SANJEEV V SARDESAI
It is said that there were about 53 forts and fortifications in Goa, but today, if we want to visit and partake in these glories of the past, we can name less than a handful and see lesser in a good condition.
In the article today, let us visit Bicholim, a taluka in North Goa. The name ‘Bicholim’ was corrupted by the Portuguese, from its original identity ‘Bhatagram’. The surmising of the name ‘Bhatagram’ is observed through various schools of thought. One theory states that being primarily an agrarian region, the main crop was ‘rice paddy’ which in local parlance is called as ‘bhaat’, which led to it being named as the ‘village of rice paddy’ or ‘Bhaat-Gram’. Another school of thought surmises that being a land holding many temples and shrines, there was a need for many temple priests i e ‘bhats’; hence the place became known as ‘Bhat-Gram’ or the ‘land of bhats’. Another one voiced that there were many ‘Bhata’ans’ or ‘plantations’ here and hence this name. But the Portuguese coined a new name ‘Bicholim’ which has stuck till date.
Bicholim has a heritage and a place of pride, in the struggle, to free the lands of Konkan, we know today as Goa. This region was under the control of Adil Shah of Bijapur for a short time from 1663-64; but came under the command and domain of Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj of Maharashtra somewhere prior to 1671. There existed a fort in the present day town, at the very location where exists the Bicholim police station. Today there is no trace of it whatsoever. However, some elderly residents of this town and surrounding areas recollect that there was a wall along the moat, parallel to where today passes the National Highway in front of the Sri Shantadurga High School to the new bus stand.
The only trace, probably, that existed till recently was the entrance wall of this fort, from where one entered the police station, opposite the ground. However, just behind the Grace Church, we can see a rectangular construction, which probably was part of the fort. It is said that there were many palatial houses from Bicholim town to Piligao and Narve, on the banks of River Mandovi.
One of the striking edifices of that era is the Namazgah, atop the hill towards the south of the town, accessible over about 150 rough cut, hilly steps. Its origin relates to Chattrapati Sambhaji and a Mughal prince. It is said that Prince Akbar (not Akbar the Great), the fourth son of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, had revolted against his father with the help of Rajput warriors. However, the massive Mughal army defeated them and his father issued a fatwa to kill his revolting son.
Prince Akbar thus ran away to the Central Deccan and met Sambhaji, the Maratha king, and asked for his protection in exile. Sambhaji brought him down to Bicholim and offered him a place to build a palace, as well as the prayer Idgah – Namazgah (locally called ‘Nimuzgoh’ or ‘Nimgoh’). This is one of the symbols of harmony and association, between a Maratha Hindu king, and a Muslim Prince Shahezada Akbar, on Goan soil.
It is said that later, having learnt that his revolting son was in Goa, the emperor sent his other son Prince Shah Alam to kill him. Prince Shah Alam arrived with his huge army and a fleet of over 100 ships with food grains, and destroyed every palatial house, including the palaces of Sambhaji and Shahezada Akbar and also the many gardens that existed here. The Namazgah remained a sole witness to the pilferage and destruction that took place in January 1684.
Even today, the area towards the town is called as ‘Bhitarli Peth’ and the area near the Sri Shantadurga School is called as ‘Bhaili Peth’. This means the ‘inner (enclosed) area’ and the ‘outer areas’ respectively; thereby reminding us of the existence of fortifications, which possibly had a gate to enter and exit these areas.
It was in 1698 that Khem Sawant II attacked the Mughals and took over the forts of Bicholim and Sanquelim. He is also credited with the construction of the moat around the fort of Bicholim. Later on May 27, 1726, the Portuguese conquered this fort, after laying a siege for a few days, and then completely destroyed it.
The book by P P Shirodkar ‘Fortresses & Forts of Goa’ informs that the capture of the Bicholim fort laid a foundation for the Portuguese forces to capture Alorna, Tiracol, etc along with strategic villages like Morlem and Satrem. However, these initial captured lands of Dicholi (Bicholim), Sanquelim, and Pernem were handed back to Khem Sawant Bhosle II in 1761.
But two decades later, on August 25, 1781, Brigadier Henrique’s army marched through Mayem and captured the fort of Bicholim.
When you pass through Bicholim, stop and see the police station, which was once the location of the fort, and also slow down and watch the moat as you drive along the highway. You can see the old moat now developed as a huge concrete walled storm water drain, and has a Sri Koteshwar Shrine at the entrance of the town.
Just a reminder – whenever you hear the word ‘kot’ or ‘Kota kodde’ remember there was a fort or a fortification here, which may or may not display any remnants.
The military importance of this region was seen, even on December 17, 1961, when the major thrust of the Indian Armed Forces which entered Portuguese Goa, was from the Maulingem Border on the Bicholim Taluka.
But in the bargain, the Bicholim fort was lost in the sands of time!