‘Coasting Along’ – Mumbai Touchdown September 2008

Unconquered sea forts, tricky climbs to lighthouses and sumptuous fish ‘thalis’ to plesae the soul… a trip to Murud-Janjira and its fascinating detours is a must-do weekend getaway for the weary Mumbaiite.

One of the numerous plusses of living in Mumbai is that many interesting weekend getaways, be it a bird/wildlife sanctuary, beach, hill station, or fort — are accessible, barely a few hours away from the city. A drive through Maharashtra’s long coastline is fascinating in itself and a detour will take you to other places of interest. We decided to visit the never-conquered Murud-Janjira sea fort with stopovers at the not-yet-completely-polluted Kashid beach, Phansad wildlife sanctuary, and the easily accessible Koralai Fort. The trip was organised by Nature Knights, an eco-adventure organisation.

Driving down or hiring a vehicle is the best option if you’ve got the right number of people in the group. Though it’s okay if you don’t find a group. Boat services from the Gateway of India will take you to Alibag. The boat fare includes a drop from the jetty to Alibag town. From there, catch a tum-tum or tuk-tuk (three-wheeler taxis, the lifeline of Maharashtra’s villages) to Murud. Getting a good deal will depend on your bargaining ability. The choppy waters added to a bout of seasickness during the boat ride. Thankfully, the bus journey from the jetty to Alibaug town cleared my head as I began to sense the refreshing village vibes. You’ll encounter the mandatory bargaining with the tuk-tuk walas. What follows is a bumpy ride through a village road with coconut and palm groves on either side.

Kashid beach
The first stop was Kashid beach, which was a bit crowded. But snoozing on a hammock under casuarina trees that line the beach was a pleasure. We hit the road again after fattening the wallets of the tender coconut and ice cream walas. The ice cream wala had an interesting explanation for charging more than MRP. It was the VAT that forced him to do that, you see!

The unconquered fort
We were famished by the time we reached Murud. The thoughts of the fish thali didn’t help nor did the long wait at the Patil’s open-air restaurant. Finally, when the food arrived, the entire group fell silent and gorged. Then came the time to conquer the ‘unconquered’ Janjira fort. It is accessible from Rajpuri (the old port), 4 km from Murud, by sailboats. Janjira fort was originally constructed in the twelfth century by Siddis, businessmen turned rulers from Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia), in Africa. While that puts the age of the fort as 950 years old, most records say that the fort in its current form was built over 350 years ago by Siddi Johar. This is the only fort in Maharashtra’s 700-plus km coastline that remained unconquered despite being attacked by the Portuguese, the British and the Marathas. Shivaji’s son Sambhaji constructed the Padamdurg fort in a nearby island (now known as Kasa fort) in an attempt to capture Janjira by launching an attack from a closer and strong base. He didn’t succeed. Kasa fort is currently not accessible for public and requires special permission from the Port Trust authorities and the Indian Navy. Only sailboats are used to access Janjira because motor boat propellers might get stuck on the rocks near the fort. Also sail boats do not pollute! It’s fascinating to watch sailors climb up the rope to change the direction of the sail according to the wind. Since navigation depends entirely on favourable wind, our boat circled the fort before reaching the entrance and we got to view the fort from different angles. No wonder Janjira fort remained unconquered.

The fort has a height of more than 90 ft above the sea and 20 ft strong foundation and took 22 years to build. Its location in the middle of the Arabian Sea didn’t give the attackers a solid ground. It was heavily fortified with more than 200 hidden canons, 21 watch posts, and an architecture that didn’t provide enough room for attack even if the enemies managed to reach the entrance. Another feature that aided Janjira’s impregnability was that while it is surrounded by salt water, the fort also has two fresh water lakes and a well! This, together with the huge granaries that could store tons of grains, made the fort self-sustainable. Because of this, months of siege by the enemies barely affected normal life inside the fort.

The fort walls remain strong till date, despite the relentless beating of the waves. But many parts inside are in ruin. Our guide informed that the authorities permit shooting movies and television serials, whose insensitive handling causes damage. Walking along these remnants, listening to the bits of history from the guide, the past came alive – filled with sieges and counter-attacks.

Touring the entire fort took up almost two hours. We concluded the walk at the topmost point, rested our heels, and enjoyed the sea breeze and the breathtaking view. Some villagers offer water from the fresh-water well for free, and you could offer money, if you like. This apart, nothing is available inside the fort. While sailing to the fort, I was excited about visiting a sea fort for the first time. While returning, one couldn’t stop marvelling at the efforts that went into building this magnificent, strong citadel and the fierceness with which the inhabitants protected it from a slew of enemies. By sunset we reached the Rajpuri port. After tea from the only tea shop around, we walked back to our hotel at Murud. That two-hour twilight walk along the village road was invigorating. The first day was rounded off with another binge at Patil’s.

Phansad’s natural beauty
An early morning dip in the sea, and we were back on the tuk-tuk. The Phansad wildlife sanctuary is spread across 52-sq km along the Murud-Roha road. It has a wide variety of flora and fauna though we could only see a garden snake during our short walk inside the sanctuary. Since we had a tight schedule, we cut short the walk with the intention of returning to cover the four major nature trails within the sanctuary.

Exploring Koralai
Koralai fort is about an hour’s drive from Alibaug. Situated on top of a hill, it’s surrounded by water on three sides. The fort was under Portuguese rule until they left the region in 1740. There is a lighthouse at the base of the hill. Climbing to the top of the lighthouse on the metal stairs can be tricky. The view from the top is amazing – beach on one side and the ruined Koralai fort on the other. The lighthouse operator was thrilled to explain the functioning of the lighthouse and its history.

Down we came precariously, and up we went to the fort. There are steps leading to the fort. But where is the fun in climbing steps when the open grassy slope beckons you! So, a few of us decided to take the grassy root. It’s easy to walk along the slope, but at one spot near the fort we had to hold on to exposed roots to climb to the next level. From there, we climbed down to the farther end of the fort near the sea. Happy with our small adventure, we climbed up to the fort and reached there, almost breathless. While climbing downhill, we decided to stick to the steps.

The day’s highlight was a sumptuous lunch at a farmhouse at Navgaon, near Alibaug. The sea sickness returned on our way back to the Gateway. However, a lightheaded feeling from the trip more than compensated matters.