A pregnant cow ambled in front of the car. My husband dislikes honking, so we began our lazy waltz, making intermittent attempts to slip through the herd. Just 75km north of Mumbai, we had traded the persistent sound of horns in the city traffic for green trees and cows which were as oblivious to civic rules as city drivers.

Five minutes later, we had left the herd behind. We passed a statue of Chimaji Appa, a feted Maratha warrior, turned left and followed the road till we crossed the Vejreshwari temple on our left and reached a sprawling mass of ruins. There was no board to announce the more than 400-year-old monument, but Google Maps told us we had reached Vasai Fort.

Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat controlled Vasai till the Portuguese decided it would fit in well with their expansion plans in what is now Maharashtra. After the Treaty of Bassein in 1534, they built the Fortaleza de São Sebastião de Baçaim, or the Fort of St Sebastian of Vasai. The name Baçaim, or Bassein, is believed to be derived from the local name for this region that comes from the Vasa Konkani tribes of the Konkan coast. In 1661, Bassein changed hands again. Along with Bombay (now Mumbai) and other territories along the coast, Vasai was handed over to the British as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza. Under the British, Bombay gained prominence. Vasai languished.

We walked through the ruins of churches. One had a crumbling, yet magnificent, bell-tower; another, an intact wooden ceiling; and yet another, a large arch and engraved gravestones. I could not help but think of the Europeans who lay buried here, far away from home.

In the 1860s, the British converted some of these churches into sugar factories. According to one theory, when the sugar industry collapsed, the owner, believed to be a Mr Lingard, sold the wood of the churches and gravestones for the construction of houses in and around this area. Some of the wood and gravestones have been lying in the godowns of the Archaeological Survey of India for years, some have made their way to chor bazaars for antique-seekers, yet others have become part of the flooring in uber-rich houses. Just 180 gravestones remain.

As we walked, walls emerged from the undergrowth. At multiple points, flights of steps promised spectacular views from higher up. We came across a courtyard with four wells, surrounded by corridors and arched windows. To one side, a gang of boys huddled together, chatting and laughing, and it felt like a vibration from the past. Maybe this had been the setting for long conversations among the residents of this citadel.

It’s said that there were once 120 wells—many remain even today. At one, we saw the local women washing clothes, rubbing bright blue soap bars on even more colourful clothes as the grey stone walls rose around them, the past and the present in one tight frame.

We had spent 3 hours at the fort, and we hadn’t seen everything. The city had 150 buildings—20-25 remain, and we had seen just a few of them.

Circumstances have a fascinating way of changing fortunes—the decision to hand over Vasai to the British, who fancied Bombay, reduced Vasai to a footnote in our history textbooks. A grand fort is today a mismanaged tourist spot with few security personnel. As we drove away, I wondered at what could have been—if the British had preferred Vasai, Mumbai may have been a village today.

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros.

Bhavani tweets at @Bhavan1

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