Diu: A slice of Portugal in Gujarat

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Beyond the beautiful Portuguese churches and forts, ANURAG MALLICK discovers Diu’s walled city, quiet beaches and caves, Parsi legacy and meets a disco lassi wala

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Like long lost brothers separated at a fair and brought up miles apart in different cities, the story of Daman and Diu is equally dramatic. After doing the rounds of either city, the first thing a visitor usually asks for is the way to the inseparable other, only to be shocked by the discovery that Daman & Diu are 700 km apart.

United by Portuguese ancestry, yet shortchanged by geography, Daman and Diu stare across the yawning gap of Gulf of Khambhat (Cambay) like proverbial twins destined never to meet. Not even in the climax of the film! Though both share a border with Gujarat and are located on the seafront, Daman is near Surat in southern Gujarat and Diu lies close to Junagadh in the southern tip of the Saurashtra Peninsula.

No one finds this more bothersome than the people of Diu, who consider traveling on work to the administrative headquarters in Daman as some sort of corporal punishment. ‘The beaches are not swimmable, the sand is black and the mud is smelly’, said my taxi driver referring to Daman’s industrial hinterland as we zipped out of the tiny Diu Airport. It was a short ride to Azzaro Resort & Spa, located just across the road from the sprawling Kohinoor Hotel. While Kohinoor was Diu’s first resort, Azzaro was easily the best; both run by Yatin Fugro, whose roots lie in Goa. ‘Can’t you tell by the unusual name,’ he quipped. It was pride in the island’s Portuguese legacy and a saturation of the Goa market that prompted Fugro to set up shop in this unchartered land. ‘If you thought Goa is laid back, Diu is the sort of place that makes Goa seem like Chandni Chowk!’

For nearly 450 years, Goa, Daman and Diu were under Portuguese control until the coastal enclaves gained independence on Dec 19, 1961. But it wasn’t until 1974 that Portugal formally recognized India’s re-annexation of the territories, which were made into one union territory. When Goa achieved full statehood in 1987, Daman and Diu were made into two districts in one Union Territory, albeit a few hundred kilometers apart.

Situated in the south coast of the Kathiawar peninsula and separated from the mainland by a tidal creek, Diu seemed like a land that time had forgotten. Traffic was non-existent, the air was clean and wide open beaches lay dotted by clumps of hoka (Hyphoena indica), a type of branching palm brought from Africa by the Portuguese, found nowhere else in the country.

Despite its idyllic charm, Diu had a tumultuous past. In 1509, it was the site of a pivotal clash that involved many nations. The Battle of Diu was fought between Portugal and a combined force of Turkey, Egypt, Venice, the Republic of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) and the Sultan of Gujarat, Mahmud Begada. Despite repeated forays by the Portuguese to acquire Diu, it was given to them on a platter in 1535 by Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat as reward for their military aid against the Mughal emperor Humayun. As part of a defensive alliance, the Portuguese were allowed to construct a fort and maintain a garrison on the island.

The Siege of Diu by the Ottoman Empire in 1538 and later attacks by the Arabs of Muscat and the Dutch failed to dislodge the Portuguese from Diu. Only a detailed exploration of Diu Fort will make you understand why it was one of the most important Portuguese forts in Asia. My fast-talking guide Nitin Joshi, proudly sporting a Sahara India jersey to show where his allegiance lay, took me around the 56,736 sq m fort to explain what made it an ‘abhed kila’.

Constructed in 1535 by Nuno Da Cunha and completed by Dom João de Castro after the Siege of 1545, Diu Fort stood on the island’s extreme southeast point, skirted by sea on three sides. Two crocodile-infested ditches and double gateways protected the fortress and seven bastions on the outer and inner lines, named after Christian saints, faced the city to the west. St George bastion, the oldest part of the fort, protected the gateway and landing pier, while a labyrinthine passage led to the Governor’s Palace, prison, barracks for garrisons, state offices, churches and a lighthouse with a splendid view.

Stone cisterns collected rainwater and there was enough storage facilities for arms, ammunition, rations and water to withstand any siege. With 60 moveable cannons and ramparts to drag them up for reinforcing a front, the fort also had several underground escape channels. I declined my guide’s offer to go inside one of the dark bat-infested caverns. ‘The jail inside the fort has very good facilities, but it’s empty as there’s no crime in Diu’, Joshi remarked. ‘There are two types of tourists in Diu’, he continued, ‘Those who come for Daru Darshan, attracted by cheap booze in an otherwise dry state. And there are those who come for Diu Darshan’. I assured him I was here for the latter and took his leave.

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Nowhere was the Portuguese imprint more visible than Old Diu, where churches were reminiscent of Bom Jesus in Goa and old women in gowns chattered in Portuguese. Of the three Baroque churches in Diu, the first church built was that of St. Francis of Assisi. Erected in 1593 as a Franciscan friary, its cloisters now served as a hospital. St Thomas Church, a huge gothic edifice built in 1598 was converted into the Diu Museum with 400-year-old wooden idols, stone tablets and artefacts.

The only church still used for its original purpose was St. Paul’s Church dedicated to our Lady of Immaculate Conception. Founded by Jesuits in 1600 as a seminary and rebuilt in 1807, its Gothic façade and magnificent wood-carved altar and pulpit are masterpieces of Christian Art and believed to be the most elaborate of any Portuguese church in India. As a reference to its proximity to the sea, shell-like motifs were integrated into the intricate designs. Interestingly, the Portuguese built Diu’s churches with domes, not only because of a lack of wood but also to protect it from cyclones.

But under the grand Portuguese façade, lies an older history that peeps through Diu’s nooks and crannies. At the ancient Shiva shrine on the seashore at Gangeswar, waves lap against the lingas as libations. On a hillock stood the shrine of Jallandhar, a water demon slayed by Vishnu’s discus, lending its name to the Chakratirth beach.

Diu also reserves its place in Parsi history. The sacred fire brought from Iran was carried to Kohistan in Khurasan and after a century of safe-keeping moved to the port of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf for fifteen years, before ending up in South Gujarat at Diu. Here, it lodged for nineteen years, until it finally found its way to Sanjan, Navsari and Udvada.

The town lay to the eastern side of the 40 sq km island while on the opposite end on the mainland was the village of Ghoghla. Both the Nagoa & Ghoghla beaches were quiet, except on weekends. Near the Sunset Point was a monument dedicated to the crew of INS Khukri, whose crew chose to go down with the Indian warship when hit by three torpedoes fired from PNS Hangor, a Pakistani submarine, on 9 December, 1971.

The serene beaches, stunning Naida Caves, the walled city of Jhampa, the colourful chhakdas (local fatfatiya-type transport), the Kathiawari influence and historic churches gave Diu a surreal backdrop! And Bollywood was quick to tap its potential. Switzerland was recreated in Diu for Salman Khan’s Veergati while Ajay Devgan shot three of his films here, almost becoming Diu’s unofficial brand ambassador. Locals proudly point out Panikotha or Fortim do Mar used in Qayamat, a ship-shaped structure in the sea near the fort connected to it by an under-sea tunnel. Devgan returned to shoot Zameer and Priyadarshan’s Aakrosh, fuelling uncontrollable fan frenzy, whose craziest manifestation is Harish Disco Lassi wala.

In the tiny Gayatri Lassi stall at Diu Market, this self-professed Devgan fan makes lassi while performing to a background score, mouthing lyrics, juggling glasses and tossing cream with musical flourish. God knows what will happen after Karan Johar’s Agneepath. Till then, like a bizarre reincarnation story, Diu remains a Portuguese soul trapped inside a Gujarati body. Or maybe it’s the other way round…

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the October, 2011 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways’ in-train magazine.

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5 responses »

  1. I’ve been browsing on-line more than 3 hours as of late, yet I by no means discovered any fascinating article like yours. It’s pretty value enough for me. In my view, if all web owners and bloggers made excellent content material as you did, the net can be a lot more useful than ever before.

  2. What a fascinating history. Had no idea other than the Portuguese, even the Egyptians and the Ottomans wanted a piece of Diu. Went there a few months back. It’s like being transported to another world. And one of the most beautiful sunsets you can see. Thanks for the article. Also, please mention what’s the best/easiest way to get there. Not much connectivity by air or train. One reason why it’s still a pristine little place, I guess.

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