Except for two Sundays in the past 14 years,28-year-old Shridatta Raut has spent all his weekly offs at the Vasai Fort. It was on his frequent visits to the fort built by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century that Raut acquired the skills of a writer,an architect,a tourist guide,a photographer,a cartographer,a priest,a researcher and a conservationist.
Raut pursued his love for Marathi poetry and was drawn to the fort while he was a student in Vasais Vartak college. Most of my poems were written in the premises of the fort. I wrote about 1,500-2,000 poems,many of which are about the fort, Raut said.
As I started frequenting the fort,I noticed that there was garbage strewn all over the place. There ware overgrown creepers. Only stealthy lovers and alcoholics would come to the fort, Raut said.
Raut was intrigued by the history of the fort. But,he was equally perturbed by its condition. In what soon turned into a passion,he delved into the literature available on the fort. I faced a stumbling block as a number of scripts about the fort in the Modi script (ceased to be used after 1930). The only way to learn more about the fort was to learn Modi.
After completing a course in Modi from Pune and two institutes in Mumbai,Raut travelled across Thane and Bhiwandi looking for elderly people in possession of Modi scriptures. I just needed to have a better understanding of the language. My main interest,however,was always in discovering new things about the fort through the Modi scriptures.
Raut said according to government records,there are 53 forts in Thane. However,he contests the finding based on his research that shows the existence of 114 forts. Raut has authored 22 books of which four books are on the Vasai Fort.
To inculcate interest among people about Vasai Fort,I decided to conduct educational tours free of cost. It takes three days to see the entire fort spread over 110 acres. But the one-day tours are 11-hour-long, Raut said. He does not charge any fee for the tours. However,he requests volunteers to help him clean the premises on Sundays. I have already completed 409 guided trips to the fort.
On one such educational tour,Raut met Geeta a bank employee whom he later married.
Villagers believed that the fort is haunted because a number of people died here. There have been crimes reported. So I decided that their fear would not be dispelled unless good things happen here. Raut and his volunteers started holdings poojas inside the fort that houses four temples two temples of Hanuman,one of Shiva and one of goddess Vajreshwari. When Geeta and I decided to get married in 2008,I suggested we do it inside the fort temple. Though my family and friends rubbished the idea,Geeta was supportive.
The date of marriage was carefully chosen by Raut. I picked March 19 because on March 19,1738,the Marathas first attacked the fort under the occupation of the Portuguese. And marriage too was an attack of sorts on my life, Raut jokes.
Their three-year-old daughter Manashri,who was first taken to the fort temple when she was 10 days old,also tries to scribble some Modi letters,Raut said. I hope she grows up to share my passion for forts and continues to discover new things about them.