Of Chillies, Slaves, and Christ: Vasai’s Forgotten Colonial Connection

If walls could talk, Mumbai’s Vasai fort would have real stories to tell.  
The entrance to the Vasai fort still bears the Portuguese Coat of Arms in the centre, flanked by the emblems of the Order of the Christ on the left, and the Portuguese Empire on the right. Photo: Anil Dave/Dinodia Photo
The entrance to the Vasai fort still bears the Portuguese Coat of Arms in the centre, flanked by the emblems of the Order of the Christ on the left, and the Portuguese Empire on the right. Photo: Anil Dave/Dinodia Photo

Our train rumbles on the bridge over Vasai creek, as the sun begins to rise in the east. When I look to the west, I see a tower in ruins a kilometre away, rising sharply above coconut palms swaying by the shore. It’s my first glimpse of Vasai Fort, once a jewel in the crown of the Portuguese empire.

From Vasai Road railway station—a 90-min train ride from south Mumbai—our rickshaw zooms through the 10km-distance to the fort. We pass construction sites, colourful cottages, community ponds, and Our Lady of Grace Cathedral in the neighbourhood of Papdi, where the Sunday mass is underway.

Vasai has had many masters. It was part of the sprawling Gujarat Sultanate, until the Portuguese took over in the 1530s. About a century later, the fort passed into British hands as part of royal dowry, where it remained until the able Maratha general Chimaji Appa captured it from the English in 1739. The Marathas—who called Vasai “Bajipur”–eventually lost control of the region to the British East India Company. But it is the Portuguese influence that lingers.

Ruins Portuguese emblem Mumbai

Slabs featuring Portuguese Insignia litter the fort’s walls. Photo: Anil Dave/Dinodia Photo

How different the landscape must have been in the 15th century, when Vasai—or Baçaim as it was christened—was under Portuguese rule. At the time, the land was divided between the fidalgos or the Portuguese nobility, some of whom also built houses within Vasai fort. Others controlled their valuable land from Goa and Diu. A highly fertile region, Vasai was harnessed by the Portuguese to cultivate cash crops, especially sugarcane. Slaves toiled in the fields tending to the cane and other “exotic” crops, such as chilli, potatoes, tomatoes, and cashew, now commonplace in the Indian diet but a rarity at the time. There was a functioning hospital for the troops and the nobility, many colleges and monasteries, and a bustling shipbuilding yard, with skilled craftsmen and good quality timber.

Today, the fort’s 100-acre expanse includes several churches, the former Portuguese governor’s palace, a bath structure, two temples said to be built by the Marathas, and a village. Its bastion, shaped like arrowheads, comes into sight and we enter through the Porta de Terra gate—the only entrance via land. The road runs all the way through the fort to the Sea Gate, but we alight at the memorial to Maratha general Chimaji Appa, and to start exploring on foot.

Portuguese style church vasai Mumbai

The renovated church of St. Gonsalo Garcia. The venerated Catholic saint was born in Agashi village close to the fort. He is the first Indian to attain sainthood. Photo: Anil Dave/Dinodia Photo

First, we enter the Dominican Church of São Gonçalo through a creaky revolving gate. The roof has collapsed but the large walls stand erect; the archways and columns spectacular under the morning sun. Steps lead to the top of the ramparts, offering a panoramic view of the entire fort complex. To the west, lies St. Joseph Cathedral whose bell tower was visible from the train. Carved on an arch is the Portuguese insignia: a royal coat of arms flanked by spears with the Maltese cross below the royal crown, and a globe. The Vasai Fort is in better shape than other forts in Mumbai, but the graffiti on the walls and the beer bottles, condoms and syringes discarded around the palace are sad signs of neglect.

We continue west, down a shaded path of mango trees and coconut palms, until the Governor’s Palace comes into view, completely overrun by vegetation. Ahead, St. Joseph Cathedral stands tall with an impressive vaulted ceiling, a common feature in Portuguese churches. The tower to the east has a circular stairway—a tricky climb in the dark, past geckoes on the walls—made entirely worthwhile by the view at the top. The Vasai creek stretches to our right, the trains run in the distance while the Global Vipassana Pagoda of Gorai shines through the haze. As we descend we notice that the alcove of a small room at the exit has a painted ceiling, its Biblical murals having stood the test of time. Near the Sea Gate or the Porto do Mar, three old baobab trees remain, a common feature around Portuguese settlements of the north Konkan.

In 1909, the Vasai fort was declared a protected monument, which it remains to be to this day. Gentle waves lap at the nearby jetty and dense mangrove cover protects the ramparts from the tide and the strong bastions have somehow preserved the antiquity of Bassein. Sitting here, it is not that hard to imagine what life must have been with the glory, pomp and savagery that was synonymous with the colonial powers of the time.

Anil Dave/Dinodia Photo

The Guide

Getting There 

Vasai Fort lies on the outskirts of Mumbai, and is best explored as a daytrip from the city. It is 86km/2.5hr from Churchgate, 40km/1.5hr from Borivali, and 61km/2hr from Bandra West. Vasai can be reached by road, or by local train (1.5hr from Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus). The fort is 10km/25min from the Vasai Road railway station. Auto rickshaws can be hired (Rs100-120) from the western side of the railway station. Local buses run up to the entrance—look out for Vasai Killa buses.

Good to know

Aim to visit the fort between 8a.m. and noon or between 4 and 6p.m. as afternoons can be terribly hot. The fort is cooler between October and March. It is better to travel in a small group as the tourist crowd is thin, even on weekends.It is not uncommon to encounter snakes in the overgrowth. The rocky crevices offer a cool resting spot for them, so watch your step.

The fort and surrounding mangroves is also home to a number of birds, so carry a pair of binoculars if you’re interested in birdwatching

Carry water and snacks as there aren’t any shops within the complex, except at the Sea Gate, which sells cold drinks. Best to wear comfortable shoes, and a cap to keep the sun out.

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    Rushikesh Kulkarni runs Breakfree Journeys, a travel outfit based in Mumbai. Currently scouting for unique travel experiences across India, his interests include backpacking, urban ecology and community development.

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