Siddhis of Janjira

Since the recurring mention of Janjira in the previous posts here and here, I could not help but paraphrase some history of Sidi family at Janjira. Notice, I use the old spelling “Sidi” for the modern nomenclature “Siddhi” or “Siddi”. I chose to go ahead with the old spelling merely because I started the topic of Sidi’s with the mention of European documents. And so as not to confuse the reader, I continue with Sidi.

The unconquerable island of Janjira (aerial view)
Location of Janjira and the extent of Sidi sway

The Arab and Muslim impact on the island of Janjira right from its name is evident from the many pages over which much ink is spilled in charting the identity and prowess of the Sidi family since the medieval period.  The probable old name “Sigerdis” for Janjira comes from the Greek accounts that describe the island as one of the most important trading posts on the Pirate Coast (see the note on Pirate coast in my last post here).

Ibn Alurady (950 CE) and Russian traveller Nikitin (1470 CE) narrate the slave trade from Opone to the Thana port. Nikitin further supplements the account with the details of employment of the African slaves under the wealthy Muslims on the Konkan coast. The Portuguese followed suit and continued the slave imports from Africa (Nairne in the book “History of Konkan”). Most of the slaves were either Muslim or converted to Islam upon their purchase by Muslim masters. Some converted to Christianity under Portuguese. In all instances, Habshi (Abyssinians or from Al-Habish in Arabia) were well-respected, and were also trained as priests in Old Goa (Germelli Careri 1618). The relations of African people at the Maratha court (1660-1800) in Deccan, and in Maratha controlled Konkan by extension, was probably different. We hear of Africans as slaves and as palanquin bearers. In some accounts of Portuguese taking over Maratha dominions, individuals of African descent were the “liberated” slaves. The Maratha land-holders along the Konkan coast had to obtain special permission for employing members of Habshi community.

It was in the sixteenth century that Konkan coast had its first Sidi admiral. Yakut Sidi was employed under Bahadur Gelani, who was the governor of Goa under the Bahamani dynasty. Yakut established himself at Goa and at the port of Dabhol in modern Ratnagiri district, and witnessed the fall of the Bahamani kingdom. It was Malik Ahmed (c. 1440-1520 CE) who appointed his Abyssinian admiral at Janjira, and paved a way for a strong Sidi presence on the Konkan shores. At this time, the coastline of Konkan was a coveted stretch of land and the warring Maratha kings from Deccan, kings from Gujarat to the north of Konkan, and Nizamshahi and Ahmedshahi powers from the south-east of Konkan were exerting tremendous pressure. In around 1490, the founder of Ahmedshah dynasty took the port of Rajapuri near Janjira and eventually took over the island. Yakut Sidi was then placed at Janjira, and the Sidi sway extended from the port of Dabhol in the north to Goa in the south. Some ports in that stretch viz. Vengurla, Achra and Jaygad however, continued to operate under other political powers.

The capture of Janjira island, building of the Janjira fort, and Sidi Yakut’s exploits are alive in the local oral traditions. Elders in Janjira narrate brave Yakut diving into the sea to siege the island of Janjira from the original koli (fisherfolk) or some kooli leader, for Ahmedshahi crown. The animated accounts I listened to, as we sat looking at the magnificent fort of Janjira as if afloat on the sea, brought the history alive. It does not matter how Yakut got in, but the victory over Janjira continues to be etched in gold in the local memory – as if it happened just yesterday. The local accounts on scores of Mulims, including the Shii’ and Sunni animate the Janjira landscape. The shrine of a Pir on Janjira fort is believed to mark the Shia presence on Janjira, but that is a story for another post.

The island of Janjira moved through hnumerous political powers in Western India, but the custodians remained Sidi. In 1636, Janjira was captured by Bijapur kings under the Mughal Empire. The importance of Janjira rose considerably as the dispatch port for pilgrims on Hajj. The port city of Janjira emerged as an important trade centre as well as the passenger port for Mecca. The importance of Sidi admiral at Janjira rose in rank, and the official title of “Wazir” was instated. The post of Wazir was either hereditary or, in case of no heir, given to the first officer of the fleet. As one can imagine, this might have led in some battles over acquiring the title of Wazir.

Sidis held Konkan under their firm grip until Shivaji’s attack in 1661 CE. Shivaji captured the forts of Tala, Gosala and Rairi from the Sidi Wazir at Janjira. Fateh Khan, the first officer under the Wazir of Janjira foils Shivaji’s attempts at capture of the fort of Janjira and other dominions scattered across the modern area of Murud and Alibaug. Shivaji and Sidi Jauhar’s attempts to oust each other continue to enthrall the storytellers and the audience with the animated details of capture of forts, siege, and numerous battles. The historical accounts mention every season during the nine years (1661-1670) Shivaji battered Janjira but with little success. Fateh Khan was hard pressed and applied for help to his new neighbours, the English. Some accounts mention fleetingly, that Fateh Khan was lured by Shivaji’s ministers, but chained and slain before he could join the Maratha forces to help Shivaji win over Janjira.

In 1671, Sidi Kairiyat and his brother successfully recovered the forts lost to Maratrhas and re-established their sway over much of Konkan. In 1673, the Sidi fleet descended on Maratha controlled ports near Mumbai, and raged havoc. Shivaji, in response, attacked the coastal villages between Janjira and Bardez (Goa) in 1674. Finally a peace treaty was signed, whereby not more that 300 Sidi armed men were to be on the Konkan coast at any time. In 1675, Sidi navy attempted to take over Vengurla, but returned to Janjira swiftly, to avert Shivaji’s impending siege of Janjira.

The Sidi-Maratha conflicts continued after Shivaji’s death. Shivaji’s son, Sambhaji attacked the Sidi boats intending to attack Surat – a port town in Gujarat in 1681. Sambhaji’s attack failed, but Sidi-Maratha rivalry was ignited once more. And in the meantime, the Sidi fleet attacked the town of Colaba, then controlled by the British. British factory in the viscinity incurred losses, and the reputation of Sidi sailors as ‘pirates’ gained momentum. Sidi Kasim, attacked British ships trading with Maratha ports in 1681, turning the British against Janjira.

The battle of 1682 CE brought Sambhaji and Sidi Khairiyat face to face. The powerful Sidi fleet foiled the Maratha attacks, and Janjira continued as Sidi strong-hold. Sidi descended on Colaba and Mahad in modern Mumbai, and plundered Maratha villages. The naval attacked affected the Maratha finances the trade between the British and Maratha at Mumbai was temporarily suspended. Sidi Misri, nephew of Sidi Sambal (first officer at Janjira) joined forced with the Marathas, and attacked Janjira on Sambhaji’s behalf. Siddi Kasim, then Wazir of Janjira, defended the fort, and crushed Martatha attack.

The duel with the British navy in 1689 led to an unsurmountable power for the Sidi in sea. The British had attempted to increase their naval power by capturing the Sidi ships near Mumbai. As retaliation, the fleet under Sidi Kasim attacked, plundered and capsized British ships. The Sidi then held their sway from Mumbai to Goa with the subduing of the British. British issued charters and threats for the Sidi to leave Mumbai and restore access points for trade. Some ports were handed back to the British and the Sidi troops returned to Janjira from the island of Mumbai in 1690.

I will leave the rest of political history for tomorrow’s post.

The integration of Sidi community in local Konkani society has been a topic of curiosity. The newspaper articles on Sidi in Konkan have continued the Oriental gaze of describing the Sidi as “others” in Konkani communities. My blog posts tread the dangerous boundaries of giving descript backgrounds of various communities through the impressions I gathered when in field. In some parts of Konkan, the Sidis are seen as decidedly different, especially those families who practice Chrisrtianity or Judaism. Muslim Sidi families continue to part-take in Konkani public celebrations with and without Hindu traditional backdrop. The locals respect the Wazir at Janjira as the real ruler and the local narratives in Murud-Janjira are replete with the exploits of Sidi in Konkan.


8 of 30 in the series “Konkan: May-illuminate”


Published by Kalemighty

Penned thoughts from South Asian culture. Follow for thoughts on Archaeology, Anthropology, and Pedagogy around the world

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