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Vijaydurg

Anand J. Bariya Suhag Shirodkar

Copyright © 2010 by Anand J. Bariya & Suhag Shirodkar Photographs by Anand J. Bariya Although every precaution has been taken in the preparation of this guide, the authors assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. If you have questions or feedback, please email wanderindia@gmail.com. Thanks to Dilip Thakurdesai for introducing us to the rich history of the region, to Janardhan (Tatya) Teli for patiently answering our questions and to Usha, Ramesh, Shobha and all others at Ravimangal Aamrai for making our visits so pleasant.

An aerial view of Vijaydurg, captured from Google Earth, reveals its strategic location and imposing ramparts.

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Timeline of events 

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Built on a narrow spit at the mouth of the Vaghotan creek, the fort’s origins are obscure. The first fortification at the spot appears to have been erected around 1200 AD by Raja Bhoj of the Shilahar dynasty. The Shilahars were local rulers, with their capital near Kolhapur. Raja Bhoj built other forts in the region as well, most notably at Panhala, ninety kilometres to the east.

Vijaydurg, also known as Gheria,

is a formidable fort in southwestern Maharashtra, standing at the edge of the Arabian Sea. In the monsoons, heaving waves crash against its walls, sending frothy sea spray over its massive ramparts.

By the fifteenth century, Gheria came under the domains of the Bahmani Sultans, who ruled from Gulbarga and Bidar in northern Karnataka. Around 1490, the Bahmani Kingdom broke up into a number of successor states one of which, Bijapur, retained

Maratha rowboats attacking British ships. Skirmishes like this were once common in the waters around Vijaydurg. 

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Gheria in its territory. At its peak, Bijapur was a prosperous and cultured kingdom. Even today, some families in the Vijaydurg area preserve Bijapuri letters appointing their ancestors to important official positions. The rise of Shivaji saw Bijapur lose most of its western territories to the Maratha hero. Gheria too fell into Shivaji’s hands, and he renamed it Vijaydurg. Wanting to build a strong navy, Shivaji developed Vijaydurg as

British ships attacked Vijaydurg on February 13, 1. This engraving depicts the scale and intensity of the battle.

an important base for Maratha warships. A family by the name of Angre had been serving with distinction in the Maratha navy. In the turbulence after Shivaji’s death, Kanhoji Angre asserted his independence. Under him and his successors, Vijaydurg saw its most glorious days. The Angres became a dominant naval power maintaining, along with Vijaydurg, bases in Kolaba and Suvarnadurg. While they paid 

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token respect to the Peshwas, who ruled from Pune, they operated as an independent power. Although the Europeans labelled them pirates, the Angres considered themselves legitimate rulers, fully entitled to collect duties and fees from ships sailing through their waters. This was a major cause of their conflict with the Europeans. In 1717, Kanhoji Angre repulsed an English naval attack on Vijaydurg; in 1720 he routed a Portuguese-English alliance after they burnt 16 of his ships in the
Detail from a British map of the ‘town and fortress belonging to Angria the Admiral’

Stamp issued in 2001 commemorates the galbat, a type of rowboat the Angres used successfully at sea.

Vaghotan creek, and in 1724 he defeated the Dutch when they assaulted Vijaydurg with their impressive fleet, bomb ketches and land forces. 

Vijaydurg The east gate into Vijaydurg fort

Almost completely surrounded by deep water, and with ramparts a hundred feet high, Vijaydurg was virtually impregnable. But its occupants weren’t taking chances. Recently, oceanographers discovered a submerged wall, estimated to be three centuries old, about 100 metres out at sea. Concealed under water, the wall was constructed such that unwary ships would strike against it and be irreparably damaged or sink. The wall was a remarkable feat of engineering and subterfuge. Kanhoji Angre died in 1729; Angre power began to decline soon after.

The Peshwas and the British plotted together to eliminate the Angres. After careful reconnaissance and planning, they attacked in February 1756—the Peshwa army by land and British forces from the sea. Robert Clive, who would later go on to win the Battle of Plassey, was part of the British command. Under the concerted assault, Vijaydurg fell. The British claimed the fort and its booty but later relented and handed the fort to the Peshwas. Much later, in 1818, when the Peshwa Empire was vanquished by the British, Vijaydurg became British property and remained so until India became independent. 

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Today, you can enter Vijaydurg through what used to be the main gate and wind your way up to the concealed east gate. Once inside, you can climb the ramparts and walk about two-thirds of the perimeter of the fort, all the while enjoying stunning views of the rugged coastline and the Arabian Sea.

Around the perimeter stand twenty cannon emplacements, named after Hindu gods and Maratha heroes. You will notice narrow inclined niches at each emplacement, designed to aim fire at or to bombard anybody who approached dangerously close. Sadly, a portion of the outermost wall of the fort has collapsed, so you can no longer complete a circumambulation of the ramparts.
The British referred to the Angres as pirates because they did not yield to British regulations. In this map from 1, the Konkan is labelled the Pirate Coast.

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Massive tank for storing fresh water

Within the fort are several interesting features including a cavernous stepped tank that held enough fresh water to support a large population through prolonged sieges; a council hall said to function as a soundproof chamber while amplifying sound within; a shrine to the goddess Bhavani, beloved deity of Shivaji and his followers; a gunpowder chamber; and rows of cannonballs lined up neatly under massive banyan trees.

Cannonballs lined up along a walkway 12

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The ‘soundproof’ council hall

None of these features are well marked but, if you employ a guide, he will point them out to you. No doubt he will also whisper knowingly about secret underground passages, for which Indian fort is without at least one of these?

Historical records mention an immense flag that fluttered high above Vijaydurg and was visible far out at sea.

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Lockyer and his team set up their equipment to view a solar eclipse.

Vijaydurg lays claim to an interesting tidbit of history that has nothing to do with military might. On August 18, 1868, the fort lay in the path of totality of a solar eclipse. The English astronomer Norman Lockyer, who founded the prestigious scientific journal Nature, is credited with discovering the element helium by observing solar prominences from Vijaydurg during that eclipse. A stone platform ostensibly constructed for his observations still stands today and is called the Sahib’s Platform.

Norman Lockyer

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Sardar Dhulap’s Wada
The Dhulaps, a martial family, had
settled in Vijaydurg during Kanhoji Angre’s command. After the fall of the Angres, Sardar Anandrao Dhulap was appointed as an admiral in the Peshwa navy. Stationed at Vijaydurg, his forces secured the fort, guarded the coastline and launched naval attacks. The mansion, or wada, he occupied is still owned by his descendants. To get to the wada, you must walk past the Vijaydurg bus stand, and up a mud road. Locals can point the way. Along your right you will see ruined samadhis, or memorials, of members of the Dhulap family.

Samadhis of Dhulap family members

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The road up to the Dhulap wada offers stunning views of Vijaydurg fort. 1

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Although the wada is a private residence, its owners are usually amenable to visitors. Request permission to view the ivory altar, swords used in battle, and the murals on the walls of the upper storey.

A palanquin strung from the roof of the Dhulap wada

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The Rameshwar Temple
At Girye, two kilometers inland
from Vijaydurg, stands a concealed gem—the Rameshwar Temple. It was built by Gangadhar Bhanu, brother of the influential Peshwa finance minister Nana Phadnavis. Though it now sports an ugly entrance arch, at one time all that marked it from the road was a strange tall pole. That pole, still standing, is worth more than a passing glance. It originally served as the mast of a Portuguese warship, the Santa Ana. In 1772, Sardar Anandrao Dhulap engaged the Santa Ana in naval combat, killed its captain, and towed the ship into Vijaydurg harbour. He then had the mast installed as a victory pole at the temple’s entrance.

The Santa Ana mast

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To reach the temple, you must walk down a long incline with sheer walls carved out of the laterite rock. The rock faces are lined with niches to hold oil lamps.

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The Rameshwar temple nestles in a verdant valley, at the bottom of this steep incline.

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Inside the entry arch hangs what is erroneously called the Santan bell. It did not come from the Santa Ana, but from another vessel captured by Anandrao Dhulap in 1793. The bell has been hanging at its present location since Anandrao’s son donated it to the temple in 1827.

The variety of architectural detail and ornament inside is astonishing. Ornate wooden pillars support the roof, and the cross beams and pillars are charmingly decorated with ingenuous landscapes and bindi-sporting cherubs.

Bell captured from an enemy vessel. Its date of casting, 11, is clearly visible. 22

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A painted and carved pillar in the temple hall 23

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A carved bracket, details from paintings, and a wooden puppet, all within the hall and sanctum of the temple 2

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In days gone by, the outside of the temple must have been as lovely as the inside, decorated with scenes from Hindu myth and legend. Today, most of these murals have worn away.

Murals adorn the plastered outer walls.

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Detail from a wall mural

Stepping outside the courtyard through an arch along the left wall, you enter a densely wooded area, filled with birdsong. Here stands the samadhi of Sambhaji Angre, son of Kanhoji.

Samadhi of Sambhaji Angre 2

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Temple hall

The Rameshwar Temple once boasted an idol of Shiva astride his bull, Nandi. It was said to be of pure silver and weigh about 50 kilos. In early 2009, the idol was stolen. At the time of writing, authorities have failed to locate the idol or catch the culprits. Perhaps even more ominous, the main hall of the temple now boasts an architectural scale model and drawings of an imminent modernization project. So enjoy this little gem before it is lost forever.

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Pairi at Ravimangal, almost ready for harvest.