Thursday, May 10, 2012

Dwelling on Vasai

Kaumudi Marathe 
with inputs from Sanjiv Bajaj and Sualeh Fatehi

"Vimos buscar Christãos e especiaria", said the Portuguese imperialists. (We come to seek Christians and spices.) Many believed that "God's purpose in the prosperous sea trade... was to increase the harvest of souls."

"They believed that this little kingdom (Portugal), precariously perched on the Western rim of Europe, was about to become the fifth world empire, as prophesied in the Book of Daniel and the Revelation of Saint John the Divine." So, for salvation as well as gold, the Portuguese sailed to India.

On the western coast of the country, 32 kilometres north of Bombay, was a thickly wooded island "bordered on the North by the River Vaitarni, on the South", by a strait, "on the east by a narrow channel separating it from the mainland and on the west by the Arabian Sea." This was the "dwelling place" or Vasai of the Vadvals (timber traders), the Kunbis (farmers), the Kolis (fisherfolk) and the Bhandaris (toddy tappers). A land of fertile soil where "almost anything would grow" and where indeed the inhabitants reaped rich crops of "sugarcane, coconut, various palms,, vegetables and the betel leaf."

In 1534 the island, then called Basai, belonged to the Sultan of Gujarat, Bahadur Shah. It was "a seaport town of great trade, where ships used to resort and convey timber to Mekka for the building of the Turkish fleet in the Red Sea," and handed over by the Sultan to the Portuguese in December of the same year. He bought peace and Basai became Baçaim, the "capital of the North," a roaring trading post, port and the ship-building centre of the Portuguese Empire in India, which, according to historian M D David, "during the 16th century... reached the zenith of its prosperity."

The last vestiges of civilisation drift past as the local train pulls out of Bhayender on a sunny May morning, and the compartment is packed to capacity with Sunday travellers journeying to Bassein to visit loved ones.

Outside, the world is a moving watercolour. A splash of lime green in scrub and bush, then a contrast in ochre, blue and while - earth, sky and mounds of the famous Vasai salt, and then an expanse of aquamarine as the train snake-winds its way across the Vasai Creek Bridge.

From this vantage point, the now non-island of Vasai is clearly seen. On its southwestern tip "at the point facing the inlet of Bassein Creek", Nuno da Cunha, who took over the land from Portugal, built a citadel. He was known as O Fundador de Baçaim - the founder of (Fort) Bassein. Soon the view is hidden behind still dense woodland. The train pulls to a stop and one is hurtled out by the combined force of the more experienced day-trippers.

Outside Vasai Road station, a maelstrom of the wheels and the rush of human existence - pushcarts, rickshaws, scooters, buses, cycles, a zigzag of concrete buildings, hawkers' wares spilling onto the road, open gutters, piles of gravel and cement, fumes assorted and aplenty, dogs, cats, chickens, men. If one manages to get from the station to the main road in one piece, applause is called for.

About six kilometres away is the Fort of Bassein, in stark contrast to the village, in ruins but surrounded by life and the living. A beautiful souvenir with its monuments of local stone - so sturdy they were shipped to Goa for Portuguese construction there. Within the fort are four or five parallel arterial roads, set at a distance from the fortifications. To the west are open lands, which scholars surmise were fields during Portuguese and Maratha rule but today are lying fallow.

The fort of Bassein, in keeping with the rulers' tradition of Goa and commerce, welcomed the trader and the clergy. The latter came in at various points over the 200 years of Portuguese rule, seeking to proselytise but also "performing such duties as giving food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, giving shelter to the weary, ransoming captives... and maintaining a hospital."

Here were the Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, Augustinians, the Hospitallers of St John and secular clergy. The church of the Franciscans is closest to the fort's Porta de Terra. The Santo Antonio - St Anthony's Friary - is roofless as are most of Bassein's monuments, therefore appearing more ancient than structures of the same era in other parts of India.

Within the confines of the structure trees grow, plants creep up walls, roots spread their arms over stone. St Francis Xavier came to Bassein in 1544, the first of his three visits to the port town. Four years later, his order settled in Bassein and "the institution started by the Franciscans was entrusted to them."

The deep porch of St Anthony's invites people to its portals. The mixed use of reddish and grey-brown stone blends into textured jigsaw patches of light and shadow. The floor is tiled with memorial stones, inscribed in Latin and Portuguese. A crumbling staircase, which once led to a second level in the church, ends in a panoramic view of the Arabian Sea and a thick row of palm trees along the bastions.

All across the fort amidst the greenery are blotches of deep yellow, not of the Indian laburnum but of the date palm. The yet unripe dates are a brilliant sun colour. The small grape-lime fruit occasionally drops to the ground, splitting and releasing a sharp, sweet perfume. From the Friary is a palm-lined arena leading to the citadel. Halfway down this road, a look back at Santo Antonio, desolate and haunted under the palm fronds.

Roofless structures inside the Bassein fortifications
A young family of date pickers is gathering the fruit. Two children, both under the age of five, dart from tree to tree collecting the branches of date cut down by the father, using a sickle tied to a long bamboo pole. Their mother, barely twenty-five or so; smooth brown skin stretched tight over cheekbones which glistens moistly with sweat, sorts the raw dates. "We ripen them ourselves," she says, looking up momentarily from her task.

"Are they sweet?" "Taste one," she offers. Biting into the yellow skin, a pungent dry flavour etched with sweet neem emerges. These dates must be sun-ripened and dried till they evolve into the brown, "shrivelled old woman" form that we find at the market.

On, past remnants of mansions cornered by foliage, till in front appears the church, the Nossa Senhora da Vida, Our Lady of Life, built around 1536. Its altar is bare; a huge arched window is a stone bracket for a shirish tree with its delicate feathery pink and white blossoms. These are almost the only ornamentation for Nossa Senhora da Vida, for it has none of its religious accoutrements left - no pews, no statues, no candlestick holders, and no cross. Just a feeling of desolation, and an occasional stone carving or design in plaster.

The church shares a wall with the citadel and residents can enter for prayer through a small door. There is also a minor entrance to the centre next to the church. Moreover, the main gate faces the Porta da Mer or Sea Gate. It's a long hot walk in the sun past the fields to the arched entranceway, once decorated with slim columns, and the emblems of the Portuguese symbolising king, conquest and God.

And suddenly one is in the heart of Fort Bassein.

This article was published as part of a series - Best Foot Forward - in the Independent, on 9 June 1994.

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