Bhatkal: ruins by the riverside

Bhatkal: ruins by the riverside

In need of saviour

The historic Ghousia Mosque.

It’s true that all ancient civilisations have thrived on river banks. Just like its international cousins — the Nile and the Sindhu river civilisations — Bhatkal has its own story to tell.

This town is one of the three major port towns on the Western Coast of India, after Kochi and Mangaluru, which has attracted the Arab traders and has had long-standing trading and socio-religious connect with them. 

It’s also the land of a special community called the Nawayaths, who speak a particular dialect that has a semblance to Konkani, Marathi and Beary languages.

The Nawayaths are known to be hospitable, friendly and resourceful. However, they are also sad that their town needs attention, that help to preserve their heritage hasn’t reached them from any quarters.

A few retrograde steps taken by the local civic body have now compromised the heritage places, the elders of the town complain. 

Here ruled the ‘Pepper Queen’

One of the scenic places is the banks of River Sharabi. History goes to say that Arab traders navigated along this river in smaller boats after anchoring their ships at the Arabian Sea. They brought great Arabian horses and traded them for spices, mainly pepper from the local chieftains. The area was then under the rule of Rani Chennabhairadevi of Gerusoppa, who was fondly called as the ‘Raina de Pimento’ (Pepper Queen) by the Portuguese who tasted defeat twice at her hand during their attempts to take control of the ports of Uttara Kannada district. 

Ravi Hegde, a researcher, tastefully traces the growth of Chennabhairadevi in his blog. It spans her rule of 53 years, making her the longest-ruling queen in India in the 16th century. 

Dr K Shivaram Karanth, in his letter to Ravi Hegde, written in 1997, outlines the queen’s valiant struggle to save her kingdom and her trading tactics. She traded pepper with the Arabs for the Arabian horses and even provided anchorage and safe passage to the Arab traders. As a result of her hospitable qualities, a small Arab traders’ market had also come up in Bhatkal. Huge blocks of granite slabs with inscriptions (unintelligible now due to weathering) are still laid by the side of River Sharabi. These are blocks where the Arab traders undertook namaz. These blocks are said to have laid at least 1,000 years back. But during the 18th century, when the Arab traders still traded in Bhatkal, Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan bought horses for their cavalry and for their personal uses, and rode them to Srirangapatna — their headquarters. 

The Sharabi river and its banks have now turned into a sewage drain, thanks to the lackadaisical planning by the Bhatkal civic body. “All along the six kilometres of the river course, before it joins the Arabian Sea, the urban sewage has been freely let into the river despite there being two sewage treatment plants (STPs). Bhatkal is the only place where the sewage travels through a pipeline uphill from Ghousia Street to River Venkatapur, and is either discharged there with or without treatment. The entire river course now has black water, and many families have moved out as their water security is devastated. The sewage waters running in the Sharabi river has entered hundreds of wells and polluted them, turning the entire lower Bhatkal into a ghost town,” said Kaiser Mohtisham, counsellor of ward No.16 of the Bhatkal City Municipal Council. Things are going to be worse. The council has decided to decommission the STP at the lower level from October 1, and this will not let us know if the sewage is treated or not at Venkatapur, Mohtisham warned.

Tough questions

Areas along the river bank including Ghousia, Khazia, Mushma, Khalifa, Daranda, Dongarpalli and Benni Bunder face this unholy situation. “Should we endure this, this in the glorious land where Channabhairadevi ruled and our Arab ancestors traded?” ask the elders of these areas. 

What is more annoying is that the municipality has built its STP right next to the historic Ghousia Mosque, which is more than 800 years old. There are records that Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan and the Arab traders offered namaz there. But today, the mosque, one of the oldest on the Western Coast of India, is surrounded by filth and black sewage waters. 

Aftab Hussian Kola, a scholar from Bhatkal in an observation, says, “With a multi-religious population of about 60,000, the town is often referred to as a “mini-model of India” representing and reflecting diversity.”

Besides the predominant community of Muslims and Hindus, there is a sprinkling of Christians and four Jain families (it may be recalled that Bhatkal was once ruled by Jains).

Nawayaths, who constitute a larger percentage of the population, trace their progeny to the Arabs who set foot on this land more than 1,000 years ago. Among the Hindus, the Namadharis (Ediga) form the majority.

Aftab also mentions in his blog: “We learn from history that by virtue of its strategic location, Bhatkal has for centuries been eyed by various dynasties or rulers. During its chequered history, Bhatkal witnessed the rise and fall of several dynasties and rulers.

A part of Hoysala empire from 1291 to 1343, Bhatkal later fell into the hands of the Vijayanagara empire. After the disintegration of the empire, the Saluva (Jain) rulers of Hadwalli (a town on the State Highway towards Jog Falls) brought this coveted town under their control. Many temples and basadis were constructed during this period.”

But none of them has been given any importance in our tourism circuit he laments. 

Elders of the town are also cross over the event of Bhatkal being depicted as a land of dreaded terrorists. Bhatkal also offers culinary delights and soulful sights from the lighthouse in bunder and scenic highways, rivers, and valleys. The old town bunder (port) still holds the old world charm. 


Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox