Clock towers still star attractions in Mumbai

Clock towers still star attractions in Mumbai

During the Raj era, it used to play Rule Britannia, God Save the King and a Handel Symphony among 16 tunes that changed four times a day. Now the repertoire is limited to the wafting chime of the Big Ben once every 15 minutes. 

Today,  Rajabai Clock Tower on the Fort campus of the University of Mumbai, stands tall, overlooking the grand Oval Maidan. It reminds visitors of the British era, but is an integral part of Mumbai's heritage, witnessing every single story in the history of this metropolis in the last 139 years. It is in the same league as Gateway of India, Marine Drive or the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST).

“Whenever you walk across the south Mumbai and move from the stretch of Oval Maidan you can see this majestic imposing structure, standing tall, whispering the tales of bygone era and the history of this city,” said Rafique Baghdadi, a veteran journalist, writer, film critic and expert on Mumbai. “Like Rajabai Tower, the other clock towers, many of them more than a century old, give a glimpse of the rich history and heritage of Mumbai,” he said.

If one walks through the Heritage Mile from the Mumbai police commissioner's office and Crawford Market to the CST to Flora Fountain-Hutatma Chowk and then towards the Churchgate station to Oval Maidan, one can see the famous clock towers of Mumbai.  The three famous ones are the Rajabai Tower, the CST, Crawford Market and the David Sassoon Library at Kala Ghoda.

The St Thomas Cathedral, which is the first Anglican Church built in Mumbai in 1718, also houses a clock tower. The Bomanjee Hormarjee Wadia clock tower located in the Bazaar Gate Street near the Reserve Bank of India is another interesting piece of history. This clock tower was recently restored by the Kala Ghoda Residents' Association. 

“All the clock towers of Mumbai are a bit different from each other, each of them is unique...each of them have different history,” said Nitin Nimbalkar, an engineer with BrihanMumbai Electric Supply and Transport, who documents Mumbai and posts on social media on a regular basis.

“These  clock towers in a way are part of 100 to 200 years of history of Mumbai, reflect different forms of architecture, different use of stones and different carvings,” added Nimbalkar.

Among the dozen-odd big clock towers that still exist in Mumbai, the Rajabai Clock Tower is perhaps the best and it figures in the best clock towers list of the world and travel reviews and guides.

Modelled on the lines of London’s Big Ben, the tower stands at a height of 85 m (280 ft). The foundation stone was laid on March 1, 1869 and  completed in November 1878. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, an English architect, it reflects the Gothic and Venetian style of architecture.   

The carvings in the structure was done by students of JJ School of Arts under Sir John Lockwood Kipling, the father of Rudyard Kipling, the famous author of The Jungle Book.  The building was funded by Premchand Roychand, a prosperous broker and one of the founders of  the Bombay Stock Exchange, on the condition that the tower be named after his mother Rajabai. A few years ago, it underwent an extensive restoration programme in which IT giant Tata Consultancy Services played a major role. 

The Rajabai Tower assumes more importance as it is the focal point of the bid for a UNESCO World Heritage Site tag for the Oval Maidan area and its surroundings that is replete with Art Deco buildings and Victorian structures.

According to Unesco.org, Oval Maidan in south Mumbai is unique in many respects --  as the legendary cricketing ground, separates two radically different genres of Mumbai's architectural evolution. It forms a spectacular and unique urban scenario, with an expanse of open space between the 19th century Victorian Gothic buildings of the Bombay High Court, University and Old Secretariat to its east and the 20th century development of the Art Deco of the Backbay Reclamation Scheme and Marine Drive to the west. 

Rajabai Tower is at a walking distance from the CST and Churchgate stations. “In this small area one can see several interesting structures...it is a mix of the architecture forms that Mumbai sees,” said Baghdadi.

This conglomeration of Gothic Revival stone structures are among the finest group of Victorian Gothic buildings in the world. It perhaps is one of the most spectacular compositions of 19th century architecture, undoubtedly the finest Victorian ensemble In Asia. Designed by the likes of Sir Gilbert Scott, James Trubshaw and Lt Col James Fuller, the Victorian structures were built in the period of 1871-1878 after the demolitions of the old walls of Bombay fort.

The later Art Deco development was built to the plans of WR Davidge in the 1930s and represent among the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world. No other city in the world, however, has both these large ensembles of emblematic 19th and 20th century styles facing each other in one grand gesture of urban design, according to the UNESCO website.

As far as the clock tower at the CST (earlier Victoria Terminus) is concerned, it is unique – as the CST in itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


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