After a week of battling traffic snarls in Mumbai, not many of us are enthused by the idea of travel over the weekend. But it was the post on Black Swan Journeys’ Facebook page that made me think otherwise – a two-day trip to the twin towns of Chaul and Rev Danda, exploring Portuguese forts, Churches, a Hamam Khana, and Buddhist caves. Just my idea of a perfect weekend!
Around 10.30 am, three hours after starting from Mumbai, the three of us, including my wife, and our three year old, Arjun, touched Rev Danda, which lies between the two beach destinations of Alibag and Kashid, both popular weekend getaways and forever teeming with crowds from Mumbai. The rest of the group had travelled from Pune. We met up in a. traditional double storied house that was going to be our base for the next two days.
After introducing ourselves to an interesting mix of people- students, professionals, history enthusiasts and travelers- and having some refreshing tea prepared by the Vaidyas, we set out for our first destination, which was the Rev Danda fort. Our guide on this tour was Dr. Pradhan, a passionate archaeologist and a miniature artist by vocation. He had been part of the team that excavated the sites of Chaul and Rev Danda from 1996 sowe couldn’t have asked for a better guide. While others were busy enquiring about the itinerary, my cattle crazy son had only one question for him “When will we see buffaloes?” to which the whole group exploded into laughter.
Our first stop was at the Rev Danda fort, ,erected by the Portuguese in the early 16th century. The entrance to the fort is concealed by a queue of smoke sputtering Tum-Tums (as we call the six-seater auto rickshaws). The fort is basically a quadrangular matrix of lanes called paakhadyaa in the local lingo, that intersect each other to form cells,occupied today by houses and betel nut farms; but in the medieval times they would have been offices, barracks, official residences and maybe some common facilities like soldiers’ dining mess, etc. The other end of the fort has a similar gate. A large cross or Cruz is visible right above the frame of the gate, adjacent to which isthe symbol of the Portuguese armillary sphere, which is basically a representation of the earth, signifying the Portuguese Armada’s naval supremacy. Thesame symbol can be seen in the Korlai fort as well, that we visited the next day.
Cannons and cannon balls are strewn around all over the fort. At its peak, there were said to be more than sixty cannons defending this fort. If not these cannons, then the Rock of Chaul, a small isle concealed by the high tide, ensured no ship came dangerously close.. Its not difficult to spot beach ball sized cannon balls strewn all around the town.. In fact, there’s an entire lane in Rev Danda named after the cannon balls.
Coming back to the Rev Danda fort, it also encloses a monastery, withe a seven storied building that faces the sea.. This building served as a praying area and also as a watch tower, . Inside the monastery, are also tombstoneswith inscriptions.. nearby nbearby chapel, was apparently visited by St. Xavier’s himself,attracting Christian pilgrims today.
After a sumptuous meal of Chicken Rassa or curry in a traditional coconut milk base, we were ready to collapse on our beds. However, the word ‘Hamamkhana’ or a ‘Royal Bath’ was enough to get most of us up on our feet. Just a couple of kilometres later, in Chaul, we were facing the ruins of a huge dome shaped structure, in the middle of a betel nut farm, This royal bath was built in the times of the Nizam’s rule which preceded the Portuguese. . What would it have been like to lie here on a chilly winter morning and get pampered with perfumed warm water and maybe a light massage too? Sigh!
The farms surrounding the Hamamkhana are littered with countless fragments of Chinese pottery, potsherds of Red clay and Terracotta, and if you are lucky enough, you’ll also find an occasional bead sparkling in the debris. Thesebeads have revealed to archaeologists, presence of a bead factory in Chaul, thatexported these beads to Egypt, Rome and other countries in the ancient or medieval period. The Red and Black potsherds also hint at Chauls’ history to the Mauryan or Satvahana period, around the 2nd or 1st century BC. To locate the Hamamkhana in Chaul, make a stop at the famous FaFe Bandhu, who apart from giving directions, serve the greatest Batata Wada (spicy potato mix fried with a besan coating) and Dudhi Halwa (which is your ubiquitous lauki ka halwa).
By late afternoon, we were climbing up the Korlai fort. It was the right time to be there, with the sun on its way to the sea. Although the fort is not at a great height, its defense lies in the fact that it’s surrounded by the sea on three sides and the only way by land is cut off by a moat which would have been connected with a drawbridge. . This is also a fort visited by none less than Vasco da Gama himself, where he apparently first received the news of his Viceroyship. Another less known fact about Korlai is that the villagers here speak a Creole or mixed tongue of Portuguese, Kokani and Marathi, a very rare occurrence today..
By the time we returned to our base,though exhaustion was creeping init did not stop us from stepping out to have a feel of the town itself. The entire town was in preparation of the Dev Diwali the next day, where they light up the town with oil diyas, and nowadays, with electric lamps as well. One could feel the hustle bustle in all the houses. The nearby Vitthal Mandir was also ringing with the chorus accompanying an Abhanga or Ballad singer. Though, there is not much to shop for in Chaul, one thing I can recommend strongly is the roasted peanuts and channa that you get at several shops in the market. We almost made a meal out of it.
The next morning, we headed out to the Kuda caves, about 50 kilometres away. The road isn’t great but there are several attractions that make up for it, including the famous Murud-Janjeera sea fort (it’s actually Jazeera, meaning an isle) and an old Palace of the Nawab of Janjeera The Kuda caves are a group of about twenty six rock cut caves in two levels on a hill with two Chaitya Grihas or assembly halls, and Viharas or residences in the remaining caves. The Kuda caves belong to the early years of the first millennium AD. They have several inscriptions in Brahmi referring to the donations made by patrons. The sculptures in the halls are breathtakingly beautiful and the Viharas reflect the austere lives that the monks lived, with just a bed, cut into rock, for resting and not much else. While the elephants and other symbols sculpted into these caves are clues to the Hinayana tradition, the realistic images of the Buddha are evidences of the Mahayana tradition, both of which co-existed here.
On our way back, as promised by the Black Swan Journeys team, we had the most amazing Fish Thali at Patil Kahanawal (restaurant) at Murud. Fried Pomfrets, Seer fish curry and Tandlachi Bhakri (Roti made with rice flour). Even little Arjun, who braved the climb to Kuda, was soon in deep sleep, satiated with the sea food treat.
Kuda, Chaul, Korlai and Rev Danda are a continuum of our Ancient, Medieval and Modern history. These are also the few remaining evidences of the many cultures that have shaped us into the present day ‘Indian culture’. Can we, the public, include their preservation in our agenda of protest? If we cannot, then I fear that we risk losing these to natural and human actions. The loss would go beyond just losing these evidences, to losing these for our children, and their children and so on, which will never be able to actually walk a dream surrounded by the Nizams, Mughals and Portuguese, as we did this weekend in the Paakhaadyas of Chaul.
A very big thank you to the team at Black Swan Journeys which made this trip possible for history lovers like me, and to our guide, Dr. Shriikant Pradhaan and the many archaeologists, historians and respective experts in the fields of cultural conservation who have helped keep this partof our culture alive.