OVERLOOKING the Mumbai harbour on the eastern waterfront of the city stands the Sewri Fort, perched on a cliff and offering a rare view of a vast stretch of mangrove forest, mudflats and attractive migratory birds, including the seasonal flamingos.
When the flamingos arrive on their annual Mumbai sojourn in November, remaining until the monsoon begins, birdwatchers flock to the fort to enjoy views of the pink birds. But perhaps they, too, do not really know that the fort was built in 1680 by the British, initially serving as a watchtower and later as a jail to house prisoners.
In 1689, during the Mughal-British confrontation, naval chieftain Yakut Khan attacked the fort, almost destroying it. But the fort survived, going on to be completely reconstructed by the British in 1768.
After Independence, the Mumbai Port Trust converted it into a godown. Later, it was brought under the jurisdiction of the Department of Archaeology and Museums, Maharashtra government, and became a state-protected monument.
Despite its rich history, the fort lies forgotten and neglected today. Apart from the locals, not many are aware of its existence.
Ahmed Raza, caretaker of the adjacent dargah, says, “Since it is a desolate spot, lovers and drug abusers have made it their haven. They create a lot of nuisance here. To prevent this, we have put a ‘No entry’ sign at the entrance.”
Located barely a stone’s throw from the Sewri railway station, the fort cannot be easily spotted by passersby, owing to concrete buildings obstructing the view from the road. A dusty path leads to the fort with neither a signboard to indicate that a historical structure lies ahead nor signs inside the fort premises to recount its history.
Like the walls of other forts in Mumbai, over the generations, the stone walls have become a tablet to inscribe love stories of visitors. The ground is littered with glass bottles, cigarette packets and plastic waste. According to Ahmed Raza, at least 150 people visit the fort daily.
Bhalchandra Kulkarni, Deputy Director of the Archaeology Department, says, “Developing the Sewri Fort as a tourist spot can greatly benefit the area. The more it will be used, the more it will be preserved.”
He adds, “There is a plan for a gallery for visitors to stand in and watch the flamingos. While this will increase tourism, it will also reduce anti-social activities within the fort.”
Other plans are being discussed too: The Mumbai Port Trust is mulling a rope-way from Sewri Fort to Elephanta Caves to promote tourism. During the annual stay of the flamingos, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) organises a Flamingo Festival. Former Director of BNHS Dr Asad Rahmani says, “The government can do a lot of things to make this area more tourist-friendly. While many people come to watch the birds here, they do not have any facilities. Mumbai is very fortunate to have such vegetation in the city and we should utilise it. Other countries such as Hong Kong and Malaysia have organised mangrove walks. These allow people to take walks within forests and enjoy them closely. We could also create such facilities.”