Rishi Majumder unveils Kala Killa a.k.a Rehwa Fort, a site whose heritage is protected by an unlikely sentinel
Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
Despite recent victories by heritage conservationists (toilet demolitions, heritage structure restorations, a UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Award Of Distinction) their principal problem, the ‘encroacher’ on and around heritage structures, remains and increases in number. The ‘encroacher’ belongs to a section categorised as ‘urban poor’. One often wonders what the city’s heritage means to such who, being less educated than most, might not draw a connection between their lives and subjects such as Gothic Architecture or British History.
Prabhakar Zanke was born in 1950, to a family which worked and lived in a coal company on the banks of a creek, in what would today fall under Sion. “This was a marshland,” he remembers. “The coal was dried on the creek shore. On the opposite side was the Dharavi Koliwada.” Next to the coal company was a small, old fort. Zanke’s earliest childhood memories are of playing hide and seek in and around the fort, climbing its walls after he learnt how to walk, and diving into the creek from it after he learnt how to swim: “We would stand on top, with the water waves hitting its base, and threaten to jump into the river if scolded for failing an exam.” Each monsoon left the fort’s black stone walls blacker, covering it with dark moss.
Travellers lost in the marsh would recount, “We saw a Kala Killa.” And thus it was dubbed. “One day my school took us to Prince Of Wales Museum,” Zanke continues. “I saw a picture there and told the teacher proudly: Look! There’s Kala Killa! My family Killa! The teacher replied: No. That’s Rehwa Fort.”
The Rehwa Fort this monsoon is overgrown with weeds from the last few months and trees from the last many years. Below a stone plaque that reads “Built By Order of the Honorable Horn Esq. President and Governor of Bombay in 1737” (and which is signed “Engineer”) hangs a clothesline with a lungi, a pair of shorts and a gamcha. On its rampart stands a flag bearing the emblem of the Bahujan Samaj Party (a victor in the last elections). Children still climb it to play hide and seek. But the creek they could have dived into has been filled and converted into the Kala Killa Bus Depot. The area, including a main road with the city’s finest leather shops is called Kala Killa too, but the Killa baptising these lies deep within a slum. The colony surrounding the fort was built in the early 1970s, when Zanke (then a worker in the same coal company) and his fellow residents resisted displacement: “Our grandfathers settled here. This was where our livelihood was.” The government relented, and the colony then built was named Rehwa Fort Colony.
Zanke makes light of his back problem, clambering up the rampart, to impart a guided tour inside. Researchers, journalists and authors, from as far as Europe and Australia, have benefited from such tours, free of cost. “This is where the King sat,” he points to a giant stone seat, now growing grass. “And these smaller seats, for ministers. And those, bench like, for soldiers.” He then urges us to jump with him into a dark chamber in the fort’s midst. ” Thoda daring karo,” he pleads unwilling to let us go without a complete look-around. Rumours abound of a tunnel from this chamber, connecting to the Sion Fort, but Zanke hasn’t fond any such tunnel, despite endless searches.
We then walk around the circumference, tinier than even a single column apartment block. Shops — launderers and grocers — line a portion of this, with racks and closets put up against ancient stone. Next to the furniture Zanke indicates windows, opening into the chamber he wanted us to jump into. But these intrusions aside, Zanke and other colony members have steadfastly protected the fort from encroachment, to the extent of suggesting other land to migrants, so they don’t use the fort’s premises.
He last played guide to officials from the Archaeological Department. Kulkarni, a senior official impressed with Zanke’s zeal, informed him of restoration plans: “The fort walls will be reinforced, the weeds cleared and the road leading to it widened. A 30-feet radius around the fort will be cleared to make room for a pathway around it.” The colony residents will be rehabilitated in the Ashtavinayak Ratnadeep Dattaguru apartments to be built close by for 209 tenants. Zanke, now an advisor to the rehabilitation committee and appointed by the officials an “interim caretaker” of the Killa, has more to be happy for: “My children, one in class 12 and the other in 3 rd year B Com, might get jobs looking after Rehwa Fort! Like my grandfather, father and me, they won’t have to leave!”
This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/dmt3