There is an uneasy calm at the break of dawn on 17th February 1739 at Baçaim, an island off the west coast of India. In the fortified part of Baçaim, the Portuguese Commandant, Sylveira de Menezes, who has been tossing and turning the entire night, finally gives up on trying to sleep and prepares to carry out his first inspection of the day.
As Menezes is leaving his quarters, he gets a message from the Captain of the night watch requesting him to make haste to the easternmost rampart of the fort. Menezes rushes to the spot to find the Captain and a sombre group of soldiers waiting for him. Without saying anything, the Captain leads Menezes to a spot from where he can look over the ramparts.
The early morning light reveals a military commandant’s worst nightmare — the Baçaim Fort is surrounded by enemy soldiers, the Marathas, who have managed to reach the outer fort walls under the cover of darkness. This is the beginning of the siege of Baçaim Fort. Initial attempts of the Marathas to secure a breach and enter the Fort are unsuccessful. When they finally do enter the Fort and hold on to their advantage, 3 months have passed and lives of 12,000 Marathas and 800 Portuguese, including that of Menezes, have been lost.
The Portuguese are forced to surrender and the treaty of surrender and capitulation is signed on 16th May 1739. The Portuguese leave Baçaim a week later never to return again.
It has been 275 years since the Portuguese left Baçaim. The Marathas who succeeded them and renamed Baçaim as Bajipura didn’t stay in the area for long; they left in 1780. The British, who took control of Bajipura after the Marathas, renamed it as Bassein. When they left in 1947, after India’s Independence, the area was renamed Vasai as a derivative of its earliest known name, Vasya. (The Fort, however, continued to be referred to as Bassein Fort and that is how I will refer to is from now on.)
Like its many names, Vasai has seen many rulers across millennia — Satavahanas, Rashtrakutas, Shilaharas, Yadavas of Devgiri, Mahomedan rulers from Gujarat (who incidentally called the region Baksai), and of course the aforementioned Portuguese, Marathas, and the British. But looking around the ruins of the Fort, whose complete Portuguese name is Fortaleza de São Sebastião de Baçaim (or the Fort of St. Sebastian of Vasai), it is almost as if only the Portuguese ruled the area.
That’s what the ruins of the Fort say.
Perhaps, the reason for this was the fact that the Portuguese were very focussed about what they wanted from the territories/colonies under their control. Above the arched entrance to the citadel (see photo on the right) in Bassein Fort is a set of 3 symbols — a cross, the Portuguese Royal Coat of Arms and a globe. These, in turn represent religion or Christianity (by inducting more followers to the faith); the Crown (for expanding territories under their control); and Commerce (for trade).
The Portuguese succeeded in all of this at Baçaim. Large numbers of the local population were converted to Christianity through the various missionaries at work there; there was a constant attempt to bring more territories under their rule; and the Portuguese earned vast amounts of money through customs levied on ships passing through the region and their own trade.
The Portuguese ruled Baçaim from the Fort, which was a grand structure abounding with
…sumptuous edifices, both public and private, civil and religious, which later, besides the Matriz or Cathedral, consisted of five convents, thirteen churches, and one Misericordia or asylum for orphans and maidens…; and the ruins of which even at the present day serve as a silent epitaph to departed greatness. (Gerard Da Cunha, Notes on the History and Antiquities of Chaul and Bassein, 1876: pg. 139)
Though most of the structures are still standing today, they are in ruins. Some are covered with vegetation, some have been restored, some have been cleaned up, and some have been left as it is. But each one of them have a story to tell, a history to share.
In the Notes on the History and Antiquities of Chaul and Bassein (1876), Gerard Da Cunha says:
The Portuguese were in possession of Bassein for about two hundred and ten years, during which period it gradually rose to a state of grandeur and opulence that obtained for it the noble appellation of ‘a Corte do Norte’ or “the chief city of the north in relation to the capital of Goa… it had become the resort of the most prosperous fidalgos [Portuguese nobility] and richest merchants of Portuguese India. (pg. 139)
It was this grandeur and opulence that led to decadence, corruption, complacency and ultimate decline in power of the Portuguese. Though they tried to reclaim Bassein after 1739, they never managed to do so.
In spite of that, their influence lingers on in Vasai — in the names of the people, the local architecture, the churches that are still standing… all of which I saw on the day I visited Bassein Fort in June earlier this year.
When Breakfree Journeys announced a trip to Bassein, I was so excited that I signed up immediately. I had never visited the Fort in spite of it being just a short train ride from Mumbai. I also knew nothing about it, so I had no idea what I was going to see at the Bassein Fort when our group met at Vasai Railway station that June morning.
Bassein Fort is about 10 km from Vasai Railway station and we hired rickshaws to get there. We passed pretty little churches, schools and cottages through winding roads. Certain parts of the ride reminded me of my travels in Goa and coastal Karnataka and it was a little difficult to believe that I was just about 50 km from Mumbai !
When we passed the outer walls of the Bassein Fort, I realised that this was no ordinary-sized fort; this was one huge Fort that just seemed to go on and on. By the time the rickshaw deposited us near the Dominican Church, where we were to meet our guide, I was lost in awe and couldn’t wait to start exploring.
Our guide was André Baptista (who I have already written about in my post on Khotachiwadi), and I can’t think of a better guide than him. Not only does André have the right ‘pedigree’ — he is an archaeologist and has roots in Vasai — he’s very knowledgeable and articulate.
I spent the next few hours listening to André talk about the history of Vasai, its various rulers and the names they bestowed on the region, the Bassein Fort and the people who ruled it and the legacy they left — all this while exploring the various structures in the Fort.
There was a touch of surreality in visiting certain spots where particular events were supposed too have taken place. For example, standing at the very spot from where Sylveira de Menezes perhaps first saw the Marathas before the siege 275 years ago !
There was also a sense of déjà vu when I saw the church ruins, a feeling of having seen them before. Which was strange as this was my first time at Bassein Fort; I hadn’t even seen pictures of the Fort before ! It took me a little while to realise that I had seen similar structures in Goa, particularly Old Goa.
There was surprise at seeing a baobab tree, which is not native to India, but is something that the Portuguese planted in all their colonies.
But most of all there was a sense of wonder, mixed with sadness, at the history of a place that stretches back to centuries. Sadness that a once bustling and thriving place, today lies completely in ruins. It was difficult to believe that today’s laid-back Vasai was a bustling city, while Bombay was still a group of marshy islands.
It left me wondering: what if the Portuguese had not left when they did? Would history have been different? Would it have been another Goa? Would Mumbai have been the city that it is today?
Even after so many months, I cannot get these “What if” questions out of my mind.
Note: The Bassein Fort walk conducted by Breakfree Journeys was not a free or sponsored walk. I paid the full fee for the guided tour.