A Fascination for Forts

Goa’s forts offer an intriguing perspective of history dominated at the time by military strategies played out on these very shores. Surely there’s a case for restoring all the forts which would make for a fascinating tourist circuit

REIS MAGOS

Built as a small fortified outpost in 1493 by Yusuf Adil Shah, Reis Magos is Goa’s oldest fort. Set on the headland that abuts the Arabian Sea at the mouth of the River Mandovi, the outpost’s location provided the Bijapur dynasty the strategic advantage against Afonso de Albuquerque in February of 1510.

Despatched by King Manuel to secure the spice route to the East, Albuquerque’s 10 years in North Africa had already equipped him with military experience crusading against Muslims, when he arrived in Cochin in 1503 to protect the Zamorin and advance Portuguese commercial interests here. In Cochin, he built Portugal’s first fortress in Asia. He set up a garrison there and returned to Lisbon the following year after establishing a trading post at Quilon. In 1506, the Portuguese general set sail yet again to explore the east coast of Africa. With his sights set on severing Arab trade with India, he built a fortress on the island of Socotra to block the mouth of the Red sea. By August of 1507 he had captured Hormuz to facilitate Persian trade with Europe.

Albuquerque’s next mission would forever change the course of Goa’s history. Following on his successes off Africa, King Manuel appointed him to succeed Dom Francisco de Almeida, the first viceroy of Portuguese India. Albuquerque reached India in December 1508. His “plan was to assume active control over all the main maritime trade routes of the East and to establish permanent fortresses with settled populations” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). But his attempt to take over Cochin in January 1510 was unsuccessful. So Albuquerque turned his attention to Goa, ruled at the time by the Bijapur Sultanate.

Determined to displace the Muslim rulers to extend Portugal’s hegemony over the region, Albuquerque moved to attack Goa in February of 1510. Aided by Timoja (who served the Vijayanagar kings) and a fleet of 23 ships, the Portuguese general took over the port town of Ela (Old Goa). But Adil Shah’s forces were to soon reclaim it. Albuquerque’s fleet anchored in the Mandovi suffered heavy damage from the outpost at Reis Magos. It was finally on November 25, 1510 after the arrival of reinforcements that the Portuguese attack prevailed, and Old Goa fell into their hands. Adil Shah’s little outpost at Reis Magos had been neutralised.

Under Dom Afonso de Noronha, the Portuguese raised a much larger fort at the Reis Magos promontory in 1545. Together with a fortification that they built in Gaspar Dias (Miramar today) some years later (no visible evidence of this remains), the Portuguese thought they had established an effective line of defence against Dutch intrusions into the Mandovi. But the attacks disproved this, and Goa’s colonisers would put up fortifications at Aguada, Cabo and Mormugao later, to secure their position.

The Reis Magos Fort which served as a sub-jail until 1993, is currently Goa’s best maintained fort. It underwent intensive restoration and reconstruction funded by the Hamlyn Trust, and was thrown open to the public by the state government in 2012. The restored heritage structure is now a cultural centre.

There are charges for daily visits to the fort or renting out spaces for events.

AGUADA FORT

The largest and most prized of Portuguese bastions here, the Aguada Fort was built by the colonial regime around 1612 to fortify its defences against Dutch and Maratha attacks.

The location—at the estuary of the Mandovi—was not only strategic, but seemed almost idyllic. The freshwater spring—‘aguada’ from which the fort derived its name—encased within its massive walls provided a continual source of water. The fort was so large, it enveloped the entire Sinquerim peninsula, with a lighthouse set on the upper reaches.

During the period of the Salazar regime, the Portuguese converted the fort into a prison for political detainees. After the Liberation, the Goa government turned it into a central jail in 1968. The jail was vacated in July after the opening of the new one at Colvale. The future of this heritage structure—like all other abandoned forts in the state—is uncertain.

A complete renovation and restoration of Aguada would bring to light both its architectural glory and its dark historical and political past. There are dozens of canons, a moat, an underground vaulted cistern—it was the largest fresh water storage chamber in Asia at the time—an ancient four-storey lighthouse that once used an oil lamp, and secret escape passages.

A citizen’s initiative has been started to clean up the moat. But this is hardly adequate for a heritage site deserving of far more attention.

CABO DE RAMA

The Fort of Kholgad or Cabo de Rama which guards the mouth of the River Sal fell into Portuguese hands around 1763-64 after Hyder Ali’s troops besieged the fort and took over the territories of Ponda, Zambaulim and Canacona to drive out the then King of Sonda Immodi Sadashiv. The fort has been allowed to run to ruin, more the pity, since it commands a majestic view with the cliff dropping steeply to the sea.

Inside the fort is the small Chapel of Santo Antonio which is in a wonderful condition as it is maintained by the devotees. With its rusting Portuguese canons and crumbling walls, Cabo de Rama wears a desolate windswept look, but it is still a tourist attraction for the view on offer, and one worth restoring.

CHAPORA FORT

This one built by the Portuguese in 1617 fell to Maratha raids during the 17th century and was subsequently reclaimed by the colonisers before it was finally deserted in 1892. The laterite structure now mostly in ruins has little to offer visitors except a great view of Anjuna and Vagator beaches. Till the late ‘90s, this abandoned spot was often used for rave parties.

RACHOL FORT

Signs of a dried up moat and an archway that spans the road are all that remain of the Rachol Fort that once encircled the hill on which the Rachol Seminary stands. Built by Adil Shah, Rachol came into the possession of the Portuguese in 1520.

TIRACOL FORT

This rather charming little fort that also has a chapel ensconced within, lies across the River Tiracol. It was well preserved after it was converted into a hotel by the state government. It is no longer accessible to the public after the government leased it to a private party to run.

The fort was built by the Raja of Sawantwadi, Maharaja Khem Sawant Bhonsle in the 17th century. It was captured by the Portuguese under Viceroy Dom Pedro Miguel de Almeida in 1764. Tiracol was officially annexed to Goa in 1788.

CABO FORT

Goa’s picturesque Raj Bhavan with its sprawling grounds at Dona Paula first took shape with a little Franciscan chapel on the cape dedicated to Nossa Senhora do Cabo around 1534. Around 1540, granted its strategic location, the Portuguese put up fortifications around the chapel to guard the mouths of both the Mandovi and Zuari turning this into a well equipped fortress. By the turn of the century, around 1594, a large monastery was constructed on the promontory, using laterite carved out from the rocky terrain.

Even though the Franciscan friars continued to reside there, in 1774, Cabo was officially designated a fortress. In 1799 a detachment of British troops was housed there for 15 years, displacing the Franciscan friars. Around 1844, the convent became the residence of the archbishop, and eventually the Palaçio do Cabo, and the official residence of the Portuguese Governor of Goa. Most of the evidence of the fort (some of it still remains though) were removed with the expansion over 88 acres of the grounds of the governor’s palace.

CORJEUM FORT

The fortress built by the Bhonsles of Sawantwadi in the 17th century and captured by the Portuguese has little to offer visitors except crumbling outer walls and an overview of the devastation caused by the gouging out of hills all around for iron ore mining.

Also in ruins is the fortress that once existed at Colvale.

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