Maharastra is one of the largest, wealthiest and most populous states in India, and has been one of that country’s greatest prizes since early times. Thanks to millennia of both seaborne and overland trade with the west, the coastal regions boast some of India’s oldest and largest cities and, in pre-Colonial times, some of its most important kingdoms. Because of this, Maharastra boasts many enormous and breathtaking fortresses along the west coast of India and on the islands just offshore. Some of the best of these are the Vijaydurg Fort, the Sindhudurg Fort and the Janjira Fort, the latter two being among the best island fortifications in Asia.
The wealthy region along the west coast of the Indian Subcontinent has long attracted the attention of both merchants and conquerors. Because of Maharastra’s highly strategic and highly exposed geographic position, this led to the construction of many of India’s greatest fortifications during the late Middle Ages. Among the first of these was Vijaydurg Fort. Constructed around 1200 AD, it was one of the largest and most impregnable fortifications in the world at the time of its completion.
Around this time, Muslim invaders from Central Asia began to make serious inroads into India. Most notably they established the Delhi Sultanate, which conquered most of Maharastra in the 14th century. This was followed by a period of peace, then by a long series of wars against the Mughal Empire from the north, the Vijayanagara Empire from the south, and occasionally internecine fighting between the region’s various petty states.
This resulted in a period of fortress construction which lasted well into the colonial era. In addition to the many castles erected inland, a new interest was taken in protecting the coast from seabourne maurauders who were attracted to the region’s increasing trade with the west. The most famous of these was the Janjira Fort, built in the 15th century to protect shipping between the increasingly important port of Bombay and southern India.
The timing for these new coastal fortifications was good, as India soon faced a great new threat from the sea. In the early 15th century, the first Portuguese ships arrived in India. These were soon followed by other European powers, notably the Dutch, French and English. Recognizing the threat, the rulers built new fortresses and improved the old ones. In the 1600s the Sindhudurg Fort, one of the largest island fortresses in the world, was completed. Unfortunately, all of these efforts proved futile in the end. After a series of wars in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Maharastra was annexed into the British Empire, and the great age of India’s coastal forts came to an end.
The Vijaydurg Fort is one of the oldest intact castles in west central India. Although it stands at sea level, its sheer size, and the height and thickness of its walls, gave it the nickname the Gibraltar of the East. It is surrounded by the sea on three sides, and is heavily fortified on both the seaward and landward approaches. An undersea wall was also constructed, designed to cripple enemy ships that got too close. While Vijaydurg is incredibly impressive from the outside, much of the interior is in a state of disrepair. One of the fort’s best features is a secret tunnel that runs under the sea. However, this is currently off limits to visitors.
The Sindhudurg Fort, located not too far from the Vijaydurg, is one of the newest and largest fortifications in the region. It almost completely covers an island just off the coast, making it virtually inaccessible. Although its high walls and dozens of round towers give Sindhudurg a medieval look, its earth-backed bastions were clearly intended with enemy naval cannons in mind. One of the more interesting construction features was the iron and lead which was used to reinforce the masonry. Sindhudurg also has a now inaccessible escape tunnel that, according to legend, runs well inland, more than fifteen miles away.
The Janjira Fort is the most popular coastal fortress with tourists, thanks to its relative proximity to Mumbai. It is also arguably the greatest and most famous, due in no small part to the fact that it is the only major coastal fortress that was not conquered militarily by the Europeans. The fort is protected by nearly twenty massive, rounded bastions, many of which rise directly from the sea. Unfortunately, much of Janjira’s interior is now in ruins. The wall tops are lined with cannons, including some rare ones that were manufactured in India.
Vijaydurg Fort is located on the beach-side of the town of Malvan, approximately two hundred miles south of Bombay. The Sindhudurg Fort is located on an island offshore not too far from Malvan, and is only accessible by boat. Janjira Fort is also located on an island and is accessible only by boat. It lies just offshore from the town of Murud, approximately forty miles south of Bombay. As of this writing no visitor information was available for these sites. Web: www.maharashtratourism.gov.in (official tourism website of Maharashtra).
In addition magnificent coastal forts, Maharastra boasts a collection of some of the best inland castles and fortifications in India. Many of these are packed in within a hundred miles or so of the coast, as these areas were historically some of the richest and most exposed. Highlights of Maharastra’s other castles include the Ajinkyatara Fort, the Panhala Fort, the Shaniwar Wada Fort, the Shivneri Fort and the Visapur Fort.