Vijaydurg: The Sentinel of the Arabian Sea
The Indian state of Maharashtra (and Goa) is blessed to have many many sea forts dotting its coast. I haven’t yet visited them all but out of the dozen or so that I have, fort Vijaydurg is my most favourite. It’s an utterly gorgeous fort, thanks to relatively better preservation compared to other forts of Maharashtra. This magnificent, seemingly impenetrable sea fort is located halfway between Ratnagiri, my hometown and Goa. Interestingly, the fort also has a connection with our star, Sun! Read on to know more.
Vijaydurg has so many fascinating features and stories associated with it that it amazes me every time I have visited the fort. The approach to the fort is through the tiny village by the same name: Vijaydurg. As you descend the narrow winding road into the village, you won’t even realise what a historical marvel you are about to visit. The fort is surrounded by the Arabian sea from almost all sides except this one end which touches the village. We begin at the outermost wall of the fort at its only connection with the land’s end and as we walk towards its grand entrance hidden efficiently between the two huge beastly bastions, we stand there agape in wonder. Most forts in Maharashtra have such grand yet obscure and curved entry path to the main gates only to discourage elephants trying to break in. You see, they can’t have enough space for long runup. Very brilliant idea, I must say! Interestingly, you’d not find similar fort/castle designs in parts of the world where elephants are scarce, as am currently discovering in Scotland!
Only after we enter the fort that we realise how huge it is. Built in late 12th century it later came to be known as “Gheria” during the rule of Bijapur sultanate. After centuries of developments by several dynasties and rulers, it now encompasses sprawling 17 acres of area and is strengthened by massive fortifications. There are some really amazing features of this fort. For one, this is the only sea fort in Maharashtra which boasts of a dry dock! It used to cater to the growing Maratha navy as the fort had been a major hub of the maritime forces of Shivaji’s Sarkhel (admiral) Kanhoji Angre and later Sarkhel Anand Rao Dhulap. The strong navy of seemingly modest warships aggressively protected Maratha empire from the East India Company and other enemies. Although, unfortunately, the dry dock where those ships would be repaired and built is about 3 km further inside the Vaghotan creek [1, 2] and much of it is covered in bushes making it very difficult to locate it.
Another of my favourite features of this fort is the access tunnel to the biggest bastions of the fort: Sadashiv Bürüj. A few feet westward from this tunnel on the north side of the wall there is a Chor Darwajā (or the hidden door) which leads one outside to the base of the rampart near the fort’s dock. From outside one couldn’t imagine the door being there at all. As we descend down the stone stairs, we can’t help but be drawn to the historical elegance of this beauty of a fort. A fort that fought fiercely against the invading forces. Although this fort doesn’t come close to the truly impenetrable fort Janjira, Vijaydurg has its own proud moments in the history.
Towards the north-western end of the fort, near the Sikhara Bürüj, we see a peculiar circular indentation on the ground. This was a huge flour mill of the time, probably driven by horses or maybe bulls. A wheel would rotate around a central pillar as the animal would be made to move slowly around it in turn grinding the grains. Smaller versions of these kind of flour mills have been common in Indian households, until almost 20 years ago. In the sea to the immediate vicinity of this bastion lies a wonder. In an astonishing discovery in the 90s, scuba divers found a huge 20 feet tall underwater wall in the sea right in front of the fort. Raised in 17th century (during Shivaji’s reign), the secret wall acted as added protection for incoming enemy ships, as the attacking ships would collide with it and get severely damaged or even sink before getting close enough to the fort! Although, thorough research is yet to be done, the wall surely exists under that seemingly calm sea surface like a vicious cunning saboteur.
However, for the Science person in me the most amusing historical event related to the fort, remains a mystery surrounding the total solar eclipse in 1868 and subsequent discovery of existence of element Helium about 25 years later. Two independent observations of total solar eclipse of 18 August 1968, one in Guntoor, India (by a French astronomer Pierre Jules César Janssen) and the other from London, England (by British astronomer Joseph Norman Lockyer) lead to the pathbreaking discovery of a wavelength never seen before, a bright yellow spectral line (at 587.49 nanometre) emanating from the chromosphere of the Sun. Incidentally, the papers about this observation from both the astronomers reached the French Academy of Science on the same day and eventually both were credited with the discovery of a new element “Helium” based on the name Helios for Sun. Well, you might say, where does Vijaydurg figure in all this narrative!?. Interestingly, there is a relic of a platform on the fort, referred to as “Sāhébaché Oté” and there’s a board nearby suggesting very clearly that Norman Lockyer was the one who made this observation from Vijaydurg fort. However, it seems Lockyer was never been to Vijaydurg before January 1898 . Lockyer did visit Vijaydurg and construct those Sahebache Ote to observe another total solar eclipse on 22 January 1898 when the fort was a perfect location for maximum observation time. It seems the fort might be wrongly attributed to discovery of Helium! So much for a ride through history of Science 🙂
- Tripati, Sila & Gaur, A S “Onshore and Nearshore Explorations along the Maharashtra Coast: with a View to Locating Ancient Ports and Submerged Sites” Man and Environment XXII (2), 1997. [Accessed online: February 15, 2018]
- MacDougall, Philip, “Naval Resistance to Britain’s Growing Power in India, 1660-1800: The Saffron Banner and the Tiger of Mysore” Worlds of the East India Company, vol. 10, 2014, pp. 110-111. [Accessed online: February 15, 2018]
- Lockyer, Norman, et al. “Total Eclipse of the Sun, January 22, 1898. Observations at Viziadrug.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Containing Papers of a Mathematical or Physical Character, vol. 197, 1901, pp. 151–227. JSTOR. [Accessed online: February 18, 2018]