Vasai: A City Within a Fort
Just 70 kilometers away from present-day Mumbai, tucked away in the suburb of Vasai, lies a city from the 16th century. The Bassein or Vasai Fort was built by the Portuguese in 1536 and is spread over 110 acres of land. This was the commercial, political and military base of the Portuguese in the North West coast of India for nearly 300 years.
Home to 2400 Soldiers, 3000 residents, nobles and artisans, within this expansive fort was a whole township. There was a citadel, a church and chapel, a hospital, a granary, a college, a library, a town hall, a coin mint and a buzzing market place.
The Citadel of Saint Sabestine or the Bale killa is the fort-within-the-fort and was first built by the Portuguese to protect the province, in 1535-36 CE. This is the entrance to the Citadel which was named after Dom Sebastian I, the King of Portugal and the Algarves between 1557 CE to 1578 CE.
You can see the Portuguese coat of arms - arrowed weapons, the Cross of Christos, and a sphere on the citadel. When Pope John Paul II visited Vasai in 1986, he was gifted a silver miniature of the same.
The first Portuguese inscription in the Vasai Fort is from 1536. It mentions the 9th Governor, Nano Da Cunha and the Captain of the fort, Garcia Desa. It is on the 3rd circular bastion of the Citadel of Saint Sabestine.
Surrounded on three sides by the sea and only accessible by land on one side, Vasai Fort proved tough to conquer. A very high and strong wall on the land side and a large fleet defending the fort from sea side, made this fort almost invincible. The Fort was also used as the official residence of the Portuguese Governor during his visits to the region.
This church was built on the orders of the Portugal King Jaov III in 1546. The inscription mentions the name of the main priest, a Pedro Galvano and his grave also lies in the same church. On the side of the church was a granary which was used to supply food grains to the town in times of scarcity.
The Baptistery has a 450-year-old painting which depicts the heavens with angels looking down.
This is all that remains of what was a vibrant marketplace within the Vasai Fort city. Historical records mention the trade of bamboos, black pepper and even slaves here.
The church was built in between 1549 CE and 1578 CE. It had a college alongside as well. Saint Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuit order, visited Vasai thrice and asked to build this structure. Its form is similar to the Bom Jesus church in Goa, where the Saint’s body is kept even today.
A secret tunnel runs under the Saint Sabestine Bastion. Built in 1554, it weaves its way under the Captain (fort Commander’s house) The tunnel has two entrances and two exits. The tunnel is 530 feet long and it runs from one end of the Saint Sabestine Bastion to other. Small, strategically placed zarokhas (or windows) are the only sources of light, air and sound. There is also a provision for passing secret messages to the captain. But one of the most important features of the tunnel are the pointed arrowheads which once had poisoned tips! These lethal arrows were designed to instantly kill enemies who tried to enter the tunnel. The arrowheads are strategically placed just beside the zarokhas. Seeing a shaft of light, the likelihood of the enemy looking up towards it was high, allowing the poisoned arrow to do its job.
This church was built between 1537 CE and 1557 CE. The floor of this church is covered with graves. The Treaty between the Maratha Generals and Kaitan Pereira Dsouza, the Portuguese captain, was signed in the courtyard of the same church in 1739.
The Marathas took control of the fort in 1739 under the leadership of Chimaji Appa, younger brother of the famous Maratha Empire builder Peshwa Baji Rao I. The Marathas placed many victory symbols in the fort, including a temple and a statue.
The Marathas also took away the Portuguese church bells and placed them in temples across Maharashtra to highlight their success. The British took over the territory from the Marathas when they signed the Treaty of Bassein in 1802.
The church door of the Vasai Portuguese Fort is still carefully preserved at Remedy Church in Vasai. If only similar efforts would be made to preserve the fort itself. Large parts of this historic fort-city have fallen to ruin and very few of the locals who visit it as a picnic spot, truly understand its powerful legacy.
Pascal Roque Lopes is a passionate historian with a Masters degree in Numismatics and Archaeology. Currently, Pascal is pursuing his PhD at the Asiatic Society of Mumbai and studying the Indo-Portuguese Maratha era through coins minted in this period.
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