A few cows looked up at us with interest as we got down from the autorickshaw that had ferried us for about 21 km from the picturesque beach town of Gokarna. Not finding us worthy of further attention, they went back to their grazing by the side of the ramparts of the old but imposing fort. Scarce did they know or care that they were grazing in the shadow of walls where history had left its indelible mark.
Mirjan Fort stood before us like a blast from the past. It hid within its fold a lost chapter of the history of Karnataka. The story of a valiant queen who had earned the sobriquet of ‘The Pepper Queen’ from the Portuguese.
The Pepper Queen
It was in the 16th century that a girl was born into the Tuluva-Saluva clan at Gersoppa. In those days, Gersoppa was a busy town and the centre of a thriving spice trade spread across the regions that we know today as Bhatkal, Honnavar and Mirjan. This girl would grow up to be Queen Chennabhaira Devi in the matriarchal society that she was born into. She would hold sway over the entire region and control the spice trade, sometimes fighting and sometimes negotiating with the Portuguese for control over the sea for the spices to be shipped to faraway lands.
Gersoppa, which today is a small, sleepy town near the famous Jog Falls, lies about 90 km from Mirjan Fort. It is believed that Chennabhaira Devi stayed inside the fort for almost 54 years, holding sway over the region and controlling the spice trade. Some historians believe that it was Chennabhaira Devi who established Mirjan Fort as a central hub for her to rule over the region. However, some believe that the fort dates back still further to the 13th century, and it was built by the kings of the Nawayath sultanate.
Queen Chennabhaira Devi, according to them, only embellished it and made it a central hub for her rule. But there is no doubt about the fact that Chennabhaira Devi ruled from Mirjan Fort for about 54 years, probably the longest reign by an Indian queen in history. Chennabhaira Devi, apart from being a brave warrior and military strategist, was also a shrewd stateswoman. She was a just ruler who thought about the welfare of her people. She was also known for her secular policies; although she was a follower of Jainism, she encouraged and helped other religions. She gave grants to Shaiva, Vaishnava and other temples in the region. She was also a patron of art and architecture and this led to many beautiful temples and other structures being built during her reign.
The queen’s entire life was devoted to fighting off local kings and chieftains who were after the spice trade that she controlled. The Portuguese, too, were tempted by the spice trade and were always looking for ways to establish their own control over it. But Chennabhaira Devi was the one who always threw a spanner in the works and nullified their covetous ideas. The Portuguese were so cautious of her that a 16th-century Portuguese official record reads thus: “We must deal with her, most carefully and diplomatically. We must be courteous, polite and diplomatic to win her to our side.” These were the thoughts of the Portuguese about the Queen of Gersoppa, Chennabhaira Devi, whom they had named as ‘Rainha de Pimenta’ or ‘Pepper Queen’.
The long and inspiring reign of the Pepper Queen came to an end when the treacherous and jealous local chieftains and kings ganged up and attacked Mirjan Fort together. The ageing queen tasted the dust of defeat and was imprisoned in a place called Keladi. She passed away in bondage, leaving behind a story of valour that would ring across the chasms of time and inspire anyone who would read her story.
A visit to Mirjan Fort today is met with a pregnant silence as if the stone ramparts are waiting to burst forth with numerous stories of the Pepper Queen. But alas, the fort does not see too many footfalls. The few cows that mooed at us when we pushed open a big iron gate to enter the fort, and a couple of tourists from Russia, were the only signs of life at the fort. As you enter the fort, the wind blowing across it seems to whisper the name of the Pepper Queen and somehow you feel the invisible presence of the brave and resolute spirit of the woman who blazed a trail of her own.
Mirjan Fort is spread over a huge area of 10 acres. The fort is devoid of any commercial trappings. A board at the entrance tells about timings of the fort and apart from this, there is hardly any signage inside the fort. The fort is now under the aegis of the Archaeological Survey of India. The ruins of Mirjan Fort have a strange and melancholy beauty and are a tribute to the architectural and engineering brilliance of the fort’s builders. The fort has been built with red laterite and is bounded by four gates. A double wall circumscribes the fort and a moat is believed to have been another level of security in its heyday along with a drawbridge.
A very interesting feature of the fort is the system of deep interconnected wells which supplied water to the moat. The ruins of a darbar hall and marketplace are proof to the fact that there used to be a bustling and full-fledged settlement here. The existence of secret passages which served as escape routes in case of enemy attacks adds to the intriguing character of Mirjan Fort.
Within the fort, a huge tree stands in solitary magnificence, much like how the Pepper Queen must have stood valiantly fighting attackers from within and also from far shores. A tall tower with a flag pole stands as a silent sentinel. There is no flag fluttering proudly in the wind today, there are no sounds of bugles, drums and conches, it is only the wind howling across the banks of River Aghanashini which seems to whisper the name ‘Chennabhaira Devi’.