Harihans Chongrekar parked his motorcycle on the side of the completed part of the Bandra-Worli sea link and strategically placed his lady love on its seat. As he was whispering sweet nothings into her ear, his gaze went across the Mahim Bay and rested on what looked like a dilapidated wall.
He realized that he was looking at the ramparts of a fort. Being a student of history, the sight piqued his interest. He put it off for the moment, choosing instead to advance his love life. But a few days later, he got down to some serious research about forts in Mumbai. What follows is what Chongrekar has found out so far.
The fort that he had seen was the Old Mahim Fort, one of the first to be built by the British when they acquired Bombay in 1660 from the Portuguese, thanks to the amorous alliance between King Charles II and Portugal’s Catherine of Braganza. Their new possession needed protection. Lurking about on the city’s periphery were the Marathas, who were always ready for a quick battle.
To the north, the Sultans of Gujarat and the Mughals had permanent encampments just in case an opportunity to plunder came up. On the western seaboard, Dutch battleships patrolled, their trigger-happy captains waiting for targets to fire a broadside into. And in the east, the Bijapur Armies wouldn’t let go of a chance to seize Bombay.
The Mahim Fort was completed in 1669. By this time, Bombay was starting to rock. It was a trading hub, had a huge ship-building industry and was well on its way to becoming the financial centre of the eastern hemisphere. So, naturally, the British weren’t going to say, “Of course, old chaps! All yours, what!” and pack their teapots and leave.
The Bandra Fort, which today stands in a crumbling ruin at Land’s End, was the second in line to defend the western seaboard from marine marauders. The eastern seaboard, consisting of what are the commercial docks today, were protected by the Sewree and Mazgaon fort.
The grandest fort Bombay ever knew, however, doesn’t exist today in its physical form, but has become eternal because the area that it enclosed is still referred to as Fort. Broadly, the fort enclosed the area from Regal Cinema to Victoria Terminus, with its walls just about enclosing the university and the high court. The Gardens in front of the high court and Bombay University, which exist even today, were used as an encampment area for the cavalry. At that time, the sea hadn’t been reclaimed and came right up to where Eros Theatre stands today. Batteries mounted on the walls guarded the entire seafront with huge calibre cannons.
Going along the road from Churchgate to Flora Fountain, the junction just before the fountain was a gate into the fort. And because it stood in line with St Thomas’s Cathedral, it was called the Church Gate.
Bombay Fort was dismantled in 1858. The others have simply faded away. Inhabited mostly by slum dwellers, you’re likely to find ruins scribbled with “Raghuvendra-Loves-Shashikalavati” and suchlike. But Chongrekar hopes to convince Mumbaiites that their city exists today because the forts existed yesterday.
The writer is the travel correspondent for Autocar India