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Guardians of Mumbai: Khanderi-Underi and Arnala

The great Maratha warrior pioneered building a strong Naval Force in the Arabian Sea.

ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Dec 12, 2019, 07.54 AM IST|Original: Dec 12, 2019, 05.16 AM IST
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Agencies
The Lighthouse, Khanderi Fort
The Lighthouse, Khanderi Fort
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the legendary Maratha King had a unique strategic vision that combined valour with use of terrain and geography. When 17th century peninsular India faced external and internal challenges, his attention to maritime geography of the Konkan Coast left a lasting legacy in the form of coastal and island forts as visible symbols of seaward defence.

The great Maratha warrior inspired growth of a strong Naval Force in the Arabian Sea that ushered maritime personalities like Sarkhel Kanhoji Angre, the great Maratha Admiral. He controlled over 350 forts during his reign. He conquered many like Panhala and Rajgad, and plenty of them like Sindhudurg, Pratapgad and Raigad, he built from scratch to bolster his military strength.
The great Maratha warrior pioneered building a strong Naval Force in the Arabian Sea. He controlled over 350 forts during his reign. He conquered many like Panhala and Rajgad, and plenty of them like Sindhudurg, Pratapgad and Raigad, he built from scratch to bolster his military strength.

Even today, after centuries, most of these forts have stood the test of time. To the South of Mumbai lie the twin island forts, of Khanderi and Underi. The Siddis were appointed by the Nizam of Ahmednagar to command the coastal fort of Janjira. The Marathas tried to conquer it many times; but the resilient Siddis thwarted their attempts each time. To counter the Siddis the Marathas, under the leadership of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, occupied the island of Khanderi to the north in the vicinage of the Bombay Isles and commissioned it to be fortified in 1676.

Agencies
A few miles North of Mumbai, located at the mouth of the River Vaitarna lies Fort Arnala situated on the Island bearing the same name.
A few miles North of Mumbai, located at the mouth of the River Vaitarna lies Fort Arnala situated on the Island bearing the same name.

The Siddis attempted attacking Khanderi for many years, but to no avail. Fatigued, the Siddis raised a fort on the adjacent island of Underi as a strategic alternative to the Khanderi. The forts of Khanderi and Underi are built on rocky outcrops close to the coast. The main attraction at Khanderi is the lighthouse, which was first built in 1852. The island also houses two religious shrines, a Temple dedicated to Vetal, a Saivite demigod and a dargah entombing the mortal remains of Daud Pir. The Underi fort on the other hand is now a dilapidated structure with vegetation taking over the built structure.

The Indian Navy is organising a tri-expedition (running, cycling & yachting) along the coast of Maharashtra, to stress upon coastal security and promote awareness about the rich maritime heritage of India. Do join and interact with them at the various touch-points, as the 3 teams traverse the coastline from Mumbai to Sindhudurg, a distance of 561 kms, in just 6 days! Keep watching this space for more info on the event.

Both the Khanderi and Underi forts are built using black basalt which is abundant in the region. Its walls are butted with circular bastions meant to host cannons. Khanderi has a small reservoir of fresh water built within the fortification. Underi on the other hand has no such source of fresh water which makes one wonders how the Siddis sustained months on end, especially during war times without a source of potable water.

A few miles North of Mumbai, located at the mouth of the River Vaitarna lies Fort Arnala situated on the Island bearing the same name. Historically the fort was called Janjire Arnala or Jaldurg and it was in possession of the Mughals, Marathas, Portuguese and Peshwas at different points in time. Owing to the island's strategic location in the Arabian Sea, Sultan Mahmud Begada of Gujarat commissioned the Fort on the North-Western corner of the island in 1516 A.D. In the 1530s the Portuguese had established their operations in the coastal area, and soon gained control of the island.
Agencies
The Arnala Fort was used by the Portuguese as a major naval depot till it fell to the Marathas during a surprise attack by them in 1739.
The Arnala Fort was used by the Portuguese as a major naval depot till it fell to the Marathas during a surprise attack by them in 1739.

The fort remained under Portuguese control for the next two centuries; from where they controlled shipping and navigation along the northern Konkan coast.

The Arnala Fort was used by the Portuguese as a major naval depot till it fell to the Marathas during a surprise attack by them in 1739. An attack by the English was resisted in 1781, but the fort finally fell to the East India Company in 1818 AD. Arnala Fort under the Marathas went through major reconstructions under Peshwa Bajirao I. This included the plaque installed on the northern wall of the fort and the commissioning of the three bastions — Bhairav, Bhavani and Bhava.

Today the status of the forts has transformed from that of strategic importance, to monuments of heritage and militaristic legacy. This legacy is under threat from anthropological and environmental impact. Graffiti on the defenseless walls indicate a casual attitude towards our heritage. It is for posterity's sake that these monuments of India's maritime past need to be protected.

(This article is brought to you as part of Indian Navy and Times Group initiative. Contributed by Dennard D’Souza and Akshay Honmane on behalf of the Maritime History Society)

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