I have visited Murud, a small-scale town along the Konkan coast in the Raigad district of Maharashtra, a couple of times with friends and family. It is, after all, a very popular tourist destination and a weekend getaway for the residents of Pune, Mumbai and surrounding places. However, this time, my purpose was to research on the Maritime History of the town and the magnificent fort of ‘Janjira’, which graces this tiny settlement, and is always flocked by visitors.
I was hosted in the guest house of the Indian Coast Guard and received the best of hospitality and facilities to conduct my research, courtesy Comdt Harish More. The locals also exuded a unique warmth, the impact of which lasted long after the trip.
Apart from the pristine beach and picturesque landscapes, Murud is well known for the Janjira fort that has been built in the middle of the sea. It is guarded by the Arabian Sea on the west and the Western Ghats on the east. It has a very strategic location, is commercially viable and has held its head high in history. It is built on an island which it partially owes its name to, and which is derived from the combination of the Arabic word ‘Jazeera’ and the Konkani word ‘Moorad’. The long history of the fort has evidences of trade relations with Egyptian and Babylonian civilisations. Janjira was built and occupied through several generations till it finally lost its precedence during the British rule.
The fort has a unique history. It was occupied by the Siddi community which, originally from Africa, had migrated to India during the Slave Trade. The Siddis soon gained freedom and lived the lives of freemen, earning administrative positions owing to their extreme diligence and physical strength. They ruled the Janjira fort for almost two centuries, uncontested.
A distinctive feature of their rule was the election system in which the most able candidate was chosen as the next nawab, very much unlike the hereditary system of leadership followed in those times, and also throughout history. While there are stray mentions of such a system across history, nowhere is it found to be followed uninterrupted for nearly two centuries. It proves to be vital information, which is neither documented at length, nor is made available for being recognised and appreciated.
The Siddis were stationed across Gujarat, Karnataka, Hyderabad and Murud as merchants, traders and administrators. Some of them remain settled in these parts, speaking fluent Hindi along with the regional language but unfortunately the community, its culture and history have no recognition. India is now their home and they are absorbed into the regional cultures, enhancing the ever-brewing cultural pot of India.
Despite being a fine example of early craftsmanship and maritime history of the country, very meager work is available in terms of literature, survey and research on Murud Janjira and the Siddis.
Except for few a Marathi ones, not many books are available on the two. There is a mention of the Janjira fort and Siddis in many articles, gazetteers, journals and books but they are limited in nature, scattered, and given very less importance. In a way, we can say that their mention is just a “passing mention”. The three Marathi works, “Janjira” written by Prof. P.K. Ghanekar, “Janji-ryaachi Sahal” by R.D. Saathe and “Saad Sagaraachi” by Parag Pimpley, provide a very limited view of the Murud Janjira fort and the Siddis. Due to language constraints, it is difficult to disseminate the essence of this literature widely, especially in the historical domain.
Some books such as “Konkan: From the earliest to 1818 A.D” by Khobrekar and “A Social History of the Deccan” by M. Eatan Richard provide a contextual coverage, not a dedicated one. All these constraints add to the not-so-explored maritime history and heritage of the country. That is disappointing, especially in the case of Murud Janjira, as it comes out to be a site with a lot of potential for development, hospitable locals and serene natural beauty, with a pinch of history that once was a jewel in the crown of medieval India.
The site is graced with many monuments which belong to the Nawab era. The history of the town of Murud is extensive stretching right from the time of the Bahamani kingdom up to the British era. The Janjira fort has an eminent place in the maritime history of the country and also in its early historic period. That the impressive community of the Siddis is quite underappreciated and not documented is another forthcoming aspect which merits attention.
The locals of Murud consist of the diverse communities of Bori Muslims, Hindus and the Kolis. They are extremely friendly, helpful and cooperative in providing information. There is also peace and harmony amongst all these communities; they are extremely proud of their history and are willing to contribute for the dissemination of the same. Such aspects are social examples which deserve the spotlight, and need to be promoted and adopted in every part of our dynamic country.
When one experiences the beauty and serendipity of this town and soaks in the tangible forms of history, the intangible awaits. There is enormous intangible cultural heritage attached to the tangible forms and it needs to be preserved and documented. Or else, it will fade against the ravages of time. The traditional knowledge, beliefs and practices of fishing, ship building etc. are enchanting to study and experience and are capable of drawing a lot of attention if handles in the right manner. However, due to neglect, traditional practices and methods are dying with the advent of modernisation and local folks no longer wish that their children continue the legacy.
It is indeed enthralling, and often overwhelming, to come face-to-face with the magnitude of the potential of our massive maritime power and its remnants. Sadly, they are also almost forgotten. It is high time we facilitate the dissemination of such knowledge through various mediums, help the masses acknowledge their maritime history and draw attention towards it for further productive research.
(This article was first published in The Tilak Chronicle.)
Tiya Chatterjee is a Delhi-based Maritime Archaeologist, with a background in History, Archaeology and Museology.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.