Korlai - The Lesser Known Portuguese Enclave on Konkan Coast

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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Dr Eugene D’Souza, Mumbai
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Comment on this article

  • telef, goa

    Sun, May 15 2016

    I want to visit Korlai. Are there any hotels ? can anyone guide me?

  • Sandip , bhiwandi

    Sat, Jun 06 2015


  • Angela DeSouza, Korlai/Goa/Bombay

    Tue, Apr 21 2015

    Dr. D'Souza - I do apolgoise in advance for using your article as a medium of contact. Having said that, I do recall many happy childhood memories of Summer & mid-year holidays spent in Korlai.
    My mum (Cecilia/Celestine Viegas d/o of late James Francis Viegas) is from Korlai.
    This message is for Lily Kapse, Francis Viegas & Felix D'Souza from Korlai.
    I am trying to contact someone from the Church / Parish Office. Please could I request for a contact name & telephone # at the Parish Office ?
    Thank you very much in advance for your help.
    Kind regards,

  • Yogiraj, Alibag

    Tue, Mar 24 2015

    Sir ,
    Very nice article on Korlai village and history of Korlai fort.One information I would like to share is that according to one research stone used for constructing Korlai fort was brought from Vasai aka Bassein. If any student of architecture can use this model for case study.
    Also Korlai fort is under ASI.Few years ago old church building was restructured.It is up to the mark.

  • Jimmy Fernandes, Bandra

    Mon, Nov 24 2014

    I do not mind paying for any book/booklet that we can read on Korlai. We are hoping to visit next month for a day or two

  • Lily Kapse, Korlai / Mumbai

    Thu, Feb 06 2014

    Thanks a ton for this informative article. Korlai being my native place, I had never known of these facts. So lucky to read this. Good Luck and God Bless you

  • Mr. Prashant K. Vanarse, At Post-Borli

    Sat, Jan 18 2014

    Dr. Eugene, i would like to thank you very much for such an informative article. Korlai has been my neighbor's place where i had passed my childhood at Borli Village and one of the beautiful places for me. your studies for this place has enhanced the importance of the village in the historical aspect. Thanks a lot and god bless you : Felix D'Souza sj

  • telef, Goa/ Mumbai

    Sat, Mar 26 2011

    I am very impressed about this beautiful place. I want to visit it.More specifically I want to hear the Portuguese spoken by them, 'kristi', I love this word, it honors Christ. My father had visited this place around 1919( mor or less)

  • Felix D'Souza, Korlai

    Tue, Feb 08 2011

    Dr. Eugene, i would like to thank you very much for such an informative article. Korlai has been my birth place and one of the beautiful places for me. your studies for this place has enhanced the importance of the village in the historical aspect. thanks a lot and god bless you : Felix D'Souza sj

  • Francis Viegas, Korlai

    Tue, Feb 08 2011

    Thank you very much

  • Adrian D, Bombay / Overseas

    Sun, Sep 12 2010

    Is the Korlai Fort protected by the Archaelogical Survey of India?

  • Marco, Goa

    Sat, Mar 20 2010

    Guess what, being a Portuguese Language specialist, at this very moment I find myself at Korlai trying to decipher this "kristi" language!! And Dr Eugene, your article has provided a perfect platform!

  • Rajeshree, Pune

    Wed, Jul 15 2009

    My Schooling was completed in korlai MT.CARMEL highschool. because of this link I rememberd all the childhood days.

  • Shaalyn Monteiro, Korlai/Mumbai/UK

    Sun, Jun 07 2009

    Very informative article..I m basically the grandaughter of Mr.Jerome F Rosario, who has been mentioned couple of times in this article. Though Korlai being my native place, I have found various interesting facts that I never knew in this article of yours''. Thank you so much for giving my grand father the due credit he deserves.Hoping this small village of ours'' has really interested you a lot. Hoping you write more about the village too next time.Tc n God bless.

  • Afzal khan, mumbai

    Wed, Aug 20 2008

    DR , Eugene , nice photos, you should write something about Hindu and Muslim community too.

  • Ronald, Udupi

    Thu, Jun 26 2008

    Thank you Daiji for such an interesting article and wonderful photos. Great work by Dr. Eugine.

  • Sonali Pednekar, Mumbai

    Thu, Jun 26 2008

    I found the article makes very interesting reading & very informative for those with an eye for history. The photographs make you want to visit the place.

  • Dr Eugene D'Souza, Mumbai

    Wed, Jun 25 2008

    This is in reference to Mr Don Lobo's interesting queries. As per the tradition St Thomas Landed at Kodungallur on the Malabar coast in 52 AD in the company of a Jewish merchant Hebban. There were Jewish colonies in Kodungallur since ancient times and Jews continue to reside in Kerala. The Jewish Christians also known as Nazareens were supported from Mesopotamia and Persia, since ancient times.

    There is no reference to St Thomas having landed on the Konkan coast. The conversion of the local people living in Korlai was chiefly the work of the missionaries who were patronized by the Portuguese. St Francis Xavier who had arrived at Goa did visit the Portuguese settlements including Bassein. However, I have not yet come across any reference to the conversion activities of St Francis Xavier at Korlai.


    Wed, Jun 25 2008

    A very interesting presentation with beautiful photographs which make us feel that we are actually at the location. Thanks for the same. Also thought of sharing with you some thoughts....Is it St.Francis Xaviour or the Portugese who are mainly responsible for the conversions in these areas...? or were there Christians who may have been already converted earlier by St.Thomas himself.

    After all the ship that carried St.Thomas would also have carried many others (including crew members, families etc.)who too may have accompanied him in his journey and the ship would have sailed on the Arabian Sea close to the coast-line all through and traces or remnances of their religious activities may still be there along the coastline espcially from Gujarath till Cochin (including Mangalore).

  • Irene Pais, Mangalore

    Wed, Jun 25 2008

    Congratulations Dr. D'Souza for publishing such an unique article.I enjoyed reading the article as well as seeing the photographs.Thanks a lot for sharing your pleasure with us.Good Luck and God bless you.Regards.Irene

  • Joseph DSouza, Mangalore

    Mon, Jun 23 2008

    I read the article with interest. Both the article and the photographs are unique in nature.Thanks to Dr.Eugene DSouza for sharing the same with others. Good Luck ! Joseph DSouza

  • Ned D'Cunha, Mangalore/Abu Dhabi

    Tue, Jun 24 2008

    Good work Dr.Eugene. I appreciate your interest in history. Do not see any conservation work. Sorry to note out of  70 canons only 17 are remaining, hope the ones taken are kept in someones garden & not melted down for scrap.

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