The Sion Fort is one of the eight existing forts in Mumbai.
My brothers tell me that I visited the Fort as a 4-year old in 1975. Our family had just shifted to Mumbai from Bhopal that year and the first few months were spent in settling down and of course, exploring a new city. I have absolutely no recollection of that visit, though I remember other visits made at that time to the Gateway of India, the zoo, the shoe house at Malabar Hill, etc.
Over the years, hearing my brothers talk about the visit to the Sion Fort has always made me want to visit it. But somehow, every planned trip to the Sion Fort has never worked out for one reason or the other. One can even say that it was jinxed. There was one instance when I had gotten off the bus at Sion and had just started walking towards the Fort when I got a call from office asking me to report immediately for a work-related emergency! That was about 4 years back and my last attempt to visit the Sion Fort.
Till earlier this month, that is. When I casually mentioned about wanting to visit the Sion Fort to Rushikesh Kulkarni, a fellow blogger and the guy who runs Breakfree Journeys, he said, “Let’s go.” Before I knew it, a date and a time had been fixed for the visit. And just like that it worked out. So on a weekday, about an hour before sunset, Rushikesh, my friend Neena and I met at the entrance of one of the lanes leading to the Fort from the Eastern Express Highway at Sion.
Built on a hillock for defense purposes between 1669 and 1677 by the British, the Sion Fort (which houses a watchtower) marked the northeastern boundary of their territory on the then Parel Island. Across the bay was the Portuguese-controlled Salsette Island. Today, the Sion Fort is a short walk from the Sion suburban railway station and is easily accessible provided one knows where it is located.
There is an non-functioning and a visibly rusting industrial unit near the entrance to the Fort, a harsh, stark and sobering reminder of Mumbai’s industrial scene. Little do I realise that this was only the beginning and I would be seeing more when I climbed to the top of the Fort.
Sion Fort is accessed through a pretty garden, the Jawaharlal Nehru Udyan. At that time of the evening, the garden was full of what looked like study groups — groups of young boys sitting in a circle and studying. Some groups seemed to have an older teacher/mentor, while others seemed to be getting on perfectly fine without them. Though I would have loved to photograph them, I did not think it would have been right to disturb them.
A short climb later, we were in the presence of the ruins of the Sion Fort and amongst an entirely different demographic profile of people — young couples who turned away or hid their faces when they saw my camera, and groups of young men who just seemed to be idling or loitering about. Some of the men seemed like regulars at the Fort in the way they sought out favourite nooks and corners to make themselves comfortable.
The Sion Fort has reportedly been restored, though repaired would perhaps be a more appropriate term to use. Except in patches, most of the original features of the Fort appear to have been lost. Only a cannon and a portion of the rampart are clearly original, some other parts look suspect, while most parts are clearly new. In the absence of any signboards, this is the conclusion that I came to.
I had thought that this couple would move away when they saw my camera, but they only turned their backs to me and I had no choice, but to include them in the frame.
Part of the original curved rampart of the Sion Fort can be seen in the photo below. I was a little surprised to see laterite used as building material here. Since the Fort has been repaired/renovated, it is not clear if the laterite blocks were original or added later. Either way it is a puzzle as laterite is not native to the region. (Note to self: Something to read up on !)
The views from the top of the Fort reveal a side of Mumbai that one knows of, but doesn’t really want to think about — its oil refineries. Also, the contrast between the views from the Eastern and Western sides of the Sion Fort is very revealing. On the Eastern side are the oil refineries, salt pans, residential buildings, the Mumbai Monorail line, IMAX theatre…
From the Western side of the Fort, the view is of the steel and glass buildings of the Bandra-Kurla Complex, the Eastern Express highway, highrises, and in the distance, almost like a mirage, is the Bandra-Worli Sealink, and the sea. This side is shrouded in smog and in the light of the setting sun glows orange. An eerie, ghostly orange. I can’t believe I’m saying this but on that evening, and from the top of Sion Fort, Mumbai looked like a ghost city.
The views of both the Eastern and Western sides revealed how much the city has grown into a concrete jungle. As Neena mentioned,
When the oil refineries were set up, they were located far away from the city limits. It is the city that has crept closer to the refineries and is now complaining of pollution from the refineries. Construction of residential units should never have been allowed in that direction.
I agree completely, though some people will be quick to point out that this is development.
The views from both sides also revealed a complete lack of green cover, and coupled with the rampant construction, I can’t tell you how depressing it was to stand there and be reminded of these words by the Greek philosopher, Democritus:
The animal needing something knows how much it needs; the man does not.
We leave when the sun is about to set. As we make our way down, I look back to see the Sion Fort once again. Though small, the Sion Fort must have been an impressive structure once upon a time till neglect, apathy and vandals took over. Today, it seems to be a place for couples to hang out in and for the idle to loiter and loll about.
The visit to Sion Fort was needed in a particularly important way as far as I’m concerned. My love for Mumbai sometimes makes me oversee the issues confronting the city. It’s not that I’m not aware of them; just that I prefer to not notice them. A visit like the one to the Sion Fort makes me not just notice them, but also write about it.
Read about the Forts of Mumbai