Sentinels by the shore (and elsewhere)


They stand quietly as sentinels on Goa’s shores (and, sometimes, inland too). These structures belong to another era. In fact, our forts are often treated with neglect, ignorance, or worse still, as politically inconvenient reminders of an era we would rather like to forget in a hurry.

Weeks ago, friend Victor and myself had time to spare while visiting Tivim. En route, we decided to check out the fort in the locality. Thanks to Google Maps, we traced it easily. But the first confusion was its location. Was it in Tivim or Colvale?

This is where the work of Nuno Lopes comes in. Maybe it could help to understand more about Goa’s forts, after Amita Kanekar’s earlier book on the topic. Both authors are architects. As Kanekar points out, there is little information available in English about Goa’s forts.

Yet, the stories of Goa’s forts are not about stones and architecture alone. There is also a historical context which led to their building or takeover (the origins of some seem confusing to many of us here).

This revolves around the Portuguese geo-political and economic objectives (alternative to land trade routes, and an attempt to find allies). There was also the fading out of Buddhism, the resurgence of Brahminism, and the declining economic importance of the Syro-Malabar Christians. Islam’s “steep expansion” saw the main commercial networks confined to Islamic protagonists in the late 15th century.

The wider region had a complex setting: the Mameluk Empire (of Egypt, the Levant and western Arabia), the Safavid dynasty of Persia and the Ottoman Turks. Albuquerque, we are told, saw “the keys to India” as Goa, Malacca, Ormus, Aden and Diu.

In Goa’s neighbourhood were the Bijapur Sultanate and the Bahmanid Empire, which invaded in 1471. It disintegrated, in turn, into five Islamised states (Ahmednagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur, and Golconda). There was the Hindu Vijaynagar empire. Goa itself was a “particularly rich zone” of productive intense rice-growing lands, good for ship building and “vigorous trade”, and good natural defence conditions.

Albuquerque’s ambitions, Lopes says, were to transform the Portuguese ‘State of India’ into a “great Asian naval military power”. He partly managed it in six years of his governance, with the conquests of Goa (1510), Malacca (1511), Ormus (1515) and effective control of the Gulf of Cambay. Keep in mind that “India” was then not restricted to India.

From there come the stories of the Benasterim (sic) pass and fort, the Daugim and Agacaim passes, the Gandaulim dry pass, and the Panjim fortress (built over a pre-existing Islamic building). Names like the tower built on the pre-existing Naroa pass (on Divar island) or the Bardez bulwark may be known to very few today, if any, in Goa itself.

Lopes goes on to describe in detail fortresses and structures at Rachol (taken from Ismail Adil Shah of Bijapur by Vijaynagar and donated to the Portuguese), Reis Magos, Fort Santo Estevam, among others.

In the 1550s and 1560s, the Portuguese built fortified cities in the East — Mascate (Muscat), Colombo, Asserim (or Agaçaim-Agashi but the one near Basseim), Daman or Mannar (Sri Lanka).

The Peripheral Wall outside Old Goa (started in 1560) gets quite some attention here, stretching as it does for 18.5 kilometres. This discussion links up with Cumbarjua, Banasterim, Gandaulim, Daugim, and the like. It can be seen on Google Earth even today.

Also covered are Cabo, Aguada, Cansaulim, Mormugao, Charpora and the Colvale-Tivim Wall. Most of these date to a latter period, from the arrival of Portugal’s European rivals till the end of Portuguese rule in Goa in 1961.

Lopes completed his master’s thesis on the ‘Fortified Structures of Diu’ (India) in 2010. In 2017, he tied-up his PhD thesis from the University of Coimbra. It focuses on the defence system of Goa (1510-1660).

He argues that his work is an attempt to see how the old military-defence system “contributed to the organisation and composition of what Goa is today, how it aggregated this territory and the Goan identity, how it can continue to contribute to the appreciation of this South Asian uniqueness.”

Lopes notes that he did “a lot of research beforehand, so that I could then arrive in Goa and collect all the information I wanted.” Over several weeks in 2014, he lived in Goa, travelled hundreds of kilometres by car and on foot, surveyed all the fortified structures focused on in the book, using laser measuring devices and metric tapes.

“It was very hard work,” he recalls, “but it resulted in a kind of inventory of what remains of the fortifications built or was renovated during the first 150 years of Portuguese occupation in the territory known as the Old Conquests.”

Lopes argues that research on the political-military organisation of this region has seen quite a few recent works such as “important works of Vítor Rodrigues being fundamental, as well as the long experience in situ and an updated perspective of the architectural culture of Paulo Varela Gomes, Sidh Mendiratta and Walter Rossa, associated with the studies of Catarina Madeira Santos, Geneviève Bouchon, João Paulo Oliveira e Costa, Luiz Filipe Thomaz, Pedro Dias and others.”

Yet, he believes that despite the vast historiographical production available today, there is a lack of knowledge regarding its defensive system, something very evident when it comes to what was the capital of the Estado da India. This was also despite almost all the positions of this network installed in the Indian Ocean, remaining solid, even extending the territory of Portuguese rule to the limits of the so-called New Conquests, a process that took place throughout most of the 18th century.

His work, says Lopes, presents very specific data. “The main objective is to serve as a basis for local decision makers to reflect on the set of assets they own and to judge what to do with it. I believe that the next step will be to explore the meanings of this heritage and its viability, that is, its safeguard and reuse, or erase its memory.”

What does he feel Goa could do with this legacy? Lopes says, “It is a decision on which I believe I should not have an opinion. I have presented as much data as possible to make this heritage readable. The next step must be decided by the Goan people.”

He adds, “It is not for me to raise concerns. I identify what exists and the state in which each of these elements is. I show that there are fortified structures that have been promoted, especially the larger ones and close to the coast, while most are abandoned and in some cases falling into oblivion, devoured by nature… Whatever the future decisions, this is  Goan heritage and we must respect the wishes of those
who own it.”