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Citadel by the sea

Sitting in a casuarina grove by the Arabian Sea, HUGH and COLLEEN GANTZER settled down to making notes of times past... .


Sindhudurg ... the only sea-fort built by Shivaji.

DAWN is diluting darkness from the sky and it's difficult to distinguish between the susurration of the surf and the swishing whisper of the casuarinas around us. We came here, to Tarakali, a little after sunset last evening and were too tired to add to our notes made yesterday. Besides, for once we felt we could afford to relax and enjoy this quiet place the way it should be: effortlessly and without a care in the world. Soon, when this resort is opened to visitors, its tiled cottages in a casuarina grove will be crowded. But, for now, it's a restful break after a long tour of Kerala, Goa and up Maharashtra's Konkan coast.

Tarakali has a wonderful, broad, white beach and we'd have loved to stay here longer but there's the promise of an interesting day ahead. Here comes breakfast: the typically Maharashtrian poha of spiced, beaten rice, and udip a sibling of umpa.

* * *

We returned about half an hour ago when sunset was gilding the sea and the beach. Now only the stars have been netted in the casuarinas and the surf snarls with eerie phosphorescence as if glowing with spectral fires. An excellent setting to make notes of times past, and warriors, and a seafort with a temple to a human warrior-king.

This morning we drove five kilometres through a very Goan-like countryside of coconuts and cottages bright with oleander and hibiscus. Through the fishing town of Malwan, then, and we left our car and walked across an aromatic beach dotted with boats. A whole flotilla of trawlers bobbed on the slow swell. Large outrigger boats rowed slowly across the bay. Our outrigger came alongside and we teetered across the thwarts and sat with our legs in the sloshing bilge. The outboard motor growled to life and our outrigger kept us on an even keel while sea-birds sat on sharp, spume-glistening rocks, watching our heaving progress with mild interest. The sea-fort of Sindhudurg grew and we welcomed the approach of the dark walls of the fort as they rose higher and higher out of the sea.

And then, thankfully, our boat snuggled its stem into soft sand at the base of the fort's wall and we hopped ashore. The fort is enormous. Our guide, Sadiq Sheik, said that it covered 48 acres but there is not a single signboard to identify any of its historic ruins. There are, however, fields inside, and tiled cottages, owned by people who call themselves "The Servants of Shivaji."

"We are the descendants of the warriors and retainers of Shivaji Maharaj," Sadiq said, "My ancestors used to beat the drums warning of an attack, and also on ceremonial occasions. That is why we still receive eighty rupees a year as tankha: salary."

He led us past small, tiled, cottages and fields of marigold, ladies' finger and brinjal. He pointed out the three sweet-water wells: the doodh, dahi and shakar vavs. We took his word for it that they did, indeed, taste of milk, yoghurt and sugar. He assured us that their water levels vary only very slightly year round. And then we climbed to the Jehelani Burj, the observation tower looking out over the Arabian Sea. We had a panoramic view of much of the fort with a rocky pool where women washed clothes and a small scallop of a beach accessed by a door. Here, apparently, royal ladies disported themselves under the watchful gaze of women sentries.

Picking our way back through the fields and scrub, we came to the unusual temple of Shivarajeshwar. It stands on a high plinth, which was, according to Sadiq, built in the early 20th Century. The shrine, however, was raised by Shivaji's son, Raja Ram, in 1615. The idol, we were told, is a sitting one of black stone, but it has a metal mask, and is covered in a red robe decorated with gold thread. The robe, the pujari said, is replaced every year by the former princely family of Kolhapur. The sheathed and double-edged sword, or dodhar, lying across it, once belonged to Shivaji.

The revered Shivarajeshwar is an idol of Shivaji, reputedly, the only one of its kind in the world.

"Shivaji Maharaj's employees were Hindus, Christians and Muslims," Sadiq assured us. "In fact his first admiral was Daulat Khan." We were surprised.

Sadiq Sheikh led us back, to the main entrance of the great fort, and up a flight of stone steps to the battlements and two other, smaller, shrines. One reputedly held Shivaji's handprint; the other his footprint.

We wished Sadiq Sheikh goodbye, boarded our bobbing outrigger, and pitched and rolled our way back across the bay. But now that we are writing our travel diary under the casuarinas of Tarakali, something bothers us. Sindhudurg is the only place where that great Maratha warrior is worshipped as a deity. And thanks to the salaries decreed by Shivaji, to the Muslim and other descendants of his hand-picked retainers, the warrior-king's liberal attitude has been clearly established.

Why then, has the only sea-fort built by Shivaji been so neglected? And how can those who profess to revere this charismatic figure, propound views so intolerantly divergent from those of their great leader?

Sometimes, history can be terribly embarrassing.

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