Sion Fort – its natural history
Sion Hillock fort is actually remnants of a fort atop a conical hillock with Jawaharlal Nehru Udyan (park) at its foothills. It is situated right in the middle of prominent area Sion of Mumbai city. Although only broken walls remain of the fort today, once it was strategically located fort for the British East India Company. It was built under the regime of then Governor of Bombay, Gerard Aungier between 1669 and 1677.
The erstwhile Bombay island was separated from the mainland at Sion by the Mahim river, where a causeway connected it to the Salsette (Shashti) island to the north.The fort was used to guard the only point of entry (Sion Causeway) into Bombay island which was under the control of the British. Sion (Sheev) is derived from the Marathi word Shiva, meaning boundary or an entrance to a city or village, and the fort aptly served its purpose as a lookout post for the British. The island separated from the ‘mainland’ island of Salsette and thus fort provided vantage point to keep watchful eye on the Marathas who controlled Salsette island.
Of course, today none of these places exist. Sion Causeway is nothing but Eastern Express Highway whereas Salsette and Bombay islands are a single landmass. The fort and garden are maintained by Archaelogical Society of India.
Our experience at Sion Fort
I was part of nature walk led by two biodiversity experts Shreya and Dr.Gauri. Although it was nature walk focused on biodiversity of the region, both leaders had knowledge about the brief history of the region as well. We met at the entrance of the Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Udyan at 7:30 am. It was still monsoon and hence garden soil was still damp providing habitat to earthworms. The leaders provided information about earthworms and its significance. Although the park is decently maintained, it has rich flora which is not clearly named. The leaders helped us identify flora of the park such as Ashoka, Chapha (Plumeria Frangipani), Karanja (Milletia Pinnata), Erand, Palm, Jackfruit, Tamarind, yellow Bahava (Cassia fistula) and rare, medicinal Kailashpati. We also indulged in bird-watching. Gauri helped us identify uncommon birds such as tailorbird, sunbird and parakeets along with usual crows, sparrows and parrots. The garden also attracts different types of butterflies.
Few steps from the garden take you atop the hillock. We saw the ruins of the fort and were sad to see the current state of the fort. But Gauri told us that things have improved in past few years due to efforts of Archaeological Survey of India. Today, the fort is cleared of all slum encroachments and old wooden structures of fort has been reinforced with plaster.
However, there is huge room for further improvement. People have left graffiti on the walls of the fort. As you climb the steps, you begin to see the structure of the fort at the top of the hill, with its square windows presumably having cannons to dissuade possible attacks. The view from the top of the fort provided a great panorama of concrete jungle of Mumbai. After a look through a window in the tower, you can climb around it and take a look at the sole remaining cannon in the fort. We sat on the foot of the fort admiring its glorious history and contemplating about its current state. Nonetheless a quiet moment.
The fort protected the British from its enemies in the past, today it protects the crumbling natural beauty from the the concrete jungle.
When to visit Sion Fort
Sion Fort timings are from 7 am to noon and then from 4 pm to 8 pm in the evening. The best time to visit the fort is of course early morning when there are fewer people. Else during day time, the fort is visited by the usual suspects – lovers, teenagers and sometimes by drug peddlars. The best season of course is post monsoon till early summer (September to February-March). We spent about couple of hours at the fort which I believe to be ideal time.