Welcome to Bassein Fort, also known as Vasai fort. At one point in time, this 110-acre architectural structure provided protection to the province of Bassein, consisting of 60,000 inhabitants. This was when Mumbai was just a marshy collection of seven islands and Bassein was a thriving and bustling town with rich historical importance.
Ever wonder why there is always a toggle between the names Bassein and
Vasai for the town? Instinctively, we say, “Blame the British”. Well, in this --case it does hold true. In fact, the Bassein town has had various names. The earliest ones date back to the 2nd century BC, found on an inscription in the Kanheri Caves in nearby Borivali and apparently it is based on the Sanskrit word ‘Vaas’, meaning residence. During this time, the region was a part of the Satavahana Empire. Over the centuries, it passed through the hands of various dynasties. In the 14th century, Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat, was shrewd enough to recognise the importance of Bassein as a strategic place on the western coast and called the island ‘Baksai’.
However, in the 1530s the Portuguese came and conquered it from the Sultan. They built the fort and a town, which was called “Baçaim”. For over 200 years, the Portuguese occupied Bassein making it the northern capital in relation to their other colonies. During this period, they built a walled city within the fort overlooking the sea, which was so opulent that it became a resort for the most prosperous “fidalgos” i.e. the Portuguese nobility and the richest merchants of Portugal. This city housed a cathedral, 13 churches, and 5 convents. Many of the buildings still stand, albeit without roofs.
Later, in the 18th century, the fort was named “Bajipura” after it was captured by Chimaji Appa under Peshwa Baji Rao’s reign. This was a three year-long campaign where 12,000 Marathas and 800 Portuguese men lost their lives. This is why you will find a statue of Chimaji Appa in the fort.
However, soon after in 1802, the island came under the rule of the British as per the Treaty of Bassein. They changed the name back to Bassein and held it until India eventually gained independence and restored the name to Vasai.
Now that you know, I suggest you pack lots of water and munchies to keep yourself charged while you go time travelling. Happy exploring!
Oh and a fun fact for the nature lovers: You might notice a Baobab tree at the entrance to the Sea Gate of the Fort. This African native tree was planted by the Portuguese in every colony they owned. Now why did the Portuguese plant an African tree in their Indian colonies? To this date, this remains an international mystery.