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An Accidental Excursion To A Hill Fort

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AN ACCIDENTAL EXCURSION TO A HILL FORT

Sewri Fort was built by the British in 1680 for defence. Today, it is a Grade I Heritage structure that offers wonderful views of the flamingo migration at the Sewri mudflats.

Sewri Fort, 31, Sewri Ford Road, MPT, Sewri, Mumbai 400 015.

READ MAMTA D’S STORY

Imagine discovering a fort in your city accidentally. Imagine heading out from home to see birds but, instead, ending up wandering inside a historically rich fort.

For a long time, I’d been vaguely hearing about a place called Sewri Jetty, with mudflats that attracted migratory birds including flamingos. One weekend in January, when local newspapers reported that the birds had arrived, I decided to pay this place a visit. The nearest station to this location was Sewri.

Sewri, also called Shivdi by locals, is one of the key stations on the harbor line of the Mumbai suburban railway. Once a tiny settlement, it has gradually grown into a bustling locality home to several housing societies, warehouses, and industrial complexes.

Upon reaching Sewri station, I whipped out my phone and checked Google Maps. An eight-minute walk would lead me to the mud flats. That seemed doable and I was soon on my way. A wrong turn, however, changed my agenda for the day: I accidentally landed up at the Sewri Fort.

The surrounding area is so decrepit you might be forgiven for walking past the fort without noticing it. Overgrown shrubbery, missing signposts, construction of residential buildings, and warehouses nearby it have all led to the fort becoming inconspicuous. It looked like a oddly-shaped, dilapidated structure on a wrong lane I’d entered. I asked a passerby what it was. Oh, that’s just the Sewri Fort, he said with a shrug and walked away. Sewri Fort? A fort right where I was standing and whose existence I wasn’t aware of until now? It was an incredible moment for me.

Unlike some of the other forts in India that feature intricate designs, the architecture of Sewri fort is simple and functional since it was primarily built for defense (as I discovered later when I researched its history).

sewri fort

Bordered by high stone walls and landlocked on three sides, it has, as its entrance, a stone doorway leading into a spacious courtyard. Inner entrances were strategically designed to be perpendicular to the main entrance so that if anyone tried attacking from the front, they would fail.

The fort is constructed entirely of stone. It includes a pentagon-shaped room, 10 turret structures that were used to hold cannons, and several curved staircases on the outer areas. The walls are thick and plain. It is easy to feel dwarfed in the vast halls or rooms inside the fort. I definitely did. It was a surreal experience being inside and exploring its interiors.

Upon returning home, I read up as much as I could about the fort. A preliminary search didn’t yield much information beyond the cursory stuff, but I delved deeper and was able to unearth the rich history of the fort.

We know how Bombay (now Mumbai) was given to King Charles II of England in 1662 as part of the dowry for his marriage. Unable to care for it personally, in 1668, he persuaded the East India Company to rent the islands from him for 10 pounds of gold a year. The Company agreed and soon settled in, even as it battled constant conflict with the Mughals who were ruling other parts of India.

The East India Company had been looking to improve trade opportunities in different states and was already warring with the Mughals. Bombay, with its vast harbor and rich trade prospects, was a coveted treasure, and the Mughals hoped to conquer it. They were supported in this effort by the Siddis of Janjira who were highly skilled in naval warfare. By 1670s, the British were resisting ruthless attacks by the Siddis.

One of the steps the British took to defend themselves against these attacks was to build a hill fort at Sewri, on the island of Parel. It was intended to also act as a watchtower and help the soldiers look out for potential invaders. By 1680, it was ready. Fifty sepoys were posted at the fort, and a subedar was appointed to manage it. The fort was armed with eight to 10 cannons.

Despite this, the fort was captured in 1689, when Yadi Sakat, the Siddi general from Janjira, and his troops attacked Bombay. Following capture of the Sewri Fort, the Siddis went on to secure Mazgaon Fort and other parts of Bombay including Mahim.

Stunned by these events, the then British governor, Sir John Child entered into a deal with Aurangzeb to halt Yadi Sakat in his tracks. An amount of Rs 1.5 lakhs exchanged hands. Betrayed by the deal, the Siddi general withdrew his troops and Sewri Fort was once again back under the British.

sewri fort

In 1772, when the Portugese attacked Bombay, the fort again played an important role, to stave off the invaders.

I learnt that, in subsequent years, the fort was used to house prisoners. Soon, it was converted as a Bombay Port Trust godown/warehouse and continued to be used as one until recently.

I’d been dismayed to see its walls disfigured with ugly scrawls. A once historically significant monument, it seemed like it was headed towards a further state of ruin. I had eventually made my way to the mudflats a little distance away, which, together with a stretch of mangroves, form the Sewri wetland that acts like a feeding ground in winter for birds. The Sewri Fort provides a vantage view to observe the migratory birds that arrive here, though you may need a strong pair of binoculars if you want to get a clear look.

My accidental excursion to the ancient fort proved so fulfilling that, in the next few months, I made several more visits. Each time I visited, I discovered something new.

There are no touristy crowds there jostling one another, which is a blessing. You can explore the fort in silence and marvel at the simple yet practical and sturdy architecture.

Feature photograph by Nicholas (Nichalp) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons
Photo 2 by Nicholas (Nichalp) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons
Flamingoes photo by Samruddhishetty [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

 
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Flamingo Watching At Sewri Jetty

SPACE EXPERIENCE PEOPLE FOOD + DRINK VIDEO

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FLAMINGO WATCHING AT SEWRI JETTY

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY MRIGANK WARRIER

Mrigank Warrier finds solitude amongst the flamingos at sewri jetty.

Three friends squinted down the length of Sewri Jetty, blinking into the summer sun. Skirting around a sleepy police chowki, they padded down an unnamed path in the shadow of a Mumbai Port Trust container yard. An alluring diversion appeared – a rocky trail laid over a misshapen bund, with mangroves to one side and marshes on the other, leading straight to the sea. Mangroves are queer trees. The subdued green of their foliage is unrelieved by visible flower or fruit. They crouch low to the ground, yet tower over the average human. Entire copses swish and sway in the mildest gust. And their roots breathe.

If this was The Hungry Tide fan fiction, there’d be rumours of royal Bengal tigers lurking in the swamps and prayers to Bon Bibi, the spirit of the forest. But in this protected Mangrove Park buttressing the city, the friends’ only fear was arrest by a suspicious policeman.

One friend rolled up his pants, stripped off his shoes and socks and waded into the muck to shoot a close-up of a bird he identified as a sand-plower. Another picked his way between mud and water to photograph another fine specimen, which refused to co-operate and flew away.

The third leaned against a rock, and gazed at the sea. In a city by the sea, everyone competes for their own private spot to look upon it. Far from the madding, littering, selfie-taking crowd, this was his.

If this was The Hungry Tide fan fiction, there’d be rumours of royal Bengal tigers lurking in the swamps and prayers to Bon Bibi, the spirit of the forest.

Every winter, photographers of every lens and hue navigate an industrial neighbourhood lined by snoozing cabbies, avoid the craters on a wide, gloriously ruined road and deposit tons of equipment on an unsuspecting jetty. The Bombay Natural History Society even operates a shuttle from Sewri station to ferry them to their appointment: an audience with thousands of Lesser Flamingos that migrate here all the way from the Rann of Kutch.

Tripods as tall as my mum are set up. Some shutterbugs hop from barge to obliging barge, trying to get just a little closer to the winged celebrities. My friend and I can request one of them to let us look though his viewfinder, but even without binoculars, manual settings and post-production, the birds are elegant, pink and beautiful.

They fly together as a squadron; no one is left behind. Taking off from the foreground of the ship-breaking yards of Darukhana, they soar above the oil containers of Butcher Island, flash fire over Elephanta, begin their descent over Vashi bridge, cross Thane creek, renew their glow from the pinpoint flames flickering atop the orange-white-grey chimneys of Trombay refinery and land gracefully in the waters lapping against the thin green crescent of mangroves abutting the eastern suburbs.

Or so it seems. If the mangroves are sacrificed to make way for the Nhava-Sheva Trans-Harbour Link, the flamingos won’t come back. And the only remaining subjects for photography will be the leery young men who use the artfully decaying barges as backdrop for a low-budget photoshoot.

In a city by the sea, everyone competes for their own private spot to look upon it. Far from the madding, littering, selfie-taking crowd, this was his.

Can you recall the shade of gloop left in the biggest trough of your high-school palette at the end of an art class in which you’d repeatedly “wash” your brush in a small cup of water? Mine was always a runny blue-grey; so is the monsoon vista visible from Sewri Jetty. The sky and sea are one, and the horizon is an imaginary line wiped off by the rain.

At the jetty, the dominant colour is rust. Corroded by the salt in the air and sea, scores of brown trawlers float triple-parked by the shore, gently heaving on the breast of the tide, their pennants fluttering merrily. Twisted wet ropes tether boats with maritime names like Hemant Sagar and Ocean Pride to formidable metal moorings driven deep into concrete. Monsoons are for maintenance; grim-faced men in greasy jumpsuits tinker with motors hoisted onto the dock by a giant yellow crane. One mechanic responds to the call of “screw-paana leke aa re!” by emerging from a pile of mattresses and getting to work. Mumbai was Bombay, and Bombay comes from bom baim: good bay. For some, it remains just that.

I settle at the very edge of the jetty, my eyes squinting against flying flecks of rain, my feet dangling a few feet above the watermark, my ears awash with the gurgle of the tide slapping against man’s claim on the sea. In a city obsessed with its western waterfront, I claim the east for myself.

Sewri Flamingo Point, MPT, Sewri, Mumbai 400 015

 

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