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?
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!