Holding a faint smell of sea in the air, the coastal ruins of the crumbling Bassein Fort, popularly known as Vasai Fort, amidst tall coconut trees may today feel like a trip to a pirate’s cove. But you will be disappointed if you expect to find forgotten treasures or hideouts of buccaneers. For the rotting moss-covered walls of the fort hold not only some long-forgotten stories of war and victory but also of neglect.
Around 70 kilometres away from the city, tucked in the suburbs of Vasai, lies this ‘city of ruins’. Visuals from films like Josh and Khamoshi play in your mind as you walk past the site. More recently, British band Coldplay visited the fort to shoot its song — Hymn for the weekend.
In its existence of over four centuries, Vasai Fort, as it is better known as today, had seen several rulers. Originally built by the Portuguese in 1536, the 110-acre fort was captured by the Marathas in 1739 and eventually by the British after the First Anglo-Maratha War in 1802.
The fort is the standing testimony of India’s diverse history. Before the entry of the foreign powers, Vasai was controlled by Bongle Raja in 1414 who built Nageshwara Temple at the fort premises. Then, Bahadur Shah of Gujarat took over and left his mark in the form of Islamic carvings on the fort walls. While fortifying the area, the Portuguese too had built seven churches within the area.
Finally, when the Marathas took control, they took away the church bells as victory symbols and placed them in temples across Maharashtra.
Father Francis Correa from Giriz Church in Vasai who had researched about the lost bells for over 26 years found them in temples in different parts of the state. “During Chimaji Appa (Maratha Peshwa Bajirao’s brother)’s conquest of the fort from 1737 to 1739, he awarded the church bells to the military champions as war trophies, who in turn gave them away to temples of their choice. We found 38 church bells in places like Nashik, Jalna and Kolhapur,” he said.
During their two-century rule over Bassein, the Portuguese had made the fort a self-contained city with colleges, chapels, churches, restaurants, library, hospital, granary, town hall and an international market, where it is believed slaves were sold. The fort precincts also had a coin mint, an orphanage, separate bathing areas for men and women, a court and a prison.
The British, however, commercialised the fort and installed a sugar factory in the precinct. But when the factory failed to yield desired profits they started neglecting the area.
In 1990, after the Colonial rule had ended, the locals installed a statue of Chimaji Appa at the entrance of the fort to mark Marathas’ victory in the area.
Not many people know the rich history of this ancient fort. Hence, a few have taken up the initiative of raising awareness about the place by conducting walks and drives for tourists. Pascal Lopes, a native of Vasai, is one such person. Lopes has done his masters in Numistatics and Archaeology and had been organising free get-to-know walks in the ruins during weekends.
With greater accessibility over the years, Lopes has seen a growing interest among the people to know more about the fort. People from all age groups have begun to join him. While the fort does not see tourists every day, during weekends many groups queue in to explore the area. The fort is also frequented by young couples posing for their pre-wedding shoots, lovers looking for cosy nooks. Many naturalists have also developed a liking for this site to spend some quiet time with the sea or just watch the birds.
However, the night brings a different set of visitors to the fort — drunkards, prostitutes and black magic practitioners.
For the last five years, the Vasai Virar Municipal Corporation (VVMC) has also been bringing the fort to life once a year with its Vasai Vijay Utsav on May 13 — a celebration of Chimaji Appa’s victory over Vasai Fort.
But the lack of conservation activities is slowly killing the site. Lopes says that the fort had faced maximum deterioration after it came under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1904. “After ASI took over, the fort was left abandoned for many years. During this time many people plundered the fort for its stones and other treasures. It was also affected by natural causes like lightning and thunder. The many wars also left the fort weakened.”
The foundation of the Chimaji Appa statue has already weakened and locals warn that it may fall anytime now.
A visitor of the fort for over two decades now, Lopes feels that a lot is lacking from ASI’s side to conserve the fort. “While they are working on the fort, they tend to do more of renovation than conservation. The fort should be made more tourist-friendly and tickets must be applied for visitation. The money could be used to conserve the fort better,” said Lopes, adding, “If things go on like this, in ten years the fort will be entirely in ruins.”