Sion Fort that sits smug amid an expansive garden — a green space right in the middle of the city — is the only one among all the forts in Mumbai’s island city and suburbs to enjoy the tag of a centrally protected monument.
The state government is responsible for the upkeep of Mumbai’s other forts whether it is the breezy sea-front Bandra fort or the tower of Sewri. However, the history of the Sion Fort and the expanse of its ruins, places the structure under the direct jurisdiction of the Union government’s Archeological Survey of India (ASI), say ASI officials. Sion Fort certainly scores higher in maintenance than many of the other forts in Mumbai, but experts say that it gets the short end of the stick among centrally protected monuments.
Abha Lambah, a conservation architect, said, “Yes, it has been kept clean, but for a visitor there is nothing there. There is no information on why it was built, its significance and the architectural importance. There are no facilities for tourists. Considering the ASI office in Mumbai is also right at the Sion fort, one would expect much higher standards of maintenance.”
Today, the walls of the Sion Fort standing on a 10-acre plot in Central Mumbai are battered, covered in fading graffitti and love messages by couples etched on the stone. At no point in the fort is there any information about why it was constructed, and its importance in the city’s history. A small board simply informs that it is a Union government-protected monument. To the right is a vacant hollow for a plaque to give basic information about the structure. The plaque is currently in the process of being made, says the fort’s caretaker.
The ASI has leased out nearly eight acres, barring the fortifications, to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation till 2023. The latter has developed a vast garden there with an open-air study centre and a children’s play area. The garden was renovated about five years ago.
Satish Satpute, who has been the fort’s caretaker for a little over two years, says, “Earlier this year, a few steps were repaired and walls were strengthened. Making improvements to the fort is the prerogative of higher officials. From my side, I physically man the entire site and ensure that it is kept clean, nobody litters and visitors are safe.”
An ASI official who did not wish to be named says that within its limited resources, the government body decides on structures that need sprucing up on priority and focuses on them. “Earlier it was Elephanta Caves. This year it is the Raigad Fort. Sion Fort is not a priority right now.”
The British constructed the Sion Fort atop a conical hillock between 1669 and 1677 under the rule of Gerald Aungier, the then governor of Bombay.
The Sion fort was where the city ended at that time, and in the current context, it stands at the boundary of Mumbai’s island city and suburbs. The fort was a watchtower then, used to safeguard the trade route via the Mahim Creek.
Even today, the fort, which ASI officials say gets about a lakh visitors a week, especially on weekends, offers a vantage point. Standing at the ramparts, one can soak in the city’s various prominent views – the Bandra Kurla Complex, the Mahim creek snaking through development, the Bandra Worli sea link from afar, the Eastern Express Highway and the monorail.
The fort is popular among residents of Sion for morning walks and exercises. With there being at least two schools and a college in the immediate vicinity, several students visit the structure regularly to study here.
However, the fort is perhaps the most popular for a group of youngsters, primarily from Dharavi, who learn to dance there – performing effortless cart-wheels, tuck jumps and more. Satpute, the caretaker said, “They come every morning and evening. The group has grown over the years and now includes students from areas such as Pratiskha Nagar, Chembur and Navi Mumbai. Their houses are small, so this is a perfect open space for them to meet and practise. Many visitors even come just to watch these youngsters dance.”