Mumbai Memoirs 5: From 7 Islands to a Megalopolis! (Part II)
A late evening walk at the Marine Drive promenade is a beautiful experience for one and all. The rows of street lights that adorn the entire stretch of the 4.3 km boulevard, creates a magical effect on its admirer. On a moonlit night, one can witness the romance between the winds and the waves of the Arabian Sea that kiss each other in the outstretched bay.
Fondly referred as the ‘Queen’s Necklace’, the rows of glittering street lights create an illusion of a beautiful necklace, that adorns Mumbai’s most prestigious location- The Marine Drive. For a passenger observing from an aeroplane above, the C- shaped spectacle may seem as if, an attractive lady is mysteriously smiling back from the shores of Mumbai. Last weekend, as I experienced the charm of the ‘Queen’s Necklace’, my curiosity about Mumbai’s past rose to new heights.
Like seven pearls sown in one thread, the seven islands of Bombay were merged into one entity by the Hornby Vellard project. The British East India Company undertook the project, which aimed to build a causeway that would unite the islands of Bombay. The project was spearheaded by Governor William Hornby in 1782. The succeeding Governors finally accomplished the task in 1838.
In context of this project, a popular story that I would like to share is about the construction of the Mahalakshmi temple, off the Worli sea-face. A wall was being built to curtail the shoreline of Worli area. On a couple of occasions, portion of this sea wall collapsed, thus halting the work. The chief engineer, belonging to the Pathare Prabhu community, is believed to have dreamt of a statue lying in the sea near Worli. With the help of local fishermen, a search was ordered and to everyone’s surprise, indeed a statue of a Hindu goddess was found! For housing this statue, in 1831, a Hindu merchant named Dhakji Dadaji built a temple, which we now know as the Mahalakshmi Temple. A common belief then was that the divine statue’s recovery from the sea had broken the jinx regarding the unfortunate wall. The work of the wall thereafter was successfully continued without any further delay.
The Mahalakshmi temple is visited by lakhs of devotees every year. Three avatars of Parvati (the wife of Hindu deity Shiva) dazzle the temple sanctum. As per Hindu mythology, goddess Saraswati is prayed for knowledge & arts, goddess Lakshmi is prayed for wealth & prosperity & goddess Mahakali is prayed to ward off evil. My annual visits to this temple remind me of the values that are allegorically expressed in these three feminine forms of the universe.
The successful completion of the Hornby Vellard project created opportunities not only for the British East India Company, but also for the inhabitants of Bombay. The company reaped rich benefits from maritime trade, as larger vessels could be docked in Bombay’s natural habour. Due to the increased connectivity, an influx of migrant population created rapid changes in the city’s demographics.
The growing English community in Bombay built churches and schools for nurturing their values towards religion and education. In 1669, the then governor of Bombay, Gerald Aungier took the initiative of building the St. Thomas Church inside the fort walls that protected Bombay. Due to practical reasons the church work could not be started until 1714. A 27 year old Chaplain named Richard Cobbe then completed the work by 1718. St. Thomas Church is situated in the heart of Fort area in South Mumbai. The church was named after St. Thomas, one of the 12 Disciples of Jesus Christ, who travelled to India along with some spice traders of Malabar. St. Thomas Church achieved Cathedral status in July 1837. The church’s interiors are adorned with artistic sculptures and murals that are testimony to the British sense of workmanship.
The Cathedral & John Connon Choir School, Fort, provided choristers to the St. Thomas Church. Established in 1860, the Cathedral School is a premier institution which initially catered to the children of European families and the elite Indian natives of Bombay. The school was named after John Connon, a well-known philanthropist and registrar of Bombay. World famous personalities like J.R. D Tata (scion of Tata group of industries), Salman Rushdie (author of ‘Midnight’s Children), Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Founding father of Pakistan) and Fareed Zakaria (of CNN news) are proud alumni of this school. In the words of Mr. Gunnery, one of the school’s former principals, “our school is a place where everything that goes on, bears the stamp of the Cathedral School character and tradition. Our education is international. We are an Indian school where foreigners are at home, a Christian school which children of any faith can call their own.”
Yet another educational institution, that anchored itself during the British era, was the Bombay Scottish School. Established in 1847, the care giving efforts of few Scottish Christian missionaries, were appreciated by both, Christian and non-Christian citizens of Bombay. A piece of land near Mahim bay was then donated to the missionaries to start a regular school. Even today the school proudly quotes about, ‘the role of the Parsee, Hindu and Muslim donors of British India, who showered their munificence on a Christian institution.’
On reading Dr. Vijaya Gupchup’s book named ‘St. Thomas Cathedral, Bombay- A witness to History’, a long standing mystery finally got resolved in my mind. Whenever I use to commute by train, I never use to see any church nor any gate near Churchgate- the first train station of Mumbai’s Western Railway service. Just for your information, the Churchgate station is not far from the location where St. Thomas Cathedral stands today.
The fact is that, during the early British era, a gate use to exist in front of the St. Thomas Church, which was one of the entry points of the Bombay fort. Later, even after the walls and the gate of the fort were broken down, the area kept being referred as Churchgate!
It is a common belief that ‘mystery creates attraction’. As the facts of Mumbai gradually unfold in front of me, I fall in love with the city, more than ever.