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Friday, September 19, 2008

Vasai Fort (Baçaim, Bassein)

Basai, Baçaim, Bajipur, Bassein or the present day Vasai is at a distance of 50 km's from Mumbai to the North. For quite some time I have been planning to visit the ruined fort, chapels etc at that place. Finally on Sunday the 31st August 2008 I could make it. Along with my friend, Murthy, I boarded a train from Dadar (West) going towards Virar. We were at Vasai Road station in less than an hour. The bus stand is nearer to the station. Although there are buses going straight to the fort, it entailed a long wait. We then decided to proceed to Vasai village for which a bus was about to leave. We boarded that bus and reached the village. We came across a restaurant just across the local bus stand. We thought of filling out our stomachs before we proceed further. After the fill, we looked around the village. It was picturesque with plenty of vegetation all around. We felt as if we are out of Mumbai - indeed we were. I also recharged my mobile phone at one of the road side shops and caught an auto to take us to the fort site. We were charged Rs.20/- and were off loaded at the Vasai pier (Boat Jetty) over looking the Vasai creek. We looked around and located the entrance to the fort from that end.

Basai (as it was known) already had a Fort under the control of Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat. It was a significant trading centre in the west coast for times immemorial. Portuguese, with a formidable Navy, were trying to possess Diu and were continuously attacking the coastal territories, inflicting great losses. Finally they overran the defences of Basai and procured the fort along with Bombay and other adjoining areas, under a treaty signed with the Sultan of Gujarat on 23rd December 1534. In the second half of the 16th century, they reconstructed the fort on a grand scale with 10 bastions and named it Baçaim. This fort became the Portuguese Head Quarters of Indian Operations. The entire town was within the fort walls. It was known for the splendor of it's buildings, palaces and for the beauty of it's churches.

The importance of Baçaim was reduced due to Bombay getting transferred to the British under the famous wedding treaty of 1665 (Catherine Braganza of Portugal to Charles the Second of England). After the Portuguese rule of over 200 years the fort fell into the hands of Marathas. Chimaji Appa, younger brother of the Maratha ruler Baji Rao Peshwa, after a prolonged campaign defeated the Portuguese in May 1739 at a very heavy price - 12000 dead. The casualty on the Portuguese side was less than 1000. It was the magnanimity of the Marathas who allowed the portuguese to march out of the town honourably. However, all the Churches and buildings were destroyed. The Church bells were carried away as souvenirs and got installed at Bhimashankar, Naroshanker (Nasik) and at Asta Vinayaka temple, Ballaleshwar (Sudhagad - Raigad). Baji Rao II on his defeat at the hands of Yashwant Rao Holkar, took refuse in this very fort in 1801.The fort also got renamed as Bajipura or Bajipur. In December 1802 he signed the treaty of Bassein with the British, who in turn helped getting him reinstalled as Peshwa. Eventually the fort came under the British rule and got renamed as Bassein.

This is all about the history of the fort in brief. When we entered the gate from the boat jetty side, there was an eerie feeling. Despite being a Sunday, there were hardly any visitors. There was wild growth all around. Prominent among them were hundreds of date palms every where. We walked through the narrow path, amidst the ruined structures. Some of the façades, are very well decorated with carved stones. But there are some, which have lost their identity. There were some Churches in ruins, which are still recognizable. The roofing of one of them seemed like a barrel. Navigating ourselves through the undergrowth, we tried to explore as much as possible. Since the area being very wide, we could not venture into looking at many of the remains from close quarters. Perhaps the month of August was not very conducive for exploring the site. The fort as it is, suffers from gross neglect. No efforts appear to have been made for any kind of restoration. Elsewhere in the country, the ASI is doing a commendable job but when we look at Vasai, one can only cry in dismay.

Photos Courtesy: Himanshu Sarpotdar For a Hindi version Click Here

Bartia Bhata - Megalithic Burial Ground

To cover my operational area, I was required to travel frequently visiting various centres. While visiting interior centres, I used to travel by a Jeep or a sturdier vehicle and also carry a "Topographic Sheet" (toposheet) of a larger scale (published by Survey of India) relating to the area of my operation. They contain detailed information about fortifications, ruins, temples, hillocks, rivers and rivulets, bridges, ponds etc. which proved very useful for me. Today we have the Google Earth which also gives a satellite view of the land surface sans description. Wikimapia is another facility where you are enabled to identify places/objects and mark descriptions of your own.

Once I was required to visit a far off village known as "Gatadih" in Raipur district. To reach the place I needed to travel upto Saraipali, at a distance of 145 km's on Raipur - Sambalpur highway (Great Eastern Road) and then take a left turn towards the North for another 30 km's or so. The road to Gatadih was once made of bitumen but in the absence of maintenance, developed hundreds of potholes. It was impossible to drive without stumbling on them, giving terrible bone shaking jerks. Nevertheless, I reached Gatadih after a 2 hours ordeal, with every part of my body aching.

After finishing my usual inspection of the office thereat and scribbling my observations, it was time for me to return. The very thought of the return journey brought shivers in my spines. After resting a while, I pulled out my toposheet and spread it on the bonnet of the Jeep. On examination, I found, there was a kutcha road which could take me to the highway, leaving behind Saraipali, at a place known as Basna. Midway there was a large village "Bhanwarpur". I consulted some locals, who were assembled near my Jeep, and decided to take the unexplored road. The driver of my Jeep too was enthusiastic. Instead of going straight to Saraipali, we took the road to the right coming at a short distance. We traversed through the country side on the sparingly metalled road till we were about to reach Bhanwarpur.

While looking out of the window, I came across an unusual land formation on the right. The barren ground was strewn with pillar like monoliths. I gestured the driver to stop the vehicle on the roadside and walked towards the ground for a closer appreciation. In no time I found myself surrounded by a meter high monoliths all around. All the stone pillars were in a slanting position. One was even lying flat, on which I sat for a while. They were more akin to menhirs. I felt a sensation when I realised that it is a Megalithic burial ground. My "Steffy" ( Doggy - Fox Terrier) started making noises as if to tell me to make a move.

On one side of it, adjoining the road, there was a small building housing the Tribal Hostel. There was a guy available there with whom I conversed. He narrated that long long ago a marriage party was resting on these grounds and due to certain reasons they all became stones. That is why the place is known as "Bartia Bhata". A barren plain land is referred to as "Bhata" in the Chhattisgarhi dialect. He also informed me that during the excavations for the foundation of the building some pots, iron articles like knives, arrow heads etc. were found under the soil. He could not positively say if any skeletons were found.

On my return to Raipur, I took up the matter in the District Archaeological Committee meeting emphasizing the importance of the place and the need to protect it and conduct extensive excavations so that we are better informed about the cultural aspects of the tribal life. Subsequently a survey was conducted and I learnt that the site is around 2 to 3000 years old and nothing more. Similar sites have also been encountered one each in Durg and Dhamtari districts but the one at Bartia Bhata is said to be the largest.