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Notes on the Geography of Peninsular India: Bassein Fort

On a site ceded by the Sultan of Gujarat in 1532, the Portuguese built a prosperous town called Baçaim. It flourished for over 200 years but was finally relinquished to the Marathas in 1739. The Marathas abandoned it utterly, nor did the British reoccupy the site when they gained control of it in 1774, although they changed the name to Bassein. The site is still abandoned, though it adjoins the modern town of Vasai, which is booming largely because it is only 20 miles north of Bombay.

Suggested reading: Bassein is pretty much ignored in most guidebooks. A scarce but concise source of information is the Guide to the Ruins of Bassein, by Braz A. Fernandes, published by the Bombay Historial Society in 1948. See also his book on Bassein inscriptions, noted below.

Caution: this Bassein is not to be confused with the town of the same name in the Irrawaddy Delta. Fortunately, that town is now transliterated Pathein.

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Peninsular India: Bassein Fort picture 1

The inside of the wall of Bassein Fort, with a broad staircase to the top.

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The first Captain of the city, Garcia de Sa, built the fort in 1536 at the command of the Governor, Nuno da Cunha.

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The top of the wall showing, in the distance, one of eleven bastions. A stone (now missing) dates the bastion: "During the reign of the most high and the most mighty King D. Joao of Portugal, the third of this name, and governing India the Viceroy D. Alonso de Noronha, son of the Marquis of Villa Real, Francisco de Sa being Captain of this Fort and City of Bassein, this bastion, named S. Sebastiao, was built, on the 22nd of February, of the year 1554." In The Lusiads, written in the 1550s, we read (II, 46, in the Landeg White translation) this prophecy for the descendants of Vasco: "You will see, my daughter, castles,/ Cities, ramparts all built at their hands;/ Even the tough, formidable Turks/ You will see consistently routed;/ The independent kings of India/ Will be subject to the king of Portugal,/ Bringing, when all falls under his command,/ A better dispensation to that land."

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The breadth of the wall, truncated for the road, is shown clearly in this picture.

Governor Da Cunha, who had left Lisbon in 1529, was recalled a decade later but died at the Cape of Good Hope. Bitterly, he asked in his will that the king by repaid for the iron chain used to weight Da Cunha's body for its burial at sea. His father, the navigator Tristan da Cunha, appeared at the court of Dom Joao III and offered to pay the amount. Captain Garcia had better luck. The brother-in-law of Da Cunha, he survived another decade to become Governor of India in 1548. He died in Goa a year later and is buried there.

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View across the parade ground to the north wall of the fort. The wall is about 1.5 miles long.

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Uncut blocks are arranged in layers sorted by size.

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The overgrown cloister of the Franciscan church and monastery of St. Anthony. The church was built by Antonio do Porto, a missionary, at the expense of King Joao III, who gave it an endowment of 2,070 pardaos for a "seminary for the conversion of the heathen." The tower was later damaged by Maratha artillery. It was here that the last of the city's generals, Caetano de Souza Pereira, signed the articles of capitulation is 1739.

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The walls are of cut laterite. The floor is paved with tombstones. The arch once supported the choir.

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The view from the altar.

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The view from the street.

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Surviving coffers over the altar.

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The tombstones have been enumerated and translated by Bras A. Fernandes in Armas E Inscrições do Forte De Baçaim, Lisbon, 1957. This stone, with Fernandes' catalog number reads, with translation, as follows: No. 97. SEPULTURA DE GASPAR DE SOUZA DE SAMPIO E DE SEUS ERDEIROS. FALECEO A TRAEZE DE FEVEREIRO DE 92. Grave of Gaspar de Souza de Sampio and of his heirs. He died on the 3rd day of February ..92. Fernandes adds that from "the device on the scutcheon, Gaspar de Souza seems to have been a cartographer or an architect, or a descendant of one."

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No. 79 ESTA SEPULTURA E DE PERO GONCALAEZ E DE SUA MOLHER MARGARIDA LOPEZ. E DE SEUS ERDEIROS. FALECEO A 20 DE MARCO (?) DE 1580. This grave is of Pero Goncalez and his wife Margarida Lopez, and of their heirs. Died on 20th March (?) of 1580.

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No. 63 SEPULTURA DE FERNAO VIEGA LEITAO, FALECEO AOS 7 DE IULHO, E DE SUA MOLHER DONNA GUIMAR DA SILVA COELHA E DE SEUS HERDEIROS NA ERA DE 1684 ANOS. Grave of Fernao Niega Leitao, died on 7th of July. And of his wife Donna Guimar da Silva Coelha, and of their heirs. In the year 1684.

Fernandes adds that Dona Guimar da Silva was the daughter of Jorge da Silva Coelho, the captain of Bassein in 1605 and the landed proprietor of the villages of Sandor in Bassein and Magatana in Salsette. He was also the owner, by purchase, of the village of Chercopa in Salsette.

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No. 56 SEPULTURA DE BERTOLAMEU DE TORES E DE SUA MOLHER FRANSISCA D'ABREU ONDE SAO TAMEM E SEUS ERDEIROS. 1580 Grave of Bartolemeu de Tores and of his wife Francisca D'Abreur who also lies here. And their heirs.

Fernandes adds that in 1563 Dom Francisco Coutinho, Conde de Redondo and viceroy from 1561 to 1564 gave de Tores the village of Quiao in the Pragana of Manora.

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No. 13 AQUI IAS ANTONIO MURZELO. FALECEO A 21 IUNHO DE 1579. Here lies Antonio Murzelo. Died on 21st June 1579.

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The recently restored Jesuit church and convent of the sacred name of Jesus. Francisco Xavier set up the mission of the Society of Jesus at Bassein in 1548. Smaller than the basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa, it copies in laterite and basalt the mother church of the Jesuits in Rome.

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Detail of entrance.

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A tomb insides remembers "Dona Filipa da Fonseca, noble widow and famous benefactress of this church, to which she gave during her lifetime all she possessed. Died on 20th July of the year 1625."

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Cloister of the adjoining college, built in 1636. Gemelli Careri, who came here in 1695, wrote: "The dormitory and cloister are the best in the city. In the garden, besides the Indian, there are some sorts of European fruit, and among the rest figs and grapes, which the Father Recor told me came to maturity twice a year, that is in December and March." (Quoted in Teresa Albuquerque, Bassein: The Portuguese Interlude, 2004, p. 73.)

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View of the church tower from the cloister.

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Spiral staircase to tower.

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Part of the cloister is double-storied.

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Within the fort, there's an inner fortress, and built against the wall of this inner fortress is the Church of N.S. da Vida. It's the oldest church in Bassein. Careri in 1695 wrote: "Thursday the 10th. understanding there was a wedding of people of quality at the Church of Our Lady de la Vida, I went to see the ceremony.... the bride was richly clad, after the French fashion." (Quoted by Albuquerque, p.63.) The church in 1852 became the Bassein Sugar Factory. The company quickly failed.

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Ruins of the camara or town hall, built in 1606.

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The Mother Church, built in 1546 on the site of a mosque destroyed by the Portuguese. Tt was built according to the following royal order: "In the city of Bassein you shall build a church and dedicate it to St. Joseph, and provide for the subsistence of the Vicar and his assistants; to accomplish which you may employ something out of our revenues, and the 3,000 pardaos formerly employed in the maintenance of the Mohamedan mosques and their service shall for the future be allotted for the subsistence of the priests, and such other persons as give a helping hand towards the conversion of the infidels" (quoted in Albuquerque, p. 63).

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Church tower.

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No. 2 NO ANNO DE 1601 SENDO ARCEBISPO PRIMAZ O ILLUSTRICIMO SENHOR DOM FREI ALEIXO DE MENEZES, E VIGARIO O PADRE PEDRO GALVAO PEREIRA, SE REFORMOU ESTA MATRIZ. In the year 1601, the Most Illustrious Senhor Dom Frei Aleixo de Menezes being Archbishop Primate and the Rev. Pedro Galvao Pereira the Vicar, this Matriz [Mother Church] was rebuilt.

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Interior of the church.

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Side door.

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Tower detail.

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Wall of the very large Dominican Church of Sao Gonzalo, 1583.

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Tower of the church.

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Nave.

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The nearby Senate House. A visitor in 1675, John Fryer, wrote: "The fort in the middle of the city is circular; towards the square appears a state house piatzed, where the Governor convocates the fidalgos every morning upon consultation, in which they all stand, a chair not being permitted the governor though gouty: towards evening they meet there to game." (Quoted in Albuquerque, p. 41-2.)

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The Cross of Fleury, the emblem of the Dominican order.

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The dogs with candles are explained as part of a dream by St. Dominic's mother, pregnant with a white dog that broke away with a torch with which it set the world aflame.

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The fortress entrance had a portcullis.

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View from the outside.

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Fishnets are spread to dry within the inner fortress.

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Net repair.

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Villagers enter the fort to use the old wells.

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Laundry.

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Hoisting water for the washing.

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Head loads to and from the fort, through the postern.

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A village has now replaced reedy swamps near the Bastion of San Goncalo.

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Main street of the village.


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