Mirjan Fort – An ode to the Pepper Queen

For centuries, our world and the people in it have been designed by nature to favor men. Females were and apparently still in many parts of the world are still the ‘weaker sex’. History of almost all parts of the world sings songs about powerful men who made their marks. But what about women? If I think about it, only a handful of ladies made it in the male dominated history enough to be known world-wide.

If we dig deeper into our history, we will get to know that there have been women who rose up in the men’s world. They went on to carve a niche for themselves, even though they couldn’t find a place in our history textbooks. Some of them were instrumental in shaping the course of history and making the world as it is now. But frankly, how many of such women do we know?

On my way back from a weekend trek to Gokarna, we were scheduled to take a detour to this ‘never heard of’ for called Mirjan Fort. I wasn’t much enthusiastic at first because It was mid day when the Sun was it its peak. Moreover, what’s in a fort, because I have seen many of them, thanks to my years in Delhi. Mirjan didn’t seem to be close enough to any of those. It was all ruins anyway.

Mirjan Fort

There wasn’t any entrance fee, which means, no one ever comes here. A board at the entrance said the fort was under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India, which explained the ruins!

What stumped me and inspired this piece is the silent expanse of the Mirjan Fort and the story of its Queen. Since everybody in my group was tired from the trek, the Fort wasn’t, much of an attraction to most. Besides us, only a small herd of cow were there in the fort and some men trying to clean up the overgrown lawns.

Might have been the Darbar
A bad click

As I wandered around the fort, I was stuck by the planning and the engineering marvel it was. I climbed up each watch tower and the view was breath taking. It would have been more so, if it was early morning or evening. The whole Fort was enveloped in an eerie silence. The Fort is bound by double walls made of red stones. It has four main gates which are now in pathetic conditions. Ruins and remnants of old fort buildings can be seen. I could make out where the meetings might have been held and areas where the people assembled. There was also a grand old tree which was a surprise, around which I could imagine people sitting and discussing about the state of affairs or even selling and buying the spices, which was the main trade back then. What astonished me most was that whoever designed the fort was brilliant enough to engineer a system of interconnected wells. From above, all one can see are the wells here and there. But all of them have an underground flight of stairs at some distance from the well.

Once the wells caught my attention, I decided the wander around the Fort a bit. During my explorations of the fort grounds, I found a worker cleaning up an underground well, which was otherwise closed for the public. After much requests and begging he allowed me and my friend into the underground passage after giving us strict instructions to be back in 2 minutes because it wasn’t safe down there. What awaited us underground was a dark alley leading to the well and it was a picture straight out of some horror filled past. I realized the depth we were in when I saw the water level. I could touch the water from where I stood. It was a wonder as to how someone could have envisioned the whole system. Of course we weren’t allowed near the other interconnected wells. The man was skeptic that he might lose his job if something untoward happened and that if he let us, others might also want to go down. So, without telling the rest of our gang, we thanked him and left. He pointed us to another old man, who he said knew more about the fort history. Thankfully my friend knew enough Kannada to get the story from him. It is from these two men I got to know about the Queen of Gersoppa.

The story of Mirjan Fort and its Queen dates back to that period of Indian History when Kerala and parts of Karnataka were treasure troves for first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and then followed by the English. They all coveted the spices, particularly the black pepper and nutmeg, that grew in these parts. It all started with the arrival of Vasco da Gama who recognized the potential of the spice resources the land offered. He was instrumental in the world knowing about India and the competition and war that followed for complete control of the spice trades. Portuguese were in total control of the spice trade back then. Thanks to my time in the Spices Board of India, I know this much for sure.

So, it was during this period that Chennabhaira Devi was born into the Tulva-Salva clan in the town of Gersoppa in the Uttar Kannada District. Gersoppa was back then under the Vijayanagara empire. Maternal Uncle of Chennabhaira Devi ruled the spice trading regions spanning the Uttar and Dakshin Kannada and parts of Malabar on behalf of the Vijayanagara king. Being born into a matriarchal society, she was destined to inherit the rule of the entire spice trading regions of her land from her uncle.

Naturally, none of the men ruling the neighboring kingdoms or the Portuguese liked the fact that a women was ruling the land which was a strategic area for spices trades. All of them cherished the dream to take the control of these lands from her. But, she stood tall amidst all of them who coveted her rule. She went into battles with them – twice with the Portuguese- and won them all. She negotiated with the Portuguese to keep them at bay. Her strategies and plans for all her battles – both personal and the public ones- were fool proof.

Only if the walls could speak, we might have got to know more about this brave and intelligent queen who made sure that the Portuguese saw eye to eye with her. All her life she must have fought so many battles with all those men who wanted what she had. The very fact that she controlled the region for over 50 years, which is more than any queen in India, tell so much about her statesmanship. But as she got old, her enemies who individually couldn’t get even close to her, decided to gang up against her. That was what brought about the fall of the great queen. They captured her and imprisoned her. She died in a prison after she lost her last battle.

I was really surprised that this old man knew so much so clearly. It made me really suspicious. I made a mental note to google to check the authenticity of the whole story. I was surprised that all write ups on the Queen of Gersoppa pretty much said the same tales. Apparently, she built the Mirjan Fort, from where she ruled. The Portuguese bestowed her with the title ‘Raina de Pimenta’ or the Pepper Queen.

The fort, even though in ruins, unmistakably had an aura of a past grandeur, when being ruled by a very enigmatic queen Chennabhaira Devi or the ‘Pepper Queen’. The empty flag post gives a feeling of melancholy. It might be missing those glorious days when it had a flag which proudly fluttered symbolizing the victorious rule of a brave Queen. Her story is not written anywhere – in none of the walls or the board in the entrance. She is an invisible part of our history today as is this majestic fort.

I am not someone who has ever been keen about history, but some people and incidents do fascinate me. Queen Chennabhaira Devi is one such enigma. She made me think of all those forts I have visited without giving a second thought about all the secrets and tales it hold.