The earliest memory Dharavi resident Prabhakar Zanke has of the Kala Qilla (black fort) is of him swiftly climbing up the fort and jumping into the Mithi river below. His father had been chasing him with a stick for having failed his Class I exams, and eight-year-old Zanke knew no other way to escape his wrath. This story still makes the rounds in the neighbourhood that has since developed around the erstwhile fort in Dharavi.

Back in 1958, Zanke’s supposed heroism was not just applauded by the other children in the area, but it also inspired a threat that could be made, whenever their parents scolded them for failing. But this is just one story among many that emerged from inside and around the Kala Qilla, a forgotten remnant of history that lies hidden deep inside one of Asia’s largest slums.

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[The road to Kala Qilla]

Kala Qilla, also referred to as the Riwa Fort by some, is situated at the far end of a narrow lane at Mumbai’s Dharavi Depot Road. The shabby street leading to it is characterised by the cacophony of children playing, as the elderly watch over them from the windows of their tiny, colourful hutments.

The afternoon sun casts a harsh glow on the fort, exposing the many cracks in its walls that have developed over time.

To understand Kala Qilla’s history and significance, it is important to revisit the Bombay of the 18th century, when it was formed of seven islands. The Mithi river (Mahim Creek) separated the British-controlled Bombay from Salsette, which was under Portuguese rule. When it was captured by the Maratha empire in 1737, John Horne, the governor of Bombay at the time, commissioned the building of the Kala Qilla at Dharavi, which was then the northernmost frontier of Bombay.

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[The area around in Dharavi is referred to by the fort's name]

The fort was built in the shape of a boomerang and served as a watchtower to protect the city from the Maratha seafarers.

Today, what remains of the fort are just four dilapidated walls held together by a grassy patch of land.

In fact, no one would even know it is a fort, if it wasn’t for an inscription on a wall detailing when it was built. While its boomerang shape is still visible, the Mithi river flowing below has been filled up to make the Dharavi bus depot. The only access to the fort is through the pile of gunny bags placed against the walls by the slum dwellers.

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[Perhaps the only available historical information at the fort is this inscription]

“The fort has been strategically built in a way that it has no entrance. The British soldiers carried a ladder with them. The fort is also supposed to have escape tunnels to the Mahim and Sion forts, but this has never been verified,” says city historian Rajan Jaykar.

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[There is no easy way to climb the fort. One needs to climb over these gunny bags, and then push themselves up]

But the local community that has spent decades exploring its premises disagrees. “There is a tunnel here that only leads to a small 10x10 room, which was built for the soldiers to hide in or take refuge in during the rain,” adds Zanke. Ganesh, a 37-year-old resident, agrees with him. Recalling a memory from his childhood, he narrates how they once set up a small TV inside that room by stealing a cable connection. “One of my friends suffered an electric shock,” he says with a chuckle.

Incidents like these gave rise to many more legends.

One was about the ‘Killa Baba’, a ghost that galloped about on a horse to kidnap children who had been up to mischief on the fort.

Most people at the Kala Qilla area laugh it off as a tale created by elderly women to scare children, but Ganesh claims to have heard the gallop of a horse at the fort on several nights.

But the memory that most residents of this neighbourhood hold dear is that of climbing up the fort, every weekend to watch the movie being played at the Bandra open-air theatre. “There were not many buildings back then, and neither was there much noise. Given the height of the fort we got an uninterrupted view of the film for free,” recounts 34-year-old Kirmani with a glint in his eyes. “We have watched so many movies, such as Sholay, Jahangir, Qayamat,” say residents Vaibhav and Javed.

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[Prabhakar Zanke has many memories attached to the fort. He actively rallies to protect this heritage site]

As I see these groups of men gazing up at the fort, engaged in nonchalant chatter about their memories of Kala Qilla, it is evident how the fort has been integral in sustaining their friendships over the years. “We all grew up playing at this fort. Religion, caste was never a barrier to friendship. It still isn’t,” says Kirmani, explicitly stating how none of the families here attacked each other during the unfortunate communal riots of 1992.

Though the fort’s tunnel has been filled up with mud and dirt now and is no longer visible, Kala Qilla continues to serve as a playground to children in a congested city that has hardly any open spaces left. Suhan, 11, who lives just behind the fort says he feels lucky, since most of his classmates have to travel to find a park. “We play hide and seek here every day. Sometimes, we even play pretend-war and capture the fort,” he says with a giggle.

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[Ganesh often comes to the fort to catch a quick, quiet nap]

The grown-ups too, often come up to the fort for a chat or to steal a quiet nap. Most women in the area feel hesitant to climb up and do so only during festivities. Up until a few years ago, Kala Qilla was one of the spaces in the city that was witness to flag hoisting on Independence Day, but after a climbing accident, the practice was discontinued.

“Earlier, the fort was different. This area was low-lying, making the climb higher and steeper. The fort had tall grass and the river lashed on its ramparts. The slum around the fort only developed in the 60s when a coal factory was set up nearby. The area has never seen high flooding. The fort has survived over centuries under rain and harsh summers, but the walls are starting to crack slightly. We are trying to protect whatever is left of it,” asserts Zanke.

The 68-year-old is respected in the Kala Qilla area, as a walking treasure trove of knowledge about the fort and Dharavi. He has served as a guide to many tourists, researchers and Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) officials. His efforts to rally the cause for the fort's preservation have not just been recognised by NGOs, but have also been supported by the other community members who continue doing their bit towards this endeavour.

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[The fort premises; the local community often cleans it]

Kirmani and his family, whose room is right adjacent to the fort, make sure that its premises don’t become a hub for drunks and that no migrants stay there. They often come up and clean the fort grounds, which had once turned into a place where people relieved themselves, but this problem ceased to exist once public toilets were built.

The effort of the local community to maintain the fort should certainly be lauded, but its condition is such that it requires proper restoration.

Tejas Garge, director, Directorate of Museums and Archaeology, Maharashtra says, “Kala Qilla in Dharavi has great potential. We have submitted a proposal just last week to the ministry to carry out restoration activities that include putting up encroachments, widening the roads, carrying repairs and cleaning the premises.” When asked why the project had been delayed for so long, he stated the unavailability of funds and low priority as the reason.

Though encroachment and restoration are required, it may possibly result in the rehabilitation of slum dwellers. Most don’t seem to mind. “It will bring a better quality of life to us and the fort,” adds Kirmani. However, their desire is to stay close to the fort, just like Zanke, who was moved to a nearby building as part of a slum rehabilitation programme, several years ago.

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[Javed, Kirmani’s brother, often encourages his wife Zeenat to try climbing the fort, but she has always been scared]

Architect Preeti Goel Sanghi who works with the JSW Group and has helped restore several monuments in the country feels that the community’s involvement in the project can be fruitful. “Their sentiments and association to the fort are much stronger than any one of us. After restoration, they should be employed to look after its maintenance and protect the fort’s legacy,” she states.

Kala Qilla, though lesser known than most of Mumbai's forts, forms an important part of the fabric of Mumbai and its character, and the local communities have maintained its legacy in their own unique way. It may be invisible to outsiders, but is special to those who take pride in having lived and grown up around an important piece of heritage.

All photographs courtesy of the author

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