Mirjan Fort Monologue
Updated: May 9
Over my eyes, and I was blind -
Her large brown hand stretched over
The windows of my mind;
And there in the dark I did discover
Things I was out to find ~ Snap-Dragon, D.H. Lawrence
He is unrecognizable now. Or so does people say. Before my mind can even allow myself sigh of a muted 'Dear Me!', I realize that he doesn't care. Not an inch of his 10.13 acres gets disturbed by what onlookers think as he spends his time in glorious anonymity, roughly 22 Km. away from Gokarna, a small town in Karnataka on the western coast of India. When most of the tourists visiting Gokarna give him a miss, the white wild flowers on his secret passages nod more agreeably. One may misinterpret his proclivities as conspicuously unfriendly. Well, let's just say he's as kindly warm as your flaming heart will allow and as unassumingly quiet that your blood will need to suspend its timbre!
©Darkroom, My Photostories
Even when history like a horse set off from his home at a gallop, after withstanding many harsh battles in the 16th and 17th century, he doesn't prefer to appear imperious. Enveloped in isolation, I can't think of himself making such an intolerable fool of. But I find it difficult to maintain my dignified air when I see betrothed couples in colour-coordinated clothes leaning on his time-ravaged laterite structure for their pre-wedding photo-shoots. Even though Archaeological Survey of India has declared him as a protected monument, like many other Indian forts he experiences disrespect and neglect. Monumental neglect. However, authorities come to hoist Indian flag on his bosom on every Independence and Republic Day.
Does it absolve the wrongdoing? May be Aghanashini can tell.
Aghanashini - The Destroyer of Sins
Located at Tadri creek on the banks of pristine Aghanashini river in Kumta taluk, Mirjan fort has been the timeless witness of the river's journey to the Arabian sea as much as she has been the witness of every canals and moats in his underbelly.
Older than the River Ganges and Himalaya, Aghanashini has an ancient presence. She is one of the very few rivers who still flows undisturbed in her natural course while providing a stable source of livelihood for thousands of fishermen with her gift of more than 150 varieties of fish. Ably supported by a unique coastal ecosystem and Mangrove vegetation, she also plays a crucial role in the bivalve-based economy as many different bivalve species can be found in the river. The rapidly-shrinking primeval Myristica swamps found its home in the catchment area of her rich ecosystem along with 120 species of birds. Some rare species of this endangered swamps, which are believed to be in existence since the Dinosaur era, also get nurtured by her. The large estuaries of this river are good carbon absorbers and locals worship Aghanashini with reverence as 'The Destroyer of Sins' due to its pure clean water.
Aghanashini River, on the way to Mirjan fort, Kumta
View of Aghanashini River along with the Western Ghats from the fort
"She bade me follow to her garden, where
The mellow sunlight stood as in a cup
Between the old grey walls; I did not dare
To raise my face, I did not dare look up,
Lest her bright eyes like sparrows should fly in
My windows of discovery, and shrill 'Sin!' " ~ Snap-Dragon, D.H. Lawrence
When many interlinked wells were constructed inside the fort along with the watchtower and eleven circular bastions, the river's Kudurehalla stream has helped with its freshwater resources. The circular moat surrounding Mirjan's structure was interconnected with those wells and water used to get siphoned out to the moat to provide a barrier for the approaching enemy. Also, efficient storage of water for kitchen and waste management techniques were available inside the fort in the bygone era. Of course, it doesn't contain any water now and the area is covered by overgrown bushes. The underground chambers are inaccessible too and visitors mostly get to experience this intriguing place on a surface level.
Surrounded by overgrowth of grassland, Mirjan Fort provides a hint of Islamic and Portuguese architecture
Its high double walls can withstand great level of humidity
The watchtower offers 360° panorama of the surrounding
Way towards the base of a well inside Mirjan Fort. As water level used to decline in summer, it was built this way.
The interconnected tunnels lead from one well to another
A distant echo
The northern entrance is the most important one among four major entrances. The open courtyard of the northern side got staircases leading to rest of the directions in the fort. Series of iron-dark merlons adorn the walls along with 100 gun holes in between. Attacks used to take place from behind those merlons and loopholes. Patches of soft green tendrils in between makes them appear less perilous and stiff amidst the void air of November afternoon. It's pretty humid out there even in winter.
The quivering patches of sunlight play on the open grassland inside the fort as we lie down under the sky. The blue of the above world gesticulates to get lost as the grey of the world below exudes a sweetly suffocating earthen fragrance. Everything appears oddly fated in front of this mute testimony of conquest and defeat.
'Who inhabited the fort here originally? Who were they? What they were doing?', such questions fall motionless as I think about the partially crossword puzzle and partly literary opus, Landscape Painted with Tea by Milorad Pavić. The contemporary fiction was written in such a way that chapters can be read like crossword combination of 'Across' and 'Down'. It depicts our subconscious mirroring, the lateral inversion of reader's projections on the narrative and how that can change the reality of the characters depending on how the readers decide to read the book. Mirjan Fort reminds me about its protagonist, the miserable Belgrade architect, Atanas Svilar, who went out in a quest to find his past and future.
Surrounded by songless ruins all around, when the rain-bruised walls seemingly lean on us for folkloric revelation of their past, a sudden influx of visitors halts that imagination. Search for treasure caused havoc on the fort's interior architecture and the inner walls got mostly destroyed. But one can find remains of machicolation - a supporting projection on the walls through which stones, boiling waters, heavy rocks and other harmful items could have been dropped at the invaders.
As for the future, a lot depends on the restoration effort Archaeological Survey of India will plan. So far, Mirjan fort experienced far more vandalism and weathering in comparison to the conservation work. And then, excavation is important for research. Excavation conducted in 1999-2000 unearthed many huge laterite structures similar to the one found in Hampi, the capital of Vijayanagara empire; along with various antiquities like 75 cannon shot balls, 113 copper coins of Hyder Ali's period, terracotta sealing with Arabian and Persian languages written in Nastaliq characters, a gold coin dated 1652 AD minted in Goa and released by the Portuguese governor Conde De Sarzedes (Ad 1650-60), among others.
An elevated mound
Remains of one of the most secure forts in India
Crenels and Merlons
Used to be the place of assembly during British Raj
I get inside the tiny archway tent-like structure and look through the opening on the other side. My companions after exploring the rusted iron doors are looking across the moat as the surrounding trees swing pendulous. The trees here look aboriginal too. While spiders, spinning their thread watch us overhead along with Gray Langurs, Mirjan would compel one to search about his lesser-known history in the absence of any guide in the site, in greater detail than this placard at the entrance and my trifling pre-visit web search have conveyed.
A less-visited corner near the moat
Entrance of another deep well
Passage of history
Signboard at the main entrance
The signboard suggests that Mirjan Fort was under the governance of Gersoppa rulers during Vijayanagara times. Soon after the fall of Gersoppa rulers, Bijapur sultans have supposedly conquered the place and Sharief-ul Mulk, the governor of Goa, is believed to have either built or renovated the fort here. Another version states that kings of the Nawayath sultanate built this fort in early 1200. Eventually British occupied the fort and built a large warehouse to store pepper and sandalwood.
Mirjan or Muziris?
While delving into the history of Mirjan fort, I came across the mention of an ancient South Indian harbour Muziris which was famous for exporting spices and semi-precious stones since 1st Century BC predominantly to Mediterranean region, Persia, North Africa and Middle East. Kodungallur, a town on the bank of Periyar river on Malabar Coast appears as a strong contender about its original location. But since time immemorial, archaeologists and historians are broadly divided about the exact location of erstwhile Muziris and speculation theories are abound.
An article written by Sathees Chandran titled 'Muziris in Karnataka' states that 'Sir W.W. Hunter who wrote the “Gazetteer of India” has written in his book "Empire of India" that Muziris is between Goa and Tellichery. Mon. D. Anville in his "Geographical Illustrations of the Map of India" said Muziris is near Canara. Hugg more, William Wallace and Robert Jameson in "Encyclopedia of Geography" says Muziris is near Mangalore. Charles Rollins in "History of arts and science of ancients" says it is Mirjan of Karnataka. Major James Rennel who was the surveyor General of Bengal confirms Muziris is in Mirjan. Robertson agrees with him. William Vincent is also of the same opinion.'
Well, even though there's no conclusive evidence or consensual agreement on this matter, the port at Mirjan was once also known for foreign trade in spices with Dutch, Portuguese and British. Here I feel compelled to draw certain parallels because one of the versions of Mirjan's fort origin gets traced back to Queen Chennabhairadevi, who was born in a matriarchal society in the Tuluva-Saluva clan at Gersoppa (variously known as Nagar Bastikeri, Nagire, Gerasappa and Gerusoppa in its inscriptions), a small town on the northern bank of Sharavati river in Honnavar taluk of Uttara Kannada district in Karnataka.
Under the patronage of the Vijayanagara Empire, Queen Chennabhairadevi took reign of Mirjan Fort in 16th Century. Bhairadevi and Padmaladevi were two other queens who ruled from Gersoppa and Haduvalli. But they didn't match up the former who triggered Matsyanyaya (Literally translated as 'Law of Fish', indicating the ancient Indian political system wherein during the time of utter chaos in the absence of strong established ruler, the big fish in the pond devoured the small fish.) and has shown the bravery and presence needed to establish control over the sea, and hence on the spice trade. Some historians believe that Chennabhairadevi stayed inside the fort for almost 54 years to establish her industriousness over the entire region including southern region of Goa and Malabar with constant surveillance from Mirjan fort, making it as a central hub to control spice trade. That's why she was better known as the Pepper Queen or Raina da Pimenta among Portuguese, an opponent she humbled many times.
Moreover, this entire belt was known as pepper country as the spices grew in abundance and pepper along with nutmeg, cassia, saltpeter and beetle nuts were exported in European and Arab countries. The book 'Emissaries in Early Modern Literature and Culture' by Gitanjali Shahani mentions about a 1530-letter by Affonso Mexia, captain of Cochin, written to the King of Portugal: "Between Baticala and Goa there are certain places called Onor, Mergen and Ancola, from which I hear 5,000 crusados worth of pepper are annually shipped… These places are under the dominion of Queen of Guarcopa… This pepper is larger than that in Cochin, but is lighter and not so hot."
It is evident that Mergen is nothing but Mirjan and Queen of Guarcopa mentioned in the letter was Chennabhairadevi, the awe-inspiring Queen of Gersoppa. The Portuguese were so cautious of her that a 16th-century Portuguese official record reads thus: “We must deal with her, most carefully and diplomatically. We must be courteous, polite and diplomatic to win her to our side.” How our academics syllabus committee has forgotten probably the longest reign by an Indian queen in history (54 years) and why she didn't find her rightful place as a valiant woman ruler and military strategist? Another question still remains: Is the port of Mergen or Mirjan actually the same as the legendary port Muziris, which ruled the historic spice route over 3000 years ago?
I don't know the answer. As 'Sighs rising and trembling through the timeless air (Dante, The Inferno, Canto IV)', I told myself again, may be Aghanashini can tell.
Approximate distance by road to Mirjan fort from nearby places:
From Bangalore: 470 Km
From Mangalore: 212 Km
From Goa: 162 Km
From Karwar and Bhatkal: 70 Km
From Murudeshwar: 60 Km
From Gokarna: 22 Km
From Kumta: 11 Km
Dabolim airport in Goa is the nearest major international airport (162 Km. approx). The nearest railway station to Mirjan Fort is Kumta Railway Station (12 Km. approx). There are plenty of bus services as well as options for train from Bangalore to Kumta.
Best time to visit: I would say, right after the monsoon (late September/October), provided you are willing to negotiate with slippery slopes/steps. Winter is also a relatively pleasant time.
Entry Time: Current timings are from 8.00 AM to 6.00 PM. all days of the week. Check it out for yourself before visiting in order to avoid any inconvenience due to change in schedule.
Entry Fee: There's no entry fee or camera fee as of now. For elaborate video shoot or documentary, you need to take permission from Archaeological Survey of India or Government authorities. However, this is not yet a 'heritage site' and hence I'm not sure of the process.
Tips: If you are not driving in your own car, hire a cab or two-wheeler or auto-rickshaw for both ways while travelling to Mirjan fort because there's no convenient transport option near the fort for return. Ensure to carry drinking water with you inside the fort as it will easily take at least 2 hours to explore the area. There are some small shops nearby which sells cold drinks and mineral water, but they may not be of quality.
PhotoStory Date: 16.11.2019
Place: Mirjan Fort, Karnataka
Words and Photograph: Amrita Ghosh
Resource Credit and Citations:
Muziris in Karnataka by Sathees Chandran,
Queen of Gersoppa by Jyotsna Kamat,
Deccan Herald article by Pavan Kumar H
Economic Valuation of Bivalves in the Aghanashini Estuary, West Coast, Karnataka by Boominathan, M. , Subash Chandran, M.D. and Ramachandra, T.V.