Asherigad, Maharashtra, India

Military Architecture

The fortified plain of Asserim on top of an abrupt mountain between Vasai and Damão was one of the Província do Norte’s most renowned fortifications. It was located about 30 km from the coast. It was considered unconquerable, unless by hunger or bribing its defenders, among the other minor fortifications built in the mountains and by the rivers. The Asserim range was a key point defending the province’s hinterland, especially the praganas of Mahim-Quelme and Tara- pur. It was simultaneously the gateway and interior border of Portuguese territory. Described by various Portuguese and foreign authors, it is mentioned in reports and encyclopaedias published in Europe in the 18th century. Taking advantage of internal confusion in the Gujarat Sultanate, in 1554 the Estado da Índia obtained the cession of Daman and its territory by means of a treaty. However, before occupying the area the Portuguese had to fight with Cide Bofetá, the Abyssinian Muslim potentate who effectively controlled the territory. To that end, the captain of Vasai, António Moniz Barreto, with the help of a Muslim merchant, bribed the Abyssinian captain who commanded Asserim. The position was taken in 1556. António Moniz Barreto next occupied the Fort of Manorá without finding much resistance. The effective conquest of Daman in 1559 the stabilised the eastern border of the Província do Norte. Between 1578 and 1581 Asserim was included in the Baçaim district, with territory and administrative status. It became a very important pragana, encompassing 38 villages and six parishes. Contemporary descriptions refer to the discipline and regular payment of salaries of the garrison (usually comprising convict soldiers), and the high military value of the fortress captain’s position. The fertility of its villages and surrounding forests ensured economic stability. Standing out was the exploitation of teak wood, sent down the Surya and Vaitarna Rivers to the shores of Agassaim and Vasai. This was one of the rare points in the Estado da Índia’s defensive system with food autonomy during the monsoon. The steep craggy slopes were the fortification’s main defence. At the edge of the plateau the defenders placed large rocks ready to be cast at anyone trying to climb up. There was only one route to the top, and even that was impassable for horses or cattle, and risky for humans. The most vulnerable areas were garrisoned with passes (12 or 13 in all). At the southwest base of the mountain was the entrenchment of Vanapor or Vamapor, centred on a two-storey tower and defended by a palisade. The fortress’s captain lived here during peacetime. Here the top of Asserim mountain could be accessed by a route with two passes (Selada and Boa Esperança) and a tunnel with steps dug out of the rocky massif, about 25m long. At the end of the tunnel was a trap door connecting to a platform defended by four or five residents. Finally the west-facing Entrance Pass was accessed, the only one with small artillery pieces, three, as can be seen in images from about 1635. Portuguese soldiers, a total of from 80 to 120, lived in the various passes. On the north side was the Vacas Pass, equipped with a winch to lift horses or cattle up to the plateau. To the north were also the Tarde and For- mosa Passes, close to which was a perennial wellspring. To the east was the Elefante Pass from which people were thrown to their death. Parabur Pass was to the south. The plateau measured about 700 by 300 meters along its major axes, and was sufficiently large for raising cattle. It commanded broad views of all the surrounding terri- tory and to the sea. It contained various cisterns and tanks, the captain’s residence, a church dedicated to Our Lady of Remedies (built after 1601), a small octagonal fortified tower and also deposits to store cereals. In 1634 Asserim was defended by 120 soldiers. There were also about 150 residents able to bear arms and a large number of officers and adjutants. In 1720 the garrison comprised 150 soldiers and three corporals, although many of the defence structures on the plateau were ruined. The military engineer André Ribeiro Coutinho, a central figure in the reform of the Província do Norte’s defence system around 1730, described a very negative scenario regarding the fortification’s state and the lax approach of the captain, a petty tyrant more interested in a personal business selling timber. In 1737, during the major Chimnaji Appa offensive against the Província do Norte, Asserim fell into Maratha hands, but was re-conquered in the counter-offensive by António Cardim de Fróis, the new general of the North. In February 1739 it fell definitively into Maratha hands. In 1817 the fortress was occupied by the British, without major resistance. The following year Dickenson recorded that almost all the plateau’s structures were in ruins. What remained was systematically destroyed by the British, including the tunnel and trap door. The mountain of Asserim was thenceforward definitively abandoned. A carved stone with the Portuguese coat-of-arms, probably from the Entrance Pass, is currently found next to the ascending tunnel’s ruins. On the plateau there are still various tanks once used to collect rain water, as well as ruins of the defensive perimeter passes. A central area contains vestiges of a hexagonal tower and the marks of log cabins, mats and palm-leaf roofs, probably very similar to those used by residents of the old village of Khadkona at the foot of the mountain near the old entrenchment where the climb to the top began.

Sidh Losa Mendiratta