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Clean up the Ganga... but what about Banganga in Mumbai?

While the clamour to clean up the sacred river grows louder, Mumbai’s ancient water tank lies in a pitiable state with garbage floating in the water. A report

The Walkeshwar Temple Complex that houses Banganga is a place of great spiritual importance for Hindus. But for the past few years, residents claim the water in the tank is not being filled, as authorities fear drowning incidents. Managed by the Goud Saraswat Brahmins (GSB) Trust, the tank now lies in a sad state.

An aerial view of Banganga and the Walkeshwar area. Pics/Bipin Kokate
An aerial view of Banganga and the Walkeshwar area. Pics/Bipin Kokate

Level lows
A place where many come to immerse the ashes of their deceased family members, the low water level in Banganga has meant that it is difficult to perform the final rites. Prashant Purohit, 32, who was at the tank to perform his father’s last rites says, “My family pandit, my mother and I have came here to perform the Antyesti (final rite) but the water level is not suitable. We don’t have the time to go to the Ganga banks in Varanasi, but the river flows in our city itself so we came here.”

The Banganga water has not been cleaned since October last year
The Banganga water has not been cleaned since October last year

Neelkanth Pandit, the priest who was there with the family to perform the ritual says, “Here, at Banganga which is a sub-let of the Ganga. But the water in the tank is hardly ankle-deep. Performing Antyesti is really difficult. The immersion that has to be done can’t be aesthetically performed. From the religious point of view, this is a bad sign.”

Clothes being dried at Banganga
Clothes being dried at Banganga

Purohit’s mother Parvati adds, “The final rites of my in-laws were done at Banganga about 15 years ago. Our family has a strong belief in the powers of this tank. We live in Khar and have come all the way here for the Antyesti rite. In the past few years the condition of Banganga has deteriorated.”

A couple performs a puja
A couple performs a puja

Washing woes
The Banganga steps have clothes drying all around. In the mornings, residents wash clothes in the sacred tank. Neville Garfield and his friend Sienna Pratt from South Africa, who were visiting the tank when this reporter was there, mistook it for Dhobi Ghat.

Kids bathe with soap in the sacred tank
Kids bathe with soap in the sacred tank

Garfield says, “There were more than 100 clothes drying all around, with women washing clothes. We had come to visit Malabar Hill and Hanging Garden; and were told that there was a sacred tank here, so we came to see it. But by seeing all the washing and drying here, we thought this was Dhobi Ghat.”

Broken steps are a bane for the faithful at Banganga
Broken steps are a bane for the faithful at Banganga

Pratt adds, “Later, when we asked locals, we were told about the the legend of how the tank got its name. The water at the spring is tasty and refreshing in the heat. It is sad that a holy place is in such a bad condition. There is hardly any water in the tank and the place is very dirty. India is not a clean country overall, but religious places should be preserved and treated with reverence.”

Allahabad University Fine Art students create a banner urging PM Narendra Modi to clean the River Ganga. Pic/AFP
Allahabad University Fine Art students create a banner urging PM Narendra Modi to clean the River Ganga. Pic/AFP

Clyde Crasto, a local, says, “Banganga is a Grade A heritage site but it lies in a pitiable condition. When I get some time in the evenings, I sit on the steps and stop people who dirty Banganga as I have a connect to this place.

My family and I try our best to stop people from making this holy place unholy, but there is only so much that we can do. My father was a local corporator about 20 years ago. He had the stairs repaired but since then, hardly anything has been done to maintain this place.”

Watch your step
The steps that lead to the tank are broken in many places and have lead to accidents and even deaths in the past. Mahesh Kudalkar, another local says, “Many people who come to perform the last rites and other religious observances have either fallen or got hurt because of the steps being broken in many places. Moss has grown on some steps making them slippery. On others ducks have dirtied the steps.”

The trust to which the tank belongs and the Malabar Hill police under whose jurisdiction it falls, have taken a joint decision not to fill water in the tank. Inspector Sharad Sawant from the Malabar Hill police station says, “There were many cases of suicides and drowning in the tank which forced us to tell the GSB Trust to not allow water to be filled in the tank.”

Explaining how the water is drained from the tank, Sanjay Shirke who maintains the tank on behalf of the GSB Trust says, “There is a channel that goes under the slums from the tank into the sea. The key of the channel has broken and so the water doesn’t get filled. Since, the tank is now heritage property, the repair and maintenance work cannot be done.

However, on religious days like Pitru Paksha when various rituals that need a high level of water in the tank have to be performed, we use various methods like putting stones and rocks to block the water from getting drained. I do my bit to clean the tank, but since the site is a heritage structure there is very little that I can do.”

Sanctity under threat
Gopal Tripathi, a pandit who performs rituals at Banganga says, “Telling people here not to dirty Banganga is useless as locals do not listen.

This is a religious spot and maintaining the sanctity of the place is paramount, but the residents from the area wash clothes, shoes and sandals, bathe with soap, urinate in the water, drink alcohol and smoke on the steps here. All this blots the sanctity of the place. It hurts me deeply to see this sacred spot being treated with such disdain. A holy dip is allowed but using soap in the tank is a religious insult.”

Locals who were bathing in the sacred spring claimed this was the best place in the area to beat the heat with a splash. Those who were washing their clothes claimed they had been washing clothes here for years and the best spot to dry clothes is on the steps.

Resident Jayesh Jaju whose children have learnt swimming at Banganga says, “From the time they stopped filling water in Banganga, the filth has increased. Earlier, with the water level high, people from the area came here to learn swimming and my children benefited from it. Kids still come, but, they are unable to swim freely due to the low level of water. The ducks and swans also create dirt and filth, but people dirty the area even more than them.”

The GSB Trust has appointed two men to sweep the steps and keep them clean. Considering that the complex is so huge, the men find it really difficult. Narendra, one of the two cleaners says, “It takes anywhere between 1.5 to two hours to clean the steps, but, the rate at which the people dirty the place means we are working almost 24X7.

We clean the tank on Pitru Paksha otherwise, only the steps and the banks are cleaned.” The north and south ends of the tank have two Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) dustbins. Not surprisingly, these lie empty while the steps and water of Banganga have dirt strewn around.

Heritage dilemma
An official from D ward of the BMC under which Banganga falls says, “We have installed dustbins at both ends of the tank.

Though it is a public place, the tank is owned by the GSB Trust and now that it has been declared a heritage site, the Maharashtra heritage department has the authority to maintain Banganga.”

Dr Maya Patil, Deputy Director, Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Maharashtra State says, “A budget of R 2 crore has been allotted by the 13th Finance Commission of the state.

We will be working on the cleaning of Banganga — the water, complex, restoring the steps, maintenance, etc after the money gets cleared and the tender is floated. This is expected to happen later this year.”

Legend of Banganga
>> According to legend, Banganga sprang forth when Ram, the Hindu god and exiled hero of the epic Ramayana, stopped at the spot 5000 years ago in search of Sita.

>> As the legend goes, overcome with fatigue and thirst, Ram asked his brother Lakshman to bring him some water. Lakshman instantly shot an arrow into the ground, and water gushed forth from the ground, creating a tributary of the Ganges, which flows over a thousand miles away, hence its name, Banganga, the Ganga created on a baan (arrow).

>> The tank was built in 1127 AD by Lakshman Prabhu, a minister in the court of Silhara dynasty kings of Thane.

>> The tank was rebuilt in 1715 AD, out of a donation for the Walkeshwar Temple by Rama Kamath.

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