Even as parts of its walls are giving way, the conservation and beautification of the historical Mahim fort remains a distant dream, with authorities running into a series of hurdles in rehabilitating the more than 700 hutments inside the protected monument.
Recently, a study presented to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) on the fort and the Mahim beach categorically stated that while parts of the fort wall have already collapsed, continued neglect could lead to the entire structure giving way, with fissures visible throughout. “There is structural distress of the fort walls,” the study report said.
Built nearly eight centuries ago by local king Pratap Bimb, the Mahim Fort has an illustrious history. Given its strategic location affording a view of the Arabian Sea, it was an important war accessory.
However, now, with more than 700 hutments inside and along it, tidal erosion and water seepage in the walls, the fort might not be able to stand tall any more, the presentation has claimed. To prevent this, the ORF has sought rehabilitation of slum dwellers from the area and development of beach front as an open space for the city.
While the fort has been listed as grade-I heritage structure and a state-protected monument, it suffers from a common problem in the city — too many agencies owning parcels of land in and around it. There are bamboo godowns around the fort and it is mostly inaccessible through the narrow bylanes.
While the presentation was made before additional municipal commissioner Pallavi Darade, she said such a project would require coordination by various agencies and cannot be taken up by the BMC alone. “There are multiple agencies involved here, such as the police, central government, state government, etc. The monument belongs to the state archaeology department, we cannot on our own remove the structures within it. If ORF gets all agencies on board, we can call for a coordination meeting with them,”she said.
According to sources, the new development plan, in fact, earmarks the Mahim beach front for commercial and residential development.
According to principal secretary (tourism and culture) Valsa Nair-Singh, while the state has cleaned up the area around the beach, people living within the fort need to be provided alternative housing space, a subject not theirs to deal with. “There have been meetings with all agencies involved on what to do, but till the hutments are removed, there is not much that can be done in terms of preservation,” she said.
Accepting that it is a sad state of affairs, Nair-Singh said most of the long-term measures to save the fort are likely to remain on paper with only short-term measures such as a clean-up of the beach and stopping open defecation around the monument being implemented. “We are working on showcasing other forts in Mumbai which do not face encroachment issues, such as Sewri and Sion,” she added.
Apart from its historical importance, the Mahim fort offers a beautiful view of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link and small fishing boats dotting the waters on the Bandra side. In the 16th century, it was the site of frequent skirmishes between the Portuguese and a Gujarati ruler, before the island of Mahim was captured by the Portuguese and later given as dowry to Charles II of England. After the English gained control of the fort, they strengthened it and turned it into a strategic watchtower against attacks.
According to some accounts, the fort had 100 soldiers and 30 cannons at that time. Today, it has DTH antennas jutting out and haphazardly placed bulbs covering its walls.