One of these was to complete the long pending visit to the forts of Bombay.
I had been wanting to do this for several years, and never got around to doing it.
But now was the time – I was looking for a new destination for the Sunday ride anyway –I would start by going to Sion fort.
Sion is called ‘Shiv’ in Marathi – and that means ‘Boundary’. So this was the far boundary of the British East India colony of Bombay and they had built this fort way back in 1677 – 350 years back! Shivaji was on the throne of the nascent Maratha empire, and Aurangzab was badshah of the powerful Mughal empire.
Gerald Aungier was the Governor General of Bombay then, and he was the British official who sent emissaries to Shivaji’s coronation in Raigad. In fact Aungier was at Surat when Shivaji attacked it, and that was what made Aungiers decide to move the seat of British government from Surat to Bombay – where he could build his own forts and carve out his own territory. For this they developed forts in Colaba, Bandra, Dongri,Dharavi, Madh, Mahim, Mazagaon, Sewri and Worli.
This was just after the original 7 islands had been transferred to British rule in 1661 as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, and the Brits would have wanted to protect their property with forts.
When it was built, it was a sea fort!
There was a large Sion creek which marked the boundary of the British-owned Parel island and the Portuguese-owned Salsette island that lay to the north across the creek. Salsette was basically the area North from Sion - from Bandra - Kurla till Thane Bhayendar. There was a huge creek at the time, and this was the boundary between the 7 British islands and the Portugese territories. It was originally known as ‘Sasasthi’ – Marathi for ‘66’ which referred to the 66 villages in that area, who apparently trace their conversion to Christianity way back in 55 AD (read that again – 55 AD.... when there wasn’t a single Christian in Europe!) by the arrival of Christ’s disciple St. Bartholomew in North Konkan.
Interestingly, the Christians here are called ‘East Indians’ though they live on the West coast. That’s actually to differentiate them from people in the Caribbean islands of Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago etc – i.e the West Indies. You see, Columbus had been looking for India when he blundered into America – he was sure that he had found India, and so he referred to the locals as ‘Indians’. After the actual India was discovered, they made the differentiation by calling them ‘Red Indians’ or ‘West Indians’.
Anyway – after the British became the main power in India, they kicked the Portugese out of Salsette and took it over, then defeated the Marathas in the Anglo- Maratha wars and became the only power in the area. To develop trade they built a road across the creek in 1803 and called it the Sion causeway. They used to charge a toll to use it – so we have a really long tradition of toll roads in Mumbai.
In due course of time all the creeks were filled in, and the swampland was reclaimed and the city of Greater Bombay came into being and the Sion fort became irrelevant.
I went to seek out this fort, and was very happy to see that they have developed a nice garden around it. It was full of walkers and joggers, and they were not even aware that there is a fort in the middle of the garden area.
The fort was in surprisingly good condition, and was clean and rubbish free. I climbed to the top of the little watch tower and got a great view of the surrounding area, and the Sion Trombay road.
I sat there for some time and watched the sun come up, and thought about the march of history, and the ebb and flow of empires and the amount of blood and money that must have flowed, leaving behind this empty stone ruin. Nobody cares about it – I thought - no army will fight for it now... and suddenly I heard the sound of running feet.
I looked up to see a squad of NCC cadets come running up. The squad sergeant gave me a surprised look – not many people must be coming to this place so early in the morning – and then got back to drilling his troop through their morning exercises.
I smiled as I came down – there was still a little military connection left in this old fort.