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The forts the Portuguese built

In over 450 years of rule, the Portuguese built forts across Goa to control the maritime trade. Today, these are an architectural heritage

Fort Aguada and the lighthouse
Fort Aguada and the lighthouse (Photo: iStock)

In 1510, when viceroy Afonso de Albuquerque overcame the resistance of the Adil Shahi sultans of Bijapur and conquered parts of Goa, the region became the first to be colonized in India; 451 years later, when the Indian military forced the Portuguese to leave in 1961, Goa became the last colonized region to join the union of India. These historical facts had been on my mind every time I visited Goa over the last decade. Surely, over 400 years of Portuguese rule must mean there exist several vestiges of a maritime empire which spanned from Africa to Japan to the new world? Certainly, there must be more built heritage than the magnificent churches and convents of Velha Goa (Old Goa)? Armed with Amita Kanekar’s book Portuguese Sea Forts Goa With Chaul, Korlai and Vasai, I travelled to Panaji. These forts were strongholds built to protect and control the maritime trade on the Arabian Sea coast. Commodities like pepper, textiles, sandalwood and precious jewels were exported, and horses, raw silk, musk and even African slaves were imported via these fortifications.

The church at Reis Magos.
The church at Reis Magos. (Photo: Bisav Biradar)

Reis Magos

Located 8km from Panaji, Reis Magos is the oldest surviving Portuguese fort in the region. Built atop a hill on the bank of the Mandovi river, the fort underwent restoration in 2012. A ramp leads to the entrance, where the Portuguese coat of arms is etched on a half-broken stone on the doorway. A small outpost built by the Bijapur Adil Shahis stood here before the Portuguese occupied it in the 16th century. Once the administrative centre had been established at Velha Goa, strong fortification was needed to guard the river route and a fort was built. Another fort, Gaspar Dias, was built in nearby Miramar; no signs of it remain today.

The signboards at Reis Magos make it easy to navigate. One sign talks about a defensive feature called the “death hole", a small square perforation in the walls through which hot oil was poured or guns fired on unwanted guests. A gallery has exhibits on the structure’s evolution from an Adil Shashi outpost to a two-storeyed fort to a jail during the Goan freedom movement. A short ramp leads to the two angular bastions with views of the Mandovi, where young soldiers must have kept watch over the many ships carrying valuable goods. The ramparts of this fort are said to have had 33 guns but only a few are on display now. Unlike the circular and rectangular bastions of other Deccan forts, the bastions here are angular to better deflect cannon-ball fire.

A large building, perhaps once the barracks, has an exhibition on Goa’s freedom movement. Apart from housing soldiers and ammunition, these forts served as storehouses for goods traded on the sea route. Old maps, postcards, paintings, historical sketches and engravings displayed in the vaults at the lower level help understand the social and architectural history of Goa. A 19th century sketch of the fort reveals how the fortifications once reached till the river.

To the east of the fort is an imposing, whitewashed church with the coat of arms in the centre of the pediment of the façade. Chapels or churches to nourish the faith of the soldiers were a regular feature of the forts, according to the book.


If the Portuguese had thought Reis Magos and Gaspar Dias would be sufficient, they were proven wrong by a Dutch fleet that dodged fire from the two forts and anchored in the Mandovi for a month in the 17th century. Consequently, the Portuguese constructed new forts south along the Zuari river, and one in the north named Aguada. Aguada Fort, 10km from Reis Magos and easily the most popular, frequently sees long queues at the ticket counter. The wait is made pleasant by the views of a beautiful rock-cut moat running around the walls of the citadel on three sides. The medieval lighthouse in the large courtyard inside was in use till the second half of the 20th century, when a new lighthouse was built adjacent to the fort. An interesting structure is the covered cistern at the centre of the citadel. It has square openings on top for harvesting rain water, perfect during a siege. Aguada enjoys the reputation of never having been breached and is said to have been in use till the 19th century. In fact, the prison in the lower fort is still functional as the Central Jail.

Santo Estevao

Tired and in search of a quieter spot, I headed to the Santo Estevao fort on the island of the same name. By the end of the 17th century, the Portuguese had to fight the growing might of the Marathas and the British. A whitewashed building (most probably an armoury or a barracks) stands in the middle of this tiny fortification, built after an attack by the Marathas. This fortification must have been a watchtower that once held as many as 25 guns, though none can be seen today.


Located inside the premises of the Mormugao Port Trust, the Mormugao fort is a little hard to find. Not much remains of this fortification built by the famous military engineer Julio Simão. The book tells me that much of it was lost in the development of Mormugao harbour and Vasco city. A small entrance gateway leads to the remains of the upper fort, where a cross stands. It is a good place to study how fort architecture changed as weapons evolved. Initially, the forts were built from mud and timber, but as weapons evolved and gunfire came into play, thick walls were built, with a massive layer of earth filled in between the two outer masonry layers. Tall ramparts and towers gave way to low walls and strategically placed bastions.

Cabo de Rama

No one seems to be certain of the origins of the name although the state website says it was named after Lord Ram by the Hindu feudatories (rajas of Sonda) who controlled the fort after the decline of the Adil Shahis. It is popularly believed that Ram and Sita stayed here during their exile from Ayodhya. The Portuguese took control of this fort in the 18th century and modified it as per their requirements. Although it is in ruins today, the impressive gatehouse (rebuilt in 1952) built in the form of a naqqar khana (a gateway with an upper chamber used by musicians), is a reminder of its Adil Shahi origins. Here, the upper chamber could have also been used by soldiers as a vantage point and to launch a surprise attack on an enemy trying to breach the fort. Apart from the laterite remains of the ramparts and bastions, I found a few cannons, a chapel, and a water tank. A small pathway from the fort leads to a beach that is probably one of the most beautiful and secluded in Goa.


The Chapora fort was annexed by the Portuguese in the mid-16th century when they occupied the Bardez region along with Salcette in the south. This fort was attacked several times by the Marathas and was also occupied by the Bhonsales for many years in the 17th century. The citadel, larger than any of the other forts, was built not only to house the soldiers and defend the region, but also as a refuge for villagers during an attack. The book says that a barracks, chapel and custom house existed here, though not much remains of them today. Once rarely visited, this fort was transformed into a bustling tourist destination after it was featured in the super-hit Bollywood movie Dil Chahta Hai.


The Corjuem fort is surrounded by land on all sides. The island of Corjuem was also an Adil Shahi property that went to the Bhonsales of Sawantwadi after their decline. It was annexed by the Portuguese after the defeat of the Marathas at the hands of the Mughals in the early 18th century and rebuilt in what architectural historians call “the Italian renaissance style" in the 19th century. Inside, ramps at the four corners lead to angular bastions, making for a fantastic view from the entrance.

By the middle of the 18th century, the Portuguese had lost the port of Bombay, the star of their allies, the Mughals, was declining and the Marathas were on the rise. Their global maritime empire was reduced to the Indian peninsula. It is remarkable, though, that the Portuguese remained in power in Goa till 1961. Beaches, parties and now casinos form the perception of Goa for most tourists. But, as I discovered, the Portuguese architectural heritage has a lot to offer, with fort architecture here having influenced the design of fortresses across the subcontinent. But the question which lingered in my mind is do we care enough to restore and maintain these magnificent remains of the Portuguese maritime empire?

Basav Biradar is a researcher, writer and documentary film-maker.

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