Goa’s Forts Revisited

Iris C F Gomes

The Deccan Heritage Foundation, a UK registered charity, is responsible for the publication of a new guidebook on the forts of Goa. Portuguese Sea Forts of Goa, with Chaul, Korlai and Vasai is a new publication in a series of books documenting various places in the Deccan region of India. As the first guidebook to describe the forts along the Arabian Sea coast, Portuguese Sea Forts of Goa, with Chaul, Korlai and Vasai aims to inspire the desire to preserve and restore heritage sites, along with providing knowledge about them. It is being hailed for being informative in an engaging manner and devoid of academic jargon. Architectural Historian Amita Kanekar has researched and written the guidebook while the photographs are the handiwork of Surendra Kumar.

Maps have been added to the book to encourage people to visit the forts and thus to give them an idea about military architecture and the Portuguese influence on it in Goa. These forts are mostly protected but the general public and tourists are sometimes unaware of their existence and history, which is quite unfortunate. Public presence at the forts and vigilance to maintain these historic monuments would prompt government authorities to take better care of heritage sites. The guidebook is in no way a replacement for scholarly historical research even though Amita Kanekar has managed to present a considerable amount of facts about the history and architecture of the forts in a condensed form.

In the compilation of the book, Amita faced the challenge of writing it in the format prescribed for this series of guidebooks while balancing information about the history, architecture and the present state of the forts. ‘These forts were unique, not just for the architecture of the time but because they introduced the European style of the gunpowder fort to South Asia. Before that you had the mediaeval forts which were designed for a different kind of weaponry.’ About twenty years after the arrival of the Portuguese they began replacing their mediaeval forts with forts meant for the use of cannons. They introduced the trace italienne style, which was pioneered in Italy, with angular bastions, low defensive walls, and merlons and embrasures for the cannons.

The extraordinary aspect of these forts is that they were integral to the politics of the past as well as to contemporary times. Portugal was a littoral empire, with the aim to control the seas, and Albuquerque is said to have told one of the rulers of the Malabar that the forts were not built as a means of offensive attack but of defensive protection of their goods and people. The Portuguese had forts all around Africa, South Asia, West Asia and South East Asia in the bid to control trade on the seas through the 16th century when their empire extended way beyond Goa. Besides this these forts acted as storehouses for goods and centres of evangelisation, Catholicism and slavery. Amita says, ‘The Portuguese are the ones who globalised slavery, unfortunately… Slavery was around before but it tended to be localised. In India we know that slavery was deeply connected with the caste system. But the Portuguese were the ones who globalised it and there were an enormous number of people from all kinds of places at these forts.’

These forts provided employment to people from other places because the Portuguese did not have enough manpower to fill their troops. Even today traces of a heterogeneous (Luso-Arabic-South Asian-East African) culture are found. Language mixtures are also found, such as Portuguese Creole near the Korlai Fort which exists to the present day but is gradually dying out. The inmates of the fort were defending themselves against the people who had owned the land before, however they managed to integrate themselves into the local community too.

‘When I went around and saw these forts…I met the people who stay around there even today, and found out about their experiences of the upkeep, the maintenance and the usage because these forts even today have churches and chapels that are very much in use. Many of the forts have within them the parish churches of their area,’ says Amita. Contributions towards the preservation of the forts is made by the local communities who are very much acquainted with them. This is significant in forcing us to see heritage sites as part of the local region and culture.

The Tiracol Fort, which is entangled in a legal battle with the builders of a golf course, makes its appearance in the book with a description of the resident Catholic community. These are the traditional mundkars (tillers of the land) and today survive on feni production, fishing, rice and coconut cultivation and other jobs across the river. Not only is the history and architecture of the fort revealed in the guidebook, but its presence in contemporary politics is laid bare for the readers.

Amita says, ‘The villagers in Tiracol said that they have plans themselves for local tourism and they want to start an eco cum heritage tourism venture. They are intending to end the golf course project. They are very positive about it. Whether it takes one year or ten years they are going to fight it out. And when it goes they said they are going to start a local tourism venture which will include the fort and the church in the fort, the village, their cashew plantations and their culture. They are going to take people around and make people live in their village and also eat the local food, and so experience the culture of the entire place and the built heritage.’ This is the type of tourism that is essential to Goan heritage and does not suggest the generation of a static community because the Tiracol community remains a progressive one.

There are forts that were built merely for defence, some others had buildings within them, and there were also those like Chaul that were city forts. Among this variety of forts, it seems that there were those, such as the fort of Charpora, which was built not only to fend off the onslaughts of the Marathas against the fort but to provide shelter to the villagers during the raids. This tells us that the popular negative description of the Portuguese as being cold hearted rulers may not be all true. Not only were the villagers allowed to take shelter during attacks, they were instrumental in regaining the fort for the Portuguese after the fort was taken by the Marathas for two years in the beginning of the 18th century. ‘It shows that there was a sense of belonging. The fort seemed to belong to the local people,’ says Amita.

The Portuguese no doubt had a notable role to play in transforming the architecture of forts belonging to other kingdoms in the Deccan and their methods of warfare. Some of the finest examples of their legacy remain with us in Goa to observe, preserve and learn from.