Pep in its step

Kolhapur expertise arrives for Walkeshwar icon as Banganga steps undergo repair

Holy chants mix with the sound of hammers chiselling stone at the sacred Banganga tank in Walkeshwar. Labourers are busy at work on a Monday morning, in an effort to repair a large portion of the southern and western steps that skirt the tank on four sides. The steps to the ancient tank that even finds a mention in Hindu epic, Ramayana, date back to 1721, and have been repaired repeatedly through the years.

Workers will use lime which is hardier than cement, say conservationists, to prolong the life of the steps
Workers will use lime which is hardier than cement, say conservationists, to prolong the life of the steps

The restoration project underway is under the auspices of the Directorate of Archeology and Museums, Maharashtra and kicked off a month ago. They plan to wrap up all work before the rains lash Mumbai.

Bharat Naik, supervisor of the project, says, “Due to the large scale of the project, we have had to hire a considerable labour force. Most of them hail from Kolhapur, all adept at stone work. Approximately 100 slabs of black basalt stone have arrived from Kolhapur a week ago.”

Black basalt stone has been procured from Kolhapur to repair the steps. pics/onkar devlekar
Black basalt stone has been procured from Kolhapur to repair the steps. pics/onkar devlekar 

Lime, he shares, will be used instead of cement as binder since the it is hardier and more likely to stand the test of time.

K Chavan, conservation assistant with the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Maharashtra, says, “The renovation work is tedious and slow, but we are ensuring it’s thorough. We hope that the steps will last for another 200 years. The process of construction we are using is the same as that was employed during the time of Chhatrapati Shivaji and even the British to build the many forts and monuments you see standing across the state. The stone we are using is the same as the original used during construction. A few broken steps on the eastern and northern side will also be repaired.”

Rahul Sharma  with Anuradha Pal at Banganga Festival 2007
Rahul Sharma  with Anuradha Pal at Banganga Festival 2007 

The Central Government had sanctioned a sum of Rs 2 crore in 2008 for renovation of steps on all four (the North South, East and West) sides, but the workers encountered hiccups. Work stopped in 2012 due to paucity of funds, but resumed a month ago.

South Mumbai MP, Arvind Sawant claims he took up the issue of repairs with the Central Government’s cultural department. He hopes to revive the annual Banganga festival that hosted artists who performed on a podium erected in the centre of the tank, with the audience seated along the steps, once restoration folds up.

Praveen Kanvinde, Chairman, Gaud Saraswat Brahmin (GSB) Temple Trust, which overseas upkeep of the the tank, says, “We are hoping to revive the Banganga festival, once the steps are ready.”

The prospect of the defunct cultural festival re-starting may whet the appetite of the cultural cognoscenti but for the moment it seems more like a political platitude, given that the precarious condition of the steps was hardly the reason for the death of the annual festival in 2008.

When we visited the site, pandits, who conduct puja along the banks, were happy to witness repairs. The steps are particularly perilous, when slick with water, with the very real danger of slipping. Prasad Sharma, a visitor we met at the tank, says, “People have often slipped into the waters due to the precarious condition of the steps. Let’s hope the repairs puts a stop to accidents.”

On April 25, 2015, Krishna Pashtye, a Banganga resident, was playing by the sacred tank when she disappeared. The 10-year-old had slipped into the deep waters. Mohit Dalvi, (14) Pashtye’s neighbour, had jumped in to rescue her, and was recently awarded the bravery award by the President of India at the Republic Day celebrations in Delhi.

Banganga resident Mahesh Kudalkar complains of civic authorities ignoring requests by residents to look into urgent repairs. “It seems that our pleas have finally been heard, Banganga will be safe again for those who come to pray to Ganga Maa.”

The fest that waits to return

Organised by the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) since 1992, the Banganga festival was sold as the the ultimate destination for classical music lovers, hosting a live concert by established musicians from across the country.

Held every January, the two-day festival folded up in 2008. The festival, say locals, promoted awareness about the preservation of the Banganga tank and its environment.

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