June 23, 2008
The West Coast of India is dotted with ports and forts that recount the historical legacy of the region. Local Indian rulers and later, the Europeans, beginning with the Portuguese tried to establish their control over the stretches of the Malabar as well as the Konkan coasts. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to find a trade route to India under the leadership of Vasco da Gama who first landed at Calicut in 1498.
The Portuguese gradually established their settlements at regular intervals right from Cochin to Diu on the Western Coast of India. Their chief settlements included Cochin, Goa, Korlai, Chaul, Mumbai, Bassein (Vasai), Daman and Diu. Among these, Korlai, with a strong hill-fort near Chaul, occupied a strategic position.
The name of Korlai had cropped up quite a number of times in the course of my research on the Portuguese, British as well as Maratha history. Though not far away from Mumbai, I did not get an opportunity to visit the place. However, during my recent visit to Alibaug, I made up my mind to explore this medieval Portuguese enclave.
Five of us, my host in Alibaug, Vithal Patil, a retired forest officer, his two daughters, Mangala and Meenakshi, my wife Benny and myself set out from Alibaug to Korlai in the morning. Korlai village is at a distance of 23 km from Alibaug on the road to Murud. It is situated on the slopes of Konkan range between Arabian Sea on the west and Revdanda back-waters on its east.
After alighting at Korlai, we paid a visit to the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel established in 1741, and met the parish priest Fr Donald D’Souza from Vasai. From the church we could see the thick walls of the magnificent Portuguese fort on the hill stretching from the main land into the sea.
The population of the Korlai village is around 3000. It has separate sections for the Christians, Hindus and Muslims. A small community of less than a thousand people in Korlai, especially the descendants of the original converts to Christianity still speaks a unique language known as Portuguese Creole (a blend of Portuguese and local Marathi). It is also called ‘Kristi’ language, that is, the language spoken by the Christians. The locals refer this language as ‘Naw Ling’, meaning ‘our language’. This language originated among the Christian farming community in upper Korlai from around 1520.
After the Portuguese vacated Korlai in 1740, following their defeat by the Marathas, there has been little contact between the local community and Portugal. In spite of this, the Portuguese Creole has continued for nearly three centuries as a result of relative cultural isolation of this village.
For many years, Korlai and its Christian inhabitants were relatively isolated from the Marathi-speaking Hindus and Muslims surrounding them. With the improvement in transport and communication, the isolation of the Korlai village has broken down and the more dominant languages such as Marathi and Hindi are increasingly spoken by the younger generations. Hence, the Portuguese Creole of Korlai is gradually on the verge of fading away.
An attempt towards the preservation of this unique language was made when Jerome Rosario, a villager from Korlai based in Mumbai began collecting data about Korlai’s history. Along with a German researcher, Rosario compiled the history of Korlai, Revdanda and Chaul forts for a book published by the University of Munich, Germany.
Another scholar from USA, Prof Clancy Clements also visited Korlai, learnt the Portuguese Creole of Korlai and compiled an oral history in a book titled ‘Naw Ling Su Istaur’ (The Story of My Language). This book consists of 37 folk tales in Portuguese which have been transferred from generation to generation. This book is the only surviving document of the Korlai Portuguese.
After refreshing ourselves with the ‘kokum sherbet’ offered by Fr Donald, we bid him goodbye and proceeded towards the fort. From the main road, passing through the Korlai village and fishermen’s settlement we proceeded towards the base of the Korlai hill which is 275 feet high.
There are two routes to the top of the hill where the fort is situated. The right side route, a narrow walking path climbs up through acacia trees to the top. The left side rough road near the beach leads to a light house. From behind the light house there are flights of steep steps leading to the western entrance of the fort. We took the latter route and reached the western entrance of the fort facing the sea.
The Korlai fort is 2,828 feet long, and its average breadth is 89 feet. The fort can be entered by eleven gates, of which four are outer and seven are inner. Except the outer wall on the eastern slope, the fort is in a fairly good condition.
The top of the hill is bastioned and surrounded by a parapet. It has a large underground rain-water tank with three openings, each one foot wide. The water from this tank is supplied to the rest house near the lighthouse. The temple of Ratneshwar is located near the water-tank. We also came across the ruins of the magazine and the church which is now partially roofless except for the coffered vault in the chancel.
There are three Portuguese inscriptions within the fort. Over one of the inscriptions surmounted by a cross is a coat of arms with a shield, the Portuguese star in the center surrounded by seven castles. The other inscriptions, one over the chief entrance, the other over an altar in the chapel, are worn out and unreadable.
Going westwards we came across two bastions, the one on seaside is called San Diago and the one on the creek side is called San Francisco. In all there are seven bastions originally bearing the names of Christian saints. However, during the Maratha occupation of the fort (1740-1818) these bastions were given Marathi names.
As we descended down through the seven doorways, we reached the western front where the storehouse for ammunition is located. On the western and northern ends, cannons were stationed, pointing towards the sea and the fort of Revdanda respectively. It has been discovered that there were 70 cannons in the fort in 1602. However, presently there are only 17 cannons lying at different points among the ruins of the fort.
Korlai was initially known as the ‘Rock of Chaul’. According to an article written by Prof Clancy Clements, Portuguese invaders arrived on the Konkan coast in 1505, and captured the Revdanda and Chaul forts by 1523. Following conversions to Christianity among the local inhabitants, the Portuguese replaced Marathi with their own Portuguese language in certain coastal areas.
Between 1505 and 1594, the Portuguese army fought several wars with local rulers and finally established their supremacy over the region in 1594. The Korlai Fort was captured from the Nizamshahi rulers of Ahmednagar and a village (Korlai) was established at the foothills. The Portuguese built the St Mathews Church in the fort around 1630 for the use of the army.
In 1684, Chatrapati Sambhaji, son of Chatrapati Shivaji made an unsuccessful attempt to capture the fort from the Portuguese. The Korlai Fort was finally conquered by the Marathas in 1740 and later acquired by the British in 1818 following the final defeat of the Marathas.
After spending around two hours exploring the various parts of the Korlai Fort, we descended the hill after negotiating narrow and quite dangerous path towards the eastern entrance at the sea-level and took the narrow path passing through the slope of the hill crossing the acacia trees back to the village.
It took us around three hours from the Korlai village to climb the fort from the western side of the ridge, explore the fort and climb down through eastern gate and back to the village, thus taking a full circle around entire Korlai hill.
Korlai also has a beautiful beach for those who would like to blend interest in history and adventure with leisure and fun. However, there is no appropriate lodging facility at the Korlai village. One has to either go back to Alibaug or find moderate lodging at Revdanda, both not too far away from Korlai.
It was around one O’clock in the afternoon, and while walking back towards the main road through the Korlai village, I turned towards the hill receding in background and felt a sense of satisfaction of visiting one of the lesser known Portuguese enclaves on the Konkan Coast, which still bears a witness to the Portuguese history through the mute ruins of the Korlai Fort and the Portuguese Creole language, though spoken by few.
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