Driving to Murud on Sunday morning from Kashid, I had the sense that I was traveling back in time. Small sleepy hamlets all along the way, not fully awake but for the early morning fisher folk on the roads and children learning to ride the bicycle, swinging dangerously in the middle of the lane, cattle looking equally bleary-eyed and surprised each time they heard the honk of a passing car. Most of this route is along the coast, the sea suddenly appearing at your side on the curves and then going off view till the next sharp turn.
We drive all the way through Murud, stopping only to stare at the sea from high in the hills, just in front of the ornate palace of the Nawab and then for directions to get to the jetty for Janjira. We reach Rajpuri from where the boats leave and see a sign at the entrance, happy new year 2006; enhanced sense of time travel. We park the car and walk through small lanes to get to the jetty, young men calling out from tiny shop windows along the lane, Bisleri, cold drinks, chai, nashta, and more shops selling Konicca colour film with cheerful disdain for all branding. We pass the local Urdu school and the English medium school right across it, and resist the temptation to step into the ubiquitous Chinis ‘hotel’ for a quick Manjuri meal.
Janjira is a short boat-ride away, the young man at the helm, imparting little bits of information about the fort reluctantly, and withholding the rest; we get into the fort and he turns around and says, let me be your guide.
So, guide and we walk though the purported twenty two acres of the awesome sea-fort, which took twenty two years to build, or what remains of it. Twenty two acres, twenty two watch towers, each manned night and day by armed sentries, huge cannons at the ready, three entrances, all cleverly concealed so they were not visible anywhere from the sea except from very close by. The enemy did not have a whiff of a chance.
The guide (and guidebooks) say that this fort built by Siddi Johar, head of the Siddi clan who moved to India all the way from Abyssinia, has never fallen to enemy hands, not even the all-conquering Marathas. Some sources I read (and my guide) say that the fort was built around 1118, while others place it some time in the 16th century. Ismail, our guide also says that till as recently was 1972, people lived inside the fort – including his father who was born there – I have no idea about the veracity of this claim, but the fort does seem capable of supporting human life – mosques and a temple, a huge granary and two fresh water lakes right in the middle. The outer walls cemented by a mixture of lime, jaggery and lead have withstood centuries of the sea battering against them and the sun and rain. Inside, everything is now in ruins, most of it man-created; the lakes are being drained and cleaned out since the water had become too contaminated for the fish to survive.
The half-empty emerald green fresh water lake and the scores of white plastic Bisleri bottles tell a sad tale. So do the graffiti and the broken stone edifices across the fort.
I would have loved to spend all day there under the shade of a tree, but the tide was rising and our guide-boatman was in a hurry to get back to land. The waters had covered two more steps by the time we got down to the boat. In his hurry, Ismail still stops to point out the insignia of the Siddis near the entrance of the fort, a tiger holding six elephants in its clutches – the might of the Siddis…