Be Indiana Jones for a day
In Southern India -- A Guide to Monuments, Sites & Museums, author George Michell reminds us of stunning, almost-forgotten historic sites and ruins across Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. We've picked three sites around Mumbai that will tempt the explorer in you
What to see > The remains of this fortified Portuguese port overlook the mouth of the Roha River, 18 km south of Alibag, This verdant and tranquil site gives little indication of the vigourous commerce of former times. The history of Chaul dates to the 15th century when the port came under the Bahamanis of Gulbarga. It was the Portuguese, however, who developed Chaul into an international emporium.
The overgrown fortifications containing dense palm groves, picturesquely border the Roha on the south and west. The road from Alibag passes through a small gate in the northern arc of the walls. Instead of continuing south, however, visitors should take the path immediately to the right. This leads to the Church of the Augustinians of 1857, now a collapsing pile of masonry. The Church of the Franciscans, a short distance southwest, was begun in 1535 and dedicated to St Barbara. It preserves a 30m high, six-storey tower, the loftiest in the city. The ruins of St Francis Xavier’s chapel lie to the east.
Upper Chaul, or Revdanda, can be reached by returning to the Alibag road and proceeding 2.5 km north. This small settlement has a different history, since it was under Maratha rule for a longer period. Thickly wooded and well- watered, the village is built beside a row of ponds at the foot of a hilly ridge. A domed 18th century tomb is built on a rise overlooking Bhavle pond to the west. The Dancing Girls’ House, consisting of a domed hall and a mosque within a walled enclosure, occupies a pass in the hall 500m north of the village. The temple of Hinglaj at the summit is reached by a flight of steps.
How to reach
16 km from Mumbai , you can head to Pen station on the Konkan Railway line or drive down on the Mumbai-Goa National Highway. State transport buses head to the region.
What to see > Sopara is identified with the ancient emporium of Shurparaka, which traces its history back to the 3rd to 2nd centuries BCE. Sopara seems also to have been known in the 2nd century CE to Ptolemy who refers to it as Supara. The most important feature that can be seen at Sopara today is the Stupa Mound, which stands in a pleasant mango grove some 500m west of the railway station. The stupa is surrounded by brick and stone foundations that define a rectangular enclosure entered on the east and the south. Small mounds indicate votive stupas. A pile of 11th to 12th century Hindu carvings is seen on the east.
Excavations here in the 1880s revealed a brick chamber set in the base of the mound. A circular stone coffer within the chamber disclosed a remarkable sequence of caskets of different materials, one placed inside the other. The outermost casket, of copper, contained almost 300 tiny gold flowers, as well as semiprecious stones, stone beads, a small gold plaque showing Buddha preaching and an unworn silver coin of a 2nd century Satavahana king. The innermost casket, of gold, contained pottery fragments, believed to be pieces of the begging bowl of Buddha. These finds are now in the collection of the Asiatic Society in Mumbai’s Town Hall.
A path from the stupa mound at Sopara, leads for about 750m to a small lake overlooked by the Chakreshvara temple, a recent construction. Among the 11th to12th century panels strewn about, is an extraordinary 2m high image of Brahma, and a charming composition showing a maiden holding a parrot. Relics from the site that is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (top) An idol of Gautam Buddha at the site of the Stupa at Sopara.
How to reach
63km from Mumbai, it can be reached by boarding a Virar bound train on the Western Railway. Get off at Nala Sopara station. An auto ride will take you to the site.
What to see > The ruined Portuguese fort of Vasai overlooks a small river at a point where it flows into the Arabian Sea. The massive ramparts and grandiose churches and convents constitute the most impressive Portuguese remains in Southern India after those in Old Goa. Though now mostly decayed, these buildings are picturesquely cloaked in vines and bushes, and set in groves of mango trees and palms.
Originally known as Bassein, the port has a similar origin to Mumbai itself, having been granted to the Portuguese in 1535 by Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. The Portuguese developed Bassein into a flourishing city, renowned for its wide streets, luxurious mansions, and impressive churches, monasteries and public buildings. Apparently, only Christians were permitted to live inside its walls. St Francis Xavier visited Bassein four times, and after his death was adopted as the patron saint of the city.
Vasai is contained by comparatively well preserved ramparts. Nine massive bastions of triangular shape, originally named after Christian saints, protrude outward from the walls. The inner portal has an upper arched opening flanked by colonettes with crudely fashioned leaf-like capitals. Immediately south of the Land Gate are the remains of the Church of St Paul, a Franciscan foundation. The church is entered through an unusual triple-arched portal framed by Doric columns. A short distance further south is the Church of St Anthony, associated with the Jesuit order, founded in 1548 by St Francis Xavier.
Bassein’s cathedral, known as the Matriz of St Joseph, was founded in 1546 a short distance further east, beside the city walls. The Vasai tour continues by returning through the Sea Gate and proceeding through the city to a small 19th century Shiva temple. This stands on the edge of a pond and is recognised by its fluted dome. North of the temple is the Church of the Dominicans, Vasai’s largest. The interior is in ruin but the decorated door leading to the side cloister is worth noting.
How to reach
59 km from Mumbai, you can reach the site by boarding a Western Railway train to Vasai or Virar and hail an auto from Vasai Road station to the site.