Sunday, November 29, 2015

#EXPLORERCHALLENGE: DISCOVERING BOMBAY'S FORTS

Those who know me will know that of late, I've been irrepressibly bitten by the cycling bug. As insane as it sounds, I love waking up at ungodly hours and zooming through empty roads.

It's also a fantastic way to discover the city. Let's face it - you can only run so much, and you can only leave your senses at the behest of auto drivers for so long. Cycling turned out to be a fantastic way to discover the city, and myself and my trusty steed, Velociraptor, have seen some gorgeous sights - Khargar, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Aarey Colony - heck, just up and down NH4.

Self and partner-in-crime at Worli Seaface.
Recently, National Geographic India came up with a fantastic initiative called Mission Explorer and asked me to be a part of it, giving me an Explorer Challenge. I jumped at the chance and said yes before I knew what the heck I was going to do. 

One thing I always wanted to do was visit the various forts in the city (that being Mumbai). There were many - all in various stages of dilapidation, and I wanted to just go check them out. I kept putting it off for some reason or the other - lack of company (many of the forts are located in less-than-touristy areas) and distance (the forts are inconveniently located all across the city which, I guess, makes strategic sense) being two. This seemed to be the best excuse to go ahead and finally knock this off my bucket list. 

Having coerced a friend, Sukrit, (a brilliant photographer and graphic designer, by the way) into tagging along (partially for company, partially because my social interaction skills in Marathi are quite abysmal), I set off.

And in order, here we go:

Worli Fort:

This fort is very interestingly located - on the very tip of Worli.


Those who use the Bandra-Worli Sealink can see it as they enter the Worli side. People are usually surprised to see there's a fort there, at all! It was built by the British in the 17th century as a lookout for pirates. The Archaeological Survey of India has restored it - but that hasn't stopped an interesting illegal construction from happening - a gym inside the fort. While that's a novel idea (and truth be told, it's helpful to the locals and the place isn't too dirty), I'm not sure the ASI looks upon that with a kindly eye.

In order to reach this place, you have to cross a few slums, on a very narrow street - you have to do exactly as Google Maps (or the friendly locals) tell you. While some might feel unnerved having tgo navigate through such dwellings, there really is nothing to be worried about - people just mind their own business (and stop to stare, of course - especially if you're riding a freakin' sexy bike).

Once you reach the fort and climb up, you're presented a fantastic view - of the sealink, of the Mahim Bay, and loads of fisherboats.

Worli Fort - surprisingly well-maintained, given its environs
Worli Fort provides a superb view - and next time you zoom down the sealink, look out for the Fort.
The other side gives you a view of the two Worlis - a village (mostly of fisherpeople) and the high-rises housing posh people and corporate offices.

Sewree Fort:

After this, we planned to visit Bombay Castle at Fort - the defensive land around this area is what gives the precinct its name. Unfortunately, this is housed inside defense land and outsiders are not allowed in (and like Suk said, the guys guarding the gates with guns didn't exactly look like a tourist information booth). So off we went, past the docks, to Sewree.



Built in 1680 by the British to keep a watch over Mumbai's harbors from Mughals and the Siddis, there has been a fair amount of maintenance work done by the Maharashtra government - a garden and museum are on the cards. Currently, though, it still serves as a breeding ground for unchecked graffiti (mostly harmless proclamations of who visited and who loves whom). When we visited, the inside of the Fort was being used by a bunch of local kids for - what else - cricket. Behind the fort, there is a Muslim dargah, and by its side, there are some government official flats.

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The approach to the fort. The cleaning lady was wondering what two grown men in spandex shorts were doing there.
Despite the vandalism, the fort is in pretty good shape.
Yet another makeshift 22 yards!
I wouldn't call this a stunning view, but it has potential.
The fort is a little walk away from the Flamingo watchpoint - where, during the right season, you'll see lots of the said birds. Currently, it's a ship repair yard and a parking area for loads of trucks.

Sion Fort:

Again, built by the British in the 17th century, this was more accessible than the earlier forts - being less than a km away from the Sion station. It was built overlooking the Portugese-controlled Salcette Island.



The fort is not open 24*7 (we went during the 4-6 PM slot) and has a very nice garden (well, in relative terms). From the top here, you can see the two icons of Wadala - lots of industrial plants and the red IMAX dome. Outside the fort, there is a defunct industrial plant (prime real estate, if you ask me).

The place is popular among locals who enjoy a good morning or evening walk along the garden.

Steps leading to the garden

Our steeds outside Sion Fort

Mahim Fort:

While I'd have loved to be excited about Mahim Fort, it's a sad sign and a microcosm of what-could-have-been in Mumbai: On a dirty 'beach' (Bandra), total neglect, encroachment and illegal slums, and filth everywhere.



While the origins of the Fort are unclear, it went from Portugese to Gujrati hands (by force) and from Gujrati to English hands (by dowry, as part of Mahim island itself!). A 1772 war saw lots of cannonballs being fired, one of which damaged Mt. Mary's Basilica. Though it's a Grade 1 heritage monument and there have been talks of developing the fort since 2008, nothing much has been done. In fact, when we tried to get closer to the fort, a few locals advised us not to, and told us to just see it from the outside.

Sad for us, but left us thinking that a few people have a killer address: 1st floor, Mahim Fort.

This could have potentially been a stunning visitor attraction - it's quite massive, commands a great view
and is in a central location.
Bandra Fort: 

By this time, we were both a little exhausted, but were determined to see the last fort. So we cheated a little - we parked our bikes, and took a rick to Bandra Fort - easily the most popular of the city's Forts. And that is in no small part because it's the best maintained.



Built by the Portugese in 1640, its full name is Castella de Aguada (Fort of the Waterfront). It's got a terrific location - right behind the Taj Land's End Hotel, past the very popular Bandra Bandstand (home of film stars, open-air musicians and many, many people in love). Add a great garden and an open-air amphitheater to the mix, and it's easy to see why this is a hugely popular place, despite the relatively long commute.

As with Worli Fort (but from the other side), it commands a terrific view of the Sealink, and fishing boats. The amphitheater has a special place in my heart - I've seen some magnificent concerts there as the sun went down, with the sound of waves and the cool wind. Indian Ocean's free open-air show in 2010 remains one of the best music events I've been to.

The fort itself has some stairs (some steep ones, mind!) which offer a fair amount of exploration.
On one side, you can see the rocks and its various temporary inhabitants... 

And on the other, you can stare at the architectural marvel that is the BWSL.

And of course, the amphi and garden provide for a great getaway for couples.
We took the rick back to where we parked our bikes and headed back home.
Phew, it was a pretty long and awesome ride!

The whole ride was a shade over 88 km. Here was the route map (ignore that small GPS error, where you see a straight line)


And if you're interested in the details of the ride, here is the link to the Strava log.

I wanted to see some more forts: Rewa Fort at Dharavi and Vasai Fort being two others - but there's only so much pedalling in the Bombay sun you can do in one day :)

I loved this experience, though - I got to finally see these forts, and I saw parts of Bombay that were so different from the Carter Roads and the Phoenix Mills we tend to associate the city with.

Once again, thank yous are due to NatGeo and Mission Explorer for letting me do this!

If this sounds like something you would like to do, and possibly win a chance to go to Machu Picchu, then check out the Mission Explorer website - If you're passionate about exploring food, art, culture, travel (or anything else, really!) in your city, you will fit the bill.