Maharashtra’s Sea Forts: A testimony to the rise and fall of empires on India’s West Coast

Maharashtra’s Sea Forts: A testimony to the rise & fall of kingdoms on India’s West Coast

Sea forts of Maharashtra: A testimony to Maratha prowess 30stades

The Portuguese hit the Indian shores in the 15th century and were followed by the Dutch, Danes and the British. The favourite entry points of these foreign invaders were along India’s West Coast stretching from present-day Gujarat to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu. 

And that is also why the West Coast has about 130 forts as opposed to only 21 forts on the East Coast, which stretches from Kanyakumari to West Bengal. 

Maharashtra is home to some of the most beautiful and even unconquered sea forts that helped establish the supremacy of local rulers. The coastal forts were used for maritime trade and more importantly, for keeping enemies in check. They defined a ruler’s influence.  

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These sea forts were completely surrounded by water as they were built off the coast either on islands or the sea bed, mostly blocking a landing place.

Construction in water kept them safe from any land attack as well. 

Some of Maharastra’s sea forts along the Konkan coastline were built during the reign of the Maratha Empire between the 17th and 19th centuries. 

Also Read: Bhatner Fort: India’s oldest & strongest fort built 1800 years ago in Rajasthan

Murud-Janjira - the unconquered sea fort in Murud, Maharashtra. Pic: Wikipedia 30stades
Murud-Janjira – the unconquered sea fort in Murud, Maharashtra. Pic: Wikipedia

Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj not only built sea forts but also conquered many forts built by other rulers and fortified them. 

He also established his own naval base. Architect Hiroji Indulkar was the man who gave physical form to Shivaji’s vision for forts. The forts built during Shivaji’s reign are among some of the strongest structures in India. 

Also Read: Gagron: Rajasthan’s unique hill & water fort that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

He regularly defeated Siddis (a tribe from Abyssinia, Eastern Africa) of Janjira besides the British. Some sea forts of Maharashtra here:

1. Sindhudurg Fort: This fortification on the shore of Malvan town in the Sindhudurg district was built by Shivaji Maharaj to check the rising influence of the English, French, Dutch, Portuguese and the Siddhis.

Arial view of the Sindhudurg Fort built by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Pic: Flickr
Arial view of the Sindhudurg Fort built by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Pic: Flickr

Constructed between 1664 and 1667, this sea fort is spread over 48 acres, with a 3 km long rampart. Its walls are 12 feet thick and 30 feet in height, making the fort resilient to the tides and waves of the Arabian Sea.

West side of the Sindhudurg fort showing a door in the wall for beach access. Pic: Wikipedia 30stades
West side of the Sindhudurg fort showing a door in the wall for beach access. Pic: Wikipedia

The fort acted as a deterrent to the enemies and was the coastal capital of the Maratha Empire during Shivaji’s reign. Its main entrance is concealed and not easily identifiable. The Sindhudurg fort is Shivaji’s cenotaph for Marathas as it has a temple dedicated to the Maratha warrior. 

Also Read: Mardani Khel: Maharashtra’s talims popularise Chhatrapati Shivaji’s martial art legacy

Shivaji Temple within the Sindhudurg Fort. Pic: Flickr 30stades
Shivaji Temple within the Sindhudurg Fort. Pic: Flickr

The prints of Shivaji Maharaj’s hand and feet are kept at the temple. 

2. Suvarnadurg meaning Golden Fort was built by the kings of Bijapur in the 17th century on a small island near Harnai between what is present-day Mumbai and Goa. It was captured by Shivaji Maharaj in 1660 by defeating Ali Adil Shah II. 

Shivaji then fortified the structure and is credited with building it due to the extensive work undertaken by him. It was built for the Maratha Navy and also had a shipbuilding facility within its premises.

The fort was earlier connected with the land through a tunnel but is now approachable only through boats and ferries. 

Many old buildings, water tanks and carvings are still intact at the fort. Harnai is a natural harbour famous for a large fishing market. 

Entrance to the Suvarnadurg Fort. Pic: Flickr
Entrance to the Suvarnadurg Fort. Pic: Flickr

The fort’s walls have been cut out of the rock exposures on the island. Some of them have been built with large stone blocks. It has two entrances – the Mahadarwaja’ or big gate on the east-facing the land and Chor Darwaja on the west, facing the sea.

Survarnadurg fort has two entrances -- one facing land and another facing the sea. Pic: Flickr 30stades
Survarnadurg fort has two entrances — one facing land and another facing the sea. Pic: Flickr

There is a stepwell within the fort besides many tanks, ponds and wells with potable water.

3. Kolaba Fort: Also known as Alibaug Fort, it was built in 1652 in Alibaug, Konkan. Situated in the sea about 2km from the shores of Alibag, it is a protected monument.

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Chhatrapati Shivaji strengthened and fortified the Kolaba fort and made it one of his chief naval stations. 

The fortification work was completed in 1681, a year after Shivaji’s death. The fort helped Marathas in keeping an eye on the activities of Siddis.

Kolaba Fort in Alibag. Pic: Flickr 30stades
Kolaba Fort in Alibag. Pic: Flickr

Kolaba fort has two entrances – one towards Alibag and the other towards the seaside. The average height of the fort’s walls is 25 feet. Like all sea forts, this one also has freshwater well within its premises. 

Siddhivinayak Temple within the Kolaba Fort was built by Raghoji Angre. Pic: Flickr 30stades
Siddhivinayak Temple within the Kolaba Fort was built by Raghoji Angre. Pic: Flickr

It has many temples including that of Lord Ganesha (Siddhivinayak) built by Raghoji Angre; Goddess Padmavati and Goddess Mahishasurmardini (Durga). It is also home to the Dargah of Haji Kamaluddin Shah. 

4. Arnala Fort was built in 1516 by Sultan Mahmud Begda who was a local chieftain from Gujarat. On a small island off the port town of Arnala, 8 km from Vasai, the island fort is also called Jaldurg or Janjire-Arnala.

Also Read: Kochi’s Jew Town: The treasure trove of Jewish culture & history

One of the entrances to the Fort; it houses many old artefacts. Pic: Flickr 30stades
One of the entrances to the Fort; it houses many old artefacts. Pic: Flickr

The fort was renovated and rebuilt by the Portuguese who named it ‘Ilha das Vacas’ after capturing the island in 1530. 

The fort is home to interesting artefacts and architectural relics of the bygone centuries. 

It has been strategically constructed at the mouth of the Vaitarna River. After almost 200 years of Portuguese rule, Marathas conquered the fort in 1737.

Octagonal freshwater reservoir within Arnala Fort. Pic: Wikipedia 30stades
Octagonal freshwater reservoir within Arnala Fort. Pic: Wikipedia

A large octagonal freshwater reservoir inside the fort holds water even today. The fort also has temples of Ambakeshwar, Shiva and Bhavani as well as tombs of Shah Ali and Hajji Ali. The paduka or sacred sandals of Shrinity Anand are housed in a dome on the eastern face of the fort.

Aerial view of the Arnala Fort near Vasai. Pic: Flickr 30stades
Aerial view of the Arnala Fort near Vasai. Pic: Flickr

The Marathas lost the fort during the Third Anglo-Maratha war when it came under British control in 1817. 

5. Janjira Jal Durg or Murud-Janjira is an island fort on an oval-shaped rock off the Arabian Sea in Murud town of Raigad district. It was built in the 16th century by Koli chief Raja Ram Rao Patil so that his fishing community could live peacefully away from pirates. He later lost it to the Ahmadnagar Sultanate.

The island fort came under the control of the Adil Shahi dynasty until the reign of Ibrahim II when the Janjira fort was lost to the Siddis.

The entrance of Murud Janjira Fort can be reached only through ferry. Pic: Wikipedia 30stades
The entrance of Murud Janjira Fort can be reached only through ferry. Pic: Wikipedia

The fort remained unconquered until it became part of India after independence in 1947.

Twenty-six artillery towers are still intact at the fort besides many cannons, which are rusting in the ruins now. It boasted of 527 canons once upon a time. Three large cannons, named Kalalbangdi, Chavri and Landa Kasam, were once feared for their shooting range. 

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A freshwater pond within Murud-Janjira Fort. Pic: Wikipedia 30stades
A freshwater pond within Murud-Janjira Fort. Pic: Wikipedia

Centuries back, the fort was replete with all amenities like freshwater ponds, barracks, officers’ quarters, a mosque, etc. Even today, a deep well in the fort provides fresh water despite the structure being surrounded by saltwater. Tourists need to take a ferry to reach the entrance of the fort. 

Also Read: Western Ghats: India’s natural and cultural diversity hotspot 

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