Staring at the horizon, I see life slowly stir in this tiny fishing hamlet at Mitbaon beach. Dogs stretch lazily. Elsewhere, the echoes of temple bells usher in a new day. A lone boatman walks towards his boat, which is anchored on the shore. A mother and son climb up the jagged steps to a small temple as a priest opens the doors.
I am in Devgad, a small town in Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra, gazing at the Konkan coastline. Ravaged by wars for centuries, this coast is dotted by forts that tell stories. Like Sindhudurg, which takes its name from the 17th century fortress built by Chhatrapati Shivaji, ruler of the Maratha empire. My guidebook, of course, has a simple explanation: Sindhu means sea and durg refers to a fort; hence the name Sindhudurg.
As you walk down the coastline, you see more forts, some mere crumbled walls, which stand on the craggy cliffs. I am overcome with a sudden urge to walk down the shores of these nondescript beaches, looking for the forts and their stories.
Mitbaon, I realize, has no citadels standing on its shores. But my hosts at the Pitruchaya homestay tell me that the closest fort is Vijaydurg, which skirts the ocean. As I leave their rustic home, the rains come down, painting the entire landscape in green, while the wet earth blushes and turns a ruddy. The mango orchards stand out in this rainswept village, creating a pretty picture.
A couple of fishermen are working their nets as I reach Vijaydurg. I am lost, looking at this huge bastion, the stronghold of the Maratha empire, when a voice interrupts my reverie.
“You see any fort in Maharashtra and people will tell you that it was built by Shivaji Maharaj.”
I turn to see a man leaning on a charpai. Yeshwanth Dhavi in his rolled sleeves and denim shorts looks anything but a guide. But I am soon to learn that there is more to the Marathas than Shivaji. Yeshwanth explains that the fort was built by Raja Bhoj in the 12th century, but was strengthened by Shivaji after he captured it from Adil Shah of the Bahmani Sultans in the 17th century.
The walls of Vijaydurg open out into the sea as the waters surround it on three sides – what is locally referred to as “ gheriya.” A creek flows for almost 40 km around it. We walk past the massive bastion, or Sadashiv Buruj, and enter the main gate. Just hiding behind a huge rock is a secret passage that takes you out of the fort. Cannonballs litter the ground. As I pause to look at them, Yeshwanth asks if I had been to the 300-year-old Rameshwar Temple en route to the fort.
Even before I answer, he brings me some kokum sharbat and narrates the legend. Lord Shiva, he says, had appeared in the dream of the Maratha general Sambhaji Aangre, a resident of the fort, and asked him to build a temple. A cannon was fired from here and an underground temple was later built at the spot where the missile landed.
I smile, realizing that almost all temple legends sound the same. The waters lash against the shore as kids play on a boat. I pick up some vada pav and carry on with my journey.
The rains fall behind as the sun lights up the Malvan beach. Lying afloat on the waters is the 400-year-old Sindhudurg fort, stationary like a ship docked in the harbor. Wire-tailed Swallows fly low, looking for a catch, as a self styled guide in his long flowing beard and wind-swept hair begins to make small conversation with me.
“There are close to 15 families staying there even now. My aunt lives there too,” says Pandurang Purandhar.
I look at the mile-long wall of a fort standing tall against the horizon. The monsoon has just started and none of the boats are willing to take me down there. Built across 44 acres of land on Kurute island, the fort has a long history, which Purandhar shares with me. It became the naval headquarters of the Marathas when Shivaji built it with 32 turrets. A footprint and a palm relic of the king along with a shrine dedicated to him are some of the tourist attractions here.
“There are ponds or wells that will never go dry called Doodhbaun, Dahibaun and Shakkarbaun,” he says. I am disappointed that I am unable to explore the fort, but I am more curious about the families living there today.
“My aunt stocks a lot of food until the monsoon is over. The boats don’t sail in choppy waters,” Purandhar tells me, adding that most of the families were mavlas or soldiers who fought for the Marathas and have been living here for generations.
“The houses are ancient as well; we cannot even sell them and it’s like we are all cut off from the world, living in the glorious days of the Maratha Empire,” he says.
The rain returns with a vengeance, turning drizzle into downpour. I pass by Tarkali beach, where the tourists have taken over, and head towards Bhogwe and Nivati. A rocky path presents itself as I climb up to Nivati fort. It’s drizzling again and the smell of the earth is refreshing. All I see are a few broken walls, which remain here as proof of the fort built by Shivaji. The view, however, is breathtaking.
Flanked by swaying coconut trees that are dancing to the tune of the monsoon winds, I can see the sea stretch for miles. Local people are walking on the white sands below.
As I drive through the lush landscape of Sindhudurg, I realize it is not just about forts and beaches. The mangoes and cashewnuts, the backwaters and forests are enough to lure the tourist. I pause by to take in the beauty of Dhamapur Lake and go to an old quaint village, Pinguli, to watch a puppeteer treat me to scenes from the Ramayana
Finally, I have a chance to meet the Queen of Sawantwadi in her palatial home, encouraging artisans and craftsmen to to create ganjifa cards. I walk into the durbar hall with its stained glass windows where the artisans are painting images from the Dasavathar on these cards. A lone throne stands unattended. I spend a few moments thinking about the lost opulence of the palace as an old artisan rubs his glasses, picks up his cards, and leaves the palace. In that very moment, I realize my tryst with Sindhudurg and its royal past and present has just ended as well.