Malvan was a small fishing hamlet, just one of the many on the Konkan coast before the mercurial Marathas breathed life into it. Particularly under their greatest leader Chhatrapati Shivaji, who in 1664 undertook the task of erecting the massive fort of Sindhudurg on an island just off Malvan. Uniquely, the great warrior king contributed his own physical labour to its construction. That's why, in Sindhudurg, you'll discover the imprints of Shivaji's own hands and feet preserved in a slab of lime.
One could say that the island's natural advantages, its rocky outcrop and its reef-blocked harbour were ideal for fortification. But building a fort while fighting the Mughals and British simultaneously, that too in just three years, seems a daunting task even now.
It is believed that over 15,000 tons of iron was used in the castings and that its foundation stone was laid in lead. And as if this wasn't enough, the Marathas under Shivaji are also believed to have fortified the nearby island of Padmagad and built a couple of forts north of Malvan town on the mainland. It was and remains an incredible achievement, and the legend of Sindhudurg's construction has contributed as much to Shivaji's pre-eminent position in Maharashtrian consciousness as the victories he pulled off against the Great Mughals and the Bijapur rulers.
It's a pity that not much is known about the Marathas' naval prowess except for the accounts of the British who largely viewed them as pirates. If in 1765 the Maratha navy boasted of 85 frigates, that would have spelt more than piracy to the British. Imagine, what Malvan Bay must have looked like then filled with ships and war cries. Around the turn of the 18th century, one Maratha king and his navy was putting the fear of God into the English and the Portuguese. Malvan is where you can turn the pages of history for a glimpse of those historic clashes.
Today, Malvan's waters are home to fishermen once again. The coast is quiet, pristine and amazingly beautiful. When the white sands squeeze through your toes on Tarkarli Beach, you can forgive yourself for letting go of the memory of warrior-kings, and slipping into a reverie fortified only by a glass of chilled beer.
To focus on Sindhudurg Fort alone would be doing an injustice to Malvan's many other charms. Like the long, unspoilt stretches of sand, the clear inviting waters, the clamour of fishing boats returning after a day's catch. Imagine the spread to be had, the prawns, the crabs, the sol kadi, the riches of Malvani cuisine.
If ever the cliche pristine was appropriate for a beach, this is it. Located 7 km south of Malvan, at the confluence of the Karli River and the Arabian Sea, Tarkarli Beach has powdery white sand. This is also one of the few stretches where one can see through crystal clear waters, almost 20 ft deep. With some luck, you may even sight some dolphins or perhaps a turtle basking in the sun.
The waters here can turn rough and treacherous, so it's best to swim only on the advice of local fishermen.
South of Tarkarli is Deobagh village, a good place to hire a boat and drift along the river. Don't miss a houseboat cruise along the Karli backwaters. Contact MTDC for details.
The Malvan Beach and the jetty, where most fishermen anchor their boats, buzz with life. In case you're there between 5 and 7 pm, take the rare opportunity of witnessing the fish auction. Buy yourself some fish and have it cooked at one of the many bars or restaurants here. Alternatively, try the lovely fare at the friendly eating joint, Khot.
In contrast, Chivla Beach, bordering Malvan town to the northwest, is a tiny stretch of clean sands and clear waters that offers, happily enough, an opportunity to laze and watch the sun go down. Try the local fish at Silver Sands, a small restaurant here. Further down, Asra Mahal Beach has a modest government rest-house from where one can watch the sea from a distance sitting on a low wall. Finally, there are Tandavali (19 km), a perfect sandy beach without a soul in sight, and Achara, ideal for dolphin-spotting between October and February.
Private taxis are few and autos expensive. There's no scooter service either, so bring your own wheels
Just half a kilometre off the mainland is this enduring testimony of Maratha power. The story goes that having chosen the site after his inability to wrest Janjira Fort from the Sidis, Shivaji named it Shivdurg after himself.
It was built on a rock-island known as Kurte Bet. Beginning 1664, over 6,000 masons, blacksmiths and labourers toiled for over three years to build it. It has 3 km of zigzagging ramparts, 12-ft thick and 30-ft high walls, 53 bastions and 32 broad semicircular formations crowning its head. These towers have embrasures for cannons. Above the fort's towering entrance are imprints of Shivaji's hands and feet. Inside are temples dedicated to Mahadeo, Jarimai, Mahapursh and Bhavani and hutments of a few families claiming to be the descendants of Shivaji's servants.
But the most unique temple here is the one dedicated to Shivaji, the Shree Shivchhatrapati Temple, the only temple where the Maratha hero is worshipped. His idol is an unusual one -- a non-bearded, silver-capped image. On its lap is a sword, symbolically the Bhavani. The original fell into British hands after the Raigarh Fort fell in 1818. The temple was built by his son Rajaram in 1695 after his father's death, and has become a pilgrimage of sorts for Shivaji's many followers.
The Fort Conservation Trust runs ferries to Sindhudurg from the Malvan jetty. Boatmen double up as guides (at no extra charge). Go at sunset, when the view from the fort is breathtaking. Entry Free.
You can pick up cashew nuts from Zantye near Malvan Beach. Also, buy the famous alphonso mangoes grown in these parts. The village of Katta is known for its interesting china clay pottery. Its 30 km (1 hr) from Malvan, but the pots are worth the trip. Made of red china clay (called Chira) dug from local mines. You can find small diyas to 2-foot urns.
The buzzing heritage city of Sawantwadi is famous for its lacquer furniture, toys and Ganjifa cards. For wooden toys here, go to the Kanekar shop in Chitrali Lane.
Hotel Sagar Kinara (Tel 02365-252264 Tariff 2,650-4,000), near Malvan jetty, is affordable and clean, has a bar and a restaurant that serves Malvani food. Om Shradda (Tel 252727 Tariff 800-1,500), is near the bus stand. Meals are sold nearby. Abhiruchi Resort (Tel 253156 Tariff 1,400-2,000), near the MTDC office, offers basic amenities.
The MTDC Resort (Tel 02365-252390 Tariff 2,900) is quite popular, so book in advance. It has 20 rooms on the beach, and a houseboat that can host a group of four. Sai Sagar Beach Niwas (Tel 075885 05644 Tariff INR 1,800 for a non-AC room and INR 2,200 for an AC room. Both rooms can accommodate three adults) close by serves Malvani food on order.
You can also choose to stay in Kankavali (47 km) or Kudal (42 km), which have more comfortable hotels. A luxurious option in Kankavali is Neelam's Countryside Hotel (Tel 094030 79274 Tariff INR 1,500 for a non-AC standard room and INR 2,500 for an AC standard room), on the national highway, and Hotel Anant (Tel 094224 36390 Tariff INR 900 for a non-AC room and INR 1,700 for an AC room).
Hotel Coconut (Tel 02362 221 440, Tariff INR 1,500) is good and budget-friendly option.
Malvani cuisine is distinct. The use of a local fruit, kokum (garcinia), and a hint of coconut is all that the deep-coloured gravy and bright fish curries need. Mackerel, kingfish, prawns and pomfret are preferred and eaten mostly boiled.
There are more than 50 recipes for mackerel alone the more popular of these are trifalancha, kalputi and dabdabeet. Then there is chamchamit masali tikhle (a combination of mackerel and pomfret), zanzanit kombdi suke (dry chicken), kolambi fry (prawns), mori, kalva and tisryachi suke (varieties of fish and shellfish). An average fish thali would include fish curry, rice, vegetables, roti and sol kadi.
A popular eatery in Malvan town, Chaitanya is a bit expensive but the food is wonderful. Also, do go to Arun Bhojanalaya. At Tarkarli Beach, don't miss rava-fried bangada, kukurit bombil, zanzanit kekra, tisryachi kodi and chamchamit kekdyacha masala at the beach shacks.
A Maratha naval power, which at one time boasted of 600 vessels, was concentrated around Devgad, Vijaydurg and Sindhudurg. Devgad is home to the ruins of another fort built in 1729 by Dattajirao Angre, Shivaji's naval commander. Only ramparts of this fort remain today apart from a lighthouse erected by the British in the late 8th century.
Stop here for the famous alphonso mangoes grown in these parts between April and May.
The best way to get to Devgad (11/2 hrs drive) is via Achara and Kunkeshwar (27 km). This route is much shorter than going via NH17 and the road is reasonably good.
Vijaydurg Fort (2 hrs away) stands on the spot where a wooden fort existed earlier, said to be built by Raja Bhoj II of the Panhala Shilahar dynasty in 1193. It was rebuilt by the Bijapur Sultans in the 16th century and Shivaji added three further layers of fortifications, 27 bastions and 300 guns in 1654. Its colourful history owes much to Kanhoji Angre, who used this fort as a base to plunder European ships towards the end of the 17th century.
Massive walls hide various structures like khalbatkhanas (secret meeting rooms), bhuyaars (secret underground passages) and jaangi, 100-150 ft walls built 4 metres under the sea and designed to gain access to enemy vessels before they reached the port. Climb the round tower that rises from the highest part of the fort, from where you can view the wide expanse of the Arabian Sea.