Mumbai Memoirs 4: From 7 Islands to a Megalopolis! (Part I)
The number seven has always fascinated me, ever since my childhood. Being born in the 7th month of the year, I already had a soft corner for it. But as more facts dawned on my growing mind, the glamour towards the number seven kept escalating. I use to wonder about the days of a week, the colours of a rainbow, the wonders of the world, the continents on earth, all had one number in common- Seven! A recent addition to my collection of facts, related to the number seven, was about my home town Mumbai!
A couple of weeks back I visited a local fish market. I overhead a fisherwoman proudly telling her customers, “since the 7 Islands, we have been selling fish here & the fish business now is an integral part of our culture”. I was impressed with what I had heard and kept wondering about the 7 islands, which the fisherwoman was referring to! On returning home I started exploring the facts and realized that present day Mumbai is based on a collection of islands located in the Arabian Sea that existed on the West coast of India! The original archipelago consisted of seven islands namely Colaba, Old woman’s islands, Isles of Bombay, Mazgaon, Parel, Worli and Mahim. Since ancient times, it was inhabited with migrants. One of the early settlers who lived here, are believed to be the ‘Kolis’, a Marathi speaking fishing community.
Even today this lively and hardworking community is acknowledged by the locals, as the ‘first citizens of Mumbai’. Traditionally, the fishermen go for the catch in the sea, and their women folks sell the day’s catch to the local people. Selling fish is just not a business for the ‘Kolis’, rather it’s truly a part of their culture which they have closely protected till date.
In the 13th century, King Bhimdev established his kingdom on the islands and brought along with him many settlers. Gradually the Bhandaris and the Pathare Prabhu communities too settled here. The Bhandaris were the descendants of the naval warriors who fought for Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj, a brave Maratha ruler who challenged Mughal supremacy in 17th century India. The members of the Pathare Prabhu community were believed to have worked in the ministry of King Bhimdev and thus they enjoyed good financial and noble status since the time they settled on the islands.
In 1348, the Muslim rulers of Gujarat captured the Islands and made it a part of their Sultanate. Finally in 1534 the control of these islands went into Portuguese hands, thus bringing European winds, for the first time, to the shores of Mumbai.
The Portuguese were the first to formally name the 7 Islands as Bombaim, which means, ‘Good Bay’. They were interested in using Bombaim’s natural harbour, mainly for their trade purposes. Even in modern day Mumbai one can easily trace the footprints left by the Portuguese. Last week I visited a well known heritage site in South Mumbai named ‘Khotachiwadi’ at Girgaon. I was mesmerized with the series of Portuguese style bungalows that stood elegantly in a row. As the history goes, a wealthy man from the Prathare Prabhu community, named ‘Khot’, once owned the land where these bungalows stand today. Khot mostly sold the land plots to the East Indian Christian community that was sprouting during the Portuguese rule over Bombaim. Every bungalow has a front porch, a slating roof and an external staircase which leads to the upper rooms. It was a great feeling to walk through the narrow lanes of Khotachiwadi, as I explored the charm of Portuguese architecture in the heart of Mumbai city!
Yet another cultural heritage, which the Portuguese left behind in Mumbai, is the St. Michael Church at Mahim. ‘San Miguel’, as the church was referred then, is the oldest Franciscan church in Mumbai which was built in 1534. This church became a religious hub for the East Indian (converted Christians from Konkan region) community that lived in and around Bombaim.
Meanwhile the British too had realized the commercial potential of the 7 Islands. They frequently had naval skirmishes with the Portuguese, off the ‘Bombaim’ shore. Finally on 11 May 1661, the possession of the 7 islands formally was handed to King Charles II of England, when he married Catherine of Braganza, the daughter of King John IV of Portugal. Thus Bombaim was gifted in dowry from the King of Portugal to the King of England!
The British anglicized the name Bombaim to Bombay. Like the Portuguese, they further fortified the islands by building more forts & watch towers for security reasons. Even today, when one touches the dilapidated remains of the fort walls, one can feel the passion of the European rulers, who defended their acquired possessions with all their might.
King Charles II soon leased the islands of Bombay to the British East India Company for an annual rent of mere 10 pounds! The company was mainly interested in trade and commerce related activities by utilizing the natural harbour of Bombay that strategically connected Europe to Asia. After 1857, when Queen Victoria proclaimed her direct authority over India, rapid infrastructural changes were ordered for the development of Bombay. Qualitative transport system, establishments of academic institutions and modern town planning thus started shaping up on the 7 Islands. Unlike the Portuguese, the British were farsighted in educating the natives of the islands so that an indigenous workforce could be locally generated for smooth administrative purpose. On that note, I want to specially share about ‘Sir, J.J. School of Art, which I happened to visit last week. A great historical fact about the literary world dawned on me, as I explored the premise of this art school.
The J.J school of Art was established in March 1857. It was named after Sir. Jamshetji. Jeejiboy, a Parsi businessman and philanthropist, who had donated Rs 100000 for constructing the school premise. In 1866, Lockwood Kipling (father of the British writer Rudyard Kipling) became the first Dean of this art school. The school building was designed by architect George Twigge Molecey in neo- Gothic style. The school’s campus and the Dean’s bungalow, where Rudyard Kipling was born, and lived for the first six years of his life, is a heritage structure which very few people are aware of. I explored the school’s architecture, sculpting, drawing, painting and applied art departments and was impressed by the works of art which were displayed there.
After seeking due permission from the authorities, I visited the Dean’s bungalow to get a first-hand experience of the place, where the ‘The Jungle Book’ author spent his initial childhood days of life.
Rudyard’s love for Bombay is evident in a quatrain (a poem of 4 lines) that he wrote later:
“Mother of Cities to me,
For I was born in her gate,
Between the palms and the sea,
Where the world-end steamers wait.”
It was a delight to walk in the front yard of the bungalow and imagine the old times when little Rudyard would have been playing there. Just then I saw a rooster crowing nearby. As if the rooster was proudly announcing to the world about the glory, which the Bombay-born Kipling, brought to the English language, by being the recipient of the 7th Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907! Yet again, the number seven keeps me wondering about its magic!