Hint of spice in the air

Hint of spice in the air

TRAVEL

Hint of spice in the air

The west coast of Karnataka has to be one of the most beguiling of places in India. With its vast swathes of green and its undulating terrain, with red ribbons of road and reddish laterite houses, with friendly folks and delicious food, and with exciting remnants of its past around every other corner, it never fails to captivate and enthral.

One such nook where history waits to be discovered is Mirjan, a tiny little town known for its fort. The 30-km drive to Mirjan from Honnavar was absolutely delightful, like looking at the world through green-tinted glasses. All too soon it seemed, we were off the twisting and turning highway, the road petered out into a mud track, and there in front of us was the fort.

It stood on a little promontory, a forbidding laterite structure that reared out of the green hillock it was built on. We were greeted by Salunke, the caretaker-cum-security guard at the fort, who doubled up as a genial guide who also cared passionately about the fort.
We quickly made our way inside through an entrance flanked by huge bastions with steeply sloping bases. The red laterite walls of the fort towered all around us, tinged green by mosses and plants that had colonised them. We had the fort all to ourselves — 11.8 acres of fortified solitude. Salunke happily took us everywhere around the solidly constructed double-walled fort, pointing out the four main entrances, the deep moat, the many wells that could be accessed by flights of steps, and the myriad secret entrances. There was probably once a drawbridge across the wide moat, though no trace of it remains now.

Over five centuries old

The fort is at least 500 years old, if not more. John Fryer, an English physician who travelled the western coast of India in the 17th century, visited Mirjan too. Writing in the 1670s, he already describes the fort as ‘very fine though old’, with ‘high turrets on the bastions’. Today, you can only see the crumbling remains of one tall, square turret, characteristic of Portuguese military architecture of the period. No doubt the fort had undergone renovations. The fort as it stands today is popularly ascribed to Shareef-ul-Mulk, a governor of the Adil Shahis who ruled from Ponda near Goa between 1608 and 1640. That would explain the Islamic touches you can see in the construction.

Standing on one of the bastions, we could gaze on the glorious views all around: a mosaic of rice fields, coconut groves and forests surrounded the fort, with a river and streams winding through them. Next to the fort was the Kudurehalla, a little stream that joined the river Aghanashini less than a kilometre away. All was silent save for the soothing sound of flowing water. It was an idyllic setting, benign and beautiful, a place where I could easily imagine contemplating the spectacle of a leaf being made. Yet the fort was obviously built for more than lotus-eating. Surely at some time in the past, the fort bristled with its bastions, and snipers crouched behind the many gun slits and the huge merlons, even as soldiers worked the guns in the towers. But what were they defending, I wondered?

As it turns out, Mirjan was once a flourishing trading port, especially during the Vijayanagar period and after. Duarte Barbosa, a chronicler who served in the Portuguese government in India in the early 1500s, visited Mirjan or Mergen as he called it. He describes the trade here in “great stores of black rice, which the Malabares come hither to purchase…” in exchange for which they brought coconuts, coconut oil and jaggery. Arecanut, nutmeg, cassia and saltpetre were also bought and sold at the port here.

Pepper power

But the main article of trade was a spice — pepper, to be precise. The region around Mirjan, and especially Sonda, about 80 km away, was famed for its pepper. The Portuguese, Dutch and French all had trading posts here at one time or other to export spices.

British records of the time frequently mention the port in connection with their trade in pepper. At one point, the British also built a large warehouse in Mirjan to store pepper and sandalwood before shipping it out.

Indeed so famous and important was the pepper in this region that the reigning queen was called the ‘Rainha de Pimenta’ by the Portuguese – the Pepper Queen. This was none other than Chennabhairadevi of Gersoppa. Of course, other rulers held sway here too – the Marathas, the Adil Shahis of Bijapur, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan.

But after the latter’s death in 1799, the fort seems to have been abandoned. And once people moved out, Nature moved in, so that in the 1880s, the fort was reported to be so overgrown and full of vegetation that one could barely enter.

Happily, that is not the case today. Though most walls are covered with a fuzz of green, the Archaeological Survey of India maintains the fort fairly well. They have also undertaken excavations here which have unearthed some fascinating details.  In the upper part of the fort, you can see the plinths and wall courses of several buildings, including what archaeologists think was an audience hall, deep underground chambers that were either treasuries or armouries, and even kitchens, where apart from pots and pans, they found traces of burnt rice and pepper.

You can see a few of the things archaeologists have dug up over the years, next to a small shrine that stands nearby, under two huge trees.

Apart from stone cannon balls, there are a few assorted idols and fragments of memorial stones, including one which the caretaker told us they had found while cleaning a well only a few months earlier. Researchers have found other more interesting objects too, including Chinese porcelain and Portuguese coins, attesting to the vigorous trade that once took place here.

In Mirjan, like in many historical places in India, scenic vistas combine with a past that has left only traces, letting your imagination people the place as you will. So you can walk around Mirjan’s high ramparts overlooking fields and a quiet river, and imagine the Pepper Queen holding court in the audience hall inside. Or you can pick your way over the crumbling battlements that face the sea. Today, they are anachronistic ruins that provide shelter to lizards. But look through your mind’s eye and perhaps you might still see boats laden with pepper winding their way down to the sea, even as guns look out over the fort’s proud battlements, keeping enemies at bay.

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