I would never have suspected that there would be an ancient fort in Dharavi.
Dharavi is the largest slum in Asia - and a perennial choke point for traffic going from East to West Mumbai. Not really a place you would associate with ancient monuments.
I became aware of the fort by reading about it in Ashutosh Bijoor’s blog, where he went hunting for a lost fort – I imagined him like an Indiana Jones on cycle – and after that I read up on it on Wikipedia.
It was a part of the ring of forts put up around the British possessions of the seven islands of Mumbai, back in the 1700s to protect them from the Portuguese and later from the Marathas. The main fort was Bombay castle and the other forts were Sion, Worli, Sewree, Dongri , Mazgaon, Mahim and Riwa fort in Dharavi. As you can see in the map, these protected the 7 islands from the mainland of Salcette – which was Portuguese owned, and later Maratha owned.
Riwa was a sea fort on the Mithi creek – but the creek has been pushed further and further back by land reclamation, and now the fort is well inland. Next time you are stuck in a traffic jam in dharavi when going from Bandra to Sion, stop and reflect that this road was all creek at one time. You could apparently jump into the river from the walls of the fort as late as 50 years ago. Now the waters are almost a kilometre away.
I had seen all the other extant forts of old Bombay by now – Sion, Sewri, Mahim, Bandra and Worli – (Dongri and Mazgaon and Bombay castle have been demolished ) and so seeing Dharavi fort would complete my forts of Mumbai project.
Sunday is my day of long rides, as the traffic is less and it is fun to cycle on Bombay roads at that time. I set out early morning and decided to do it the long way round – I went up to Dadar, did a couple of rounds of Shivaji park, and then went to Mahim and crossed the western express highway and BKC and got on to the dharavi road.
Apart from the fort, I really wanted to check out another fascinating place which I had passed a million times, but never entered as yet – Maharashtra Nature park! MNP is a fascinating place – it used to be a stinking garbage dump next to the polluted Mithi river, which has been transformed into a beautiful nature park by the government. It is such an amazing idea that the government could do such good work, and such a shame that I had not seen it till now.
And luckily for me, these two places were apparently pretty close to each other.
I stopped at the Nature park entrance, but was apologetically informed by the guard that the park opens only at 7.30 AM and it was only 7 AM now.
OK, no problem – I replied – can I park my bike here while I check out this fort? He agreed and so I went off exploring.
I went into the settlement enquiring for the fort, and I was guided deeper and deeper into the settlements. You couldn’t call it a planned city, but it was definitely not a slum either – they had pukka houses, and electricity and water and shops in there. It was an incredibly densely built place, though - with very narrow gullies and no natural light, and I felt like an intrepid explorer as I went deeper and deeper inside asking for the fort.
‘This is the life’ I thought ‘I am an explorer. I am a real stud.’
And finally after several twists and turns I came to the fort.
An honest to goodness 300 year old fort in the heart of Dharavi. Who would have thunk it?
The walls were still quite strong and it looked pretty OK to me. There was not much in the way of conservation – There was a plaque on the wall saying that this was built by the corps of engineers on the orders of Governor Horn in 1737!
There was no entrance to the fort at all. Bijoor had met someone who provided him with a ladder, but there was no such obliging person for me. But I was still pumped up from my exploration through the narrow gullies, and so I jumped up a pile of sandbags and scrambled my way up into the fort.
‘Yippee!’ I shouted – but not too loudly, in case people came and stoned me – ‘I have done it! I am have fulfilled a random and pointless quest! I have seen all the forts of Mumbai. Woo hoo!’
There was not much to see inside the fort. The denizens consisted of a bunch of hens which someone was keeping there, and they didn’t seem impressed.
You could say that they didn’t give a cluck.
It was quite atmospheric. There was a tall tree inside which gave a dappled look and feel to the place, and there were derelict items lying around which gave a feeling of great age. I soaked in the atmosphere for some time and then left. Bijoor had found a tunnel and explored inside it – but I seem to suck at exploring and didn’t even see the tunnel.
My smug Indiana Jones feeling was gone though – from the fort I had seen the main road just outside the walls, so obviously my brave trip through the narrow gullies had been unnecessary. Sure enough, I asked a local and found myself out of the main road in a couple of minutes. I had been the lost traveller rather than the trail blazer. oh well.
Now it was time for the modern marvel - the Maharashra Nature Park. It was open now, and I paid my 10 bucks and went inside, and it was such a pleasant surprise!
It turned out to be a magical place! A little patch of paradise in the heart of Mumbai.
A beautiful wooded park on the banks of the Mithi, it was quiet and calm and would be a haven for birds and insects. I saw a kingfisher, a cuckoo, a golden oriole and heard a barbet calling away. It would be a wonderful place for morning stroll and bird/ insect watching trip.
Sure it aint perfect, with maintainance issues and all – but hey! What a place!
And especially the fact that it used to be a garbage dump and has been restored to be a garden – the message of hope eternal is what you should take away.
I couldnt explore as much as I would have liked to, as it was getting late and it was time to head back.
I was just congratulating myself on being the single Mumbai person who was exploring the park, when I reached the visitor centre and saw the whole place filled up with people.
I smiled and headed back home.
6 forts of Mumbai done – whats next?
Continuing on my Bombay forts trail, I decided to cover 2 forts in one trip this time – Mahim and Bandra forts. They looked out on the same mahim bay, from opposite shores.
(above image credit - Ashutosh Bijoor of www.bijoor.me - an absolutely inspiring cycling blog - do check it out)
I cycled from Sion (past Sion fort - which was the first fort I visited - you can see the blog here), crossed Dharavi (past Dharavi fort – which I have yet to visit), crossed Bandra swamp and took a left for Mahim.
I must have crossed this road a million times, and I never knew that there was a fort there. And nor did any of the locals, it seemed. One or two looked nonplussed when I asked them, and then a couple confidently guided me to a police station.
‘But wheres the fort?’
‘Oh, theres no actual fort’ he replied ‘all the offices and buildings here are called the fort’
‘Balls.’ I replied ‘There is a fort here – I have seen photos and read Wikipedia and Bijoor’s blog.’
‘I tell you there is no fort’ he argued. ‘I have lived here for years and years’
‘Oh never mind’ I soothed him ‘where is the beach?’
He directed me to the beach, and I went off there, through the bamboo wala stalls and various storage buildings.
It was a sea fort . It has to be on the beach.
And it was.
above Images credit - wikipedia By Nicholas (Nichalp) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4789847
But it was fully occupied by squatters and shanties and slums. I saw the fort walls and an impressive gate, but inside was full of settlements and huts. I thought of walking on the beach and getting photos of the fort walls, but the beach was occupied by a different kind of squatters – people squatting to take a shit. The beach was a huge open air toilet and was covered with shit and shitters. I saw the fort entrance and smiled – that slum dweller was staying in a royal palace.
I lacked the enthu to walk through that shit just to see the fort and so I withdrew.
It is a great pity. The Mahim fort is actually the oldest fort in Mumbai – dating back to pre Mughal times. It was apparently built by Raja Bhimdev in the 12th century and then was the main fort in the Bombay island. It was in due course of time acquired by the Deccan sultans - the sultan of Gujarat. The Portuguese entered in 1516 and conquered the fort, and wrested it from the Sultan. They also built another fort just across the creek at Bandra and were the main power in the area. Unfortunately for them, they had to cede the fort to the British because the Bombay islands were handed over to the Brits as part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry. The British strengthened the fort, and it had a garrison of 100 men and 30 cannon – which is pretty hardcore for the time.
God knows how it sunk from being such an important place to being completely overrun by slums and filth.
In any other country it would have been the pride of the city and well maintained – only in India do we treat our treasures with such disrespect. The Shiv Sena controlled municipality doesn’t seem to give a rats ass about forts and historical places in Mumbai – they can only talk ‘Shivaji Shivaji’ but do nothing to restore and maintain history.
From Mahim I went off to Bandra, through the Sea link approach road and then crossed over to Bandstand and made my way to the fort.
This is the complete opposite of Mahim fort – it is clean and neat and lovingly maintained by the Bandstand residents association – god bless their souls. It is like a Yin and Yang – polar opposites of kismet - Mahim fort and Bandra fort – just across the bay – but two extremes of condition.
The fort itself is almost gone, only a small fraction exists now. The formal name of it is ‘Castella de Aguada’ and it was built by the Portuguese in 1640 – 400 years ago!
'Castella de Aguaga – The Last Bastion. 1517 saw the commandment of the Mahim Fort fall to the might of the Portuguese as they set foot in ‘Bandora’ (Bandra). 1640 saw the rise of the ‘Castella’ or bastion. The Portuguese built this strategically located fort as an outpost marking the southernmost tip of the mainland. Fresh water springs located close to the fort served as a potable water point when they sailed across. They exist to this day, but now serve an entirely different people – the local washermen! Though the Castella is almost entirely destroyed, the ruins remain one of the few standing reminders of the days of Portuguese glory.'
It is an absolutely lovely place – you can sit there for hours and watch the sea.
The residents association has developed a nice garden there, and as I went exploring I saw a sign that said that this was the site of the home of a Parsi gentleman called Byramjee Jeejeebhoy. Byramjee was a businessman and Philanthropist – he founded several educational institutions in Bombay and Pune – the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy college and the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy parsee charitable institution in Bombay, and the famous BJ medical college in Pune. The East India company leased 7 villages to him, and also ‘Lands end’ – the cape of land with the fort. He restored the old fort and built a beautiful house. He also built a road from St Andrews church to Lands end at his own expense and opened it to the public. Must have been one hell of a rich guy.
Now the palatial mansion is no more – only a few bricks and this sign. Such is life.
As I was sitting there, I saw another group of cyclists enjoying the view. As they walked up the fort, one of them noticed that I was also wearing cycling gloves. Being a friendly sort of guy, he smiled at me.
‘Are you here on cycle?’ he asked , and when I answered in the affirmative, he asked where had come from.
‘Arre! We are also from Chembur! We live in HPCL colony – have you heard of it?’
I laughed. What a coincidence.
‘I have lived in HP colony for more than 20 years.’ I replied, to his surprise. ‘My father used to work with HP.’
‘Really?’ he was very interested. ‘What is his name?’
‘S T Joshi’ I replied, and that guy was even more surprised.
‘S T Joshi? GM – HR?’
‘Yes. Did you know him?’
‘Arre! He took our campus interview, and gave me my appointment letter!’ he called his group over and told them and they all were very happy – Dad had been the interview and appointee of many of them, and they were very happy to meet me.
I was touched. Very touched. It was like...I don’t know...I got quite emotional out there. Dad is no more now, but his memory lives on.
It was really a pleasant end to the ride, and a warm memory for me as I cycled back.
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!