The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 7, 2003

Missing history for the woods in Bassein
Abhilash Gaur

The walls and a vaulted roof at the far end of the fort
The walls and a vaulted roof at the far 
end of the fort

I hadn't heard of Christians offering namaz in a mandir till I visited Vasai fort! Vasai, by the way, is the Bassein of our class VIII history books. Remember the 'Treaty of Bassein'? I had forgotten all about it the moment I handed over my exam paper. But the Net returned me to Bassein and its treaty.

The story is that, Maratha ruler Peshwa Baji Rao II was chased out of Poona by another chieftain, Jaswant Rao Holkar. The Peshwa sought refuge in Bassein and, in desperation, entered into a 'subsidiary alliance' with the East India Company on December 31, 1802. With the signing of the treaty, the Peshwa remained a king in name and the Bassein fort came under the Company's control. The fort had remained with the Marathas for 63 years, after Chimaji Appa, younger brother of Peshwa Baji Rao I, captured it from the Portuguese in 1739. The Portuguese themselves had taken it from Bahadur Shah, Sultan of Gujarat.


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The overgrowth blocks all trails to the fort
The overgrowth blocks all trails to the fort

The Portuguese first raided and burnt the town of Bassein in 1528, under Captain Heytor de Silveira. In 1532, they returned to raze the Mohammedan fort on the island. Four years later, Nunho de Cunha, a Portuguese soldier, founded the city of Bassein, which would grow to become one of the most prosperous settlements on the Konkan coast. Good for the Portuguese, but their neighbour, Sultan Bahadur Shah, wasn't happy with the turn of events.

So, in 1536 (the year the city was founded), he returned to recover the island. The Portuguese beat back the attack and decided to fortify the South-Western part of the island. The fort they built has survived the 467 years since and become more impregnable, if anything! If invaders had to think twice before approaching its walls, visitors to the fort today will give up before they have seen any of the ruins inside. That's because the fort today seems a model project of the forest department.

Walking around the fort is a trip down history lane
Walking around the fort is a trip 
down history lane

Trees and bushes block every trail. The ruins you can see are draped in moss and creepers, their walls dangerously pregnant with peepul shoots. There are other ruins the forest has swallowed whole. The state transport bus from Vasai Road station dropped me close to a ruin where fishermen were mending nets.

Only the walls and a vaulted roof, at the far end of the building, remain. Two raised platforms under the vaulted portion suggest this was a church. The walls have long windows, which might have framed stained glass... A short walk from this ruin is another that I couldn't see at first. The fishermen keenly wanted to show it because they "still offer namaz there". I walked towards the tall, warehouse-like building, wondering what an old mosque was doing in a Portuguese fort. But as it turned out, this one too was a church. Namaz just happened to be those fishermen's word for prayer! This second church has a tower and a colonnaded square attached to it. I have no clue as to what the square was used for.

Only one arched gate of this building remains
Only one arched gate of this
 building remains

The Archaeological Survey of India has not put up any information board at any of the buildings. The columns, arches and stairways nonetheless speak of a grand assembly hall. Walking around it, I could hear the drone of an organ, the rustle of skirts and polite clinks of glass... A hand caught me around the elbow. A fisher boy, about 15, had joined me. He wanted to show me a mandir further inside. "It is modelled on Goye ka Safri," he offered by way of inducement. It took a while, but I finally figured out he meant St Francis Xavier's church in Goa. My guide said parts of Josh and Kambakht Ishq were shot in this church. I haven't seen either movie, so I can't say. This church is also in ruins but the notable thing about it is its courtyard. It is paved with stones bearing names. Are these gravestones? There is a small tomb also. Who lies buried here? I wish the Archaeological Survey of India would provide these answers.


Bassein saw hectic missionary activity under the Portuguese. Saint Francis Xavier visited the city thrice—once in 1544 and twice in 1548. He founded the 'College of the Holy Name of God' here in December 1548. The Franciscan missionary Antonio do Porto converted 10,156 Indians to Christianity in Bassein. He is known as the Apostle of Bassein. Bassein is also the birthplace of Saint Gonsalo Garcia, who was crucified on the hill of Nagasaki on February 5, 1597. Source:

Getting there

Bassein or Vasai is a suburb of Mumbai and getting there is easy. The commuter train from Andheri takes 45 minutes to reach Vasai Road station and the fare is Rs 8. You can take an auto or a state transport bus from the station to the fort. The bus will drop you inside the fort and it charges Rs 7.

We next pushed our way through bushes to a tower: The boy skipping along and I tearing after him, hearing snakes hiss at every step. The tower had been attached to a building, maybe another church. Only one arched gate of this building remains. The tower's spiral staircase is still intact and you can climb to a good height to get a view of the sea behind the fort. The fort-city of Bassein had reached the height of its prosperity by the end of the 17th century. According to one account, it had its own mint (Casa da Moeda) and several magnificent buildings like, a church and convent of the Dominicans; a Franciscan church of Santo Antonio; a church and convent of Augustinian; the Camara palace and a convent and church of the Jesuits. Its wealth and opulence made Bassein the most important Portuguese settlement in North India. But the transfer of Bombay to the British in 1665 weakened Bassein, leaving it prone to attacks by the Marathas.

Although the Bassein fort remained with the Portuguese for about as long (203 years) as it did with the Marathas and the British (208 years), it bears hardly any imprint of the later powers. Even the statue of Chimaji Appa installed in a park is a recent addition. My guide and I walked up to the big gate at the back of the fort. He then left to help his father on their boat while I picked my way back through the wilderness. The organ in my head droning louder than the flies around, every time I paused before a camouflaged ruin...