fort. The price agreed seemed reasonable.

A little later an indigenous machine powered wooden boat appeared. Much bigger than the manual (rowing) boats I rode on the rivers of Ganga and Teesta. Its size was the same as the boat that we rode in the morning to spot dolphins off the Karde beach, each boat packing 12 or more. But there was one difference. The morning waters were calm; placid as a lake. At 4.30 in the afternoon, the tide had returned and the waters were full of energy. Our boat rocked to and forth, and wobbled side-to-side. My wife was the first to panick. I tried to calm her down. We sought our boatman’s advice. He reassured us. Halfway out of the bay, the panick grew larger. Our boatman drew out a more determined statement, which roughly translates to: “There can be no bigger gaurantee of safety in the seas, than the presence of a Koli”. But by the time we were on the outer edges of the bay, the rocking boat had begun to make me feel dizzy as well. We forced the boat back to the jetty. Knowing fully well, that this was now or never, we could not take chances.

We were back at the jetty. The Koli boatman, slightly peeved, told us that we were the first ever to return from his boat, without being delivered to destination. Disheartened, I watched from the shore a family of 17 occupy the same boat and head to the sea. There were some large boats in the bay, with a cabin in it. These were deep sea fishing trawlers. These waited patiently at the rear end of the bay. Smaller boats offloaded their catch by the tons and carried to the shore at knee deep waters. At this point, bullock carts offloaded the catch and wheeled it on land. Bullocks by the dozens stood on the waters, even as waves intermittently submerged the whole of their feet.

We did some rethinking and soon we made up our mind. The new plan was that my friend and I would go. Just the two of us, and we will hire a much bigger, stabler boat. One Mr Kalekar, who seemed to own the facilities, instructed his chief sailor (Raghubir) to get a much bigger boat, and also instructed them to charge us a meager INR 300. I thought they were going out of their way to help us. Happily we rushed to the jetty. But there was some waiting. The next hurdle was availability of boat. The only boat of the size we desired stood anchored right in the middle of the bay. Raghubir’s yells and screams instructing whoever cared to listen, to unanchor the boat, were in vain. The lights were fading fast. The gloriously bright summer sun was paving way for long-stretched shadows of the cliffs and lighthouse. Watching us impatient, Raghubir with his bloated tummy jumped in the sea. He told Kalekar that he wasn’t sure if his breath would last until the destination – he hadn’t done this in a long long time. He swam towards the boat, while we watched nervously from the shore. I didn’t want him to drown and certainly didn’t want to be the cause. By this time, it was also getting clear to me that while modernity had pervaded many walks of Koli life, it mostly remained limited to dress and mobile phones. At Harnai, 250 KM away from the cunning megapolis, Kolis seemed to preserve their touch with the sea, and their word. I would not go out of my way for anyone like this.

Nearly 350 years ago, a small child by the name Kanhojee, had only one sport available --- sea. And his mates were not children his age, but adult Koli seamen like Raghubir. He sprinted past the shores, where I stood now. He played the very waters that made us dizzy a while ago. He was destined to be a legend.

To our relief, Raghubir reached the boat and brought it to us. As the boat powered itself into the sea, Raghubir shouted “Jai Shivaji”. Three and quarter centuries ago, Shivaji stormed the sea fort of Suvarndurg, ousting the Bijapur army from it forever. He renamed the sea fortress Suvarndurg. From Suvardurg, it was possible to vigil the seas for about over a hundred kilometers around. Shivaji entrusted Tulaji Angre with Suvarndurg. It was to prove a correct judgement, for Tulaji kept it in Maratha hands for his life. As we powered away into the sea, the waters leaped up and then sank with the same abruptness. I gripped the pillar with both by hands. The overcautiousness/fear seemed unfounded, for this boat was rather stable and there were no side to side wobbles. The waters were deep and interspersed with rocky crests, some visible and some not visible. Our boat entered a narrow pass between two rocky surfaces that held their heads above water. The view of the Suvarndurg was breathtaking. Giant walls of rock-bricks rose vertically – a sight familiar to tourists, except that it stood on waters, not land. Interestingly, the sea-fortress was within a striking distance from another beach that we didn’t know about. A village lay by the shore, which seemed to derive its name from the holy temples it hosted. The waters were calm here. It seemed the best way to reach the fort would be from this village. But I wasn’t sure. On a relook, this short route appeared extremely dangerous. This route was strewn with pointed rocks, occasionally keeping their heads above the water. For keeping the boats from straying in this area, a number of flags were hoisted atop the rocks, with the rocks themselves often not visible.

The sea fortress was now visible. We were looking at the eastern front of the fort, and the setting sun illuminated it from behind. The fort appeared like a stone-wall, afloat in the ocean. Unlike the janjira fort of the Siddis, Suvarndurg hasn’t used every inch of the tiny island at its eastern edges. So we landed on shallow waters and walked around 20 steps on sand. We were guided to an opening into the gigantic stone walls of the Suvarndurg. The formidable walls made up of stone stood testimony to the skills of Bijapur and Maratha engineers. The opening delivered us to a little courtyard, with a gate to its south. The entry gate (the wood gone), was rather modest. This was understandable, for the Golden Fort is less than a tenth of Janjira’s size. So, economic use must have been the key. Beyond the entry gate rate, lay what seemed to be an expanse of jungle with a big depression in the middle. It was obvious that the depression was host to most of the buildings. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it would have looked like in its heydays. And I could see a base brimming with soldiers, back-to-back built quarters on the depression, busy with extensive activity of food and drinks, ramparts crowded with canons and the men manning them, helper boys lining the parapets with cannonballs and utilities. The Admiral stood somewhere in the compound, in his Royal robes, discussing the next moves with his commanders – drawn from various nationalities including Dutch, French and Portuguese.

Kanhoji Angre (KA) struck fear in the hearts of European ships, whether merchant or navy, sailing on Indian waters. He ascended to head the naval possessions of the Marathas in 1698 and was the most befitting reply that India ever produced to the European Colonial Powers. No European ship was safe on Indian waters, if it didn’t buy its protection (Pass or Dastak).

The Europeans defied him frequently, to their peril. And Angre’s naval actions were largely reserved for the ships of the European Imperialists. At this point, the Portuguese power was waning and that of the British East India Company (BEIC), rising steadily.

Many things that I had read previously about BEIC’s wars with KA were inaccurate. But I was not quite interested in precise history here. What had already got my attention was the fear of the name KA (for them “Conajee Angria”). I must admit, it gives me pleasure to find records of such fear and respect for the Maratha navy (Angre) in BEIC forces. It matters less that result of combined European forces attack on Colaba (Alibag fort) and Kennery (Khanderi) was a humiliating defeat for the Europeans. What matters more is the belief among English and Europeans that KA’s forces came from an invisible, impregnable fortress that lay beyond mist and beyond the horizon – where no ship could sail --- and is was named Suvarndurg – the abode of the KA himself. In the 1st half of the 18th century, even calling this name out was forbidden on India bound ships. The fear psychosis transported me to the Pirates of the Caribbean series, of flying ships and sea ghosts – the sailors’ fears of the adversaries, known and the unknown.

It was somewhere towards the end of the 17th century, when the Siddys of Janjira, representing the Mughal navy, sieged Suvarndurg. The Governor of the Suvarndurg had decided surrender, when he was overstepped by one of his young officers called Kanhoji Angre. The young officer assumed charge of the garrison overnight and had the Siddys retreat back to Janjira.

I stood at the western ramparts of Suvarndurg and overlooked the wide open sea. The endless expanse of the Arabian Ocean. The waters at this end had been lined with ships of the British, Portuguese and the Abyssinians (Siddys), at various points in time, laying siege of the Suvarndurg. And several generations of the Angre family commanders would have stood right here to assess their enemy, before dealing a blow.

Tragically, the entire fort is in ruin and neglect. This is also not on tourist radar yet. What could be worse than its present state is that if irresponsible tourists discover the place before ASI or Government of Maharashtra restores it. There was a fresh water tank in Suvarndurg, that served as the primary source of water – now covered in green moss. The canons were absent from the fort.

It was already getting dark and we had to head back, we were reminded. We walked the little beach of the island to reach for the boat. Now it struck me why this piece of land may have been left untouched. Suvarndurg housed a brisk ship-building activity. It must have been on this beach!

On our way back, Raghubir was in great mood. He was joined by some boys from his clan. He laughed and sang. They celebrated their music. As for me, I was greatly satisfied too.


Param said...

you managed to take me with you on the trip. great writing!

Param said...

BTW, Managed to locate this in G-Map...,73.08378&spn=0.005914,0.010568&t=h&z=17&vpsrc=6
Unfortunately, it is mentioned as "Suvarnadurga" - is it worth correcting it?