Chaul: Maharashtra’s Medieval Port



The Konkan coast, especially in Raigad district for its proximity to Mumbai, is a stomping ground for day trippers and weekenders. But just 20 km south of Alibaug, on the west coast of India, the coastal town of Chaul has magically escaped the tourist onslaught and still keeps time to the rhythm of swaying palms and ebb and flow of the tides.

The somnolent façade of the modern town hides one of the most historically active port towns of ancient and medieval India. In fact, no other coastal city in Western India has been referred to by more historians of ancient, medieval and colonial India, both Indian and foreign.

The earliest mention of Chaul is in the inscriptions at the Buddhist caves of Kanheri near Mumbai. Numerous inscriptions in Caves 4, 7, 10 and 95 refer to donations of caves, cisterns and pathways made by goldsmiths and their families from ‘Chemulaka’ (Chaul). These inscriptions, written in Sanskrit in the Brahmi script, are a testament to the startling wealth and importance of Chaul in the 1st-2nd centuries CE.

The stupa relief in a cave at Chaul
The stupa relief in a cave at Chaul|Abhijeet Dandekar

The Buddhist connection to Chaul is still visible today in the rock-cut caves, which now house the temple of Hingulja Devi. While not much of the Buddhist legacy remains today, there are a group of ruined cells and a medium relief Buddhist Stupa dateable to the 1st-2nd centuries CE.

Besides the inscriptions in the Kanheri Caves, another ancient reference to Chaul from the same period is in the Geographia of Ptolemy, which speaks of ‘Symulla’/’Timulla’. A hundred years later, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea too mentions the port of Symulla and places it south of Kalliena (Kalyan) and north of Mandagora (Mandad).

Chaul was probably visited early in the 6th century CE by the monk-geographer Cosmas Indicopluestes, who referred to it as ‘Sibor’, a leading trade centre between Kalyan and the Malabar ports.

The next reference to Chaul is by Hiuen Tsang, the renowned 7th century Chinese monk who calls it ‘Chimolo’ and says “great riches come from the sea”.

Excavated trench showing occurence of two ringwells
Excavated trench showing occurence of two ringwells|Abhijeet Dandekar

After a hiatus of a few centuries, Chaul reappears in the writings of Arab travellers and geographers, who call it ‘Saimur’ (sometimes ‘Jaimur’) – al Masudi 915 CE, al Muhalil 941 CE, al Ishtakari 95 CE, ibn Haukal 976 CE, al Biruni 1030 CE and al Idrisi 1130 CE, all mention it in their travelogues and their geographies.

Al Masudi goes on to say that Chaul was under the governorship of a local prince called Djandja (Jhanjha, fifth ruler of the Northern Shilaharas). He says there are 10,000 Muslims in Chaul and that there is already a Jama Masjid (this is very interesting in the light of King Indra III’s Chinachani copper plate grant, where he mentions the Governor of Sanjan as Madhumati (Mahmud) Sugatipa, a ‘tajik’ (ie an Arab) appointed by his father who continues to serve under him), a fire temple of the Zoroastrians, a church, a synangogue and many temples. Ibn Haukal, writing a few years later, talks about an active port and a strong city with an abundance of mangoes, coconuts, rice and onions.

Local rulers too left written evidence of Chaul, and there is a mention of ‘Chemuli’ in the Kharepatan Copper Plates of Anantadeva (dated 1094 CE), the 14th ruler of the Northern Shilaharas. These copper plates mention Chaul among a list of ports similar to the ones at Sopara and Thane, which are all a part of his kingdom.

Al Idrisi, writing in the early 12th century CE, describes a robust town with coconut trees, aromatic plants and henna.

Local history says that Chaul was under the Yadavas of Deogiri in the 13th century CE, and evidence of this is clearly seen in the 1298 CE inscription of Ramchandradeva Yadava on a gadhegal (ass-curse stones) at Modak Wadi in Chaul. There is a similar stele with an inscription by the same ruler from Akshi, dated 1300 CE, just 12 km north of Chaul.

Harshada Wirkud, an archaeological researcher, has worked on Chaul and its vicinity and has documented a number of inscribed gadhegals including one from the Early Medieval period at Chaul.

Chaul Gadheghal, Yadava Ramchandradeva, 1298 CE
Chaul Gadheghal, Yadava Ramchandradeva, 1298 CE|Harshada Wirkud

In the early years of the 14th century CE, Chaul fell to the invading army of Alauddin Khilji, and after the fall of Deogiri, became a part of the Khilji Sultanate. In 1357 CE, Chaul is recorded as one of the important towns of the Bahmani Sultanate and the historian Ferishta, in 1380 and 1398 CE, records it as their chief port.

Interestingly, Chaul falls smack in the middle of territory controlled by the little-known ruler, Hambirarao, who ruled Thane-Konkan from Mahim in Mumbai. Hambirarao’s inscriptions are dated between 1366 and 1369 CE and are seen at Nagaon 8 km to the north of Chaul, and Nandgaon 26 km to the south of Chaul. The discovery of three new inscription of Hambirarao in the last three years has added a new chapter to the history of the Konkan.

The first European traveller to reach Chaul is perhaps British writer John Mandeville, before 1350 CE but his book written around 1360 CE is considered to be a plagiarisation. Even so, his mention of the port of ‘Chava’ means he had read records of the same by a contemporary or someone slightly earlier than him.

The first European to have definitely stepped onto the beach at Chaul was a Russian traveller called Athanasius Nikitin, who landed in Chaul (from Basra) in 1470 CE. Nikitin was on his way to the Vijayanagara court and he calls the city ‘Chivli’. He writes that he was greatly struck by their riches and the trade of the port, and observes that the upper castes wore silk but most of the others wore little.

In 1490 CE, Chaul passed to the Ahmednagar Sultanate. It was their chief port and well taken care of. In 1505 CE, the first of the Portuguese appeared at Chaul. Varthema (1503-1508 CE) describes ‘Chevul’ as a town on a beautiful river, 2 miles (3.2 km) from the sea and walled with a well-armed populace. He describes the land as rich in horses, oxen and cows, and everything except grapes and nuts.

General stratigraphy of the archaeological deposits at Chaul
General stratigraphy of the archaeological deposits at Chaul|Abhijeet Dandekar

Around 1505 CE, Portuguese explorer and military commander Dom Lourenco de Almeida, with a squadron of ten ships, attacked the Chaul harbour and proceeded to wreak havoc there. He then ransomed the port with an annual sum of 2,000 gold pardaos from the Ahmednagar Sultanate in return for his protection. Don Lourenco fought a large, combined force of Egyptian and Venetian ships and the forces of the Gujarat Sultans in a sea battle at the mouth of Chaul in 1508 CE, but the Portuguese were routed.

There are different versions of the outcome, depending on which side of the battle you are on. Ferishta says 400 Muslims went to heaven and 4,000 Portuguese went to hell. Portuguese records claim they lost 264 men and killed 600. The Portuguese avenged their loss by defeating the Egyptian fleet in the Battle of Diu in 1509 CE. After this, the Portuguese Viceroy signed a formal treaty to protect Chaul, with Emperor Burhan of the Ahmednagar Sultanate. Trade grew by leaps and bounds.

The British finally wrested control of the forts in 1818 after the battle of Khadki and the defeat of the Maratha Empire, and Chaul became a part of the British Indian Empire, where it remained till independence in 1947.

Archaeological Findings

In 2003, Pune-based Deccan College carried out a series of explorations and excavations, which they repeated in 2005. Led by Prof V D Gogate, the team comprised archaeologists Shrikant Pradhan, Abhijit Dandekar, Sachin Joshi, Rukshana Nanji, Shivendra Kadgaonkar and  Vikram Marathe. What they found (incomplete)
Not much remains of the monuments of the Sultanate period at Chaul, with the exception of the ruins of a hamam (public bath) and a few inscribed Muslim tombstones.

Revdanda or Chaul Harbour on Kundalika river
Revdanda or Chaul Harbour on Kundalika river|Author

In 1514 CE, well-known Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa visited Chaul and reports that the town had a Portuguese factor (trading agent), that it was not a very large town and that it was mostly deserted in the monsoons and filled up in winter. He goes on to describe in great detail the goods, traders, mechanics of trade and the people. He says that from December to March, the traders set up stalls 3 miles (5 km) long outside the town, and it was like a trade fair.

Barbosa talks about goods being brought in on long, oxen trains packed in panniers and sacks. He goes on to say that there was no greater emporium between Surat and Goa, and that there was great trade from Chaul with the Persian Gulf and Arabia as well as trade up and down the coast, from Gujarat to Malabar.

Revdanda Beach and Fort
Revdanda Beach and Fort|Author

1n 1516 CE, the Portuguese built a factory at Chaul but their halcyon days were coming to an end. In a series of attacks and reverses, Chaul was battered first by the Bijapur Sultanate’s fleet in 1521 CE and then by the Egyptian fleet from Diu, who shelled the Portuguese in 1528. But the Portuguese had completed their primary fortifications, the Revdanda Fort or Fortaleza de Chaul in 1524, and held them at bay.

The 16th century CE marked the period of actual Portuguese control at Chaul, and they defended their territory against combined fleets that included the Ahmednagar Sultanate, Calicut and Achin (in Sumatra). Despite major campaigns in 1570 and 1594, the Portuguese held Chaul and fortified the hill on the opposite side of the creek, with the formidable fortress of the Morro de Chaul (Korlai Fort). This pincer fortification of the mouth of the Kundalika was virtually impregnable.

Chaul after Antonio Bocarro, 1635
Chaul after Antonio Bocarro, 1635

In 1600 CE, Ahmednagar fell to the Mughals, with the exception of Revdanda-Chaul. In 1630, after the final fall of the Ahmednagar Sultanate, the territory of Chaul passed into the hands of Shahji Bhonsale, who challenged the Mughals and held it until 1636, when he was forced to surrender it.

Interestingly, in 1634, the entire territory was ceded to Adil Shah of Bijapur by the Mughals. In 1637, the territory came under the Siddis of Janjira. In 1662, the Bijapur Sultanate ceded the entire southern Konkan to Maratha king, Shivaji.  Yet the forts at Revdanda and Korlai continued to be held by the Portuguese with only a sliver of territory around them. This status quo continued till the fall of Revdanda to the forces of Maratha General Chimmaji Appa during the reign Peshwa Baji Rao I.

A very interesting relic of the long Portuguese occupation of Chaul is a small community of Christians who live in the village of Korlai and speak a unique Konkani-Portuguese creole (hybrid language) called Kristi. Until very recently, their church services and hymns were in this language though it is fast becoming extinct. The Marathas completely changed the face Chaul and Revdanda Fort. They gave out parcels of land inside the fort after sacking all the churches and mansions of the Portuguese. Today, the fort is an idyllic set of Maratha homes with arecanut and coconut palm orchards. Not much remains of the fortifications, with the exception of the outer walls of Revdanda Fort, with its inscribed sea gate and land gate with Portuguese crest and projecting crown.

Korlai Fort
Korlai Fort|Ashutosh Bijoor

The only intact remnants are seen at the protected site of the saat-khaani buruz – the bell tower of the church of Saint Barbara. The only other notable remains are the ruins of a small chapel in which St Francis Xavier is said to have stayed on his visits to the city of Chaul. It is venerated to this day.

Contrary to what may have been expected from a port site so well known to history, the Deccan College archaeological team made a host of discoveries, some brand new and some corroborating textual evidence. The excavators located a deposit going back to the 3rd century BCE, topped with brick structures of the Satavahana period, among which they found fragments of amphorae and Red Polished Ware, both synonymous with Indo-Roman trade. Above this, they found Early Medieval levels characterised by Glazed West Asian ceramics, Monochrome Glazed Ware and Chinese Porcelains of the Blue on White variety.

1. Early Medieval Persian Ware; 2.  Early Medieval Persian Hatched sGraffiato Ware; 3. Monochrome Ware; 4. Sparrow, heron, falcon and deer depicted on the Chinese Blue-on-White Porcelain
1. Early Medieval Persian Ware; 2.  Early Medieval Persian Hatched sGraffiato Ware; 3. Monochrome Ware; 4. Sparrow, heron, falcon and deer depicted on the Chinese Blue-on-White Porcelain|Vishwas Gogte

Similar beads have been recorded at East African sites like Kilwa, Manda, Shanga and Mtwapa as well as at West Coast Indian sites like Chaul, Palshet, Sanjan and Kelshi. The beads and the foreign ceramics are without a doubt evidence of a complex network of trade in the Indian Ocean littoral during this period.

They also found a large number of glass beads known as ‘Trade-Wind Beads’, which are known to have been made in India and traded all over the Indo-Pacific littoral during this period. The team corroborated the finds from the trench with hundreds of surface finds and concluded that this was definitely a manufacturing centre, from where they were sent to East Africa. This was mentioned by the 16th century CE Venetian traveller and merchant Caesar Frederick, who visited Chaul.

Explorations in the vicinity also revealed the existence of a hitherto unknown rock-cut Buddhist cave at Agrav near Chaul, which stylistically appears to have been built in the 2nd-3rd century CE.

Buddhist cave found at Agrav in the vicinity of Chaul
Buddhist cave found at Agrav in the vicinity of Chaul|Abhijeet Dandekar

A twist in the tale is that Chaul has long been home to the Bene Israel Jews, who were known for their primary occupation as oil pressers and who did not work on Saturdays (Shaniwar Telis). The town has a lovely synagogue belonging to their community as well as the home and workshop of the last Shaniwar Teli.

Today, Chaul is a quiet village with swaying palms, crumbling ruins and a beautiful untapped beach, which stills holds a few interesting secrets for the traveller.

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