Time Travelling in Vasai - A short history of Bassein Fort
Our train rumbles on the bridge over Vasai creek as the sun begins to rise in the east. When I look to the west, a kilometer away, I see a tower in ruins, rising sharply above the coconut palm swaying by the shore. That is my first glimpse of the Fort. Outside the Vasai Road railway station, we hire an autorickshaw for the 10 km ride to the ruins of what was once the jewel in the crown of the Portuguese.
|Citadel Entrance: Photo by Abhay Singh|
Vasai an idyllic suburb with a rich past is fast changing. As our rickshaw zooms across wide roads, the construction activity underway is most noticeable. Under the influence of the Urban sprawl of Mumbai, Vasai-Virar region emerged as a major low-cost housing hub in the last two decades. However, the region is still rurban. The road narrows, colourful small cottages, community ponds start to appear as we cross Papdi where at the Our Lady of Grace Cathedral, the Sunday mass is underway.
The predominant Christian character of the region (and a large part of the Western Coast of India) can be attributed to the Franciscans who had started to visit India from the 12th century onwards. Although records also attribute it to St. Bartholomew's visit in the 4th century. The bastions of the fort (11 in total, arrow-tipped shaped) come into sight and we enter through the Porta de Terra or the land gate - the only entrance via land. The road runs all the way across the fort to the Sea Gate but we alight at the Chimaji Appa memorial. Dedicated to the able General of the Marathas who captured Vasai fort from the Portuguese.
The Dominican Church rises to our left and we enter through a creaky revolving gate. The roof has collapsed but the large walls stand erect. It is perhaps the largest church with an attached bell tower sans the bell, and a monastery next door. The archways and the columns marking the boundary are spectacular in the morning sun.
Soon after Vasco Da Gama landed on the shores of India in 1498, the Portuguese gained stronghold of the trading routes with the east. Around the same time, the Sultan of Gujarat declared independence from the suzerainty of the Mughals. He controlled the region from Diu extending all the way to the Konkan. Having established a strong base in Goa, the Portuguese sought to extend their might way upto Diu by invading the territories of the Sultan. In the meanwhile, unable to deal with the hostilities of the Mughal Emperor in Delhi, Sultan Bahadur Shah forged a military alliance with the Portuguese in 1534. According to this treaty, the Sultanate ceded territories of Salsette, islands that comprise modern day Mumbai, Bandra and Uran to the Portuguese.
Taking full advantage of the geo-strategic position of Baçaim, the Portuguese under the leadership of Nuno Da Cunha went about strengthening the fortifications built by Malik Tokan, son of the governor of Diu. The construction of the fort began with the citadel in the centre, around which the entire fort grew. A complete reversal of the normal technique of fort building. Enclosed by high walls and strong bastions, the St Sebastian Fort was the seat of power. Now the well in the centre is used by women of the nearby village to wash clothes, while toddy tappers also make use of the vast space.
There are steps that lead you to the top of the ramparts and offer a panoramic view of the entire fort complex. To the west lies the St. Joseph Cathedral which was visible from the train. As we exit the Citadel, it is hard to miss the Portuguese insignia carved on the arch. In the centre is the Royal Coat of arms (seen at all Portuguese forts) flanked by spears on either side with the Maltese Cross and a Globe towards the extreme ends.
As we continue to the west, down a shaded path of mango trees and coconut palm, the Governor’s Palace comes into view. Completely overrun by vegetation, in a stark contrast to the past glory of the Portuguese.
A highly fertile region it was harnessed by them to cultivate cash crops especially sugarcane. The best quality of sugar came from Vasai which was supplied to all parts of the world. In addition to that, exotic crops that now have become so commonplace in the Indian diet such as chilli, potatoes, tomatoes, cashew were grown in plenty. The land was divided between Fidalgos or the Portuguese nobility who also sought to build houses within the fort, while some preferred to control their lands from Goa and Diu. It was an opulent setting with slaves toiling in the field, the converted locals paying hefty revenues and of course, neatly delineated living areas for locals located a kilometer away in Madrapore now known as Paarnaka. There was a functioning hospital for the troops and the nobility, an exquisite bath, many colleges and monasteries - it was thriving centre of N. Konkan.
The St Joseph Cathedral has an impressive barrel vaulted ceiling, a common feature across all Portuguese churches. A few epitaphs line the floor. The tower to the east, has a unique circular stairway that leads one to the top. It is a tricky climb through the dark and one must look out for geckoes on the walls. However, the view from the top makes the climb worthwhile. The Vasai creek stretches to our right, the trains run in the distance while the Global Vipassana Pagoda of Gorai shines through the haze. Another perfect spot to observe the fort. As we descend we notice that the alcove of a small room at the exit has a painted ceiling. The mural has stood the test of time.
We make our way to the Sea Gate or the Porto do Mar, passing the local Hanuman temple. Two heavy duty doors, that have stood witness to the tumultuous times that the fort has gone through stand tall at the gate. We also spot three old Baobab trees - a common feature around Portuguese settlements of the Northern Konkan. Baçaim under the Portuguese also flourished as a shipbuilding yard owing to its good quality timber and skilled craftsmen. Gentle waves lap up at the nearby jetty and dense mangrove cover protects the ramparts from the tide.
We backtrack and make our way to the east passing the small village that has sprung up in one of the corners of the fort. Our next stop is the Franciscan Church of the Holy Name Jesus. St. Gonsalo Garcia, the first Indian to attain sainthood and a celebrated native of Vasai had lived here for a few years before travelling to Japan for missionary work. The church is renovated with plaster but the intricate facade is intact with the IHS (short for IHSOUS or Jesus Christ in Hebrew) carved on it. A small shrine occupies the altar and the colonnade of the college adjoining the church is impressive. It is a quiet spot and perfect to imagine how life in Baçaim would have been. On the Sunday nearest to the neap tide after Christmas, the feast of St. Garcia is celebrated here every year.
We resume our walk and pass the ruins of the St Augustinian Church and finally arrive at the St. Antonio Church. St. Francis Xavier who visited India thrice, is known to have lived in this complex. Over 250 epitaphs of martyrs can be seen here. The bell tower was destroyed in the war against the Marathas. The importance of Vasai under the Portuguese had been on a decline since the transfer of the Bombay islands to the British in 1661.
But the final blow was struck by Chimaji Appa. In the decisive battle of Vasai, the Marathas completely ousted the Portuguese contingent and ended their 205 year old rule over Vasai in 1739. The Sebastian Bastion that stands at the double walled entrance of the Land Gate was testimony to the downfall of the Portuguese. The Marathas eventually lost control of the region to the British East India Company who fought three decisive wars with the Peshwas. The British named it Bassein.
With the local threat eliminated, the British locked up the fort and maintained a small contingent here. Some records suggest that under one retired Major Littlewood, the sugar factory continued for a few years which eventually shut down and only in 1909 the fort was declared a protected monument, which it remains to be to this day.
Although, the condition of the fort may seem better than most neighbouring forts of the region it still remains in a state of neglect. There is potential for greater archaeological exploration. Only in recent years, efforts have been taken to weed out the vegetation and a security force has been deployed to keep a check. But even then, graffiti on the walls, empty beer bottles, condoms, syringes thrown about indicate that the security isn’t fool proof. It is indeed a challenge to monitor a vast area but a greater community involvement could go a long way in conserving the fort. Training the youth as Fort Guides would not only generate employment but also help in the maintenance of the fort. A layout of the fort, with a route map marked would be a great addition at key locations. In addition, informative signage about the structures would also enhance the experience and help in creating awareness.
With a history spanning about 500 years, it is incredible how the story of Vasai still doesn’t remain well known. A day trip is best to acquaint yourself with the treasure that is the Baçaim-Bassein-Vasai fort.
Planning your trip: Vasai fort lies 10 km from the Vasai Road Railway Station. Autorickshaws can be hired (Rs.100-120) from outside the Western side of the railway station. Local buses run upto the entrance - look out for Vasai Killa buses.
It is possible to drive down from Mumbai by taking the NH-8 until Naigaon Phata or Sativali and moving due west and then south. Approximate total distance is about 40 km from Borivali.
Best time to visit is between October and March, from sunrise to sunset.
- It is better to travel in a small group as the tourist crowd is thin even on weekends.
- It is not uncommon to encounter snakes in the overgrowth. The rocky crevices offer a cool resting spot for them. So watch your step!
- A pair of binoculars will help to spot the many birds that inhabit the fort premises.
- Full length trousers/jeans along with sports shoes, light coloured shirt and a hat/cap will be ideal for exploring the fort.
- Carry plenty of water and some food as there aren’t any shops within the complex, except at the Sea Gate which sells cold drinks.
Nearby Attractions and Events
- Suruchi Beach - a long stretch of black sand plays host to several winter migrants every year. Plovers, Terns, Kingfishers, Jacobin Cuckoo can be spotted.
- Tunagreshwar WLS - nestled in the hills that line the eastern part of Vasai, this wildlife sanctuary offers exciting birding opportunities along with an invigorating 7 km hike.
A version of this article appeared on Natgeo Traveller India.