Sanjeev V Sardesai
Standing on the banks of River Mandovi, near the Kala Academy riverside walkway, one can lay sight on the massive fortress of Reis Magos opposite the river, in the village of Verem-Betim, standing alongside the majestic Three Kings (Reis Magos) Church.
The access to this fortress is by crossing the River Mandovi, either over the bridges or by ferry. Then you drive down, about two kilometres, along a very narrow tarred road, to the village of Verem, and near a roadside shrine and take a left at the intersection to reach this church and fortress.
The first view you get when you reach your destination is of the majestically rising steps and facade of the Three Kings (Reis Magos) Church; and just to its right the turret of a tall bastion of the Reis Magos Fortress peeps over the coconut palm tops.
The fortress of Reis Magos was built by the Portuguese Viceroy Dom Affonso de Noronha between 1551 and 1554 to protect the waters from the entry of enemy ships into Portuguese Goa through the mouth of River Mandovi. The Portuguese granted it a classification of a ‘royal fort’. Prior to liberation of Goa, Daman & Diu in 1961 and for a short period after liberation till around 1993 this fort was used as a sub-jail for political prisoners and petty convicts. My uncle was the doctor for the jail inmates and resided in his official residence at the base of the fort jail, which houses the present management office of the fortress.
The space opposite the church and fort was once an expansive beach which over the time and due to erosion and heavy siltation has been converted into a sports ground. The beach seems to have disappeared. When I would visit my uncle’s residence at Reis Magos, the beach would offer an opportunity to play a game of ‘marbles’ using heavy metal ‘canon balls’ strewn all around. There is no trace of these heritage aspects now.
After its abandonment as a prison, this fort fell to disuse and began to crumble. It was Late Mario Miranda who contacted the Helen Hamlyn Trust which philanthropically approved a plan to renovate this fort and put it to use. Today, it is one of the most important and must-visit sites on every tourist’s itinerary.
History informs us that prior to the fort being constructed, there existed a small ‘bulwark’ manned by Adil Shah’s soldiers. This bulwark was conquered by Afonso da Albuquerque, when he sailed with his armada for the second time down River Mandovi in November, 1510, and laid the anchor in Goa for the Portuguese rule of over 450 years. Nearby, it is believed that there existed a temple or a ‘pagode’ as the Portuguese chroniclers called this. The location of this temple is now marked with the majestic Church of the Three Kings or Reis Magos Church. A trace of this is surmised and seen at the start of the stairway, in the form of carved granite lions. It is pertinent to note that the first mass was celebrated here in Bardez Taluka in 1550 and this royal church was constructed by the Franciscan Order in 1555.
The Fortress of Reis Magos is one of the best maintained fortifications, out of the nine existing forts of Goa. There is a ticketing counter at the reception at the base of the fort. Senior citizens are offered a transfer to the top by a vehicle as the road to the fort gate is extremely steep.
This fort has two parts like the Fort Aguada – The Upper and the Lower Fort. Earlier, both these parts were equipped with canons, probably on wheeled carriages, as can be seen re-constructed on the fort ramparts. The point here offers you a view of the entire Panaji City, Miramar Beach, the Caranzalem Cove, The Raj Bhavan, the Aguada Sand Bar, a view of the Aguada Fort and the Arabian Sea. This helped the Portuguese forces to keep a strategic eye on the areas around.
There is a beautiful tiled mansion in the courtyard with a long stairway. This was the residence of the fort commandant or to any dignitary that visited this fort. Today, the entire process of the revitalisation of the Reis Magos Fort and a model of the fort is kept on display here. Viewing these refurbishment panels, one can make out the immense efforts of passion that went into reviving the fort to its present state.
The upper fort is recreated into an exhibition area with a gallery dedicated to the caricatures of Mario Miranda, while another gallery is dedicated to the struggle to liberation of Goa. It has beautiful researched panels and photographs of the brave achievements of a few individuals. These leave every Goan with a sense of pride as they acknowledge the supreme sacrifices taken for our freedom today. Every Goan family and educational institutions must spend at least one day at this fort.
The lower fort is accessible over steep stairways, which make it an experience to remember. This stairway leads to the lower plinths with an expansive deck and two covered sheds and is an ideal locale for hosting musical parties or family events. The evening sunset view from this place is ethereal. From this deck, we have to walk down to the dungeons which presently hold a display of beautiful photos of the past.
A walk along the ramparts gives an idea of what life must have been guarding this fort. The most important bastion of these ramparts is the one to the North East of the fort, facing the Church. A brave freedom fighter Prabhakar Sinari affiliated to the Azad Gomantak Dal (AGD) was incarcerated here. He was jailed here following his arrest for anti-Portuguese, armed activities. He later went on to become the IGP of Goa.
Another aspect of the fort that is bound to catch every visitor’s awe is the ‘death hole’. Immediately after, one enters the fort’s outer door we can see another thick door opposite. Between these doors, we can see a square hole on the ceiling; and this hole opens out on the first floor, in the Mario Miranda Gallery. In the event of an enemy attack the defending forces would use this ‘death hole’ to pour hot oil/ water on the invaders or just shoot at the enemy.
The rich heritage of this fort cannot be expressed in words. One needs to visit here and understand first hand, the power that existed from its inception till it held law breakers. If not for the history, visitors are amazed at the view that it offers. The Reis Magos Fort should and must be on every itinerary of those who visit our state and every Goan to inspire love of the land.