The Janjira fort is situated on a small island in the Arabian Sea, off the coast of Maharashtra. The waves of the sea crashing against the thick ramparts of this structure are a sight to behold. The sea surrounding the fort served as an impregnable moat which made this structure a formidable bastion against any invader.
The fort is located on the busy maritime trade route connecting Broach, Daman, Diu and Mangalore. This fort commanded the naval traffic of the trading routes connecting Africa, Persia and Europe with the Indian subcontinent. The Janjira Fort attracted traders from far and near and became a halting station on these commercial routes. In the 1500s, the luxury trade at the fort involved ivory, gold, silk, horses and slaves.
The name of the fort derives from the Arabic word - Jazeera which literally means “an island in the middle of the ocean”. It is believed that the island on which the fort is located was originally a small fishing village occupied by Koli tribesmen. The Kolis initially constructed a small fortification with thick wooden logs as protection against sea pirates who continually attacked them.
It is, however, the Sidis who built the present structure after realising the strategic significance of this place. Legend has it that there occurred many hindrances in the process of completion of the fort. It is believed that, to overcome these obstacles, the then reigning Sidi ruler sacrificed his 22-year-old son. The Sidis were originally from Abyssinia and a majority of them were brought to the Indian subcontinent as slaves, bodyguards and soldiers during the time of the Delhi Sultanate. However, by virtue of their valour and hard work they rose to significant positions of responsibility, and eventually became the masters of Janjira. Malik Amber, who became the commander in chief of the Nizam Shah of Ahmad Nagar, belonged to this community.
The Sidis fought many fierce sea battles with the Dutch, Portuguese, French, British, Mughals, and the Marathas but remained undefeated. Legend has it that when the Mughal emperor Jahangir repeatedly failed to defeat Malik Amber on the battlefield, he ordered a likeness of the latter to be built. The Emperor then used to shoot arrows at it to vent his frustration. The stronghold of Janjira enabled the Sidis to be a part of multiple alliances against Marathas. During the reign of Aurangzeb, the Sidis were made mansabdars in order to help the Mughals handle the Maratha invasions. Similarly, they collaborated with the British and under their aegis were given the title of “Nawab”. Interestingly, Sidis were not monarchs. Periodically, a capable leader from within the community was chosen who would guard the fort of Janjira. The chosen leader was called “Wazir”. It was only after 1879 CE that the title of Nawab was adopted and the Sidis became dynastic in nature.
Sidi prowess reached its peak under their ruler Surul Khan (1706-1732 CE), who made important fortifications and later expanded the territory of the kingdom of Janjira. Under him Sidis occupied 22 forts in the mainland which were also contested by the Marathas. The advantage of Janjira allowed the Sidis to extend their territory to the mainland. An acropolis was constructed, around a kilometre south from Rajapuri (a village along the coast from which the Janjira fort can be accessed), where rest the tomb of three Sidi rulers. This complex is known as the Khokhari Tombs. Also on the mainland is the Ahmedganj Palace or Nawab Palace built by the Sidi rulers. This palace was built in 1885 in the Franko-Turkish style of architecture by the then reigning ruler. It is said that the Marathas realised the strategic importance of Janjira Fort, and being unable to capture it, they too constructed a sea fort named Padmadurg or Khasa fort in 1676 CE. This fort built in the North Eastern direction was later abandoned as it did not have any fresh water supply unlike Janjira.
The Janjira fort is approximately 3 kilometers away from the coast of Murud and sits strategically in the shallow rocky waters of the mighty Arabian sea. Because of its location no large weaponised water vehicle could attack the fort. The walls of the fort are as high as 40 feet tall. They are constructed of limestone, glass and jaggery mixture, and endowed with 28 bastions, making the fort all-the-more invincible. As one gets closer to the fort, these formidable walls seem to rise. The heavy battlements are useful for keeping an eye on the enemy. The Sher Darwaza (Tiger Gate), a hidden entrance, is constructed in such a manner that it is only visible from a distance of 20 meters. The other gate is called Darya Darwaza as it opens itself to the deep waters of the Arabian sea. This was also used as an escape point and thus is also called the Chor Darwaza.
The Janjira fort acted as a small secluded city. The fort had a mosque, a palace and tanks. Although surrounded by salty waters of the sea, the fort had plentiful supply of fresh drinking water from two reservoirs. These ponds came to the rescue of those who dwelt here during long sieges. There were also many step wells within the fort that provided drinking water throughout the year. This fort is famous for housing cannons. Among these, three giant cannons, namely, Kalak Bangdi, Chiavari and Landa Kasam, are the prominent ones. This fort also houses the Panchchaitan Shrine, a seven storied Darbar hall, a granary and the famed Sheesh Mahal.
It is said that the Sidis were a source of terror even to the British who had to pay a certain amount of tax to the former for safe passage. After Independence, the fort of Janjira was included in India. Fascinatingly, many Sidis continued to stay within the Janjira fortress until the Archaeological Survey of India evicted them in 1972. The Janjira fort remained invincible throughout its career of three and a half centuries. It is undoubtedly an embodiment of the valor, courage, and heroism of the Sidis.