EXPLORE THE WONDROUS SION HILLOCK FORT
You will literally stumble upon the Sion Hillock Fort. Out of Sion station, toward the highway leading to Vashi, there is a hillock to your right. If you walk towards it, you will discover the remarkably well maintained Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Udyan and the remains of a fort that is over 400 years old!
Sion Hillock Fort, Road No 1, Air Force Quarters, Sion (e), Mumbai 400 022.
If not for the constant search for sanctuaries around me, I would never have discovered the Sion Fort. We spotted this lone patch of greenery while speeding down the Sion flyover to the Priyadarshini signal. That weekend, we decided to walk there, hoping to find Sion’s version of Andheri’s Gilbert Hill. Even the locals whom we asked for directions only know it as a park. A 10 to 15-minute clamber uphill rewarded us with the thrilling discovery of the fort sitting atop the garden and a panoramic view of the eastern coast.
The Riwa, Sewri, Bandra, and Worli forts are arguably better known. You may remember them from school history lessons about Portuguese rule in Bombay and the subsequent handover to the British. These forts were built to protect colonial interests in the city nearly 400 years ago. Now, they are just shadows of their former glory.
All that remains of the Sion Hillock Fort is its skeletal structure and a cannon. Apart from some puerile graffiti, it is obvious there’s been no attention paid to it, never mind the thought of restoring it. Still, it is redeemed by the beautiful and well preserved garden that surrounds it and the striking view of the Thane salt pans.
There are some inexplicable modern additions around the fort, one of which seems to be a massive waterfall recently constructed. There is no water here though, but streams of children run up and down the ceramic tiled structure, using it as a massive slide. There are walkways and potted plants and plenty of seating for the fitness averse to simply lounge. The approach to the fort is beautiful, the steps a 20th or 21st century addition, framed by bougainvillea – making it a great spot for catching your breath on the way to the top or to watch teenagers maniacally indulge in selfie shoots.
The fort was built by Gerald Aungier, the Governor of Bombay, to mark the boundary between British held Parel and Portuguese held Salsette that lay to the north across the creek. The dates for the construction by the East India Company of the fort are given as 1669-1677, but Mumbai based historian and anthropologist Shekhar Krishnan refutes this. He says the fort “was built by Maratha contractors for the Portuguese as a marine bastion overlooking the causeway to Salsette.”After the cession to the Crown, the fort was given to the East India Company. “The approaches and the steps,” says Shekhar, “were originally built by the Bombay Improvement Trust as part of their Estate Scheme No. 6 at the turn of this century.” In modern times, the fort was encroached upon, and the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee was at loggerheads with the ASI about how this Grade 1 heritage structure should be preserved or beautified. The last attempt at renovation in 2009 was abandoned due to shortage of funds.
The BMC which built the park had grand plans of making it a theme park, with a walkway connecting the garden to the fort, a mural depicting the seven islands of Mumbai as well as more seating and a canteen. Those plans were dashed by the ASI in a bid to protect what remains of the fort.
Regardless of its heritage, the real draw is the view, and the chance to enjoy the greenery. The park is open from morning until noon and then again from 4 to 8 p.m., but the best time to visit is during the day when families are around. (Later in the evening groups of men seem to skulk around the park.) You could spend a few hours there – running up and down the steps to the fort is a proper workout and you can end the outing with a picnic lunch. The park itself is also perfect for morning walks for folks who can’t manage the climb to the fort.
But the best part is that this scenic location, with a historic fort to boot, is enough of a city secret to remain relatively quiet and crowd-free.