September 13, 2010

A History of Ancient Bombay (Part I)

By Dr. Ardeshir B. Damania
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Neither by service nor fee
Come I to mine estate-
Mother of Cities to me
For I was born in her gate,
Between the palms and the sea,
Where the world-end steamers wait.
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From Rudyard Kipling’s Dedication to the City of Bombay
Born December 30, 1865 at Bombay, Died January 18, 1936 at London.
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THE CITY OF BOMBAY (18.580N Lat., 72.500E Long.) was originally an archipelago consisting of seven islands namely Colaba, Mazagaon, Old Woman's Island, Wadala, Mahim, Parel, and Matunga-Sion. Documented evidence of human habitation dates back to 250 BCE, when it was known as Heptanesia which in ancient Greek means a cluster of seven islands. This group of islands, which has since been joined together by a series of reclamations (it took 60 years to merge the seven islands of Bombay into one landmass between 1784 and 1845), formed part of the kingdom of Ashoka, the famous Maurya Emperor of India. The Elephanta Caves near Bombay and the Kanheri Caves near Borivli, the Karla Caves near Lonavla and the caves at Andheri (now under encroachment) all date from that period 300 to 250 years BCE. After Asoka’s death, these islands passed into the hands of various Buddhist and Hindu rulers of the Silhara dynasty until 1343. In that year, the Mohammedan Gujarat Sultanate took possession and the kings of that province of India ruled the islands for the next two centuries. The only vestige of their dominion over these islands that remains today is the mosque at Mahim and perhaps the tomb at Haji Ali. The durgah at Mahim was built in 1431 in honour of holyman Makhdum Fakir Ali Paru, popularly known as Makhdum Ali Mahimi Baba, a master preacher of the Quran. The ‘asthana’ in the durgah houses the Quran Sharif that was hand-written by the Baba. Jame Masjid, adjoining the durgah, was supposed to have been constructed a few years before the durgah. Muslims from all sects visit the durgah on the seventh day of the Jamadil Akhir (Muslim month) when the Quran Sharif is taken out for public viewing in a procession.
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The Haji Ali dargah located on a tiny islet off the beach at Mahalaxmi was also built in 1431 by a wealthy Muslim merchant who renounced his worldly possessions before embarking on a pilgrimage to Mecca. He died on the pilgrimage and his remain were interred at the tomb at Haji Ali.
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The islands were referred to as "Bom Baia" or “Bom Bahia”, which in Portuguese means "Good Bay", by a Portuguese mariner named Francis Almeida who sailed into the bay in 1508 with his fleet. This is because the Bombay harbour is very nicely protected, because of its unique situation, against storms that frequently occur in the Arabian Sea, especially during the monsoon season (June to September). During those months, when the open seas are very rough, fishermen rarely put out to sea. In 1534 the Portuguese, who already possessed many important trading centers on the western coast of India, such as Panjim, Daman, and Diu, took Bombay by force of arms from the Mohammedans (Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat) without much resistance. This led to the establishment of numerous churches that were constructed in areas where the majority of people were Roman Catholics. The St. Michael’s church at Mahim (where a Novena takes place every Wednesday) was built by Franciscan monks from Portugal in 1534. In 1565 it was enlarged. In 1973 the church was extensively renovated and enlarged due to its increased popularity, especially on Wednesdays. The Portuguese also built other churches in Bombay. One of them was originally called Nossa Senhora da Gloria (Our Lady of Glory) when it was built at Mazagaon. However, the British government wanted to build a railway line where this church stood and so it was pulled down and present Gloria Church was built opposite the Byculla railway station in 1913.
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There used to be two areas in Bombay called "Portuguese Church". One of them was the church built in 1610 between Dadar and Prabhadevi. It was extensively re-designed in 1973 by Charles Correa. However, only one church with the original Portuguese-style facade still remains; it is the St. Andrew's church at Bandra first built in 1600. The Portuguese also consolidated their possession by building forts at Sion, Mahim, Bandra, and Bassien (with a church) which, although in disrepair, can still be seen. A chapel was built at Mount Mary in Bandra in 1640. However, during a Maratha raid in 1738 the chapel was destroyed and the statue of the Virgin thrown in to the sea. The Kolis recovered the statue and later the Chapel was rebuilt at the same spot in 1761. There existed a cross, installed by the Portuguese, where today stands the Santa Cruz station. In Portuguese Santa Cruz means “Holy Cross”. Goregaon was named after the Gore family that once had a house and land there. And Khar village was so named because of salt flats there, “Khar” meaning “salty”. In the mean time, several other ports were thriving towards the north, viz., Janjira and Panjim (Panaji), and south viz., Veraval, Surat, and Diu that carried on trade with the Arab world and Europe.
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Built to commemorate the dead of the three Afghan Wars that the British fought between 1835 and 1843, the Afghan Church in Bombay stands guard over the living and the dead. Today the few visitors belong to the armed forces since it is located in the military cantonment of Colaba. Originally a temporary chapel of thatched roof was erected about half-a-mile south of what was then known as the Sick Bungalows, today a Naval Hospital. Attendees brought their own chairs. The land for this church was released by the British government on the condition that its spire should be seen as a landmark from the sea as a guide to ships coming into the Bombay Harbor. An imposing basalt structure with a towering limestone spire, the church is impressive with its wide Gothic arches and beautiful stained-glass windows. The pews of this church have slots for rifles. Soldiers were allowed to bring in their guns and ammunition. Besides the British soldiers, it also commemorates different Indian regiments, including the Bombay Army, the Madras Army, and Ranjit Singh's army from Lahore. The records mention that out of 16,000 men who began their retreat from the battlefield, only one reached exhausted and staggering back to Jalalabad to tell the story. Designed by Henry Conbeare, city engineer (who also laid the plans to build Vihar lake), its architect was the Victorian William Butterfield. The church was consecrated on January 7, 1858 by Bishop Harding. The spire cost Rs 5,65,000 and was completed on June 10, 1865. Sir Cawasjee Jahangir raised the amount privately for the spire and himself contributed Rs 7,500 for it and also had an illuminated clock placed in the tower. The great east and west windows were designed by James Wailles, stained glass expert during the mid-1800s. It is the finest stained glass window to date in the city, superior to those in Rajabai Tower and Victoria Terminus. The great significance of the bell tower is the peals of its eight bells that remain unrivalled in western India. Eight bells usually take anything from two and a half hours to fours to ring and have 40,320 changes to their sequences. In the chancellery, one can still find the memorial stones with an inscription just below it: "This church was built in memory of the officers and private soldiers, too many to be recorded who fell mindful of their duty, by sickness or by sword on the campaign of Scinde (Sind) and Afghanistan, A.D. 1838-43." A memorial brass set in the Chancellery pavement also commemorates its founder, the Reverend G Piggot. Milestones were embedded in the ground each mile all the way out to Sion with the Afghan Church being mile zero. None of these stones remain as they were uprooted and discarded during road widening in the 1960s. The Nesbit Road, which runs from the junction opposite the Synagogue at Byculla up to the Sales Tax office in Mazagaon was named after the Reverend Robert Nesbit (1803-1853): Missionary of the Free Church of Scotland, at Bombay.
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The Ghodbunder Road, that runs from Mahim to Borivili (where it ends at the creek) along Bombay’s western corridor, derives its name from a rather unusual source — the area that the Road runs across and ends was a former port. This port, or “bunder”, was a place of heavy traffic, with ships continuously unloading their goods here. One of the most important merchandise to be unloaded at this port were horses or “ghoda” (which are not native to India) and were imported here from Arabian ports sometime during 1210 AD. That is why the area came to be called Ghodbunder, or the pier where horses were unloaded from ships. Bandra, at that time, was a tiny sleepy fishing village inhabited by the Koli fishermen and also small farmers. Bandra was acquired by the British East India Company even while the rest of the land that was to become Bombay belonged to the Portuguese.
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In 1662 the seven islands were pledged in dowry to the King Charles II of England on his marriage to Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza. Not unlike the Sultanate of Gujarat, the Portuguese too thought the islands to be not worth retaining. The Royal Governor, Humphrey Cooke (1665-1666) took possession of the islands on behalf of the Crown on January 17, 1665. On March 27, 1668 the islands were acquired by the English East India Company on lease from the Crown for an annual sum of only 10 Pounds Sterling in gold guineas; so little did the British royalty value these islands at that time. The Company, operating from Surat (a river port), was in search for a deep-water port so that larger ocean-going vessels could dock. After much searching, they found the islands of Bombay with its natural harbour suitable for development. Furthermore, an overland attack on Bombay islands was nearly impossible without a warning. In 1675 Aungier took possession of the island of Colaba and the Old Woman’s Island. The shifting of the East India Company's headquarters to Bombay in 1687 led to the eclipse of Surat as a principal trading center. The British corrupted the Portuguese name "Bom Baia" to "Bombay". The Kolis, among the original fisher-folk inhabitants of Bombay, used to call the islands "Mumba" after Maha Amba, the Hindu deity to whom a temple is dedicated near Bhuleshwar now in central Bombay. Built by a Koli in the 14th century, it was originally located near the old phansi talao (hanging lake) at Bori Bunder where death sentences were carried out. This temple was shifted to its present location in Bhuleshwar, a highly congested locality in Bombay in 1737 where it can still be seen. Funds for the construction of the temple to the Godess Mumba Devi at its new site were provided by Pandurang Shivaji Sonar, a goldsmith of the area. The other earliest inhabitants of the islands were the Aagris. They were a tribe that harvested salt from the sea on the eastern side of Bombay. Some of these salt pans can still be seen east of the Eastern Express Highway from Bombay to Thana. Later the salt pans were acquired by Parsi merchants, among them those from the nearby town of Bhiwandi.
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The City’s first church, St Thomas’s Church, was built in 1718 at the spot close to the Horniman Circle and it still stands to this day. However, the Oldest existing Parsi Agiary (or Fire-Temple) in Bombay is the Banaji Limji Agiary that was built in 1709 through donation from the Banaji family (whose ancestral home is still standing next door to the Agiary). And the oldest Atash Behram (higher fire than an agiary) is the one built by Dadysett at Thakurdwar in 1783.
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Sir George Oxenden became the first East India Company's British Governor of the islands in 1668, and was succeeded in 1669 by Mr. Gerald Aungier 1669-1677 who made Bombay islands more populous by attracting Gujarati traders, Parsi ship-builders, and Muslim and Hindu manufacturers from the mainland. And thus the foundation for the cosmopolitan character of the city was laid. Aungier fortified defenses by constructing the fort and provided stability by constituting courts of law. He also established the first mint in the fort which still exists. The Fort, since then vanished except for a small portion of the wall, whose construction commenced in 1715 under the Governorship of Charles Boone (1715-1722) was completed in 1745. A castle was built upon a part of the existing Portuguese manor house that was largely destroyed in the process, although some parts of it, like the small look-out tower and the gate can still be seen in the INS Angre naval docks behind the Town Hall. Only a small fragment of the original ramparts of the Fort survives as part of the eastern boundary wall of the St. George's Hospital adjacent to the Victoria Terminus at Bori Bunder. A little-known fact about the Fort is the existence of at least 3 underground passages, fortified by bricks, that exists with an entrance under Ward #5 of the St. George’s Hospital and run for 1.5 km towards the Gateway of India, the Blue Gate and Church Gate. These tunnels were built around 1770s as an escape route when and if the Fort’s walls were breached during attacks by sea or land from the Portuguese, French, Dutch and the Siddi of Janjira. The underground passage has several skylights that allow light and air to enter. However, when the tunnel was last inspected it was full of muck and sea-water and stench of rotten fish was over-powering. The entrance to this secret passage is now shut by a wooden planks.
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The first Parsi to arrive in Bombay was Dorabji Nanabhoy Patel in 1640. He was appointed by the British to collect taxes from the local people to augment funds for the port to be developed later. The Parsis, originally from Persia, migrated to India about 1000 years ago. This they did to save their religion, Zoroastrianism, from invading Arabs who proselytized Islam. The rise of the Parsis from relatively inconspicuous farmers, weavers, carpenters, etc., in Gujarat to the great industrialists and merchants who dominated the trade of western India has been documented in great detail elsewhere. However, during 1689-1690 when a severe plague had struck down most of the Europeans in Bombay, the Siddi (Abyssinian) chief of Janjira Yakut Khan, who had some forts on the coastline 45 miles to the south under his command, made several attempts to re-possess the islands by force, especially the mosque at Mahim. But the son of Dorabji Nanabhoy, Rustomji Dorabji (1667-1763) and a trader by profession, successfully warded off the attacks on behalf of the British with the help of the Kolis. As a reward for his loyalty the British gave him the honorary hereditary title of “Patel”, the only Parsi to be so decorated. The remnants of the Koli settlements can still be seen in Bombay at Colaba, Backbay Reclamation, Mahim, Bandra, Khar, Bassien and Gorai/Madh Island.
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The walls of the Bombay Fort were punctuated by six gates - three on the landward side and three on the marine side. Between the two marine gates lay the quadrangular Bombay Castle. Opening out into the town on the landward side were the Apollo Gate on the South (opp. the Regal Cinema), the Bazar Gate to the North (just opp. the GPO), and the Church Gate (west of today’s Flora Fountain) towards the west. The Church Gate was so named because of the nearby St. Thomas's Cathedral originally founded in the 17th century and inaugurated during the Governorship of Charles Boone (1715-1722). Actually, the construction of this church was begun in 1675 but the progress came to a halt because of the frequent attacks by the Siddhis of Janjira. During this period the unfinished church was a shelter for beggars and badmashes. The work on the Cathedral was recommenced after the threat from the Siddhis was neutralized and it opened its doors to the public on Christmas Day 1718. The Fort itself, on completion in 1745, measured 2 miles in length (from north to south) and was only three fourths of a mile broad (from east to west). Parsis settled in the fort area from 1670s onwards.
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In 1725, a Parsi called Bhikaji, who came from Bharuch to Bombay to seek his fortune, on being successful got a well dug to provide drinking water for the people as such a facility was lacking outside the fort. At that time the well was only 150 yards from the sea and yet its water was sweet. Bhikhaji set up his business in Angrej Bazar, now known as Horniman circle, within walking distance from the well. It is believed by the Parsis that if you light a lamp near the well, then all your wishes are fulfilled. The well, at the southeastern corner of the Cross Maidan, still remains to this day and the Parsis continue to pray there, although everyone else uses its waters. In recent years the well has been vandalized much to distress and anger of the tiny Parsi community who has given so much to this city.
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In 1757, the Kamathis, or construction workers from Andhra Pradesh arrived in Bombay and set up base. The region where they finally settled down was the low-lying unwanted area near present day Mahalaxmi railway station. That part of Bombay city became known as Kamathipura, now notorious for its red-light district. In 1794 the Presidency Post Office was established.
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Between 1822 and 1838, cattle from the congested Fort area used to graze freely at the Camp Maidan (now called Azad Maidan), an open ground opposite the Victoria Terminus. In 1838, the British rulers introduced a 'grazing fee' that several cattle-owners could not afford. Therefore, Sir Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy spent 20,000 Indian Rupees (Rs.) from his own purse for purchasing some grass-lands near the seafront at Thakurdwar and saw that the starving cattle grazed without a fee in that area. In time the area became to be known as "Charni" meaning grazing. When a railway station on the Bombay, Baroda & Central India (BB&CI) railway was constructed there it was called Charni Road.
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During the early nineteenth century the trade in opium (especially Malwa opium) played a pivotal role in integrating Malwa (western Madhya Pradesh) and the West Coast of India with China and thus with the international capitalist economy. This was also the time when Bombay became the main commercial and financial centre of Western India. Sources state that the export of opium to China was a critical factor in the rise of Bombay to preeminence as well as in the emergence of the Indian capitalist class centered on this port.
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Bandra consisted of villages called Sherly, Malla, Rajan, Kantwadi, Waroda, Ranwar, Boran and Pali. It also included Chuim, which is now part of Khar. Ranwar had a tennis court and the Ranwar Club was famous for its Christmas and New Years Eve dances. Most of the people in Bandra worked for the East India Company and hence were called East Indians. In the Bandra/Khar of the 1940s and earlier, large cottages and bungalows with extensive gardens were available for rent at only Rs 30/- a month. Local marriages in villages of Bandra were held with an eight day celebration from Thursday to Thursday. On Sunday the whole village was invited to a feast. Thursday was the pig slaughter day and Friday to make pappads (papadums) for snacking with alcoholic drinks. Saturday was reserved to make fudges and bring water from the village well to bathe the bride or groom. Sunday was the wedding ceremony, followed by a long reception lasting way in to the night. Monday was day of rest and to finish the remaining food, and on Tuesday the feet of guests were washed by the hosting family members in exchange for cash. Then a farewell dinner on Wednesday and guests left on Thursday morning by which time the honeymoon for the wedded couple was supposed to be over.
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Tradition has it that the suburb was originally known as ‘Vandra’ as it was home of several hundred monkeys who inhabited both Pali Hill and Mt. Mary Hill. Then it was “Bandor” as the Portuguese called Bandra in 1505. It was also called Bandera, Bandura, Bandore, Pandara, Bandorah, Bandara and Vandre. But finally it was officially designated as “Bandra” when the railway station signboard was painted at the end of the last century and the Bandra station and platforms were built. The main building of the old station on the west side is now a heritage site, complete with a crow’s nest atop it to look for arriving trains. On 12 April 1867 the first railway service was inaugurated with one train per day between Virar and Colaba in south Bombay. But six years later the train frequency was increased to 24 each day, and now over a thousand trains stop at Bandra daily in both directions.
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Salsette was originally separated by a tidal creek which the Portuguese called Bandora creek. The British changed it to Mahim creek. Bandra had two hills; Mount Mary Hill and Pali Hill. The monkeys that lived on these hills used to make forays in to the newly constructed Parsi and Hindu colonies in Matunga in the 1930s and harass the new tenants who had shifted there from central Bombay. Bandra was peopled mainly by East Indians (original residents of Bombay Salsette, Bassein, and Thana), a few Goans and immigrants from Mangalore, Parsis, Muslims, Europeans and of course the Hindu kolis. Till as late as the 1930s Bandra had only one bus service from Pali Naka via Hill Road to the railway station. People also walked to the station as they do even today. After WW II the building boom started in Bandra and some of the cottages were pulled down to construct 2 to 3 storied buildings. The construction activity gathered considerable pace after independence in 1947 and partition as Bombay took in immigrants from Pakistan, the ‘Sindhis’ who came mainly from the Sindh province of Punjab. The new immigrants were compensated by the Government of India for property and lad left behind in Pakistan, plus they arrived with a lot of cash of their own, and thus the much despised “pagri” system of obtaining a rental place to stay came in to existence in Bombay.
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The five oldest roads in Bandra are: 1) Ghodbunder Road (now Swami Vivekananda Road), which originally ran from Mahim Causeway, skirted Bazaar road, went past the Bandra Talao and continued to Ghodbunder. The road was later made straight by cutting through the talao; 2) The Bazar Road began at Ghodbunder Road opposite the Bandra Mosque and ran through the market keeping close to the coast which is now the Bandra Reclamation area; 3) Hill Road starting from the Station went through the middle of Bandra town, past St Andrews Church to terminate at the foot of the Mount Mary. The Tata Agiary (or Fire Temple) on Hill Road was built by Jamshedji Tata in 1884, in memory of his wife; 4) Pali Road began at St. Peters Church and cut through Pali village and went up to Danda village; and 5) Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Road which runs from St. Andrews to Lands End, was built by Byramjee Jeejebhoy at his own expense and opened to public in 1878. A stone recording this event can still be seen at the junction of Jeejeebhoy Road and Hill Road in Bandra.
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There are over 150 Crosses erected by the Christians at various places in Bandra. Many were built to ward off the plague epidemic (1896-1906) which caused a great loss of life in Bombay. The oldest is the one located in St. Andrew's church (built in 1616) compound. It stands 17ft high and is made of a single stone. It originally stood in the Jesuit Seminary of St. Anne built in 1610. The building was destroyed in 1739 and the cross was relocated to the St. Andrews Churchyard. The surface is carved all over with 39 emblems of the Passion of the Christ. Bazar Road is only 2 km long but houses a Jain Temple, a Ram Mandir, a Hanuman Temple, a Mosque, a Christian Chapel and a Gurudwara. A house on Bazar Road even has a Byzantine Cross on the archway of its entrance, indicating early trade ties with the Arab world, probably Syria, where just Byzantine crosses can still be seen on very old ruins of churches from the crusades. The wall enclosing the compound of St. Andrews Church and the arch was built by donations of a Parsi gentleman, Manockjee Sorabjee Ashburner, in 1862. This is recorded on a slab on the main gate of the enclosure. In 1879, Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy constructed a flight of steps from the foot of Mt Mary hill to the north side of the church known as the Degrados de Bomanjee (steps of Bomanjee). The original statue of Mary was brought to Bombay by Jesuit priests from Portugal in 1570 who constructed a chapel at the spot. In 1700, Arab pirates attracted by the jewels held in the right hand of the statue, cut it off and made off with the loot. The statue was eventually found floating in the sea and re-adorned with the baby Jesus in her arms and once again placed inside the church. In 1896 the Mt. Mary chapel was pulled down because of the plague epidemic, but was reconstructed in its present form in 1904.
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Continued below