During the two centuries 1534-1737, Vasai and Mumbai previously known as Salsette Island belonged to Portuguese rule. During this period a lot of development took place along the coastal location and culturally a Christian community of converted Hindus were set up in various places leading to the formation of clusters. Significant traces of their architectural history can be seen throughout Mumbai. These include not only military and religious structures but also structures built by the Portuguese and later rebuilt or altered by Britishers and Marathas. Besides the network of forts and churches, their rules also developed a network of villages all over Mumbai some of which are still thriving. Based on the structures and their purpose, the architecture of that era is broadly classified into three categories based on the typology of the building as defence structures, religious structure, residential structure.
Portuguese built a strong defensive position in the salsette Island. Many forts remained intact to this day with few altercations to their original architectural work. Some of the most famous ones are:-
1. Madh Fort
Built as a watchtower in the 17th century, this fort is long, narrow and has seven sides. A stronghold of the Portuguese, the fort is well preserved with the external façade remaining largely intact. Currently, the fort is under the supervision of the Indian air force and Navy.
2. Bandra Fort
After capturing Mumbai previously the salsette islands, the Portuguese built several seas facing forts along the coastline. Built at a strategic point on the sea route, Bandra fort is considered to be one of the iconic places in Mumbai largely due to its simple Indo-Portuguese influence architecture and the Bandra bandstand built near it.
3. Fort Bassein
Also known as the Vasai Fort, it is famous for being a strategic location during the anglo-Maratha war and the treaty of Vasai. Currently, much of the fort remains in ruins but some well-preserved facades decorated with carved stones and arches give a glimpse of its former glory. Other structures include barrel-vaulted rooms and three chapels in ruins from the Portuguese era.
Other structures such as forts in Thane, Mahim and various watchtowers also exist in a dilapidated state.
Between 1534 to 1737, the Portuguese established several religious places all across the salsette island. Some of the structures defined the city’s history and culture and are still in use but with many alterations in its design. Out of the 43 religious sites, 20 are still used with alterations, 12 are in ruins and 11 have vanished without a trace.
1. Seepz Church
Built-in 1579, the church fell into despair and disuse after an epidemic struck the region and devastated much of its population. Later on, most of the church’s altar was shifted to another place. The ruins of the church display similar architectural character as the Portuguese churches, round arches, polygonal columns are some of the prominent elements still visible today. Due to recent interest in preservation, the annual mass has started to take place again.
2. Altercations of Mandapeshwar caves and its surrounding
Considered to be one of the very first religious settlements in Mumbai, the Portuguese had converted the ancient Hindu mandapeshwar caves into a church by hiding the Hindu gods behind brick walls and even built a monastery and a church over the caves. The cave, however, was again converted into a Hindu place of worship during Maratha rule and also during the 20th century. The ruins of the monastery are still visible on top of the cave. Adjacent to this lies the ruins of another church known as the church of Immaculate conception stand with the simple and austere architecture of Portuguese India.
3. Mount Mary church
Mount Mary Church also traces its origin to the Portuguese era, although due to fire it was destroyed and rebuilt again in a neoclassical style much to the liking of Britishers.
All these structures and many more religious structures were responsible for much of the development of Christianity in Salsette Island.
Residential Structure and Villages
Due to the continuous habitation of Portuguese settlers and their next generation, some of the Portuguese era villages have continued to thrive. These villages have strong Portuguese influence and characterized by low lying structures usually one storey in height with a sloping roof, front porches and verandah, and an external wooden staircase with carved railings to access the first floor. Prominent examples of such structures are the tiny village of Khotachiwadi in Bandra. Other examples are the entrance of the still surviving Manor house. The house has a courtyard on 3 sides which makes the architectural quality of the space evident.
The Indo-Portuguese legacy in India has been understudied and often underrated by many historians. Today, even though living in Mumbai I didn’t know Portuguese structures existed here. Limited education regarding this and hard to locate places that are heavily encroached by slum dwellers has become a hindrance in the preservation of our rich and diverse history. Rapid Urbanization and space crunch makes the futures of the surviving villages bleak. If these places could be freed of encroachments, restored and illuminated, they could offer the citizens of Mumbai and tourists an unparalleled experience of the Portuguese era and a vital open space for public activities.