Once pegged as an alternative to Nariman Point, Mumbai’s old commercial centre, Belapur near Vashi, a suburb of Mumbai never quite made the mark, though it is teeming with small businesses. Go there and you will find old buildings vying for space with the new, in an architectural mix up, common to most burgeoning commercial centers in India. But the very name ‘Belapur’ comes from this area’s historic past - and a fort, that few people ever go to.
Zoom in to Google maps, and you shall see that Belapur Fort stands at a very strategic location. In the 16th century CE, Belapur was nothing like what it is today. It was an island surrounded by mangroves, at the mouth of the Panvel creek! What’s more, it was of great strategic importance as it gave access to Panvel and the route to Pune, so anyone who controlled this fort could attack Pune very easily. Around the 1560s, the Siddis who ruled Janjira controlled this area and built a small fort on the island called ‘Shahbaz’ (Falcon) Fort. The Belapur harbour was located right next to the fort, and boats from here sailed up the Panvel creek.
In 1682 CE, the entire region came under Portuguese control, which they exercised from their headquarters, the Fort of Vasai. The Portuguese added heavy fortification to the old fort and in an iteration of the forts importance, added a sizeable team to guard it. Four companies of 180 Portuguese soldiers each and fourteen guns, were put in place to guard the area. It remained in Portuguese hands for around 55 years.
In 1737 CE, a major war broke out between the rising Marathas and the Portuguese. The trigger for the battle was the persecution of locals by the Portuguese as well as the desire of the Marathas to access coastal ports controlled by the Portuguese. The Maratha armies under Chimaji Appa, the younger brother of Peshwa Bajirao I, attacked Portuguese possessions and captured the forts of Belapur, Thane, Mahim and Sion, scattered around present day Mumbai and Thane. The war ended with the Maratha conquest of Vasai Fort in 1739 CE.
While the fort in today’s Belapur didn't remain with the Marathas for long - the attack on this fort triggered off the first Anglo- Maratha war in 1774 CE, as capturing the fort gave the British access to Panvel and from there, a route to attack Pune. It was from the Marathas that Belapur seems to have got its name, which stuck.
There are different versions to this. One story goes that Chimaji Appa wanted to capture the fort and made a vow that if he did so, he would offer Bel leaves (Aegle Marmelos) to the local Shiva temple. The exact location of the temple is not known. When he conquered the fort, he named it ‘Belapur’ in gratitude.
But some discoveries challenge this legend. For example, the East India Company records show a letter from the Portuguese commander of ‘Bella Flor’ asking for help against the attack of the Marathas. Could it be that fort was originally called Bella Flor (Beautiful flower in Portuguese) and the pronunciation got corrupted to Belapur? Or maybe it was originally called Belapur which Portuguese called ‘Bella Flor’? Also, though Belapur fort was quite strategically located, records show that it was rather easily captured by Chimaji, leading some experts to wonder whether he had really made a vow to make an offering when the fort was captured. That could have been true, and so confused, with the Maratha siege of the Vasai Fort from 1737 CE, given that it took almost two years of pitched battles before the Vasai fort fell.
In 1970s and 80s, with the planning of New Bombay, later renamed as Navi Mumbai, the Belapur area lost its historic character and soon started becoming an urban jungle. The fort was in very bad shape and builders even encroached on parts of the fort and built housing complexes there. Currently, the fort is under the authority of CIDCO (City and Industrial Development Corporation) which also runs a guest house inside the fort.
Due to local protests and activism, encroachment attempts have stopped, but sadly not much has been done for the restoration of this once strategic fort, which was at the heart of at least two battles that defined the history of the region.