The tiny island of Diu on India’s west coast is an idyllic weekend getaway, kissed by balmy tropical winds and the waters of the Arabian Sea. But did you know that for the 400 years the Portuguese were in power in the region, Diu housed one of the grand wonders of the Portuguese world – the mighty fort of Diu, which still stands. Many would troop in to to see the jagged beauty of this great fort. But the story of Diu, which is today connected by a bridge to Gujarat’s southern coast, runs deeper.
The documented history of the island begins about 2,200 years ago, when the founder of the Mauryan Empire, Chandragupta Maurya (c. 321-297 BCE) extended his supremacy over Saurashtra. Following him, Emperor Ashoka sent his missionary Yona Dhammarakhita here, laying the ground for the spread of Buddhism in the region.
Subsequent eras saw Diu under the control of various dynasties that ruled over Western India, including Gujarat, like the Kshatrapas who were contemporaries of the Kushanas. The other medieval dynasties that ruled the region were the Maitrakas, the Chavadas and the Chalukyas.
Interestingly, few know that it was the island of Diu on which the Parsis first landed when they migrated to India, after the fall of the Sassanian Empire in Iran in the 8th century. According to Parsi lore, they spent 19 years on the island, before they set sail for Sanjan, also on the west coast of India, in Gujarat.
In 1024 CE, Diu was captured by Mahmud of Ghazni for a brief period, bringing Islam to the region. After his departure, the Chavadas re-established their sway, followed by the Waghela Rajputs, who were defeated by Alauddin Khilji in the first decade of the 14th century. Muslim rule continued for about 200 years until the island was conquered by the Portuguese.
Under the Sultans of Gujarat, Diu became an important trading post and naval base, with the Sultanate acting as an intermediary in East-West trade between the Red Sea, Egypt and Malacca. The island was blessed with many natural advantages. Separated from the mainland by a narrow channel, it offered anchorage both to shallow craft as well as heavier vessels. Diu also had a significant strategic position, as a small fleet based there could control the entire maritime traffic through this Gulf.
However, the Portuguese wanted to be in charge of the Indian Ocean to route trade down the Cape of Good Hope, circumventing the traditional spice route controlled by the Arabs and the Venetians through the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. This affected India’s trade relations with Rome and Egypt, and to oppose the Portuguese, the collective force of the Sultan of Gujarat, the Mamluk of Egypt and the Zamorin of Calicut, aided by the Ottomans, the Republic of Venice and the Republic of Ragusa entered into war with the Portuguese on 3rd February 1509.
The Portuguese had only 18 ships as opposed to the 100 vessels of the opposite side. However, the Portuguese were better equipped with guns and artillery and the men were seasoned professionals commanded by Francisco de Almeida. The Battle of Diu resulted in a splendid victory for the Portuguese. It was one of the most important battles in naval history as it marked the beginning of European dominance over Asian seas, altering the way global trade was conducted.
In the following years, the Portuguese made many failed attempts to establish an outpost at Diu, along with an unsuccessful conquest by Governor D Nuno da Cunha in 1531. But luckily for him, in 1535, Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat, was under threat of invasion from Mughal emperor Humayun and the Sultan entered into a treaty with the Portuguese to assist him against the enemy in return for permission to build a fort and maintain a garrison at Diu.
As soon as the imminent threat from the Mughals receded, the Sultan regretted the deal he had made and tried to wrest Diu back from the Portuguese. He paid with his life. All other attempts by successive rulers to oust the Portuguese from Diu also failed.
Finally, the Portuguese captured Diu and a spectacular fort was completed in 1545 by Viceroy D João de Castro. It features in the list of the Seven Wonders of Portugal, which contains the most magnificent monuments the country built at the height of its colonial rule.
Unlike the other Portuguese forts in the subcontinent, which follow standard geometric patterns, the Diu citadel is irregularly shaped as it is designed to hug the jagged coastline. However, the Mir’at-i-Sikanderi, one of the best-known texts on the history of medieval Gujarat, offers another explanation. It says that when the Portuguese asked Bahadur Shah for a piece of land on which to build an outpost, they requested a plot no bigger than a cowhide. After the Sultan agreed, the Portuguese are said to have cut the cowhide into thin strips and laid them out end-to-end to claim an enormous swathe of land.
Diu remained under the Portuguese for the next 400 years, even when the rest of India received its freedom from the British in 1947. It was only in December 1961, under armed action codenamed Operation Vijay of the Indian military, that Diu along with Daman and Goa were liberated from Portuguese control.
The invasion involved overwhelming land, sea and air strikes on the enclave for 48 hours until the Portuguese garrison there surrendered. Today, as a part of the Union Territory of Diu, Daman, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, it is like any other quiet coastal town. Apart from its stunning citadel and intriguing story, there is little to hint at its dramatic past.
Did you know?
‘Dvipa’, the Sanskrit name for Diu, was transformed over time into the vernacular ‘Diva’, which in turn was changed by the Europeans to ‘Diu’?
Get access to weekly Live events, experiences and an exclusive repository of films, articles and books