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Notes on the Geography of Peninsular India: Diu

We take a look here and in the next folder at one of the smallest (by both size and population) districts in India. Only five districts (including Central Delhi and New Delhi) are smaller and only one (Mahe, on the coast 700 miles farther south) is less populous. Yet Diu is one of the oldest European settlements in India, and it's at least holding its own demographically. The population of the Island of Diu (a mighty seven miles by two) is about 50,000 and of the town at its eastern end (and of the same name), 20,000. A hundred years ago the population had slipped to 15,000, but now it's back to what it was in the glory days.

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Not a very promising site for a city? The cliffs are sandstone with a volcanic caprock. No fun to walk on barefoot, but this spot is a lot like Chicago. Just as all eastbound traffic from the northern plains bunches up around the tip of Lake Michigan, so coastwise shipping from Arabia to India must come past this island at the very southern tip of the Kathiawar Peninsula.

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A bit of shoe-puncturing rock was unlikely to deter the Portuguese, who seized the island in 1535 and put up a serious fort at the eastern tip of the island. Nobody was going to bring a ship into the harbor there without Portuguese approval. And so it proved until 1961, when the Indian Navy blew the roof off the most important building in the fort. It was mostly a gesture, because the fort hadn't been seriously manned for defense since 1800, but the Portuguese took the hint, packed up, and went home.

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Of course there had been indigenous occupants of the island; they had relied for their livelihood on coconut palms like those shown in the background.

The view here is still on the island and about two and a half miles west of the fort. The charming concrete blocks stabilize the shoreline, but we're here for the staircase.

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They lead to a very small marine cave, the Gangeshwar Temple, exposed at low tide. The figures have to be cut time and again as the waves erode them.

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And here, just to the east, is the sign of another pre-European population. It's the mosque of Qadi Muhammad, facing Mecca, which is almost exactly 2,000 miles due west, though a lot farther by sea. Notice that nibbly surface, which may look soft and crumbly but isn't.

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The mosque and tombs are new, of course, and the paint couldn't be newer. But the burials themselves are old and what is that curiously tapered cone? The answer is on the other side of the wall.

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Pardon our construction, but we're looking at an old prayer wall or namazgah and a mihrab or prayer niche carved from two blocks of stone under a lintel. The central circular medallion shows a lotus from which an oil lamp hangs on a chain. In the spandrels above the ogee arch are more lotuses, and yet another at the crown, framed by floral designs.

The best description of this mosque (and of just about everything else on the island) comes from a series of articles published primarily in South Asian Studies by Mehrdad and Natalie H. Shokoohy. They write that the columns to either side of the niche (a barbarian might think they looked like stacked spools) represent vases.

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Enter the Portuguese. This tiny island, Panikotha, or Forte do Mar, stands in the middle of the bay at the eastern end of the island. The lighthouse is modern, and there probably are pre-European fortifications on the island, but the visible fortress is Portuguese.

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In the next folder, we'll look more closely at the fortress built by the Portuguese at the eastern tip of the island, but here's just a scene-setting view to convince you that the Portuguese weren't messing around. Several Portuguese churches are visible in the distance: the Church of St. Francis on the left (now a hospital), St. Paul's, and, just to its right, the almost painfully white St. Thomas's (now a museum). They were in the town proper, and the Portuguese built another wall on the inland side for protection from attack from the west. The view here is from the Knight's Tower and overlooks the St. Nicholas Tower or bastion, with its small chapel.

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This probably isn't the picture that the tourism authorities would choose, but it does show the harbor that the fort protected. It also shows Ghogla, the town on the far side. Ships en route to the Gulf of Cambay, with its nearby towns including Baroda and Surat, would shelter here.

Here's what they saw, as recorded in the Voyages of John Van Linschoten, 1583: "This Iland [Diu] aboundeth, and is very fruitfull of all kind of victuals, as Oxen, Kine, Hogges, Sheepe, Hennes, Butter, Milke, Onions, Garlicke, Pease, Beanes, and such like, whereof there is great plentie, and... such as better cannot be made in all these Low-Countries... they have likewise cheeses, but they are very drie and sault, much Fish which they sault, and it is almost like unto salt Ling, or Codde, and of other sortes... they have so great quantity that they supply the want of all the places round about them, especially Goa, and Cochin...."

Van Linschoten continues, "This towne hath a very great haven, and great traffique, although it hath verye little or nothing of it selfe, other more than the situation of the place, for that it lyeth between Sinde and Cambaia, which Countries are abundant in all kind of things, whereby Diu is alwaies ful of strange nations, as Turks, Persians, Arabian, Armenians, and other countrie people..." (Quoted in Shokoohy, "The Island of Diu, its Architecture and Historic Remains," in South Asian Studies, 2010.) Location, location, location. The local fleet no longer parks here but ties up instead at the new jetty at Navibandar, five miles east. Diu in fact has been quiet a long time. The authors of the Imperial Gazetteer of India, from 1908, write that Diu, "once so opulent and famous for its commerce, has now dwindled into utter insignificance." Fishing is "the chief employment," the authors continue, but many locals migrate to Mozambique for work. Weaving and dying are dead.

And the Portuguese? According to the census of 1900, Diu had 15,000 residents, of whom three were European. One was the Portuguese governor, whose assistants were Goan. It must have been a posting from hell for most people, although you wonder what kind of story Joseph Conrad might have made of it.

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Old-fashioned ships are still made here, despite the prestressed-concrete bridge in the background.

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Sometime when you're stuck in an airport, compare these ships with those shown in the Zanzibar folder. Similar but different.

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For one thing, the ships built here are now held together with steel bolts. Cheating, the Zanzibaris might say.

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For another, the shipwrights here use electrical tools. Not in Zanzibar.

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Here's one of the town's two land-side gates. The inscription up top dates it to 1584. Ralph Fitch came by about this time and left a description: "At present there are not above 200 Portugueze both in the Castle [the fort]and City. The rest of its Inhabitants are Banyans of all Sorts. There may be about 40000, but few of them of Fortune or Figure, because the Insolence of the Portugeze makes it unsafe for money'd Strangers to dwell among them... [If Diu] were in the Hands of some industrious European Nation, it would be the best Mart Town on the Coast of India" (quoted by Shokoohy, 2007).

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The inscription states that the adjoining Tower of St. Peter's was built by order of Manuel de Miranda, captain of the fort and the town, to enhance the defense of the gate and wall.

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The first Portuguese church, St. Thomas's, built in 1536, was destroyed by a Gujarati assault but rebuilt in 1598. The church was deconsecrated in 1834 and converted into the city's museum in 1913. The central, cylindrical vault is unusual and hints at the lack of timber.

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There isn't much inside, apart from a dozen or so carved figures. Which raises the question: made from what? Speculation ranges from rosewood from Mozambique to teak from Burma.

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This is the much grander St. Paul's church, which similarly has a cylindrical vault over the nave but which hides it behind a Renaissance facade, similar to that of the Bom Jesus at Goa and, ultimately, Il Gesù in Rome. St. Paul's was begun in 1610, completed in 1612, and renovated in 1807. In the foreground is the elaborate church cross or cruzeiro. The attached building to the right, now a high school, was originally a Jesuit seminary.

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Three tiers, like the cathedral in Goa, but with more elaborate ornament.

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Note the figures at the upper corners of the entrance.

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Faces are embedded in the plaster. How many? I count ten in the second and third tiers.

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Oops! More up above: full figures (angels to judge from the trumpets they carry) on either side of the oculus and yet another figure in the pediment.

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Like so many Jesuit churches, there are no aisles, no waste space in a church designed for as large a congregation as possible. The blue trim is probably recent, as is the netting. Once again, there's a question about the origin of the wood, as well as the home of the carvers.

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A closer view of the retable or altarpiece.

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About two miles to the west, in the separate village of Fudam, there is yet another church, the Church of Our Lady of Remedies, from 1667.

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Built on a budget, the towers are not as high as they appear. from the front.

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Rear view.

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The interior, much like St. Paul's but smaller. There have been no Christians in Fudam since 1961, but the church is maintained for the Feast of Our Lady of Remedies, on the first Sunday of May.

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Once again, the nave has a masonry vault but the elaborate altarpiece is wood from somewhere.

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Can we be secular for a while? Here's the main street leading in from the gate we saw a while back. Nothing very old here. So we'll paste in some old words from Ralph Fitch: "The first citie of India that we arrived at upon the first of November [1583] after we had passed the coast of Zindi, is called Diu, which standeth in an Iland in the kingdome of Cambaia, and is the strongest towne that the Portugales have in those partes. It is but little, but well stored with marchandise; for here they lade many great shippes with diverse commidites for the streits of Mecca, from Ormus, and other places, and these be shippes of the Moores and of the Christians. But the Moores cannot pass, except they have a passeport from the Portugales." (The Voyage of M Ralph Fitch, quoted by Mehrdad Shokkohy and Natalie H. Shokoohy in "The Town of Diu, its Churches, Monasteries and Other Historic Features," South Asian Studies, 2007. p. 141.)

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Hunt a bit, and you'll find a few non-religious buildings obviously left over from Lusitanian times.

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Part of an old bazaar?

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There must be a story here, but it remains unwritten. A merchant's house? Such carved brackets are far and few between here.

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Here's something more conventional. It's a shop at the main bazaar corner. The date is 1952, though the neighorhood goes back to the mid-19th century.

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Here's the corner in context.

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And here it is from another angle. The merchandise available today is very different from that in 1600. Think there's more available now? Maybe, but here's the list from Duarte Barbosa, who came by about 1500, while Diu was still under Gujarati control. He writes of "exceeding great traffic and commerce with Malabar, Baticala, Guoa, Chaul, and Dabul. Ships also sail hence to Meca, Adem, Zeila, Barbora, ... Mombaca, and Ormus... The articles of merchandize brought hither by the Malabares are... cocoanuts (great store), areca, jagra, emery, wax, iron, Baticala sugar, pepper, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, mace, nutmegs, sandal-wood, brasil-wood,...many silks... from China and Malaca.... from Mecca and Adem alone they bring hither coral, copper, quicksilver, vermilion, lead, alum, madder, rose-water, saffron, gold, silver ...in such abundance that it cannot be reckoned." Barbosa was a friend of Magellan and went on that great voyage, though he was killed near Cebu. (The Book of Duarte Barbosa, Mansel Dames translator, 1920, pp. 129-130)

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A three-story commercial block.

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Another view. What's upstairs?

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You guessed right: a hotel.

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A house. Let's look at a few more.

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Martha Stewart's Choice.

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My own.

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Makes you wonder about the colors women here choose for their nails.

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The residential streets are amazingly clean. Is this a Portuguese leftover in some weird way?

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Moderne. With the departure of the Portuguese in 1961, most of their monuments and inscriptions were obliterated. This building sticks to Portuguese, even though in 1975 Diu was in Indira Gandhi's India.

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Another of that vintage.

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One of the very few Portuguese monuments to survive, in this case in the park adjoining the Collector's office. The figure is Nuno Da Cunha, son of Tristan. Nuno attempted to conquer Diu in 1531. He failed but later, from 1535 to 1538, he became governor of all the Portuguese possessions in India. Happy ending? Not quite: he was drowned in a shipwreck off the Cape of Good Hope.

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Any other Portuguese relics? We're at Nagoa Beach, five miles west of the fort. It's a popular spot. Is the hotel of Portuguese vintage? Maybe, maybe not.

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The benches certainly aren't.

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But just a bit down the beach there are a few like this. Bingo! Sketch in the elegant figures--parasol, boaters, and white linens.

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And now we're ready to venture into the fort. Just to be warned, we aren't the only visitors.

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