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30 Apr

Vasai, about 54 km from Mumbai, is home to the finest Portuguese architecture – Melissa Nazareth

Ruins of the Jesuit college and church where masses are held to this day

Mumbai is a fascinating city, no doubt. But about 54 km away lies Vasai, a closely knit township, steeped in culture and boasting a glorious history. There’s so much to explore in this nature’s haven from beaches to ruins of structures such as churches and forts, once the stronghold of powerful empires — the Gujarat Sultanate, the Portuguese, Marathas and British.

 

Part of the Vasai fort — the Corinthian pillars, a common Portuguese architectural style, add to its charm

Vasai Fort drew international attention especially after Coldplay’s ‘Hymn For The Weekend’ featuring Beyoncé Knowles was filmed here. Sprawling over 110 acres of land, it was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. It used to be accessible by both, sea and land — porta de terra and porta de mar. Though parts of it have been restored, a major portion is the original structure; stone plaques bearing the name of the Portuguese governors and captains under whose leadership the fort was constructed, arches, pillars, tall wooden doors, stairways, etc.

 

A still from the Coldplay song filmed at the fort

The fort is part of a city, which was home to over 3,000 residents, soldiers, nobles and artisans. The township also had churches and chapels, a hospital, granary, library, coin mint, market place and more. Apart from the fort itself, ruins of the churches, chapels, market and granary also exist, as I discovered on an organised heritage tour of the place. “There were seven churches,” says Deepak Machado, the tour guide, adding that the Portuguese loved to build churches. Their architectural style isn’t unlike the churches in Goa, which was also ruled by the Portuguese; they have elements such as naves, arches, bell towers, windows positioned to allow natural light to filter in at all times.

 

One of the original doors in the fort

We visit a church with an exclusive section where the Baptism ceremony is said to have been held. The concave roof of this section is painted with faces of cherubs. Throughout the tour, we don’t just learn about the history of the place but also discover intriguing facts about Portuguese architecture. Says Sunil D’mello, the other tour guide, “The Portuguese had a way of interlocking stones while building archways, which secured them in place.” It’s no wonder that while most of the fort is in ruins and bears signs of the attacks — dents and chips by cannon balls, for instance — the archways remain unscathed.

Another common feature of Portuguese architecture is Corinthian and Doric pillars. We find the former adorning entrances to the citadel as well as the churches. Watchtowers, posterns, piers and hidden tunnels are other features. At the end of the tour, we go through a short tunnel, a part of the main fort, which is quite a challenge because the entrance is so small and low that you have to literally crouch and wriggle out.

 

The interior of the church where the prayers are still held

We visit a second church, which was also a Jesuit college, where prayers are held for the locals to this day. Part of the structure was built with red coloured stones that are still intact. Another church we go to has gravestones; some are carved in Portuguese and one in English, indicating it might have been used during the British Raj.

Vasai has developed in leaps and bounds since I last saw it over two decades ago. But even today, it retains its rustic, small-town charm; the shops dotting the street, the labyrinth of villas belonging to East Indian families — residents of this place, the odd housewife, selling snacks from a makeshift shop — a table and a clothing line displaying chips in local flavours… Easily accessible by road and railways, this slice of Portugal in India is a must-visit.

This post was written by one of our participants, Melissa Nazareth on her visit of Vasai Fort with local experts Sunil and Deepak. You can find her original post here.