The stories and secrets Bombay holds in its folds behind its crumbling Victorian edifices and chaotic traffic spans centuries. Of all the streets which cover the city in a tangled web, Queensway, a road that leads through Parel in South Bombay, is perhaps the richest in terms of history and also the least to have divulged its mysteries.
A two and a half kilometre stretch, the wide boulevard lined with towering trees contains 19th Century temple courtyards, odes to the Indian Independence Movement, stories of magnanimous philanthropy, and an open air museum of Indian sculpture traversing 1,600 years. And if you did not know, you would not even come close to guessing they exist.
But before I reveal my Sunday afternoon’s nirvana moments, learnt through a heritage walk with INTACH, let me first clarify that Queensway is the British Raj name of the now Acharya Donde Marg. It is a road that runs perpendicular from a once-upon-a-time street called Kingsway, now renamed Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar Road.
What’s in a name? More than you think
In 1875, the Prince of Wales Albert Edward, Queen Victoria and Price Albert’s eldest son, decided to visit Bombay as part of his 8-month grand tour of the sub-continent. Locals profess the road was named Kingsway because he was the first British royal to take this route to Parel Station wherefrom he caught the train to Pune. Queensway, in the 19th Century, meanwhile, was a private street leading out of Kingsway at 90 degrees to the Governor’s Palace.
Continuing the discourse on nomenclature, Parel got its name from Paral [the trumpet flower tree] which used to grow profusely in the area. Others claim there was once a 13th Century Parali Vaijanath Mahadev Temple dedicated to Shiva here, and hence the name. The temple was later demolished by the Portuguese who built a Jesuit chapel and monastery in its place.
And lastly the junction of Queensway and Kingsway, known as Parel TT, has an interesting factoid associated with it. TT stands for Tram Terminus. Though there are no trams any more in Mumbai it was a different story in 1874 when the first tram [then horse-driven] ploughed its way from Parel to Colaba; there were over 900 horses across the city at the peak of the service around the turn of the century. The trams started using electricity in 1907 and ended operations in 1964.
19th Century temple courtyards and heroes
My first “Ooh” moment was when I walked into a seemingly unassuming lane from the main thoroughfare, and barely a few feet in, found myself in a Vishnu temple in Puneri style, the Vithoba Temple—serene and cast in the second half of the 19th Century. Beauty is often in the details. I looked up, and encountered a gallery on which seated musicians had played aeons ago for the faithful thronging the temple. Another interesting feature is its Islamic dome.
Apparently, many temples in Maharashtra were built with domes and minarets in the past. Whether it was a form of camouflage or expression of secularism is a point of debate 150 years on.
Walking down Queensway, more insights were revealed to me. This time on the making of Maharashtra and Free India, and the stories of two men: Acharya Donde the school teacher [Acharya] after whom Queensway is renamed had fame thrust on him, whilst Babu Genu died for his beliefs and is now largely forgotten.
The State of Maharashtra with Mumbai as its capital was created on 1 May, 1960 on linguistic criteria. But it was not without bloodshed. One hundred and six people had to lay down their lives first. The struggle culminated with the formation of Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti in 1956. The party won the Mumbai municipal corporation elections and Acharya Donde was elected Mayor. A series of talks, and the State of Maharashtra with Mumbai as its crowning glory were at last formed, for life.
In contrast is another hero, unsung, and a martyr from India’s independence movement. His name is Shahid Babu Genu Said, a 22-year-old freedom fighter crushed to death under a truck by an English policeman. The truck belonged to George Frazier, a cloth merchant from Manchester. Said was standing in the truck’s way as a sign of rebellion against the import of foreign made cloth. A bust at the corner of Kamgar Maidan pays homage to his fervent patriotism.
Showcase of Indian medical philanthropy
Parel is perhaps best known for its four medical giants lining Queensway. However, the lesser known stories behind these establishments are just as fascinating as the world class medical services they provide.
For starters, the Indo-saracenic extravaganza by George Wittet [the same gentleman who designed the Gateway of India and Ballard Estate] houses the Bai Jerbai Wadia Hospital for Children.
Bai Jerbai Wadia was a woman like no other. Determined to make a difference to underprivileged Parsis by providing them with homes at nominal rentals and medical facilities, she used her various inheritances, as well as personal fortune to build baugs [residential colonies] and hospitals throughout Mumbai. On her death in 1929 her two sons, Sir Ness Wadia and Sir Cusrow Wadia, dedicated Mumbai’s first independent paediatrician hospital to her—a befitting epitaph.
Another Parsi gift to Mumbai is the Tata Memorial Centre which started off as a philanthropic alliance between the House of Tatas [led by Sir Dorab Tata] and the Department of Atomic Energy [under the leadership of Homi Bhabha]. Lady Meherbai Tata had died of leukaemia in 1932 after treatment abroad, upon which her husband Sir Dorab Tata was determined that similar facilities for cancer treatment be available in India.
Built on an offshoot of Queensway, Dr. Ernest Borges Road, the pavements outside the Centre are piled high with outpatients and families of inpatients who have no place to stay. Non-profits serve free meals and keep the faith going. Dr. Borges, a Goanese, had headed the Centre for many years till constant exposure to radiation while treating his patients eventually claimed his own life.
Sprawled on both sides of Queensway is KEM and Seth Gordhandas Sunderdas Medical College (GSMC) dating back to 1926. It was built as a mark of protest by Indian doctors not allowed to serve at Bombay’s then only medical school, Grant Medical College. Funded by the heirs of Seth Gordhandas Sunderdas, a wealthy Bombay merchant, the hospital employed only Indian doctors and professors. Though it is ironical that they chose to name it King Edward Memorial. 😛
Queensway ends its route today by slicing through Golanji Hill. A hundred odd years ago the road ended at the Governor’s Palace, Sans Pareil, and its extensive grounds. The edifice started off as a Jesuit chapel (1673), the Bombay Governor’s residence (1771 – 1885), offices of the Bombay Presidency Recorders, before it finally became the Plague Research Laboratory in 1899, later renamed Haffkine Institute in 1925.
So who exactly was Haffkine and what was his story in Bombay? Dr. Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine was a Russian Orthodox Jewish scientist invited to India to develop a vaccine against the bubonic plague then thwarting the city. Haffkine worked persistently, despite all odds, from a makeshift laboratory in a corridor of Grant Medical College for three months, and on 10 January, 1897 tested his vaccine on himself. Bombay owes its escape and recovery from the plague to this gentleman.
Left: Entrance to the Seth Gordhandas Sunderdas Medical College (1926), a mark of India’s Independence Movement; Right: Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation Ltd, the business wing formed in 1975 by the bifurcation of Haffkine Institute. The logo is Haffkine’s personal signature
Open air museum of ancient Indian sculpture
Yes, you read the sub-heading right. It was also the last thing I expected to discover because the sculptures I came across, perched atop the Golanji Hill, were the kind of stuff one saw in a British Museum gallery. It is enough to give one goosebumps seeing exquisitely carved classical Indian artworks in basalt lying scattered by a temple wall or enclosed in a little room in a narrow side alley which no one knows about. What makes them more spectacular is that there is nothing remotely similar to them in all of Mumbai.
Firstly, there is the double shivling made of pillow lava within a yoni at the Vaijanath Temple. The unusual aniconic representation of Shiva and Shakti lies atop a hill at the end of Queensway. The union of linga and yoni is believed to represent the “indivisible two-in-oneness of male and female, the passive space and active time from which all life originates.” What makes the shivlings even more unusual is that instead of the usual phallus form, these contain hollowed centres.
Further on is a collection of 13th Century sculptures resting in the backyard of the Chandika Temple. There are lions with matted manes and a “hero stone” serving as a memorial in honour of brave warriors and fallen kings. A Dhenugal, a land edict depicting a cow nurturing a calf, much like the ruler was seen to be nurturing his people he had given land to, decorates a low wall in the nearby Wagheshwari Temple.
And finally, the icing on the cake is a 3.06 meters high, monolithic bas relief of the Hindu god Shiva’s saptamurti form carved in the 5th – 6th Century AD. The effigy, also referred to as the Parel Stele was found in Parel in October 1931 when a road was being dug from Parel to Shivadi. Since then it has been enshrined inside the Baradevi Temple and declared a national protected monument by the Archaeological Survey of India.
I had done this same walk earlier last year and got gooseflesh just looking at it, even though the main grill was shut that day. This time around, a young woman had come to get her new born blessed by the deity, and hence the temple was open, replete with a priest. I could walk right inside the little room and touch the carving. Here, I believe, no words can suffice and one has to see it, to feel it.
The sun had set by now and I had reached the end of the walk. Though the above was a guided affair, one can also easily do it on one’s own. All you need to know is where Mumbai’s most prized secrets are hidden. 🙂
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