I was born in Berlin (at that time West Berlin in West Germany), have lived a decade in and around London, and have been able to visit so many major cities around the world, but the metropolis that really sets my pulse racing is still Mumbai, Bombay in my earlier years. Maybe it’s because it is the first big city I got to know so well, on account of family ties, study, work, and performing music, or just to get a periodic fix of concerts, museums, and culture.
It’s a love-hate relationship, to be sure, and many Goans can relate to this. After a few days, I’ve had enough of the bustle and squalor and can’t wait to get home again.
On those umpteen visits, I was vaguely aware of Vasai, as some far-off, end-of-the-line train stop on the Western Railway. And I was aware of Baçaim and Bassein as important place-names in our history. But it only gradually dawned on me that they were colonial references (Portuguese and British, respectively) to present-day Vasai.
My ‘base’ in erstwhile-Bombay used to be Chembur; I could make sense of the city and plan my bus and train routes from there. Vasai seemed a long way away then from there, and too far removed from my usual commute.
But then I married Chryselle, a Mumbai girl, with her family now in Borivali, and suddenly Vasai was not that distant anymore, just a handful of stops away by ‘local’ train. It beckoned more and more tantalisingly. But I didn’t know what to expect even if I did go there. Indian cities, although rich in heritage, reveal their secrets reluctantly.
As I got more interested in history and heritage, I increasingly began to meet historians and researchers who had visited sites such as Vasai in the course of their field work. The release of my friend Amita Kanekar’s informative and well-illustrated concise pocket-book ‘Portuguese Sea Forts: Goa with Chaul, Korlai and Vasai’ published in 2015 only whetted my curiosity.
However, the stars finally aligned only a few months ago, on the return leg of our Kochi trip, when I was able to set aside some time to explore Vasai. The journey from Borivali was surprisingly straightforward; a 25-minute train ride to Vasai Road, and then a connecting bus from there directly to there, actually entering the crumbling remains of the once-walled fort city.
First impression: it was much, much larger than I had anticipated. One could imagine how formidable and grand it would have been in its heyday as the Corte da Norte (Court of the North) capital of the Província do Norte (Northern Province) of the Estado da Índia.
The massive Vasai Fort has seen ‘restoration’ work by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which has been criticised by many conservationists. Judging from the white patches of plaster and the non-matching stone and concrete used in several places, one is inclined to agree. There are allegations by villagers and local heritage enthusiasts that several inscriptions have been ruined or covered over during the ASI work.
When I visited the heritage precincts of Vasai around mid-morning on a weekday, there were only a few others in the area. It however seems a popular destination for wedding photography, and I even spotted a little boy getting a First Holy Communion picture taken, in the historic Jesuit college of the Sagrado Nome de Jesus (Holy Name of Jesus), whose entrance façade is so obviously inspired by that of our Bom Jesus Basilica in Old Goa.
On taking in the large scale of the site, I quickly abandoned any idea of covering it all in a day. Much of the fort-city is either overgrown with vegetation interspersed with signs of human habitation, and I was surprised, while walking through what seemed like a much-neglected portion of the heritage site, to find a housing complex smack bang in the middle of it, with a solitary road connecting it to ‘civilisation.’ There is of course, the bustling village of Vasai literally just outside the city wall limits.
The important link between Portuguese Baçaim and Goa cannot be overemphasised. The Província do Norte was literally the granary of the Estado da Índia, providing also for Goa, whose local rice production was insufficient for the needs of her own population.
The fall of Baçaim at the 1739 Battle of Baçaim resulted therefore in severe food shortage here. In Ernestine Carreira’s ‘Globalising Goa (1660-1820)’, she elaborates: “The situation forced [the Portuguese] to engage in illegal trade with French ships from the Mascarene Islands [or Mascarenhas Archipelago, a group of islands east of Madagascar, consisting of Mauritius, Réunion, and Rodrigues], exchanging food for slaves.”
As she also states, Portuguese control of the seas needed a strong war fleet. The loss of their footholds on the Malabar coast deprived Goa of teak, vital for repairs and shipbuilding. The neighbouring forests of the Província do Norte and Baçaim took over from Goa as the centre for hull building.
One can understand how the fall of Baçaimin 1739 would have therefore undermined the Portuguese maritime strength as well, contributing even further to the decline of the Estado da Índia.
The fall of the Província do Norte sent shockwaves through Lisbon, “even casting doubt on the credibility of the monarchy”, as Carreira puts it. To bolster a sagging image among the “great nations of Europe”, D João V increased support to Goa and several unsuccessful diplomatic and military attempts were made to retake the provinces. However, in the interest of face-saving back home, “each military breakthrough in Goa gave rise to propagandising announcements across Europe.”
Amid the ruins of the fort-city, one can still sense “living history”. Some of the adjacent forested area that probably was a source of timber to the old city is still intact, and a few ancient wells from the Portuguese era are still in use, with clusters of the village women drawing water from them and bathing their children as they shrieked in delight.
Vasai’s Fort of São Sebastião shot to worldwide fame after British band Coldplay used it as a video shooting location (among other sites in India) for their international hit song ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ in 2015. Bollywood, of course has used the location long before.
The first Indian saint Gonçalo Garcia (1556-1597) was born in Portuguese Baçaim, and one sees his name everywhere: a church, a school, and several commercial establishments.
Although better signage would help a lot in negotiating one’s way around the heritage site, it is perhaps better that Vasai remains as long as possible far from the eyes of the government, bureaucrats, hoteliers, and real-estate tycoons with their warped ideas of ‘development’, ‘tourism’ and ‘beautification.’ Some of the mystique of the old city is precisely its sense of abandonment, “a place that time forgot.”