They ruled a vast swathe of land, and had forts starting from Diu in Gujarat and all the way down to the Kerala coast. They had an extensive presence on the Eastern coast as well - with forts from Tuticorin till the Hooghli, and also ruled the island of Sri Lanka. They could have easily been the dominant power in the subcontinent, but got bogged down in royal politics and were ultimately outmaneuvered by the British East India company.
The main capital of Portuguese India was Goa, of course - but the Northen capital was Vasai - or ‘Bassein’ as they knew it. It was an extremely rich fort - the centre of a flourishing kingdom and was the dominant power in the region - much bigger than the small outpost of Bom Bahia, or Bombay island.
But now the fort is ruined and abandoned, and Vasai has been relegated to a sleepy backwater. It was to this place that I decided to cycle to on Sunday morning. If you drive down to Vasai then you have to take a circuitous route, but if you go on cycle you can carry the bike through the subway under Naigaon station and save a few Ks.
I left by 5.30 AM and got a pleasant surprise when I reached Thane. There was a cycle rally on there and so the police had shut off the flyovers to vehicular traffic, and they were reserved for the cyclists. Naturally, they thought I was part of the rally as well, and I got a royal welcome from the organisers as I was the first cyclist on the route. I had not waited for the starting whistle, and so was ahead of the pack. I grinned and waved as they took photos of me, though I was soon overtaken by a peloton of racing cyclists. I left them behind at the end of Ghodbunder road and carried on to Gomukh ghat and crossed over Versova creek and hit the mainland. The versova creek bridge is under maintanance, and so I was lucky to cross it without waiting for too long.
On NH8, I kept an eye out for the Naigaon flyover where I had to turn off the highway and hit the inner roads to cross under the railway line at Naigaon station. Once I did that and entered the Vasai area, I could immediately see the Portuguese influence in the place. The area was very much like a Goan village, with small neat bungalows with beautiful gardens. The names, the roads, the village crosses, the very look and feel of the place was like the portuguese christian places like Bandra or Goa - though of course the features of the people were of the typical north Konkan people.
I asked directions of the locals and made my way to the Vasai fort area. I had covered about 65 KM in roughly 4 hours.
‘Where is the main gate?’ I asked an ASI official.
‘You have been in the fort for quite some time’ he replied. ‘It covers an area of 109 Acres’
Wow. thats big.
He pointed the way to the sea gate and I went off to investigate that. It was most impressive, and the battlements are still intact, and you can still see the fleet of fishing boats on the shore which must have been there in Portuguese times as well. Vasai is still a major fishing port, and supply a lot of the fish in Mumbai fishmarkets.
The name "Bassein" is the English version of the Portuguese "Baçaim" (with the "ç" spoken as "s" and with the "m" silent)
Portuguese mariners exploring the north Konkan Coast, discovered the Arab Sultanate of Khambat or Cambay, building or renovating or expanding the fort in the early 15th century and attacked it in a failed effort to seize it. Later, after more systematic efforts, the Sultanate of Cambay ceded the fort to Portugal by the Treaty of Saint Matthew signed on the Portuguese brig Sao Matteus anchored in the Bhayander Creek or Vasai Harbor.
The Treaty of Bassein was signed by Sultan Bahadur of Gujarat and the Kingdom of Portugal on 23 December 1534 while on board the galleon São Mateus. Based on the terms of the agreement, the Portuguese Empire gained control of the city of Bassein, as well as its territories, islands, and seas. The Mumbai Islands under Portuguese control include Colaba, Old Woman's Island, Mumbai, Mazagaon, Worli, Matunga, and Mahim. Salsette, Daman and Diu, Thane, Kalyan, and Chaul were other territories controlled and settled by the Portuguese."
I stepped out of the sea gate and checked out Vasai jetty. It was in quite nice shape and as usual I wondered why we do not use the sea lanes more. It would be so easy to have regular sea lanes to Mumbai, North Konkan and Gujarat.
What really struck me was the amount of non military buildings in the fort area. It showed how stable and peaceful the area must have been, and how rich the area must have been with regular economy and taxation for them to afford so much civilian and ecclestial buildings.
He told me to check out the other churches and especially the Franciscan church, where a lot of the ancient portuguese were buried in the nave of the church and I could check out their burial slabs. I went off exploring, and checked out a couple of churches where the local boys were playing cricket in front of it.
I found the ruined franciscan church with the graves of the long dead foreign adventurers and grandees. It was quite a pathos heavy site. This must have been a grand church once - the main one of the fort. It must have been a great honour to have been buried in the nave of the church, and people must have jostled and quarrelled to get their loved ones buried there. The dead people must have come from so far away, and must have been filled with immense ambition and energy and greed. They had come and created a whole new world on the other side of the globe and changed the fortunes of millions. Now they are all dead, the church is dead and roofless and their slabs weather in the sun and no one can even read their names.