the 500 year old portuguese fort of bassein

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Baobab, the upside-down tree indigenous to Madagascar is often considered as a marker for Portuguese sites in India 

From Vasai to Baxay to Baçaim to Bajipura to Bassein to Vasai, the Vasai Fort is romantic, inspiring and shrouded in history, some factual, others – legendary.

When I moved to Mumbai earlier this year, I was told there is nothing to see there. You will miss the art, history and culture of Delhi. Wrong. I don’t believe, you can be anywhere in India, and be far from “art, history and culture”. India is steeped in it, and Mumbai is no less.

Last weekend, with a forecast clearly stating it was going to rain, I set off on a long train ride to Vasai, a quintessentially East Indian town, to explore the 500-year old ramparts, bastions and churches of the Fortaleza de São Sebastião de Baçaim, armed with my umbrella and camera. 🙂

When Mumbai was still just a marshy collection of seven islands, Vasai was a thriving lush Portuguese town, famed for the exotic grandiose lives of the then rulers. The Portuguese came to India, it is said, for their crown, cross and commerce. After establishing their stronghold in Goa, they were looking for a base further north and the Fort of Baxay, then being built by the Arab Sultanate of Cambay, Gujarat, seemed the perfect site.

The ensuing Treaty of Bassein was signed by Sultan Bahadur and the Kingdom of Portugal on 23 December, 1534. The agreement was to change Mumbai’s history not just for then, but for ever. The Portuguese Empire gained control of the city of Baçaim, along with the Sultan’s other territories, islands, seas, and most importantly the Mumbai Islands.

They eventually lost to the British backed Marathas in 1739 after a three-year long campaign, and the fort, thereafter, passed from the Marathas to the British, and was forgotten over wisps of time, dissipating into crumbling ruins.

The two hundred odd years that the fort was under the Portuguese, was its golden period. It was their Northern Court and the capital of their territories extending up to the Persian Gulf.

With plentiful supplies of timber and stone, the walled city of Baçaim was adorned with a number of splendid buildings, including a cathedral, five convents, thirteen churches, and an asylum for orphans. The Fidalgos, or aristocracy, known for their wealth and magnificence, were alone allowed to live inside the city walls. Their homes are described in historical sources as majestic buildings, two storeys high, with covered balconies and large windows.

The Fidalgos are gone. The churches forgotten. The fort taken over by overgrown wilderness… I walked through the old city through passing showers and blistering heat. Its sheer enormity, whispering through the centuries, slowly enveloping me. If you can, take the walk too someday, and discover a layer unpeeled of Mumbai.

– – –

This walk was done with Breakfree Journeys, and conducted by Andre Baptista, a trained archaeologist and visiting faculty of history, archaeology and allied subjects at various institutes. Andre traces his roots to the Bassein village.

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The beautiful facade of the cathedral seen through the ramparts of the citadel encircling it
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The citadel today, once upon a time it held the administrative center of the fort
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The embellished main entrance; Trees and ruins, but one over time.
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The Jesuit Church of Sacred Name of Jesus: painted alcove ceilings, 500-year old doors, forgotten graves and towering walls
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The evocative ruins of the Gonsalo Garcia Church dedicated to the only Indian Catholic Saint
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Franciscan Convent of St. Anthony with its famed arch (1537)
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The Portuguese have left; What remains are but these ruins and the East Indians who still call the fort their home

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11 thoughts on “the 500 year old portuguese fort of bassein

  1. wonderful post, Rama! you have compressed the whole walk so beautifully in a nutshell! I was in the process of writing my own post, and it was getting so long that I am now in the process of ruthlessly editing it 😛 (esp after reading this)

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  2. Pingback: 5 years of visiting Bassein and 3 Perspectives on the Magnificent Fort! - Breakfree Journeys

  3. Prof Regin D’ Silva is an authority on the History of Bassein, and he gave us a walk through the fort of Bassein few years ago. Bassein deserves better. The History of Bassein is so rich yet it hardly features on cultural-touristic map.

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    • Wow, the walk must have been awesome coming from an expert like him. Yes, I agree, Bassein deserves better, and it’s a pity, like most of Mumbai’s other sites in fact, that these are only ‘discovered’ by us when we dig deeper into the city’s layers.

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