Standing by the side of the river Tagus in Lisbon, the starting point for the voyages that led to the ‘discovery’ of India, one can feel the colonial past come alive…

It is a warm breezy morning on the Lisbon waterfront. From the Tower of Belem, there is a fascinating view of a lighthouse, a harbour, manicured parks, a lovely red bridge across the blue-green water, and a white, vertical, ship-like monument shimmers under the Lisbon sky.

To our right, the gleaming river Tagus meanders into the great Atlantic Ocean. At this hour, there is little action around. Below in the green pathway leading up to the Tower, the atmosphere is very relaxed. Families and visitors hang around on the lawns while children have a dog chasing a Frisbee in the air.

This serene setting strikes discerning onlookers, history-buffs as the antithesis to the frenzied and violent actions that they had read about. In times past, the harbour was turbulent with motions of arriving caravels bearing jewellery, spices and silks, and news of lands conquered. The cargo fattened the royal coffers, purses of merchants and mariners. Even as one vessel heaved and pitched in the darkness of night, another was readying to set forth. Such was the lure of riches, and the ecstasy of expansion and colonial dreams.

That was more or less the scene right from Neolithic and Phoenician times, before 1200 BC, and into the Roman, and Moorish periods. As can be imagined, besides people traffic and bustling foreign trade that created an air of vigour and vitality, the hurrying river had dark and sultry military interludes — skirmishes, cannon fire, clashing of steel, galleons on fire.

Undoubtedly, the most significant event to unfold on the Tagus happened on July 8, 1497. It was the day when King Manuel triumphantly upstaged Christopher Columbus and Spain, by pushing out 28-year-old Dom Vasco da Gama to do the unthinkable — chart an all-water route to India.

Historic event

Standing on the terrace, the mind’s eye saw the excitement of that day. The harbour filled with loud, cheering crowds; crew intently looking out upon the glittering, smooth waterway; priestly chants and incense renting the air; church bells ringing; and the king and courtiers presiding solemnly over the ceremony and splendour. Somewhere concealed in the frenzy, no doubt were mothers with heads bowed as they saw off their young sons embarking on a dangerous life. For every one successful sailing, were there not scores of horrific stories of fearful encounters with tempests, ‘fierce dark savages and strange and terrible oceanic beasts’?

The mariners and their families left it largely to faith to guide them. They came to the terrace to pray at the altar of the Virgin and the Child for ‘journey mercies’, and also for the safe deliverance of the pungent black substance known as Indian pepper.

Away from the stony Madonna, elsewhere in the medieval Torre de Belem, there is much evidence of advanced defence technology. Medieval facilities for artillery and heavy military equipment stand to this day. A granite rope encircles the fort while Moorish turrets and Indian architectural influences such as a relief of an Indian rhinoceros adorn the building.

Remembering a voyager

The Santa Maria de Belém or just Belém (Portuguese for Bethlehem) district packs many tributes to its much-loved son, Vasco da Gama. While Indian schoolchildren grow up reading about the explorer who ‘discovered’ India, here a grateful nation remembers the ‘eloquent captain’ in many ways, including a heroic poem. A short distance away from the Tower, along the waterway and near the marina is the shimmering white Discoveries Monument.

The 50-meter high masterpiece built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of ‘the brain and enabler of the discoveries’, Henry the Navigator, depicts the angle of the prow of a three-sailed ship ready to depart laden on both sides with individual statues of famous sons of Portugal — the Prince, King Manuel I carrying an armillary sphere, writer Camões holding verses from The Lusiads, Gama, and other explorers, crusaders, cartographers, and cosmographers. Together, and in their own way, they established the ‘most extensive empire in the world’.

The contours of which can be seen on the pavement leading to the building. The gigantic tile-mosaic portrays a compass with the map of the world and lists the routes taken by the explorers and the lands that they conquered. The mosaic depicts the high noon of Lisbon as the capital of a vast global domain.

Inside the Discoveries Monument a huge hall holds an impressive array of exhibits of royalty, explorers, scientists, ship-builders and cartographers who contributed to the country’s rich maritime history. In the adjoining auditorium films on modern and historic Lisbon are regularly screened. An elevator lifts visitors to the terrace, for breath-taking views of Lisbon’s legendary seven hills, the 25 de Abril bridge, the giant Cristo Rei, and other landmarks. Adding to the romance, below, a charming old tram, Eletrico clanks along through a narrow cobblestone path.

Earlier that morning we began our little tour from the life-size statue of M.K. Gandhi at the top of Avenida de India. But the dhoti-clad man with a pocket-watch and a cane is not the only Indian around. From the nearby Avenida Mahatma Gandhi or MG Road, to the Hindu temple of Radha Krishna, mosques and churches, Casa de Goa to the local music and dance group, Ekvat, the nation boasts of more than 70,000 people of Indian origin. They are highly qualified, hold prominent, influential positions in society, and like the shimmering landmarks by the riverside, they exude a rich, forceful and dazzling presence under the Lisbon sky.

Quick facts

Getting there: Most major European airlines fly to Lisbon’s Aeroporto de Lisboa, the airport of Lisbon.

Season: Lisbon is a year-round destination, as the climate is always mild and there are no extreme weather conditions.

Accommodation: As in any major city, there is a variety of accommodation to choose from: paying guest accommodation (pensions), hostels or guesthouses, holiday resorts and hotels to suit your budget. Prices are generally lower than most other European capitals.

Eating and drinking: Lisbon has a number of cafés and a variety of restaurants specialising in everything from traditional Portuguese cuisine to international or contemporary to a choice of Indian food.

For more information log on to Lisbon travel guide at http://www.lisbon-guide.info/

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