Vasai Fort or City?
Vasai Fort situated in Mumbai suburb of Vasai is about 60 kms north of the city, on west coast of India in Thane district. Today, it is in ruins but once, it was actually a sprawling city within the limits of its sturdy walls. During the Portuguese regime, the fort enclosed mansions, churches, convents, temples, hospitals, colleges, and administrative centers. It was a living sub-culture in stark contrast to the broken walls of present day. Today, Vasai fort provides habitat to different kind of living organisms. The fort with its adjacent wetland sustains a splendid biodiversity of birds, insects, plants and creepers. And, that is the focus of nature trail conducted in the fort by two knowledgeable botanists Gauri and Dr.Shreya.
But, before immersing ourselves in their tales, let’s get acquainted with interesting history of Vasai Fort. The city of Vasai itself has been in existence since ancient times. Being a coastal city, it boasts of visitors from all over the world including Chinese monk Xuanzang and Italian Marco Polo. However, it came into prominence only when it came into Portuguese possession in 1534. Interestingly, it was called Basai and was under the rule of Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. The Portuguese developed Basai into military base and renamed it as Baçaim. They further strengthened existing fort structure since 1184 and built numerous mansions, churches, convents, hospitals, colleges and administrative centers within the fort premises. Over next 200 years, Portuguese developed Vasai into thriving city with Vasai fort being its epicenter.
Strategic Location of Vasai Fort
Vasai fort has a strategic location with its three sides surrounded by Arabian Sea. It is built in stone and has about 11 bastions which protected the fort. Portuguese had developed Vasai as an important port city only second to Goa. Marathas coveted the fort due to the control they could wield over sea. After years of bloodshed, Vasai fort was conquered by valiant Maratha warrior Chimaji Appa in 1739. This brought end to the glorious 200 years of Portuguese possession of Vasai. There is a statue of Chimaji Appa in the fort premises to commemorate his valor.
However, Maratha regime was relatively short-lived and Vasai fort was eventually under British dominion in 1802. The British renamed it as Bassein Fort. Due to series of battles between different regimes and its relative importance decreasing, the fort went into oblivion into ruins as it stands today. These days, the fort falls is declared as a national protected monument under the of the Archaeological Survey of India.
Vasai Fort today
Much of the fort is in ruins today. But, remains of the buildings in the fort still provide good idea of their structures. The most prominent remnants in Vasai fort are three chapels – the Holy Name of Jesus Church (also known as the Jesuit Church), Saint Joseph’s Church, and the Franciscan Church of Saint Anthony.They have facades typical of medieval Portuguese architecture and reminds us of Old Goa churches. The Jesuit Church still is place of active worship in the fort.
Saint Joseph’s Church was the tallest church in Vasai Fort. It’s facade will remind many of numerous Bollywood movies which have been shot here (most notably song Kambakht Ishq from Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya). One can climb its narrow stairs to catch glimpse of Vasai Creek from the top.
Another interesting piece of architecture are the tombstones that line floor of Saint Anthony’s Church. There are about 250 of them, with inscriptions indicating that they belong to Portuguese nobles.
Nature at its best
Vasai fort is not only a historical monument but also a habitat enriched with butterflies and other insects, birds, rare trees, wild flowers, creepers and shrubs. This makes it one of the favorite spots for botanists and ecologists from Mumbai and afar. Our biodiversity experts Gauri and Dr.Shreya walked us through the fort making us aware of its rich ecosystem. The best season to visit fort is post-monsoon from September to November. That’s when butterflies of all kinds and shape flutter inside the fort premises. Around forty four species of butterflies representing five families of Order Lepidoptera (butterfly family) have been recorded in the fort. This rich diversity of butterflies indicates that fort has good presence of larval host plants and adult nectar plants.
Amongst other insects, the most notable was the giant wood spider and its intricate webs. As the name suggests, it is one of the larger spiders found in peninsular India.
Amongst birds, we were able to spot baya weavers which is a weaverbird. These weaverbirds are best known for their hanging nests woven intricately from leaves and shaped as your chemistry labortatory’s retort flasks.
Vasai fort has rich flora as is indicated by its diversity of butterflies. The adjacent wetland of the fort also sustains a splendid biodiversity of mangroves. The fort has characteristic vegetation of trees, climbers, herbs and shrubs such as Coral wood, Banyan tree, Pipal tree, Rock pipal, Mahogany, Indian wild date, African fan palm, Indian jalap, Nirgundi, Peanut butter shrub (Clerodendron trichotomum), Bilimbi, Rui and Jamun. In addition, there are two Baobab trees in the fort. Baobab trees are originally from Madagascar, Africa and were probably planted by the Portuguese in 16th century. We also noticed variety of ficus (banyan, pipal, rock pipal) tree branches creeping on the walls of fort structure. It seemed that man-made fort rocks had beautifully merged with nature.
Vasai is located about an hour north of Mumbai. Taking Mumbai local train on the Western line is the most convenient way to reach Vasai. Take a Virar-bound train, originating from Churchgate on the Western line, to Vasai Road railway station. From the station, take a bus or auto rickshaw. Vasai Fort is around 20 minutes away.
There is little maintainence of this historic site and hence we advise all interested readers to carry their own water and food while exploring this hidden gem. Also, as a responsible eco-traveler, we urge readers to travel keeping in mind cleanliness and sustainability of the eco-system of the fort.