Courting heritage

Courting heritage
The very idea of heritage walk evoked romanticism of unearthing the layers of history, discovering the city where I live in a new light. When the annual Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (KGAF) in Mumbai conducted guided heritage walk, it was a chance to travel back some 350 years ago.

It was the fortified area of Mumbai where the East India Company started building the grand architectural structures that are today charming vignettes reminiscent of Victorian London. The fort walls had been demolished in mid-19th century itself for the city’s expansion, and changes in due course of time were inevitable. Still the visible heritage precinct of Ballard Estate and the radius of two kilometres around it hold an irresistible old world charm.

Charms of a city

So on one fine afternoon,I boarded the Mumbai local train to discover the footprints in time from the vintage Churchgate station. I paused and looked around to be greeted by the stunning façade of the Western Railway Headquarters just across the road.  The neo-classical British era building looms large.

As I had taken the western line that starts from Churchgate station, those who take the central line to reach the Chhatrapati Shivaji (earlier Victoria) Terminus would certainly be enamoured by the Central Railway Headquarters building. The only UNESCO World Heritage monument in the city, it is one of the most photographed landmarks of the city. Bustling with people, this Gothic masterpiece designed by Fredrick William Stevens holds tremendous visual appeal. Named after Queen Victoria and opened in 1887, the iconic structure has been captured in celluloid umpteen times.

As I had disembarked at Churchgate, I decided to walk down towards the Horniman Circle garden on the eastern side of Fort area. This was to be the KGAF starting point for the Ballard Estate heritage walk. I strolled towards the nearby Gothic heritage buildings of the Bombay High Court that was built in 1878 and the University of Mumbai. It has lovely stained glass windows and the tall Rajabai Clock Tower has striking resemblance to London’s ‘Big Ben’.

Similarly, a short distance away at the cross roads, there is the Flora Fountain resembling London’s Piccadilly Circle. Built in 1869, the fountain leads to the bustling shopping arcade in Victorian buildings. I stood there visualising the fortified city when there stood the Churchgate. It leads to St Thomas Cathedral, known today for its exquisite statues and plaques inside. I met with my fellow heritage walk enthusiasts at Horniman Circle. It was our collective admiration of the surrounding Victorian buildings that warmed us to each other. Our heritage trail was peppered by curator Krutika Garg’s vast knowledge of architecture of that era chronicling each phase of the city’s development.

Some 350 years ago, Mumbai was just fishing villages of the Koli community, spread on its seven islands. The etymology of the city perhaps came from the old Portuguese phrase bom baim, meaning the good little bay. It was in 1661 that Prince Charles II of England married Catharine of Braganza and got Bombay as a dowry from the Portuguese. It was not until 1668 when East India Company realised the immense potential of its natural harbour and rented it from the British Crown at a pittance.

The Victorian touch

The place we stood was the business district known as Ballard Estate, designed by architect George Wittet. Named after J A Ballard, founder of the Bombay Port Trust, it was built on reclaimed land between 1914-1918. As far as my eyes stretch, there are leafy avenues with European renaissance-style buildings.

As we circled the area, we came across the all-white façade of the town hall built in 1930 that once belonged to the Asiatic Society of Bombay founded by Sir James Mackintosh, which now houses a public library. With its wide steps leading to a spacious portico with eight doric columns, the building is magnificent. “It is the purest form of Neo-classical structure in the whole of Mumbai,” Krutika enlightened us about its Greco-Roman style of architecture.

We came back to the Horniman Circle and as evening cool pepped my mood, the KGAF walk ended. I decided to continue on my own, walking towards the Kala Ghoda precinct known for its art galleries and Gothic buildings. I walked across the high security Dalal Street housing the Bombay Stock Exchange, towards the 275-years-old naval dockyard building. Nearby are the Esplanade mansions, Davis Sassoon Library, Jehangir Art Gallery, the Prince of Wales Museum (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya), Elphinstone College among others. 

It was in 1860 that the walls were finally demolished. The three earlier gates of Churchgate, Apollo Gate and Bazaar Gate led to the busy town. The Bazaar Gate opened into the native street market. The Crawford Market there is the city’s first covered market where you get almost everything under one roof. The Apollo Gate leads to Apollo Bunder where the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the Gateway of India stand along the vast expanse of Arabian Sea. With its 26-metres-high arch, the monument commemorated the visit of King George V and Queen Mary of England.

In 1800, traders and workers came from all over the country as the cotton textiles trade boomed. The Parsis and Iranis lapped up business opportunities by setting up tea houses and restaurants during 1840s. At one time, there were 1,400 cafés in the Fort area alone. Today, they may be few and far between, but the checkered table covers and high ceilings of the Irani cafés evoke nostalgia. Experience the culinary heritage of the Fort area. The Jimmy Boy for patrani machhi, Yazdani Bakery for its brun maska and Britania & Co for its berry pulao would satiate you after a long walk.

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