Bengaluru: Aroma of spices and herbs attracted fleets after fleets of merchant ships to the shores of Medieval India, especially the western coast. The trade was so lucrative that everyone wanted at least a small share in it.
While the business flourished for long, benefiting both the locals and the sailors, abetted by their bottomless greed some tried to monopolise it, altering the balance and bringing chaos to the tranquil shores.
Over the centuries, many of those who came as merchants and sailors got so enchanted by the local flavours and fragrances that they settled down, sowing the seeds of flourishing cultures and communities, woven with the multiple strands of life coming together through commerce and enterprise.
Around the thriving mercantile society in the fertile riverbanks and rolling hills, new kingdoms rose and dissipated like the morning mist hovering over the valleys. New equations and alliances formed and unformed as frequently as the waves crashed on the golden beaches of Canara and Konkan.
While most of the life and legacy that was shaped by the frenetic activities of enterprise and agency has flown with the unyielding rivers of time into the boundless oceans of oblivion, there are a few remnants of the communities and the edifices they fashioned that serve as a vague reminder of the richly flavoured life on the spice coast.
One of the most prominent of those remnants is the Mirjan Fort in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district, which is not just a symbol of ruined power but one of the last remaining signs of a flourishing civilisation about which very little is known.
Lost in the delightful greenery and tranquil air of river valleys and hamlets along the coast of Karnataka, it is hard to imagine all the mercantile activities that surged out of this place for centuries. It is hard to visualise that this laidback locale attracted some of the biggest ships and richest merchants of the time.
Looking at the gently swerving paddies and coconut palms along the idyllic river banks, it is hard to conjure up the images of frenzied loading and unloading of the ports.
Looking at the tiny fishing boats bobbing on the sparkling waters of Canara, it is impossible to envisage the mighty merchant ships that once made beeline to this coast for its lucrative spice trade.
It’s difficult to fathom, how life and its ways change in just a couple of centuries and how time devours even the tiny vestiges of the past, year by year and decade after decade.
Shiny Arabian horses
But, standing on the broad ramparts of the sprawling Mirjan Fort, looking at the gingerly flowing creek below, those images of the past glory slowly begin to appear.
One can see the mighty Pepper Queen holding ships across the waters of north and south Kanara under her tight leash. Caravans of intricately-caparisoned elephants and bullock carts loaded with nutmeg, peppers and cloves passing through the giant gates are a sight to behold.
On the banks of the creek that bends around the fortress, shiny Arabian horses are carefully being disembarked off the dhows hailing from Yemen and Persia.
The queen and the sultans that ruled before and after her are revelling at the expanse of their seemingly endless sway.
As hard it is for us to visualise all the former hustles and bustle, it must have been harder for them to ever wonder about the end of their reigns of prosperity. But, like all things in this world, hardly anything of the past glory remains.
Now, as we approach the green citadel standing lonely amidst the paddies, coconut groves, thick vegetation and wild shrubbery, this ancient giant looks like an extension of the nature that surrounds it.
Nestled in the green foothills of Sahyadri and flanked by paddies, a lazy creek and a nonchalant river, this nondescript setting of Mirjan Fort belies its once hallowed past and historic importance.
The generous monsoon rains, which bless the region for nearly half the year, cause luxuriant covering of moss all over the fort for most part of the year, giving its ancient laterite walls a tinge of green. From a distance it looked as if the citadel was built of emerald stones.
Situated off the National Highway 66 between the sleepy small towns of Gokarna and Kumta in the Uttara Kannada district, Mirjan Fort was once a coveted piece of real estate, especially during the peak of spice trade on the Indian coasts.
Its strategic location near the confluence of the Angnanishi River (a tributary of Sharavathi) and the Arabian Sea, underlines its significance as the key bastion of power and commerce during its heydays.
Passing through various hands since its construction in the early 13th century by a Nawayath Sultan (Nawayath’s are a community of Middle Eastern merchants who settled in stages along the coasts of India and continue to populate various towns and villages along the coasts), this laterite wonder assumed its greatest power during the reign of the Pepper Queen Channabhaira Devi, who ruled from the fort for 54 years in the second half of the 16th century.
Apparently, the fort has been rebuilt and refurbished several times through its more than 800 year history and much of the current structure is attributed to Shariful Mulk, a governor of the Adil Shahi Kingdom, who ruled the region in the early 17th century.
Nearest airport: Dabolim Airport - Panaji, Goa
150KM from Goa and 200KM from Mangalore.
If you want to imagine what life would have been during the peak of the civilisation that flourished from this fort or if you want to enjoy some much-needed quiet contemplation in the arms of heritage and nature, there is no better place than this on the entire coast of Karnataka.
The best time to enjoy the green environs of the citadel is during monsoon or immediately after monsoon in November or December.
— Shafaat Shahbandari is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist. He is the founder of Thousand Shades of India, an alternative media platform that celebrates the diversity of India.