We’re done with our working lunch: home-styled Chicken Biryani and Pallonji’s Raspberry flavoured soda at the iconic Café Military — a stone’s throw away from Horniman Circle.
My curiosity to revisit this beautiful reminder of the city’s varied stunning architectural styles is fuelled by Deepak Rao, city historian, author and archivist. “This was a site within the Fort, a large open space in the centre known as the Bombay Green that was exactly behind the Bombay Castle.
Charles Forjett, then city Superintendent, who became its Municipal Commissioner in the 1860s, was responsible for turning the central part of the old Green into Elphinstone Circle, thus making it an elegant hub for the otherwise unplanned Fort and retaining a part of what was then Bombay’s oldest open space. It’s an accepted fact among historians that he is the Father of Horniman Circle,” he rattles off. I am taking notes. But it’s also time for us to stop our wristwatches.
Circle of commerce and culture
Back then, the visionary Governor Bartle Frere was in the thick of things: his first commissioned project was structuring the Bombay Green into the Elphinstone Circle. The idea was to demolish this stretch that flourished at the height of the city’s cotton boom, during the American Civil War. The new circle would be named after Frere’s predecessor, Governor Lord John Elphinstone. Frere laid the foundations for the Circle buildings in October 1864, which were to be graced by James Scott’s designs.
The first building that came up was Bank of Bombay. Some of the other offices included Messrs Remington & Co, Messrs Nicol & Co, Branch Bank of Bengal, Accountant General’s Office, Bombay Collector’s and General Stamp Office, Chartered Bank of India and the Chartered Mercantile Bank. Then, it was a place of recreation for children and continued to be when the Elphinstone Circle Gardens were erected later. We do a head count: A few establishments including the State Bank of India (1924) and others that sprung up later, like Dena Bank, Indian Overseas Bank and Zoroastrian Association Building, are still around.
Keen to rediscover its architectural uniqueness, we invited conservation architect, Vikas Dilawari to share his views, as the sepia-tinged frame was coming together: “It was the first time that such an urban unified design approach was adopted in India. It was structured as a classical circle that complemented the Neo-Classical design of the Town Hall.” At the time, Gothic Revival — a popular style in England, was adapted by the ruling Government here. This circle was built with an Italian Gothic influence. He reveals how this was a partly-sponsored smaller scale project that involved restructuring the open space into a formal, circular park enclosed by an assembly of architecturally unified commercial establishments.
“The arcade was designed to offer protection to pedestrians from the sun and rain,” he adds. The unique, integrated precinct was built with Porbander stone facings, and terra cotta finials and keystones. The buildings that grace this rich façade, Dilawari adds, is enhanced by masculine faces on the ground floor while feminine faces grace the first floors of these circle buildings.
The gardens were laid out in 1869 and covered 12,081 square yards. It was completed shortly before the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit, in 1872. Today, as the garden hosts cultural events and stages plays, it’s a warm replay of its glory days. An ornamental fountain still adorns the centre of the gardens. Interestingly, The Bombay Theatre, which was created in 1804 and was supposed to be India’s oldest for long, stood on the old Bombay Green before its days as a buzzing cotton auction centre. It was run by amateurs, including government officials, for charity and amusement. The Theatre was a favourite pastime for local residents, especially in the evenings. As we stood at the centre of the circle gardens, soaking in the nostalgia, it was easy to imagine the applause at the end of a Shakespearean classic, even if lasted for a few moments. Clearly, things seem to have come full circle.
FROM ELPHINSTONE TO HORNIMAN
In 1947, the Circle was renamed after Benjamin G Horniman — the renowned pro-freedom editor of the Bombay Samachar Press’ English language daily, Bombay Chronicle whose office was in the area.