September 12, 2010

A History of Ancient Bombay (Part V)

Continued from previous post
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According to rumour, Parsi industrialist Jamshetji Tata was denied entrance to the Europeans only Watson Hotel at the Esplanade in Bombay. In retaliation he commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal hotel at Apollo Bunder in 1898 and the building was completed in 1903. It so happened that the architect of the hotel had meant the non-seafacing side of the hotel to be the main entrance where VIP guests would arrive in their horse pulled carriages. Instead, on the inaugural day, most of the VIPs including the Governor came in their horse-driven carriages along the seaside entrance and entered the hotel from there. The architect having realized his blunder is said to have committed suicide soon after. Today the original main entrance has been walled up (except for trade deliveries and disposal of garbage) and all patrons arrive from the seaside entrance. When it was opened it was the first building in Bombay to be electrified with its own power generating and ice-making plant. The ice was used for a rudimentary air-conditioning system in those early days. The Taj boasts a series of firsts in Indian hospitality: American fans, German elevators, Turkish baths and English butlers. It preceded the Gateway of India by over 20 years. Until then the hotel was the first sight for ships calling at the Bombay port. The imposing edifice of the hotel is an amalgam of styles that range from Moorish domes to Oriental and Rajput architecture. Jamsetji Tata had visited the famous Paris Expo exhibition close to the turn of the century (for which the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889). He saw there pillars of spun iron displayed for the first time, and ordered 10 to be shipped home for his new hotel. Today they seem indestructible as they continue to hold up the hotel's famous ballroom. During World War I (1914-1918), the hotel was converted into a 600-bed hospital, as was the Royal Institute of Science, next to the Cawasji Jehangir Hall, during World War II (1939 to 1945). The Prince of Wales Museum was also used as a hospital during wartime.
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“The Marvel of the Century. The Wonder of the World. Living Photographic Pictures in Life-Sized Reproductions by Messrs Lumiere Brothers. Cinematographe. A few exhibitions will be given at Watson's Hotel. Admission one rupee”, read the advertisement of the Lumiere Brothers' film show at Watson’s Hotel on July 7, 1896 at Bombay’s Kala Ghoda. This was the first film to be screened in India. The screening took place in Esplanade's Watson Hotel (on the south side of the University). [History was repeated in the triangular car parking slot outside the Jehangir Art Gallery on February 14, 1999 at 7 pm when the same film was screened once again, 103 years later, as part of the Kala Ghoda Art Festival]. By 1908 there were regular cinema shows in an improvised building on the Esplanade maidan, where films of London life were screened, holding the local audience spellbound.
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Located in Bombay’s Kala Ghoda Art District, Watson’s Hotel, also referred to as Esplanade Mansion, may be the earliest surviving example of cast-iron architecture in India. Named for initial owner John Hudson Watson, the building was fabricated in England and erected onsite between 1867 and 1869. Its design is attributed to engineer Rowland Mason Ordish (1824–1886), who was associated with other notable Victorian-era cast iron structures such as Saint Pancras Station in London. The five-story building housed 130 guest rooms as well as a lobby, restaurant, bar, and atrium at ground level. It was occupied mostly by British bachelors. The main fa├žade of the hotel was distinguished by building-wide open balconies on each floor that connected the guest rooms. Situated in the heart of British Bombay, Watson’s Hotel was popular with European colonists and is considered a forerunner to luxury hotels in India, such as the Tata-owned Taj Mahal Hotel.
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‘Bombay House’, the headquarters of the Tata Group has a fascinating piece of history. In the early 1900s, a plot of land in the Fort area was put up by the Bombay Municipality for sale and purchased by the Tatas. George Wittet, who was once a consulting architect to the government and who later joined the Tatas as the head of the then Tata Engineering Company Limited (TELCO), constructed a stone building that was completed in July 1924. That became the ‘Bombay House’, the headquarters of the Tata Group of companies. In fact George Wittet (1878-1926) who arrived in India in 1904 and became an assistant to John Begg, then Consulting Architect to the city of Bombay. Wittet's designs are among the most well-known of Bombay's landmarks—the Prince of Wales Museum, the Gateway of India, the Royal Institute of Science opp. Regal Cinema, the Small Causes Court at Dhobitalao, the Wadia Maternity Hospital, the King Edward Memorial Hospital, and The Grand Hotel in the Ballard Estate, by the Bombay Docks. He died of acute dysentery in Bombay in the year 1926, and is buried in the Sewri cemetery.
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As a result of a mysterious fire which started in one of its holds, on a very hot summer's day of Friday April 14, 1944, the ship "Fort Stikine" (7,420 tons) blew up while moored in the Bombay docks. At the time the ship was about to unload a lethal combination of cargo of dried fish and cotton bales (loaded from Karachi), timber, gun powder, ammunition and gold bars from London (the latter to stabilize the Indian Rupee, which was sagging due to the Second World War and fear of invasion from Japan). The gold bullion was valued at approx. two million Pounds Sterling at that time. Nobody is certain as to how the fire started but the two explosions that followed were so loud that windows rattled and/or shattered as far away as Dadar, a distance of 8 miles. The destruction in the docks and surrounding area was immense and several hundred dock workers were killed instantly. The Bombay Fire Brigade led by Chief Fire Officer, Rustom Palamkote, answered the call to duty within minutes. Palamkote courageously entered the hold of the burning ship himself to inspect the cause of the explosion when there was a second, more devastating blast. A majority of the brave fire fighters, including Palamkote, lost their lives in the second explosion (a monument has been erected in the docks to honour their memory). The population of the city, by now, was panic stricken as wild rumors spread rapidly that the explosions signaled the commencement of hostilities by the Japanese on the same style as the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian islands in December 1941. Totally unfounded tales from Surat, where the Tapti river meets the sea, mentioned several sightings of periscopes of supposedly Japanese submarines! As it turned out, the Japanese were nowhere near Bombay since they were engaged in fighting a losing battle with the British army in Burma at that time. Nevertheless, the Bombay Central (BB&CI) and Victoria Terminus (GIP) railway stations were packed to capacity with terrorized citizens fleeing the city in whichever train they could board with all belongings they could possibly carry. At the time of the explosion, one of the red-hot gold bars crashed through the roof of the third floor apartment, of a Parsi gentleman named B.C. Motivala, more than a mile from the docks. He promptly returned the gold bar to the authorities. Almost all of the other gold bars were subsequently recovered from different parts of the city; the last ones to be found were hauled up from the bottom of the sea in the docks. During normal dredging operations, carried out periodically by the Bombay Port Trust to maintain the depth of the docking bays, gold bars were found intact sporadically as late as the 1970s and returned by the port authorities to the British government. The British administration at the time of the explosion, under the governorship of John Colville (1943-1947), took full responsibility for the disaster and adequate monetary compensation was promptly paid out to citizens who made a verifiable claim for loss or damage to property.
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The Port Trust Railway from Ballard Pier to Wadala was opened in 1915. Along this railway were built grain and fuel oil depots. Kerosene oil and petrol installations were developed at Sewri and Wadala, respectively. In the same year the first overhead transmission lines of the Tata Power Company were erected. In 1927 the first electric locomotives manufactured by Metropolitan Vickers of England were put into service for goods trains up to Poona and Igatpuri on the GIP railway. These locomotives were typically Swiss in their design and appearance and had coupled wheels like the Swiss electric locomotives of those days and were called “Crocodile” electric locomotives. Of the 41 electric locomotives, the first 10 had their bodies built by the Swiss Locomotive and Machine Works (SLM) with electricals by Metropolitan-Vickers of England. These engines had regenerative braking (their electric motors reversed themselves during braking) and they were used extensively on the Bombay to Poona and Igatpuri routes via the steep Western Ghats where hard braking was required on the down grade. These locomotives, unlike their passenger train counterparts, that came a year later, had an articulated frame, suitable for rounding the sharp bends on the ardous hilly routes. The next 31 were built totally built in England. These locomotives worked for 66 years and today, two units one goods and the other passenger are preserved at the National Railway Museum, New Delhi. Later electric multiple unit (EMUs) commuter trains ran up to Virar on the BB&CI railway and up to Karjat and Kasara of the GIP railway.
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The historic session of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) began on the 7th of August 1942. Its venue was the Gowalia Tank Maidan, where the congress was born in 1885. It was at this session that the "Quit India" call to the British rulers was given by Mahatma Gandhi and other Indian National Congress leaders. The Indian leaders were arrested soon afterwards but the momentum of the Quit India movement could not be stopped and led to the final withdrawal of the British on 15 August 1947. The last British troops on Indian soil left for England marching through the archway of the Gateway of India unto a steamer on February 28, 1948. It was the First Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry. They bade farewell to India from where they had entered 282 years before. The people of Bombay, in a gesture of generosity wished them "bon voyage", putting aside the bitter memories of the fight for independence. Today the maidan (open ground) from where the call to "Quit India" was given by the AICC is called the August Kranti (revolution) Maidan.
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In 1960, following the “Samyukta Maharashtra” movement that was marred by violence against the Gujaratis by the Marathas, the Bombay Presidency was divided by the Center (Delhi) into Maharashtra and Gujarat states. Bombay became the capital of the former and a new capital city for Gujarat, Gandhinagar, was constructed 35 Kms north-east of Ahmedabad.
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Bombay is considered the financial capital of India. The first bank, The Bank of Bombay, was established in 1840. It was largely British owned. But in 1911 the Central Bank of India, which was the first Indian commercial bank which was wholly owned and managed by Indians was set up by Sir Sorabji Pochkhanawala. Sir Pherozesha Mehta was the first Chairman of a truly 'Swadeshi Bank'. In fact, such was the extent of pride felt by Sir Sorabji Pochkhanawala that he proclaimed Central Bank of India as the 'property of the nation and the country's asset'. He also added that 'Central Bank of India lives on people's faith and regards itself as the people's own bank'. During the past 100 years of history the Bank has weathered many storms and faced many challenges. It is said that during the great depression, when banks in Europe and the USA were collapsing, Someone started a rumour that the Central Bank was also going under and long lines of depositors formed out side the Bank to withdraw their money. Sir Sorabji himself came and sat on a chair at the gate of the Bank and saw to it that the Bank remained opened past closing time till the last person in the Q was paid his due. Only then he went home. It is also said that Sir Pherozesha Mehta put his entire fortune at the disposal of the Bank at that time to boost depositors’ confidence. The Bank survived.
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The Stock Exchange at Bombay was established in 1875 as "The Native Share and Stockbrokers Association" which has evolved over the decades into its present status as the premier Stock Exchange in India. It is one of the oldest in Asia having preceded even the Tokyo Stock Exchange which was founded in 1878. In the early days the business was conducted under the shade of a banyan tree in front of the town hall. The tree can still be seen in a corner of the Horniman Circle. In 1850 the Companies Act was passed and that heralded the commencement of the joint stock companies in India. The American Civil War of 1860 helped Indians to establish brokerage houses in Bombay. The leading broker at the time, Premchand Roychand, assisted in framing conventions, ground rules and procedures for trading which are respected even today. He was the first Indian broker who could speak and write in fluent English. The exchange was established with 318 members with a fee of Re. 1/-. (This fee has gradually increased over the years and in 1995 it was a whopping Rs. 55,00,000).
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In January 1899, the Brokers' Hall was inaugurated by James M. MaClean, M.P. After the First World War the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) was housed in an old building near the Town Hall. In 1928, the present plot of land was acquired surrounded by Dalal Street, Bombay Samachar Marg, and Hammam Street. A building was constructed in 1930 and occupied in December of that year. In 1995 the operations and dealings of the BSE were fully computerized and thus the famous out-cry system of share trading was replaced by screen based trading as in other modern stock exchanges around the world. Today Bombay is the financial and business capital of India. The BSE is housed in the 28-storied Phiroze Jeejeebhoy Towers in the same place where the old building once stood. Sir Jeejeebhoy was the Chairman of the Exchange from 1966 till his death in 1980. The building has been named after him since its construction commenced during his Chairmanship and was completed just as he passed away.
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After independence the Congress party led by Jawaharlal Nehru was swept to power in the majority of the 22 Indian States which were constituted on the basis of language spoken by the greater proportion of its people. The Bombay State included the city as its seat of government. In 1960, after a bitter communal strife, the Bombay State was split into Maharashtra and Gujerat states once again on linguistic basis, the former retaining Bombay as its capital city. The Congress party continued to administer Maharashtra until 1994 when it was replaced by the Shiv Sena (SS)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition.
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With the success of the back-bay reclamation scheme in the late 1960s and early 1970s Nariman Point emerged as the hub of the business activity, similar to Manhattan in New York. Nariman Point is named after Khurshed Framji Nariman, president of the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee and former Mayor of Bombay. Actually Nariman was the fifth Mayor of Bombay (1935-36). He was born on May 17, 1883 in Thana in a middle class Parsi family. After graduation Nariman took his LL, B. Degree and started his practice as a criminal lawyer. Alter 11 years of legal practice, he came to the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1922. He was a member of the Law Revenue and General Purposes Committee and also of the Standing Committee for some years. He put up severe opposition to the raising of tram fares in 1923, and moved the High Court which granted injunction restraining the Corporation from discussing the matter further. It was during this fight that Narirnan's zeal to espouse the cause of common man and stand by the people shone at its brightest. He visited slums and markets and tried to find out ways and means for overcoming problems. He strove to remove mass illiteracy and root out its evils. He also associated himself with Youth Movement, Labour Welfare Organization, Rent Control and Unemployment relief. The Harvey-Nariman case made Nariman an All India figure. He was given the title of “Veer Nariman” by Sarojini Naidu, publicly. He figured prominently in prohibition and cloth-picketing campaigns. Nariman was the President of BPCC during 1930-35 and was also a member of the Working Committee of the Congress in 1934. He died on 4th October 1949 after seeing India become free of the British yoke.
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Churchgate Street was also renamed as Veer ("brave") Nariman Road after independence. Several business offices shifted from the Ballard Estate and the old Fort area to Nariman Point that ultimately has become valued as one of the most expensive real estate in the world as high demand pushed prices to astronomical limits. Nariman Point represents the Bombay of the post-Independence era.
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In the 1980s the development of "New Bombay" as a satellite town gained momentum and several government offices and wholesale markets shifted there reducing some of the congestion of the city. In the beginning of 1996 the Shiv Sena-Bharatija Janata Party coalition government voted to change the name of Bombay to "Mumbai", the name that locals always used when referring to the city all throughout the colonial rule.
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Bombay has seen phenomenal growth since its humble origins 400 years ago. Those born before and during WWII reminisce about the days when the city was less congested and moved at a slower pace. The following is a timeline of the growth of Bombay’s population over the last four centuries:
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1661 . . . 10,000 inhabitants
1675 . . . 60,000
1864 . . . 816,562
1872 . . . 644,605
1881 . . . 773,196
1891 . . . 821,764
1901 . . . 812,912
1911 . . . 1,018,388
1921 . . . 1,244,934
1931 . . . 1,268,936
1941 . . . 1,686,127
1951 . . . 2,966,902
1961 . . . 4,152,056
1971 . . . 5,970,575
1981 . . . 8,227,382
1991 . . . 9,900,000 + 2,600,000 (Thana) = 12,500,000 (Greater Bombay)
2001 . . . 16,368,084 (Greater Mumbai, incl. Thana)
2005 . . . 18,366,088 (Greater Mumbai, incl. Thana)
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Dr. Ardeshir B. Damania
Email: abdamania AT yahoo DOT com
This article is under copyright and no part may be reproduced without prior permission of the author. An abridged version of History of Ancient Bombay has been published on the internet at http://www.mumbainet.com/
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Dr. Ardeshir B. Damania was born in Bombay and received his education leading to a Bachelors Degree in Botany and Zoology and a Masters Degree in Plant Ecology from the University of Bombay, and a second Masters Degree and finally a Doctorate (Ph.D.) in Plant Genetic Resources from the University of Birmingham, England.
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Dr. Damania’s early career with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome, Italy resulted in his traveling to many countries of the world mainly in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. Later he joined the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) based in Aleppo, Syria for almost 10 years. During this period he visited and traveled extensively in China, Turkey, Jordan, Morocco and Iran, among other countries.
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He is currently Associate Research Geneticist with the Department of Plant Sciences, University of California, Davis. His research interests include biodiversity conservation, early agriculture, crop domestication and plants of economic and medicinal values. Dr Damania has over 200 scientific publications to his credit.
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In addition to his academic research, Dr Damania takes a keen interest in Indo-Persian history and matters pertaining to the Parsi community and the Zoroastrian diaspora. His love of Bombay (Mumbai) led him to search out the great city's historical past and record it for the referral of future generations of Mumbaiyites.