Set off the southern tip of Saurashtra, the island of DIU, less than 12km long and just 3km wide, was under Portuguese control until 1961. Today, governed along with Daman as a Union Territory from Delhi, it has a relaxed atmosphere quite different from anywhere in Gujarat. While its beaches are not as idyllic as Goa’s, most visitors stay longer than intended, idling in cafés, cycling around the island or strolling along the cliffs. The leisurely pace is also due in part to the lack of alcohol restrictions.
Diu Town in the east is the focus: a maze of alleys lined with distinctive Portuguese buildings form the hub of the old town, while the fort stands on the easternmost tip of the island, staring defiantly out at the Gulf of Cambay. Along the northern coast, the island’s main road runs past salt pans that give way to mud flats sheltering flocks of water birds, including flamingos that stop to feed in early spring. The route skirting the south coast passes rocky cliffs and beaches, the most popular of which is Nagoa Beach, before reaching the tiny fishing village of Vanakbara in the very west of the island.
The earliest records of Diu date from 1298, when it was controlled by the Chudasana dynasty. Soon after it fell into the hands of invading Muslims and by 1349 was ruled by Mohammed bin Tughluq who successfully boosted the shipbuilding industry. Diu prospered as a harbour and in 1510 came under the government of the Ottoman Malik Ayaz, who repelled besieging Portuguese forces in 1520 and 1521. Aware of Diu’s strategic position for trade with Arabia and the Persian Gulf, and having already gained a toehold in Daman, the Portuguese did not relent. Under Nuno da Cunha, they once more tried, but failed, to take the island in 1531. However, in 1535 Sultan Bahadur of Gujarat, who had agreed to sign a peace accord, was murdered and the Portuguese took control, immediately building the fort and a strong town wall. While local traders and merchants continued to thrive, many resented paying taxes to the Portuguese. In defiance, local seamen made a series of unsuccessful raids on Portuguese ships. Mughal and Arab attacks were resisted, too, but the Portuguese were finally forced out in 1961 by the Indian government, which, after a swift bombing campaign, declared Diu part of India.
Little Diu Town is protected by the fort in the east and a wall in the west. Nagar Seth’s Haveli, one of the grandest of the town’s distinctive Portuguese mansions, is on Makata Road, hidden in the web of narrow streets that wind through the residential Old Portuguese District. Fishermen make daily trips from the north coast in wooden boats; their catch is sold in the market near the mosque.
Although the Christian population is dwindling along with the old language, a few churches built by the former European inhabitants are still used. Portuguese Mass is celebrated beneath the high ceilings and painted arches of St Paul’s, though the church of St Thomas, to the northwest, is now a museum, and that of St Francis of Assisi, to the south, is partly occupied by the local hospital.
Diu’s serene fort stands robust, resisting the battering of the sea on three sides and sheltering birds, jackals and the town jail. Its wide moat and coastal position enabled the fort to withstand attack by land and sea, but there are obvious scars from the Indian government’s air strikes in 1961 – notice the hole above the altar of the church in the southwest corner. Now abandoned almost completely to nature, and littered with centuries-old cannonballs, it commands excellent views out to sea and over the island. Just offshore, the curious, ship-shaped Panikotha Fort – connected to the mainland by tunnel, according to lore – is off-limits, but if it’s calm, you can hire a boat (around Rs60) from the dock for a closer look.