Fortifying heritage


‘Portuguese Sea Forts Goa with Chaul, Korlai and Vasai’ written by architectural historian Amita Kanekar is an interesting guide book on Portuguese sea forts. In a conversation with The Navhind Times she speaks about the uniqueness of these forts – the first gun-powder forts of South Asia – their importance in bringing about socio-cultural changes in the world, the Tiracol village that is fighting new concepts of development and why heritage is not just buildings and art and cultural traditions
ARTI DAS | NT Network

Q: There are many books written on forts of Goa. Few months ago P P Shirodkar’s coffee table book Fortresses & Forts of Goa was released. In what way is your book different?
Well, I have not found any writing so far which focuses on the architecture of the forts, except for studies by Portuguese scholars, many of which can be found on the website on Portuguese heritage, But they sometimes miss out on the local context. So, there was a need for a compact and informative guide for people who would like to visit these historical sites, which were so critical in launching the Portuguese era in Goa’s history, and which are today part of the physical and cultural landscape of Goa.

Q: Why document these Portuguese sea forts?
These forts were critical to the setting up of the Portuguese empire in South Asia, and given the importance of the Portuguese in launching the modern era of world history, they have great historical importance. They were also unique in their architecture, being among the first gun-powder forts in South Asia, certainly the first of European design. Although many of the sites predate the Portuguese arrival, the latter transformed the nature of the fortifications there. The first fortresses designed for gun-powder in South Asia were of two types. The Deccan variety had towering gun platforms which provided a huge field of fire, and gun mounts which appear to be based on the Portuguese ship cannon, providing both vertical and lateral movement. The Portuguese ones, known as the trace Italienne design, had typically low, thick and battered walls, wide ditches, and angled bastions with merlons and embrasures for firing guns mounted on wooden carriages; this resulted in the famous star-shaped plans with arrow-like bastions, and influenced the design of forts all over the subcontinent, even the world. Shivaji is known in Maharashtra as a great fort-builder, but few know that his sea-forts were built with the help of the Portuguese. The sea-fort of Sindhudurg, for example, could even be called a Portuguese fort, going by those involved in its design and building.

Q: What was the role of these forts, defence or offence?
These forts are fascinating for their multi-facetted role. They were a base for the ships carrying goods from all over the world, also for merchants, troops and missionaries. They were actually the nodes of a new globalised world, anchoring the great littoral empire of the Portuguese which stretched from Portugal to Japan, along the coasts of Africa, west Asia, south Asia, and south-east Asia at one time. Their biggest role was as controllers of sea-trade, and as feitoria – or factories – where goods were stored, imports and exports, the prized one among the latter being pepper. Horses were the top import, but many American and African commodities which we take for granted today – like chillies, potatoes and coffee – first landed here. They were also places of refuge for locals, as in the case of the Chapora Fort. Villagers would seek shelter in the fort when the Marathas attacked. They were centres of employment for locals, and also centres of the Christian faith, not just because they always had their chapels and churches, most still in use today, but because many also contained convents which played a big role in spreading the faith. And they were also bases of slavery, for, although slavery existed even earlier in South Asia in many forms – not least the caste system – the Portuguese globalised this inhuman trade, especially in this part of the world, buying and selling East Africans, Malabaris, Bengalis, Timorese, Europeans, Chinese and Japanese as slaves. The result of all this, and the fact that the Portuguese remained a minority in their vast enterprise, meant that those who manned their forts and ships, and fought in their armadas and militias, whether free or enslaved, Catholic or non-Catholic, were a very mixed population, something that can still be sensed in the unique Luso-African-Arab-South Asian cultural heritage of the communities that still live in the vicinity of the forts.

Q: Please elaborate on the process involved in documenting these forts. How challenging was the job, as most forts, I believe, are in a dilapidated condition? How many forts have you documented?
Many are dilapidated and some have even disappeared, like Miramar’s Gaspar Dias Fort and the great inland Rachol Fort. Some have been modified out of all recognition, while others are not open to the public, like the Cabo at Dona Paula or the Thane Fort near Mumbai. But this is a guidebook for those interested in visiting the forts, not a listing of all the forts built, so it includes only those forts in relatively good condition and accessible to the public, and also includes information about how to reach the sites and move around there. The forts covered include Cabo de Rama, Mormugao, Reis Magos, Aguada, Chapora, and Tiracol. Three inland forts – Corjuem, Santo Estevao and Alorna – were also included, because of their interesting architecture. Chaul, Korlai and Vasai are outside Goa, from the region around Mumbai. There are many originally Portuguese foundations in and around Mumbai, which have been transformed either by the British or because of urbanisation.

Q: Are all these forts part of State/Centre Archaeology Department?
Aguada is the only one under the central government’s Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), while the rest are listed under Goa’s Directorate of Archives and Archaeology. But the efforts to maintain them seem to be uneven.

Q: On the book cover it is mentioned that in Goa only two forts are well maintained Reis Magos Fort and Tiracol Fort. Both forts have been given a face lift by way of reconstruction and are used for recreational activities. Will such use of a fort maintain the crux of the monument and its heritage?
The tiny Santo Estevam fortalice has also been restored recently, though it is not being used for any purpose. I think it would be good if old monuments are restored for public use as museums or art galleries. The two forts you mention have also been renovated a bit, with some additions like shell-windows and painted bartizans (watch-towers) which have made them probably much more decorative than they were originally; forts are very functional in their architecture. But I do like the Reis Magos restoration and the way it is being used today, as an art gallery and cultural centre, though I wish the entry charges were less or nil. Using such sites as hotels, as at Tiracol, is not that great, because public access tends to get restricted, if not stopped. What is important is that people visit these sites and learn about their history, also about the site and the communities who live nearby, for the forts were very rooted in their physical and social context.

Q: Speaking about the Tiracol Fort, the village of Tiracol is under tremendous pressure due to the development of a golf course and a hotel, which many believe will change the face of this tiny village. Do you think ‘developments’ will hamper heritage sites?
Such developments are terrible in every respect. And when it comes to heritage, what we do not realise is that our heritage is not just buildings and art and cultural traditions, but primarily people, and their lives and their development. This does not to imply that people should remain in their traditional lives, but that their well-being has to be a priority in conservation and development projects. These forts are a good example of why a separation of the two does not make sense. Although the forts were set up to control traffic on the seas and to serve trade, they also belonged to the local communities in various ways, e.g. the Chapora fort was actually lost to the Bhosales for a while, but taken back by the Portuguese after the locals apparently revolted against the Bhosales. The old churches within the Tiracol fort, Cabo de Rama and Aguada, as well as the one outside the Reis Magos Fort, are important parish churches even today, with local communities looking after them and involved in their upkeep. How can we see these forts as heritage while throwing their communities out? In fact, the villagers at Tiracol, even while they are fighting this monstrous golf course which threatens their very existence, are also thinking of an eco-cum-heritage tourism venture themselves, where they hope to invite small groups of tourists to stay in their houses, feed them the local food, and take them around to not just the fort but also the cashew, coconut and mango plantations, the feni brewing, the fishing nets, and so on, thus showing them a complete picture of what Tiracol is – very different from the government’s idea of Tiracol as a huge luxury resort with this bit of heritage stuck in one corner.

Q: What according to you is the role such sites play in shaping our civilisation and why there is a need to restore such heritage sites before they are lost forever?
Well, although every historic site cannot be preserved, some must be, for they can help us in understanding our past and thus also our present, especially if their history is also discussed there. These forts were not just sentinels of Portuguese rule but also gateways to the modern world. And, although popular histories nowadays try to paint the Portuguese era of Goa in an unrelentingly negative light, these monuments show it differently, both in their physical presence, in the globally influential role they played a long time ago, and in their vibrant connections with the communities around them today.