Unseen, under our noses
SALEEM A. AHMADULLAH
BOMBAY is justifiably renowned for its Indo-Saracenic and Gothic architecture. The older part of South Mumbai, as Bombay is now called, has many magnificent buildings constructed in the second half of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th. These impressive buildings must have made the main ‘visual’ argument for Bombay to be designated the ‘urbs prima in Indis’. They have been the subject of countless photographs and reams of descriptive writing. Fortunately, despite the rising mindless chauvinism of recent times, they have been allowed to survive, albeit with periodic insensitive additions which are often a blemish on their otherwise imposing appearance. They have also, on occasion, suffered the indignity of having their names changed. If only our history could be altered by these rather puerile attempts at donning acquired finery!
Like other Bombay residents who grew up under the shadow of these architectural gems, I too have grown to love them and, in some cases, not completely lost the original sense of awe that they produced in me as a child when I first became conscious of them. Some 15 or 20 years back, however, I discovered another facet of public architecture or artifacts that dot the city. Though infinitely less glamorous, they carry a great appeal for me. These are what might almost be called items of street furniture that once served a mundane, though necessary, purpose. Often they also recorded some little moment in the broad sweep of history that saw the growth of a large, teeming metropolis from a small settlement.
In the first category, in my list, are the old milestones on arterial roads leading north from south Bombay. These mark the distance in miles from St. Thomas’ Church, as St. Thomas’ Cathedral was earlier called. St. Thomas’ is located adjacent to the old Elphinstone Circle, now called Horniman Circle. The Elphinstone Circle, the successor to the original Bombay Green was, in the 18th century, the centre of a growing city.
The city in those days was much smaller than it is today. These roads, so congested now, had their origins in the rides or paths which later became the roads leading out of Bombay. They must have run through what was originally virgin country, the milestones being the only locating markers. They may also have served as markers on roads linking different settlements, which in those days were separate but later absorbed into the growing city. Examples could be Sion, Sewri, Bandra and the far reaches of Nepean Sea Road.
These stones, originally at least three or four feet tall, are made from rough hewn basalt. Today they are buried much deeper with less than two feet protruding from the road or pavement surface. Most of them date back to the end of the 18th or the early 19th century. One is clearly more recent, as its inscription records the distance from St. Thomas’ Cathedral. This indicates that it dates from a little before the middle of the 19th century, possibly later, i.e. after the church was elevated to the status of a cathedral. Today, you could pass it unnoticed, as it has been enveloped in old gunny bags put over it by the vegetable hawker who sits alongside.
Many years back, the Director of the Prince of Wales Museum (now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) and I discussed whether all the milestones should be removed from their various locations and brought together into the grounds of the museum. (This has been done for the markers which showed the city limits of Bombay; they have been relocated outside the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, earlier called the Victoria and Albert Museum). His contention was that by doing so we could ensure their protection and hence preservation. I disagreed.
While endorsing his sentiment I felt that a milestone which had little aesthetic appeal, had real value only as a historic marker on a road that had come up over an old route. I also felt that a responsible and responsive city should try and preserve them in situ and arrange a modicum of protection for them where they stood. While this perhaps does not appear very practical, a large block of stone does not need much protection – only a little attention and concern. As events have turned out I wish I had accepted his advice. Sadly, I succeeded in convincing him and so he did not press his idea for relocating them with the authorities. One or two have since disappeared, while others have been damaged.
In some of the older parts of Bombay, often doing service as either bollards or protective posts, are old muzzle-loading cannon which are buried muzzle down with the breech end protruding above the pavement. After 1860, or thereabouts, developments in artillery made muzzle-loading cannon obsolete. Rifled barrelled, breach-loading cannon, firing streamlined projectiles, supplanted the older smooth bore cannon which fired spherical cannon balls or chain shot. Cast iron cannon became worthless and, therefore, since even the labour cost of moving them was not justified, they were either buried or ‘used’ where they were located. Cannon made from phosphor-bronze were obviously cut up or melted down for recycling the valuable alloy.
One comes across these cannon along some Bombay roads, sometimes in odd places. These are generally found in areas where there were troop lines or adjacent to where the old fort walls ran. One can be found not far from the location of the old Government House in the Parel area.
Excavations for building foundations or for provision of services below roads, coupled with road repair, occasionally unearth these cannon. A few years back two cannon were found when road work was carried out in front of the Metro cinema. These, along with cannon lying in the Azad Maidan, have been moved to the grounds of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, the main Bombay museum. Many years ago when the foundation of the Reserve Bank of India’s new tower block, adjacent to the mint, was being laid, a pair of very large guns were found. Since nobody wanted them and they were heavy, and therefore difficult to relocate, they were left where they were and the building constructed over them.
Some official buildings, with no martial connections, have taken these disused cannon and mounted them either on front lawns or at the gates in what is presumably an attempt to impress the populace with an imposing display of authority backed by force! The fact that the cannon have often been painted in a totally unsuitable colour has obviously escaped the attention of the powers that be!
Benefactors of the city often donated drinking water fountains which were either stand-alone or were combined with drinking water troughs for horses or cattle, reflective of an age where the only source of motive power was the use of draught animals. All over the city there are drinking fountains donated by people like Cowasjee Jehangir and Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy. These come in many different shapes and sizes and have been made from a range of materials – granite, cast iron and masonry. Some of those donated by Cowasjee Jehangir were made in Scotland by A. MacDonald of Aberdeen in 1865 and sent out to India. Several must have been fabricated or cast locally in the foundries that came-up in the second half of the 19th century. Cowasjee gifted the city over 40 drinking fountains; I have only been able to find about half a dozen; it is fair to assume that many do not exist any longer.
In the early 1860s, when Sir Henry Bartle Frere was governor, the fort walls were razed to accommodate the rapidly burgeoning city and facilitate introduction of piped water supply. This ensured that reasonably potable water replaced water from tanks and wells which was often contaminated or disease spreading.
Commemorative fountains were also donated. The owners of private markets and stall holders of municipal markets in the Crawford Market, now the Mahatma Phule Market, donated a drinking fountain to commemorate the visit of their Imperial Majesties, King George V and Queen Mary in 1911, to Bombay. The market also has a magnificent fountain depicting the rivers of India designed by Lockwood Kipling, who was the dean of the Art School. He was the father of the celebrated author and poet of the Raj, Rudyard Kipling, incidentally born in the precincts of the Art School. Has our strong nationalism, tinged with a little chauvinism, made Rudyard Kipling – who has written affectionately, though with some condescension, about a now vanished period in our history – somewhat unpopular?
Fountains were also erected in memory of people such as the late Ramji Setiba funded by a donation received from the advocate general and in 1894 of Dharamsee Muljee, the only son of Ruttonsee Muljee. In 1894 a fountain was presented to the municipality of Bandra by Jafferbhai Ludha Khatu. There are other fountains, one in memory of a Dr Parulkar in 1940 by his wife. Still another was presented to the municipality in memory of Seth Ramji Keshawji Contractor by his brother in 1943.
Several of these fountains have over the years been woefully neglected and are in a sorry state. Others have been vandalised either by miscreants or by the authorities. They evidently gave permission for a fountain – initially presented to the municipality in 1913, in memory of Seth Luxmidas Kothari and his wife Nanibai by their son Madhavdas Luxmidas Kothari – to be converted and partially remade in memory of Shri and Smt. Fakirchand Vohra of Khushab, Sargoda (W. Pakistan) under the auspices of the Bombay Citizen Committee. This is now enveloped in junk that the municipality has dumped around it.
At one time, in perhaps a more refined age, it would appear that to commemorate a memory one donated a facility to the city. Today, in a more materialistic age, it seems easier to enter into a private ‘treaty’ with the municipality and either change the old, and therefore traditional and historic, name of a street or get any intersection of streets designated a chowk and name it after someone.
One great source of pleasure for me has been locating old plaques which mark significant events in the development of the city or commemorate noteworthy occurrences. One plaque in Colaba marks the spot from where, prior to 1838, the ferry went for a distance of 300 yards from the island of Bombay to Old Woman’s Island. As part of the scheme to link the seven islands of Bombay, this creek was filled up; that was the end of the ferry service. The road built, Colaba Causeway, is now called Shaheed Bhagat Singh Road. Another plaque in the Mahim area records the making of the Mahim Causeway linking the main island to Bandra. It credits Lady Jeejeebhoy, the main donor.
There is an old building in a busy, bustling area near the stock exchange which once served, from 1757 until 1829, as the residence of the Governor of Bombay. Later, from 1829 to 1873, it became the Secretariat. A plaque, now mostly hidden by a mound of scrap paper, informs us that this was the home of Governor Jonathan Duncan who died here in 1811. A plaque in another building tells us that it was formerly known as Admiralty House as it was the residence of the Admiral from 1764 to 1792. In 1800 it became the Court of the First Recorder of Bombay and remained the Chief Court of Bombay until the establishment of the High Court in 1879.
Various public buildings carry plaques telling us about their foundation and building cost. It is amazing to read how well the costs were controlled, and usually managed within budget! In some cases a little history also appears on the plaque. The plaque on St. Thomas’ Cathedral is particularly rewarding. In the 19th century, when many public buildings came up, the plaques carried a lot of information on dates, costs and the name of the architect and sometimes that of the principal contractor.
The plaques sometimes bear testimony to small changes or events in history. A plaque on Waudby Road (now Somani Marg) records the bravery of Major Sidney James Waudby, who with Private Elahi Bux and Private Somnak Tannak in April 1880 defended the Dubrai post in Afghanistan for three hours against 300 enemy. When their ammunition was exhausted they dashed into the midst of their foes and died fighting. The tablet was placed by their regiment, the 19th BP Infantry, to commemorate their heroism. This plaque was originally on the outer wall of a girls school building and was visible from the street. When the building was razed and then redeveloped, the plaque was moved to the side of the new building and is now not visible from the road, placed as it is behind a high compound wall!
Plaques on bridges, particularly those over the GIP Railway (now Central Railway,) show the development of the east-west links of the city, which is largely linear with a north-south alignment. One road was built by a ‘multitude of people driven from Surat in 1793 in that year of famine.’ The necessary funding was raised by public subscription. This was a famine relief measure to provide employment to mitigate hardship, and is perhaps an early example of impoverished peoples gravitating to Bombay in search of a livelihood, a trend which continues to date.
Outside the PWD office is the stone which records the Standard Benchmark for Bombay. It captures the history of recording tide levels between January 1878 and January 1885 at Apollo Bunder and goes on to record the highest tide height. Do present builders, or even the authorities, have regard for this or equivalent data when laying drainage lines or restoring sewers?
Bombay has, on its streets, a variety of fire hydrants of different vintage. These presumably date to the time when the city was growing and being modernized. A side benefit of a continuous water supply was that a hydrant system, essential for effective fire fighting, could now be introduced. Bombay has many different kinds of hydrants and I feel rewarded every time I come across one with a design different from others that I have seen before. One tall hydrant, approximately five feet high, has a fluted circumference and stands in the very heart of south Bombay. Generally it ends up being used as a post for displaying a hawker’s wares. I have only come across one other like it and that is in a different part of town.
Artefacts, even as mundane as sewer vents, can be items of more than passing interest. The old ones are very tall and made from cast iron. These were put up when the city basically consisted of bungalows or two or three storey buildings, to vent obnoxious sewer gases away from the populace. They still stand, albeit a little rusted on the surface, not much the worse for wear. Their modern day replacements are half the height, that too in a predominately high-rise city! Aesthetically far less attractive, they are made out of poor quality concrete which is cracking and crumbling.
Old wrought iron railings are usually very appealing; sadly many of them have been damaged with pieces broken off them. They have been replaced by strip metal railings which are effective but infinitely uglier.
In recent years I have not come across anything new. No doubt there are objects still waiting to be ‘discovered’, but I cannot be sure. For some time now I have observed a large block of stone that is embedded in the pavement. It is fluted on two sides and has one face that is difficult to see as it is close to a railing which prevents one from examining it. This face, which is bounded by flutes, might have some worn-out wording on it. Could this be something special or merely a piece of coping from an old building? I cannot yet say, but I am working on it.