The Secret Stories Behind Some Of Mumbai’s Most Frequented Landmarks

The Secret Stories Behind Some Of Mumbai’s Most Frequented Landmarks

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” 

Philip Pullman

Stories make the world go round. And in this age of post-digital ‘it-didn’t-happen-if-you-can’t-share-it,’ every day, every face, every experience is nothing if it can’t be translated into a good story.

At least linguistically if not visually. It’s easy enough to imagine that every living organism around you is bearing the weight of their own tales (read: Humans Of Bombay) but it’s equally easy to forget that the things that make up our environment have their own stories to tell, especially considering the sheer volume of time they’ve stood still for.

Everyday, we walk past these etymologies, lost in the weaving of our own words and our own lives, refusing to spare a thought for the roof we might be walking under so for a change, we decided to shift the spotlight.

What follows is a wonderful history lesson, the kind that just might change the way you view some of the most common places in Mumbai. Here are some of the fascinating stories no one ever made you privy to.

I. Churchgate

For a better part of the 18th and 19th century, Bombay was a walled city, protected by a huge fort built by the East India Company to protect their settlements. The fort opened up at three main gates: The Apollo gate, The Bazaar gate, and The Church gate.

The Church gate was the entrance to the St. Cathedral Church, which exists even today. Soon after, the fortified walls were broken down and the gates demolished, but the name was the one thing that managed to stick. Three centuries later, the area is still called “Churchgate”.

Sebastiao Salgado

II. Hutatma Chowk/Flora Fountain

The story of Hutatma chowk is quite an inspiring one. Hutatma chowk literally translates to “Martyrs’ square”, which is in reference to the 110 people who laid down their lives at the very same spot as they protested for the creation of the state of Maharashtra.

While this may be a good history lesson in itself, the chronology actually dates back further.  In 1860, the then Governor of Bombay Sir Bartle Frere wanted to improve the civic sanitation and living conditions of the ever-increasing population of Bombay.

Thus, in a bid to beautify the place, the Flora Fountain was erected exactly where the Church gate stood right before it was demolished. The fountain offered drinking water while also adding to the scenic beauty of the place. Furthermore, the “chowk”, where the five streets meet, was originally constructed to resemble the famous Piccadilly Circus of London.

III. The Bombay Stock Exchange

Close to two centuries old, the Bombay Stock Exchange holds the distinction of being the oldest stock exchange in Asia. It all started in 1855, when five stockbrokers, four Gujaratis and one Parsi, would gather under a banyan tree in front on the Town Hall to sell stocks.

As more brokers joined them, it became difficult to work under a banyan tree, and so, they often moved around and changed their location. Finally, after two decades of temporary workstations, they finally settled down at Dalal Street in 1874 and became the official organisation that we know today as the Bombay Stock Exchange.

IV. Fort

One of the most important business districts in Bombay today, Fort actually gets its name from the gigantic fortified wall called “Fort George” that was built to protect the settlements of the East India Company.

The fort lasted a good century or two, and was eventually taken down by the British in 1860. The name, however, stuck, and the remains of Fort George can be seen even today.

V. Versova

This one probably takes the cake, simply because the story is morbidly fascinating, to say the least. Versova was the village of the Kolis, who fished for a living. However, in 1694, a fleet of Arabs from Muscat landed in Versova and massacred the whole village, slaughtering anything that showed even a glimpse of life.

They left the bodies to rot right there in the village, and therefore, the village came to be known as “Vesave”, which is a Marathi word for “Rest in Peace”. The town was left abandoned for a period of 20-30 years after that, till the Portuguese took control of Bombay and a number of Kolis moved back to the village. Thus, if you live in Versova, know that you walk over hundreds of dead bodies every single day.

VI. Hanging Gardens

One of the most beautiful places in Bombay, the Hanging Gardens has an equally beautiful history even if its name inspires a sense of the morbid. Perched at the top of the Malabar Hill, the gardens were built in 1881 and named the Pherozeshah Mehta gardens.

Now while some say that it was actually a project to beautify the city and make it more presentable as it grew in stature, another theory claims that it was intentionally laid out over Bombay’s main reservoir to protect the water from the potentially contaminating activity of the Towers of Silence.

A few claim that it was a case of two birds, one stone, and a smart move by the authorities. Whatever the case, the gardens have etched themselves into the history of this wonderful city, one which just happens to be seriously starved of greenery and garden space.

My Gola

VII. Wankhade Stadium

Few people know this, but the oldest cricket stadium in Bombay is not the Wankhade Stadium. India played its first test match on home soil at the Bombay Gymkhana, and after the Second World War, the matches were held at the Brabourne stadium.

However, there were ongoing disputes between the owners of the ground, CCI, and Mumbai Cricket association regarding the allocations of tickets, which were getting progressively worse. In stepped S.K. Wankhade, a cricket lover and politician, who took the initiative and propelled the MCA to build a brand new stadium for themselves. Nine months later, all cricketing ties were cut off with Brabourne and the brand new Wankhade stadium hosted its first match in 1975.

VIII. The Phoenix Mills

Lower Parel might be one of the plushest, swankiest places in Bombay today, but close to 20 years ago, it was completely uninhabited. Why? Well, because it was completely made up of abandoned mills.

In the first half of the 19th century, India began exporting cotton to Britain, and various mills were set up in Bombay. Girgaon, as it was known then, was integral to Bombay’s economy, and between 1820 to 1860, the valuation of the textile imports increased from Rs. 3,50,000 to Rs. 20 Million. At one point, there were close to 83 mills running in the city, which earned Bombay the title of being the “Manchester of the East”.

However, after World War II and independence, the mills faced stiff competition from Japan, and slowly began to die out. Within a few years, there was nothing but abandoned mills in the area, and it remained in that state for numerous years as the government had passed strict laws regarding the sale of the Girgaon mills land.

However, post 1992, the government relaxed those laws and plenty of high-profile, stealthy builders quickly acquired most of the land, and well, that is how we now have Palladium and Tryst!

VIII. Charni Road

While the etymology of the name might just mean a grazing land, the history of Charni Road is fascinating in its own little way. It can be traced back to 1884, when Sir Adamji Peerbhoy, a well known philanthropist from Bombay, wanted to build a safe haven for travellers.

He chose Charni Road, and built a mosque, a sanatorium and most notably, a hospital for treatment which we know today as the Saifee hospital. After this death, the family wanted to make money off these properties, but keeping his grandfather’s noble intentions in mind, Akbar Peerbhoy went against the family’s wishes and converted the properties into a trust. These exist even today, benefitting the poor and the needy, just the way Sir Adamji Peerbhoy envisioned.

IX. Mahalaxmi Temple

The story of Mahalaxmi Temple is directly linked to the building of the Hornby Vellard, a causeway which would unite all the seven islands of Bombay, and also protect the low lying areas from high tide. However, it proved to be futile as portions of the sea wall collapsed twice mid-construction, leaving everyone baffled.

Just when all seemed to be lost, Pathare Prabhu, the chief engineer of the project, dreamt of a statue of Devi lost at sea. He sent out a search party and astonishingly enough, the statue was recovered. Prabhu then built a small temple for the Devi, and the work was completed without a glitch. Subsequently, a bigger temple was built in 1831 by Dhaki Dadaji, a Hindu merchant, and came to be known as the Mahalaxmi Temple.

X. Wadala

A deserted island for a better part of its history, Wadala rose to prominence at the turn of the 20th Century, when it became an important part of the first suburban scheme of Bombay in 1900.

A bill was passed by the British parliament to relieve the congestion of population in Bombay due to the plague that hit Bombay in the 1890s, and so, a new housing scheme came up in which about 85,000 people were to be relocated. 440 acres of land was procured by the government, and various three storied buildings popped up all around Wadala. Streets were well laid out, and parks and gardens were constructed too, and thus, Wadala came into existence.

XI. Siddhivinayak Temple

One of the biggest temples in Bombay, the Siddhivinayak was a mere 3.6 x 3.6 metre brick structure back in 1801. However, a temple was constructed soon after at the behest of Deubai Patil, a rich agri woman who happened to be childless.

She built the temple to please the lord so that the he would be kind enough to grant children to other barren women. Soon after, Saint Swami Samarth buried two divine idols and prophesied that a tree would grow at that very spot with a Ganesha in its branches, which proved to be true 21 years later.

Thus, the temple grew in stature and fame, and pilgrims started to flock from all corners of Bombay. Eventually, the temple expanded, and various modifications were made, and a lake was added too. Post independence, the temple has grown to become one of the most famous temples in Bombay.

XII. Bandra Talao

You might spot this huge man-made lake on your way to Bandra station, and must have questioned its existence at least once, like the rest of us. However, the lake has a history of its own. Constructed almost 200 years ago, the “Lotus Lake” or “Motha Sarovar” was built by a rich Konkani Muslim to provide drinking water to the Navpada settlement in Bandra east.

However, over the years, humans, being humans, started littering the lake when they would go there to fish. To put an end to it, a steel gate was constructed all around the lake, but the littering did not stop. In fact, people would throw their garbage over the gates right into the lake.

Thus, the lake was eventually shut down, and became nothing but a toxic water body. However, recently, the maintenance of the lake was taken over by the BMC, and 33 crores have been allocated to restore the lake to its lost glory. Whether or not the so-called allocation will bear any fruit at all, only time will tell.

Amit Chahalia via Flickr

XIII. Pali Hill

One of the swankiest area codes in Mumbai today, Pali Hill was nothing but a dense forest until as recently as 1960. It was cultivated and various crops and fruits were grown, but one could also see the sea and enjoy the salty breeze.

However, as people started moving there in the 60s to enjoy the serenity and peace, a few bungalows popped up in the area. All was well until a few builders acquired some land a few years later and built a few apartment buildings, and soon, people started flocking to Pali Hill to enjoy the “calmness and serenity” of the place.

Before they knew it, it grew into an affluent neighbourhood, and the serenity went for a toss. However, despite the plethora of buildings, the area is still quieter in comparison to other parts of Bandra, which is exactly why it is home to some of the biggest, richest names in the city.

 XIV. The Airports

For the longest time, the Juhu Aerodrome was the only airport in Bombay. As Bombay was an established port, airports were never seen as a necessity. However, at the cusp of the Second World War, the British realised that the Aerodrome could not cope with the large fighter planes which required longer runways. Thus, they set up the RAF Santacruz, a military airfield, in 1942. The airport had three runways, and covered an area of as much as 3000 acres.

Post-independence, the Indian government started using it as a civilian airport, and thus the Santacruz Airport came into existence. It became the most important airport in the city and eventually, the airport was expanded and the land around the airport procured for the same reason.

However, in 1980, a new international terminal was set up in Andheri to cope with the increasing frequency of international travellers and aircrafts. Thus, the Santacruz airport was converted into a domestic airport, while the new Sahar airport would cater to the international flights.

XV. The Taj Mahal Hotel

The fascinating story of the Taj serves as an apt conclusion to this list. It goes something like this: One day, Jamshedji Tata, one of the richest men in India, decided to spend a night at the Watson’s hotel, which was the best hotel in Bombay at the time.

However, shockingly enough, he was refused entry; the reason being that it was a “Whites only” hotel. Enraged, Mr. Tata did what anyone else with that much money at his disposal would do – he went ahead and built a hotel of his own. Not just any old hotel, mind you, the best one the city had ever seen.

The Taj cost 250,000 pounds to construct (120 million pounds in today’s money) and was built using the same steel which was used in the construction of the Eiffel Tower. It was the first Hotel in India to operate steam lifts, which were German made.

The hotel had American fans and Turkish baths. Most importantly, the hotel had English butlers – something even the “Whites only” hotel Watson’s didn’t have. Surely enough, The Taj was the place to be, and within half a century, the rise of the Taj meant that Watson’s ran completely out of business.

Today, the Watson’s hotel lies in a decayed, dilapidated state while the Taj stands tall and is still ranked the best Hotel in India. It would appear that hell hath no fury like a rich man scorned.

The Taj Mahal Palace website

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