Down the Konkan coast to re-discover Maharashtra’s naval forts

The coasts and hills of Maharashtra are dotted with forts. 236 to be exact. Don’t believe me. Check here.

That’s the highest among all the states in India. But unlike the lavish fort-palaces of Rajasthan, the forts of this state are rugged military bastions from which the generations of fierce warriors; the Marathas, the Peshwas, the Siddhis; watched over and guarded their territories from enemies and invaders.

Sadly enough, with lack of maintenance and upkeep, most of these forts have given in to the forces of nature. Some are still trying to put up a feeble resistance to the ravages of time with help from the local communities and descendants of the original inhabitants but most have nothing more remaining than crumbling boundary walls.

I have especially been fascinated by the chain of magnificent naval fortifications along Maharashtra’s coastline. I remember visiting Alibaug Fort as a child and being awestruck by this dark plateau like structure standing in the middle of the sea. It could have easily passed for an offshore island but for the traces of straight walls and circular watch towers that gave away it’s human creator. As time went by and I got the opportunity to travel more around the state, I discovered that Alibaug Fort is not the only fort in Maharashtra nestled in the middle of the Arabian Sea. So let’s take a road trip down the Konkan Coast to discover this series of naval fortifications unique to Maharashtra.

Alibaug Fort

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Alibaug Fort, as seen from the beach

Alibaug is a coastal town situated 95 kms away from Mumbai and 140 kms away from Pune. The Alibaug Fort, build in 1680 by the Maratha emperor Shivaji, is situated a few kilometres off the main beach in the centre of the town. At high tide, the fort gets completely surrounded by water. However, given the gentle gradient of the beach here, one can easily walk to the fort at low tide. Inside is a Ganapati temple, a dargah and cannons from the time of the Marathas. A few fishing families still live inside the fort. The highlight of visiting this Fort is definitely the 20 to 30 minutes walk across the beach. On the way, one can spot crabs, shells, starfishes and a variety of other marine life that the sea forgot in it’s hasty retreat.

Getting There: Alibaug is 95 kms away from Mumbai (2.5 hours to 3 hours drive)  and 140 kms away from Pune. To reach Alibaug from Mumbai by road, take the Mumbai Goa Highway till Vadkhal. From Vadkhal, take NH 166A to reach Alibaug. Alternately, one can also take a ferry to Alibaug from the Gateway of India.

Caution: Please confirm the timing of the tides before you venture out to the fort. A sudden unexpected surge of waters can leave one stranded in the fort or cause some untoward incident.

Murud Janjira

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Bird’s eye view of Murud Janjira

Unlike the Alibaug Fort, the fearsome bastion of Murud Janjira situated 55 kms further down the Konkan Coast, is always surrounded by lashing waters of the Arabian Sea. The waters are deep here and the only way to get to the fort is by boats with billowing white sails that seem as old as the fort itself. I must admit, the lashing waves, overcrowded boats and complete absence of any safety equipment did make us hesitate for a moment but the lure of Janjira was too strong to pass up this opportunity. Locals talk about a tunnel that ran under the sea bed from the fort to the coast but it seems to have caved in now.

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Sail boats carrying curious tourists to Murud Janjira
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Entrance to Murud Janjira

Built in the end of the 17th century, Murud Janjira was the stronghold of the Siddis, slave traders from East Africa who held sway in this region. Local accounts say that the fort of Janjira remained unconquered till it became a part of the India post independence. Legend has it that Shivaji led 13 unsuccessful expeditions to conquer it. Shivaji’s son, Sambhaji even tried to construct another fort, the Kasa Fort, across the bay to capture Murud Janjira. Needless to say it all proved futile.

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Kasa Fort shrouded in evening haze, as seen from Murud Janjira

The inside of Murud Janjira, though overgrown by plants and grass still has a lot of structures intact like the mosque, the fresh water well, three huge cannons and a labyrinth of crumbling buildings stacked together to form what must have been a bustling settlement in his heydays. Climb to the highest point of the fort to get a glimpse of the hills across the waters, the houses and hamlets nestled around their feet and the jam-packed boats with their white wind-swollen sails making the crossing.

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The ruined interiors of Murud Janjira
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One of the cannons in Murud Janjira
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Ruins of the mosque inside Murud Janjira
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View from the highest point of Murud Janjira

Getting there: Murud Janjira is about 55 kms away from Alibaug via NH 166A. The road though narrow and hilly is very scenic. All along the way, the sea and the surf play peek-a-boo through the trees and shrubs as the vehicle rides the winding roads of the rugged Western Ghats. Alibaug to Murud is a drive of about 2 hours but expect to get waylaid and delayed by the many crowd-free pristine beaches along the way.

Sindhudurg

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Sidhudurg Fort

The next stop on this ‘Tour de Naval Forts’ is bit of a stretch. The Sindhudurg Fort (that literally translates to Sea Fortress) off the Malvan coast is a little over 400 kms from Murud Janjira. This is the last district of the state of Maharashtra, a few kilometres short of swinging Goa and it could not be more different – quiet, serene and relatively untouched by tourism.

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Some posing on Malvan Beach before hopping onto the boat to Sindhudurg

The Sindhudurg Fort though surrounded by the sea on all sides, sits in shallower waters than Murud Janjira. Nevertheless, to reach it, one needs to board one of the many tiny ferry boats jostling for space at the jetty on Malvan beach. A few minutes later you are deposited at the fort. If your luck is good and you reach there at high tide, chances are that you will be dropped off on the sandy beach or the cemented path leading up to the fort else you might have to skip over the jagged sea shell covered rocks (or dead coral, I could not tell) to get to the fort like we did. In any case, wear shoes with good grip just to be on the safer side.

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Onto Sindhudurg

Also built by Shivaji in mid 17th century, area wise this fort is much bigger than either of Alibaug and Murud Janjira. A fair number of people still live in there so it very much feels like a small village from inside. Besides the houses of the locals, there are a number of temples, wells and even a school which is non-functional now due to paucity of students. Scattered here and there are a number of stalls put up by the residents to sell fruits, coconut water and bhakri (a form of flat bread made from ground rice eaten widely in Maharashtra). Walk briskly to leave habitation behind and you can reach the far end of the fort to watch the surf breaking against its massive walls.

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The far end of Sindhudurg with Arabian Sea stretching out ahead it

Getting There: Sidhudurg Fort is 406kms away from Murud Janjira (about 8 to 9 hours of driving) or 534 kms away from Mumbai via NH 66, the Mumbai – Goa highway. The road is narrow, bumpy and full of ghats but the scenery around will certainly make up for the pain.

Around Sindhudurg: Just 5 kms away from the fort is the village of Tarkarli, little piece of backwater heaven lined with lush coconut palms and a very popular scuba diving spot.

So, next long weekend, grab a car and set out to explore this distinctive piece of Maharashtra’s history set along the sun kissed beaches and waters of the Konkan coast. Cheers!

P.S. If you are further intrigued by the naval fortifications of Maharashtra , take some time out to also visit Vijaydurg (also in Sidhudurg district) and Arnala Fort in Vasai, close to Mumbai.

It’s really quite sad that while in the name of upholding Shivaji’s legacy, Rs. 3,600 crores are being spent to erect a 210m tall statue of the Maratha emperor off the coast of Mumbai , these forts (the true legacy of Shivaji and the Marathas) are wasting away in neglect.

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