Hidden for decades, 18th-Century cannons in Thane to be restored
Abandoned artillery dating from the Portuguese-Maratha wars period have been lying neglected in Kopri creek for a long time
Kopri is a small fishing village in Thane. Near the creek, there is a Hanuman temple whose uniqueness is only visible once you step inside. Jutting out of the floor of the temple and painted in peach and red is a three-foot-high cannon.
This cannon isn’t the only one. Walk around the waterfront, and you’ll spot 10 more cannons scattered in the area, all of them buried upside down. Some are hidden in bushes, some are nestled within larger structures; all of them are remnants of early British expansion into the western coast of India.
Very few know about the cannons at Kopri. Since they have been part of Thane’s evolution from colonial era port to a modern, concrete jungle, they haven’t been studied closely and remain something of a mystery.
Historian Shridutta Raut said, “We suspect that it was during the 1737 war between the Portuguese and the Maratha or after that the region got the cannons. There is no other location where you can find so many cannons,” said Raut. He added that he has a copy of the document which mentions the order to send the cannons to Thane.
For the fishing community who have lived in this area for generations, there was no use for the cannons except to use the 4-tonne artillery like dock posts. “Burying the cannons upside down made it convenient for them to moor their boats,” said Baba Koli, 68, a resident of the fishing village there. The boats are tied to the buried cannons, ensuring they don’t float away. “Since we have been living in the area for years, we are protective about them,” said Anil Kubal, 45, a resident of Savarkar Nagar, which is near Kopri creek.
“The place where these cannons are located was the place from where salt was transported,” said archaeologist Sachin Joshi, who is leading a team that will remove and restore the cannons. “We have properly identified this cannons and have also studied o them.”
In August 2016, Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) was alerted to the existence of these cannons. Two of them were dug up and put on display at Kala Bhavan and at the TMC office.
Sandeep Malvi, deputy municipal commissioner of TMC, said, “We placed the cannons at Kala Bhavan and TMC office so that people will come to know about them and the history of the place. We will soon shift the other cannons too.”
From salt trading post to concrete jungle
Thane has a history of being a flourishing trading post.
“During Shivaji Maharaj’s rule, boats used to sail to Kochi carrying spices and other goods. Kopri was the port area and most residents were involved in trade and transport,” said Prahlad Nakhwa, 69, a resident of Chendani koliwada which is near the waterfront.
During the British regime, Kopri had a port, customs office, a salt department, a forest department and a railways office. The first train started from Bori Bunder to Thane in 1853 and a track was built at Kopri to transport salt to other places. A portion of the track is still visible (most of it is now buried under modern construction).
The area’s importance started dwindling with the British prioritizing Mumbai and trade diverted to other ports on the western coast of India. “After the trade stopped, the men who were engaged in it took to fishing to earn their livelihood. And that’s how the koli settlement came up near the sea,” said Nakhwa.
The old British-era offices of the Maritime Board, Customs Department and Railways stood in Thane’s Kopri creek. They crumbled a few years ago and the TMC decided to build an open gym in that area.
This move was met with opposition from the locals. “We didn’t want to lose the open space. We told the officials that the gym is of no use to us. But the TMC went ahead and built it,” said Kubal, who is also an enthusiastic animal activist.
Residents have actively worked towards preserving the green space. “We ensure that the greenery is intact and the mangroves protected,” said Kubal.
The restoration project
As possessive as Kopri locals may be about the cannons, experts like Raut believe their place is not in what has been their natural habitat over the past three centuries.
“There are chances that they would be misused. People with political background will paint them and some will also worship them. There are chances that some may sell the pieces of history to scrap dealers. They are India’s property and its rich history,” said Raut.
The cannons lying abandoned at Kopri creek will be preserved by five charitable trusts and non-governmental organisations — Chendani Koliwada Jamat trust, Durga Sakh Charitable Trust, Durgveer Prasthisthan, Kokan Itihas Parishad and Ratnigiri Gadkot Samiti – which have come together for this restoration project. The team is led by Joshi. “We have an estimated budget of ₹2 lakh for preservation of the cannons and we will pay for the revamp,” he said.
The NGOs have got permission from the Thane Municipal Corporation and Maritime Board to go ahead with the plan.
On Sunday, the restoration will embark on its first phase, which involves cleaning the area around the cannons and marking it out. “We will build a platform to keep the cannons. We will put up an information board. Visitors can get to know all about the history of the place,” said Joshi.
Chandan Vichare, who works with an export firm and is a core member of the five groups, said, “We want people to know about our rich history. The cannons are lying abandoned for the past many years. We want to finish the work in a week and we want people to come ahead and donate money.”