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A fort on St Estevao Island

Sanjeev V Sardesai

One of Goa’s cutest heritage sites is the island of St Estevao or ‘Sant Estev’ or just ‘Juve’n’ in the local language; ‘Juve’n’ or ‘Juve’ meaning ‘island’.

This island is situated about 14-15 kilometres from Panaji via Old Goa and can be reached by road, either by traversing the village of Dhaugim and crossing the new Gandaulim Bridge, into Marcel Village. Or one can take a longer route by just driving via Banastarim along the NH748 and passing through Marcel Village.

Although considered a ‘single entity’ today, the island in actuality is an amalgamation of seven smaller islands, which were separated by marshy lands and minor rivulets. In local parlance, we call these ‘tidal wetlands’ as ‘Khazans’. As time passed by, and due to ease of accessibility and vital agrarian needs, the local populace created walls or ‘bandhs’ or mini-dams, at the river mouths and reclaimed the areas in between these islets, to create a huge land mass.

While most of the land is almost at low sea level, there rises a small hillock towards its east. It is here that we find the fort of Santo Estevao. This is the smallest and the cutest fort – almost like a ‘Toyland fort’.

After the Portuguese forces led by D Afonso de Albuquerque invaded the Konkan lands and re-conquered them from the Adilshahi forces on November 25, 1510, their fleet also encircled these islands, neighbouring Old Goa and took over the same on December 26, 1510. As the date coincided with the feast of the proto-martyr of Christianity, Saint Stevens, they named the island ‘Ilha do Santo Estevao’ or ‘Island of St Stevens’.

In 1570, the island gained a ghastly identity – ‘Ilha dos Mortos’ or the ‘Island of the Dead’. This is because 60 years after being pushed out of their stronghold, the Adilshahi forces re-grouped and returned here, to camp on this island to recover their lost lands.

The book by P P Shirodkar ‘Fortresses & forts of Goa’ informs that the Adilshahi forces came with a very strong army, having 60,000 foot soldiers, 25,000 horsemen and 2000 elephants, along with canons and bombardiers. The Portuguese however probably had about 4000 soldiers in its ranks. However, their fleet encircled the island and literally massacred the Adilshahi forces. The spilling of blood, and fatal annihilation of such a huge number of soldiers, led to this island being known with the above ghastly identity.

In the 17th century, with the rising power of Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the powerful Maratha king from the Deccan, the threat of an eminent attack could not be ruled out. Hence in 1668, a small fort was constructed atop the hillock on this island.

To get to the fort, once you step on this island, you come across a T-intersection, where you have to turn left. And just about 40-50 metres ahead, a sharp right and an extremely steep slope takes you to this fort. A Directorate of Archives sign shows the way.

Under the jurisdiction of the Directorate of Archives & Archaeology, Government of Goa, this fort is the smallest in Goa, and the most well maintained. However, a visitor must be careful as you tread on its beautiful masonry ramparts, because vandals seem to take a maniac pride in breaking beer bottles on the fort.

This fort may have been constructed by stones dug out from rocks nearby. The walls are extremely low in height and we can see no primary defense structures like a moat around it. However, towards its entrance, facing the west, the access path is narrow and the hillside is very steep. A short canon ramp, coupled with the exotic view, makes the walk to the fort, a very poetic memory.

The entire inner courtyards of this fort would be about the size of three-four badminton courts. It has a single long barrack, which possibly was meant for the captain or the troops to rest. There is also a small, fortified circular room, which could have been the ammunition store.

This fort has seen much action and bravery, as well as humbling defeats. On the night of November 24, 1683, forty soldiers of Sambhaji crossed the river in knee deep waters, reached the fort and entered it by putting ladders along its walls. They killed the captain of the fort and the soldiers there and fired canons to convey their victory.

However, the over enthusiasm of the Portuguese viceroy, made him lead a contingent of around 400 soldiers to attack the fort. When he reached there, he found 100 soldiers missing and only 250 soldiers under his command. The battle that followed between these soldiers and the fired-up, brave Siddhi’s of Sambhaji’s army led to a humiliating defeat and retreat of the viceroy and his platoon to Old Goa.

Knowing full well that the Portuguese would generate their powerful fleet to cordon of the exit of the Marathas, through the river, and to seek revenge of the Sri Rawalnath Temple being broken, it is said that Sambhaji ordered the burning down of the St Stephens Church, which is built over the foundation of the old Sri Rawalnath Temple.

From its ramparts, towards the north east area of the hillock, we can see a beautifully constructed masonry altar, accessed by a flight of steps. It has a marble statue of Jesus Christ affixed atop it. This statue was brought from Portugal and fitted here in 1926, as says a plaque affixed here.

This heritage site is the most centralised and accessible to all regions of Goa, and must be developed as a picnic spot. Visitors must also maintain the decorum and sanctity of this place.

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