Fiona Fernandez: Guarding city's fortresses
A recent plan announced by the state's tourism minister to save Mumbai's neglected forts needs to move beyond a piece of paper into a long-term conservation project
Bandra fort (Castella de Aguada) is the most visited of Mumbai's forts, thanks to its sea-facing promenade. File pic
A month ago, a historian friend who was visiting the city for the first time, sounded excited on arrival. "I read up about the forts of Mumbai. This is going to be fun. When do we start our trails?" the friend enquired. Not one to play spoilsport for a historic rendezvous, for once, we found ourselves in a spot, as we guiltily began thinking up excuses to skip the plan. To be fair, we had our reasons. After forgettable visits to the appalling fortifications (or what is left of it) at Worli, Bandra and Sion, we didn't have the heart to sound like a killjoy. The lesser said about the forts at Sewri, Mahim and Dharavi, the better.
While we managed to extricate ourselves from the fort trails, citing looming deadlines and April's unforgiving summer, the friend decided to explore some of these sites nevertheless, despite hints of its dilapidation and neglect that we had dropped. "See for yourself," we warned. A few weeks had passed. When we reconnected, we were curious to learn about the urban adventures at the forts. "Don't get me started…" rued the friend. "It's a shame. Your city is sitting on centuries of history within these fort walls, and nothing seems to be done to conserve it," he exclaimed, dejectedly. We shrugged our shoulders, and threw in an apologetic nod, as any heritage-loving representative from the city would. Around the same time, we heard news that the state tourism minister Jaykumar Rawal had announced plans to rid the city's forts of its slums. However, since then, there's been no word or elaboration on the way forward to execute this Herculean task.
Built by the Portuguese and British rulers between the 1500s and 1600s at vantage points to act as watchtowers, these forts are as integral to Mumbai's heritage as its Gothic public buildings and its rock-cut Buddhist monasteries in Kanheri.
Visions at the forts had scarred the friend as he rattled off examples, frame after frame. It also brought back our own memories at these sites. Sion's fort was a nightmare to negotiate (watch out for snakes and other creepy crawlies), and while the actual fort disappointed, the view manages to compensate somewhat, as it stood at the entrance to the island of Parel. Post restoration, the Worli fort that overlooks Mahim Bay, is a poor shadow of its original structure and is mostly occupied by illegal encroachments. Bandra fort (Castella de Aguada) is the most visited of Mumbai's forts, thanks to its sea-facing promenade. However, easy access has also meant it being exposed to vandals and their ilk. Yet, on the odd occasion, we've been lucky to sit among the ruins and imagine what it must have been like for the Portuguese soldier, alone in an alien, tropical land, guarding a patch of valuable land for King and country.
That memory left us with hope. That this time, somehow, the powers that be might actually create a sustained preservation programme to ensure that these citadels are not reduced to tourist spots but are celebrated and more importantly, protected as vital footnotes in the timeline of a great city.
mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana. Send your feedback to email@example.com