Thursday, May 10, 2012

Fortified but Free

Kaumudi Marathe
with inputs from Sanjiv Bajaj and Sualeh Fatehi

A new morning in the Mandovi. Outside Fort Bassein's citadel gates, the market place is aflutter. The weekly bazaar is beginning. Traders from the Malabar pile their mounds of fragrant spices and pungent pepper high: horse breeders from Basra and Oman lead fine steeds off their ships and to the Fort for sale. Another ship unloads Negroes to be sold as slaves to the Portuguese.

On the merchants' streets sit the rice and salt sellers: the shops where oil made from local coconuts is sold, and where toddy and arrack flasks are ranged beckon to the Portuguese noblemen or fidalgos. Their wives arrive in slave-carried palanquins to buy fresh produce for their homes - fish caught that very morning by the Kolis: meal; milk products, green, leafy vegetables, and sugarcane. There are mounds of the sticky-sweet Vasai dates, clusters of the equally famous velchi bananas, and heap upon heap of multi-hued local flowers used for offering at church or for ornamentation.

On another street sit the artisans - jewellers, cloth bleachers and painters, ink and paint-makers. From their stalls porters carry bags of indigo out to the ships. The highly prized Indian teak used for shipbuilding in Portugal is loaded on board vessels: along with sugar and rice, ivory and precious stones, bound for different parts of the world.

Vendors peddle their wares in loud tones, portly gentlemen haggle over the price of shrimp, students from the Jesuit college stroll past in pairs. Just inside the citadel, beyond the portcullis a group of spectators interestedly watch the inmates of the jail.

The Mandovi is a riotous exhibition of life - colours, sounds, and smells mingle and rise up into the air. This is market day in 17th century Bassein, the prosperous and thriving Portuguese "Court of the North."

Today, however the marketplace is silent, except for the occasional call from one Koli woman to another as they dry and mend their fish nets in the sun where stalls of spice once stood. The women rise and fall in the action of straightening meshes, coating them with the juice made from tree bark, and moving on to the next tear. Children play nearby with coconut palm leaves, ignorant of the history of the very ground they stand on.

By the 17th century "the city of Bassein was the largest, and comprehended more territory than all the others of Portuguese India." Mahim, Mazagao, and Mombayim (Bombay) were merely its toll posts, and "the concentration of the nobility in the city increased by leaps and bounds" so it came to be called "Dom (a title given to noblemen) Baçaim." So proud were inhabitants of their home that when they signed letters they added the title "Fidalgo de Baçaim" to their names.

Franciscan Church
However the glory of Portuguese Bassein was not to last much longer. Soon the town was being thrown back and forth between the Marathas and the British in a colonial game of catch. The Marthas led by Gangaji Naik and ChimajiAppa captured Bassein in 1739, but ceded it in 1775 to enlist the help of the English in obtaining the Peshwa crown for Raghunathrao. Five years later the English captured Bassein but in 1782 the Marathas won it back in the "First Anglo-Maratha War. And ultimately the English re-acquired the territory in 1802 from Peshwa Bajirao II, the last ruler of that dynasty.

Chimaji Appa, who played a large role in first winning back Vasai for the Marathas, had a temple constructed there to celebrate his victory. Opposite the old town hall of the Portuguese - the "camara" where the town burghers stood and took decisions regarding Baçaim's affairs (there were no seats provided!), is the Hanuman Temple of the Maratha invader, intact but with its intricate stonework and carvings hidden behind a coat of garish pink and yellow paint The temple is deserted, a pack of fiercely barking stray dogs its sole guards. Behind is a large water tank built by the Portuguese to provide water to the Dominican church there.

The church of the Dominicans has above its entrance the symbol of a hound. The priests of the order made a pun out of the Latin word Dominicanus to apply it to themselves - "hounds of the Lord." This church too lies in ruins, its cloisters empty.

Jesuit Church
Indeed the only live church in Fort Bassein is the Jesuit Church, situated close to the Koliwada. This place of worship, with its high, vaulted ceiling and smooth cow dung-plastered floor is a church of the people of Vasai. A preacher comes here but occasionally. Yet every Sunday the fisher folk gather for prayer after their day's work is done. Over two hundred years ago this church was also a boarding university whose scholars were esteemed even in Europe. They were taught in the large peaceful courtyard adjoining the church and lived in serai-like enclosures where they could read, sleep or meditate in an environment evocative of the monks' cells at Ajanta.

One wall of the church holds a scoreboard of slate used by young enthusiasts who play cricket on the open field across the road. A natural viewing gallery has been created to the side of the green by a semi-circular arrangement of trees. Today however the field is empty for children are at home being scrubbed and combed in readiness for Mass.

The morning has melted into afternoon and now it's nearly five. Outside the St Gonsalo Garcia Orphanage and School, started in 1926 and run by one family with meagre funds, a nimbu paniwala rests in the shade. It is time to irrigate oneself while wailing for the bus back to Vasai town.

The man crushes ice adeptly into glasses: over this the juice of half a lemon is briskly squeezed. Then a dash of pineapple juice, a swish of water and a quick shake of the wrist. This concoction calls for seconds. As it slides easily down the parched throat, we watch the demure Koli fisherwomen freshly washed and glowing in Sunday sarees, heavy gold or brass nose rings moving with their every step, walking sedately to the St Gonsalo Garcia Church. They lead children, who have donned shirts for the occasion, by one hand and under the other arm they carry prayer mats.

The men are equally well turned out in silk or nylon lungis tied triangularly about their waists. By twos and threes they come, talking in muted tones, conscious of the holy day. Pretty soon the church will be full up. There they will sit, each on a prayer mat, engaging in individual communion with God. Scores of people and yet there is an unbelievable silence in the church.

These are the inheritors of Vasai, who may he ignorant of its history, but in whose faces and hearts the heritage of the Portuguese and the Maratha lives on.

This article was published as part of a series - Best Foot Forward - in the Independent, on 30 June 1994.

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