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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

To the lighthouse

As a new tourist trail to revive the lighthouses of Maharashtra takes off, we visit the first one in Kanhoji Angre to find the real story buried under apathy and neglect.

Written by Kavitha Iyer |
Updated: February 21, 2016 12:00:46 am
A view of the Kanhoji Angre island from the lighthouse. (Express photo by Amit Chakravarty) A view of the Kanhoji Angre island from the lighthouse. (Express photo by Amit Chakravarty)

It stands barely 30 km, as the crow flies, from where the tallest statue in the world, of an equestrian Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, will be built off Mumbai. But the nearly 300-year-old Kanhoji Angre fort, built by the same stout-hearted Maratha warriors so valorised in Maharashtra bears testimony to an irreverence for history, with ugly graffiti gracing every corner of its historical stone walls.

Within its precincts, stands a 150-year-old lighthouse, home to centuries-old Maratha ingeniousness in stone fortification, set to be one of the first in a string of lighthouses to form a new tourist circuit. Stones — carried across treacherous waters long before diesel-engine boats were invented — bear graffiti announcing the names of visitors, painted in English and Devanagari script. The defacers appear to have not only remembered to carry white paint on the boat-ride to Khanderi as the island is known locally but have also displayed some alacrity to make sure no part of the fortifications is left untouched. The scrawled names are everywhere, on the stone masonry outside the temple, the tricky-to-access exterior stone wall, stones that stay submerged during high tide and the gracefully curved look-out points. Not even the century-old munitions have
been spared.

One of the two canons has its original inscriptions intact, in English, markings from a colonial-era foundry. Reportedly dating back to the late 1700s, they were likely sourced from a plundered ship or from Dutch or British suppliers for battles against the Portuguese. Despite the corrosive coastal humidity, the iron is not heavily rusted. But the body of one canon is covered almost completely with names of proud visitors, in yellow and white.

Raghujiraje Angre, the ninth descendent of Kanhoji (the first naval admiral of the Maratha soldiers), has watched the defacement with growing despair, and resignment. “Those who built the fort did not write their names on it,” says the resident of Alibaug, a serious Maratha fort enthusiast himself. “They were the unsung heroes of history. Nobody knows how many would have died there during the construction of the fort.” Insufficient security and an irregular footfall of tourists are both to blame, he believes. “Those who visit the island now go by their own boats, and the place is at their mercy. Once infrastructure develops and footfalls increase, hopefully education and awareness of history will improve.”

Those plans are gathering speed now. The Mumbai Port Trust, which owns the island, has chalked out a three-phase scheme to tap the island’s tourism potential, a blueprint that ties in nicely with the Maharashtra government’s plans to declare 2017 the ‘Visit Maharashtra’ year. MbPT Chairman Ravi Parmar says a new jetty, already under construction following a foundation stone-laying ceremony graced by union minister Nitin Gadkari, will be operational later this year.

Vithoba temple, on the periphery, its stone walls defaced by graffiti. (Express photo by Amit Chakravarty) Vithoba temple, on the periphery, its stone walls defaced by graffiti. (Express photo by Amit Chakravarty)

Access to Khanderi is currently via Thal, a fishing village about 17 km from Mandwa jetty, which is a leisurely catamaran ride from the Gateway of India. From Thal, fishing boats take visitors to Khanderi, past one more tiny island with minor fortification. Locals call this the ‘Khubladha’ fort, literally translated as the great battle. Alibaug is another 5 km away.

Once the jetty is ready, larger ferry boats can take visitors directly to Khanderi from Gateway of India. “In later phases, we hope to offer cottages for overnight stays on the island, and sound-and-light shows to engage visitors in the history of the Kanhoji Angre island,” Parmar says.

A little north of Alibaug, Khanderi is barely a couple of kilometres at its longest. Its history dates back to the 1500s when the Portuguese landed on the island, though the fortifications are believed to have been built first by Shivaji’s generals many decades later. Around the 1670s, the Marathas reinforced the fortifications and managed to quell repeated naval blockades by the East India Company, and Khanderi went on to serve as an important naval base for post-Shivaji generations of Maratha rulers. Under Shahu Maharaja and his naval admiral Kanhoji Angre, the Marathas won several battles from here — including a significant one against the Siddis of Janjira — until Angre’s death in 1729. In 1998, as the MbPT turned 125 years old, it renamed the island after him.

The lighthouse, built under colonial rule, dates back to the 1860s. A set of winding stairs up the 17-metre masonry tower leads to the lamp chamber and exhilarating 360-degree views of the Arabian Sea from the narrow deck on top. A visit to the lighthouse complex is to be chalked into the tourism plans for Khanderi.

For now, however, the only visitors are the occasional intrepid trekkers who visit via Thal and other locals from along the coast who bring their own fishing boats.

On most days, life on the island is an uneventful routine for the handful of residents, including the four men posted at the lighthouse to look after the equipment and property and the three men contracted as security guards for a Naval radar on the island. The outpost of the Directorate General of Lighthouses and Lightships has a television set, the three guards at the radar complex have only their mobile phones for entertainment. All the men on the island cook their own food, the guards sometimes casting a hook attached to a pole and twine to catch fish. The guards live on the island for 20 days on the trot, then return home for a 10-day break, on rotation.

“We’re all married bachelors,” quips one of the DGLL’s navigation assistants posted there. The only excitement is when boatfuls of tourists show up for a quick propitiation at the Vithoba temple followed by night-long drinking and drunken wandering. A centuries-old water conservation pond that still supplies water to the island’s residents remains under lock and key to ensure the discoverers don’t fall into it. Keeping the victorious new conquerors of Khanderi from bringing white paint to the island is another matter altogether.

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