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Sunday, Apr 08, 2007



Finding Farhan's fort


A journey across Goa looking for a fort.

The way home: The lighthouse in Aguada Fort.

THE sun is beating down relentlessly on us, a quartet of friends who go back a long way. We are rendezvousing in Goa, it's a reunion of sorts, and at my behest, we are seeking one particular fort. You know, the one where the three protagonists of Farhan Akhtar's "Dil Chahta Hai" sat and watched ships come and go. The temptation to sit on the stone parapet and make like those comrades-in-arms is too much for us to resist.
Starting the search
Right now, we are at Tiracol Fort, far north in Goa, on the small piece of Goan land that abuts Maharashtra. Tiracol is a stone fort, dating back to 1617; it was built by the Raja of Sawantwadi but captured by the Portuguese and rebuilt by them in 1764. Sitting on a hillock above the estuary, it affords truly sweeping vistas of the sea, even a sheer drop from one side. There is a shrine to St. Antony on the premises, a statue of Christ in the courtyard, and a modest-sized hostelry, the Tiracol Fort Hotel. This is a fort rich in history, scene of many a battle. In August 1954, satyagrahis entered the fort and captured Tiracol through entirely peaceful means. Later, it was used as a base for freedom fighters during the liberation of Goa in 1961. A beautiful fort. But it's not Farhan's fort.

* * *

Another morning and another relentless sun. We are at Chapora Fort in Bardez. Accessing it is no mean feat since it involves scrabbling on an incline of tiny sharp stones and loose gravel that slip and slither from under your feet. Once we are at the top, though, we find the climb well worth it. Blue, blue seas, fluffy white clouds in blue blue skies, and to one side, a flock of gulls circling the head of a solitary fisherman wielding a fragile-looking vessel on the Chapora river. Coconuts and cashew plantations stand dense behind us, the hugely popular Vagator and Anjuna beaches are strewn with white flesh busily turning themselves lobster red. And in the sea, ships come and go.

Chapora is the corruption of the original name of the area, Shahpura; the fort was built by Adil Shah, ruler of Bijapur. It was in Maratha hands till the early 1700s when the Portuguese captured and then rebuilt it, putting up nine guns, adding tunnels and a bastion on the rocky bluff.

Could this be it? Someone points out that he had noticed a charcoal scribble at the base of an electricity pole that said "DCH fort". We look hard about us, channeling the fort scenes from the film. "Naah", is the ultimate verdict. Those blackened brick perches are missing. As is a sweeping stone-laden ground. And as we slip and slide our way back to where our hired scooters are parked, we wonder why the Tourism Department can't cut some feet-friendly steps in this steep hillside.
* * *
A travel blog states that Aguada Fort, again in Bardez, is the DCH fort. Unfortunately, our visit there coincides with that of a pack of Sunday picnickers, all chattering like loquacious magpies and generally behaving like Indian tourists do, complete with detritus of wafer packets and soft drink bottles and a general disregard for monuments. Within minutes of being in Aguada, however, we can safely debunk the myth that this is the fort. It, quite clearly, is not.

Well preserved
Aguada Fort, which crowns the rocky flattened top of the headland, is the best-preserved of the erstwhile Portuguese bastions. Built in 1612 to protect the northern shores of the Mandovi estuary from Dutch and Maratha raiders, it was the first source of drinking water available to ships arriving in Goa from Lisbon; once, the cistern here could actually hold more than two million gallons of water! A spring within the fort provided the water supply, giving it the name "Aguada", water in Portuguese. The 13-metre high lighthouse stands badly in need of fresh paint; the giant bell that hung there is now at the Our Lady of Immaculate Conception church in Panaji. Oh, and part of this fort now houses the Central Jail!
* * *

We give the Cabo Palace Fort, circa 1540, situated opposite the Aguada Fort and on the south headland of the Mandovi River, a miss because it is now the Raj Bhavan, a magnificent building indeed but prior permission is needed to enter. (Could Farhan have taken the necessary permission? Were we missing out on something here?) The Fort Reis Magos (referring to the Biblical Three Magi, in fact) on the right bank of the Mandovi River is no longer accessible to visitors and when we peer through overgrown shrubbery, all we see is more shrubbery gone berserk. Nary a brick anywhere, leave alone a glimpse of the sea.

* * *
At Fort Cabo de Rama (named so, since Ayodhya's king and his wife Sita were supposed to have stayed here awhile during their 14-year exile), in the deep south of Goa, one of our lot announces that she'd read about this being the fort. And indeed, after we walk past the small church of St. Antony, the smaller grotto of Mary with a profusely flowering bougainvillea drooping in tribute over it, the landscape does rather resemble that seen in the film. The 21-gun fortress used to house a prison once; a shell of a building stands, more dwelling than gaol, though. There is the view of a quiet bay on one side, the sea on the other, a veritable carpet of seagulls all squatting on the surface of the water, their wings glinting in the sun. But when we reach the rampart, it is clear that this huge ruin is not the one we are seeking.

* * *
Neither is the Rachol Fort, on the left bank of the picturesque Zuari River near Margaon, where it is clear that Nature has reclaimed her own, shrouding the remains of the 16th Century fortress in weeds and lichen. This is Desolation Station, indeed.

Cold trail
By now, it is also clear to us that the DCH fort trail has gone cold, we have missed out on our photo session. However, we are unanimous in that we have thoroughly enjoyed trawling these erstwhile showpieces of Portuguese power. Even though Maratha, Muslim and British hands held some of them for a while, these forts are essentially Portuguese in character, magnificent bastions of trading and maritime power in times past, with their thick low parapets, their battlements, cylindrical turrets, cannons, their moats. Today, trekkers and tourists come to have their fill of the gorgeous views of the Arabian Sea.

On the last day of our Goa stay, we are at a popular eatery in Calangute, Sousa Lobos, tucking into sorpotel and vindaloo. Our waiter is a local rejoicing in the name of Nigel Colaco, as friendly as all the locals invariably are. It is to Nigel that I put the pertinent question. "Why, the Chapora Fort," he says, heading back to the kitchens to get us some more poee bread.

Four people look at each other. Four minds recall that impossible incline. Do we really want to go back for a photo op? And then, four voices say in unison, "Naah."

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