A secular milestone for Mumbai

Updated: 24 March, 2014 11:13 IST | Dhara Vora & Yashodhara Ghosh |

Two walks around the northern and southern tips the island city - in Fort and Sion, will give the Mumbai buff much to savour and celebrate about amidst the bustle and din

Round and about the Fort

The Bazaar Gate Walk ended up making one feel like a non-Indian tourist in Mumbai, for the right and wrong reasons

From the list of walks on offer by Raconteur Walks (Bandra Walk and Apollo Gate Walk), the Bazaar Gate Walk sounded the most interesting, especially since we weren’t familiar with the origins and history of the area. So, we signed up in anticipation of a heady historic walk. Bazaar Gate was called the ‘Black Town’ by our colonial rulers to define the Indian neighbourhood. 

This epitaph inside St Thomas Cathedral honours former Governor Jonathon Duncan who was respectful to the city’s Indian population, during his rein. The statue of a Brahmin inside a church offers great insight into the city’s early connect with secularism. PIC/DHARA VORA

After a brief history of the origins of Mumbai — from the seven islands to its current form — we began our walk at the steps of the Town Hall. Our guide, an engineer-turned-city history buff, Saurabh Dhulap, informed us that the area, now occupied by the Horniman Circle Gardens (earlier called Elphinstone Circle) served as a centre for trade, commerce and as a meeting point. The rise, and subsequent fall in cotton trade resulted in rotting cotton bales that marred the beauty of the city centre and it was shifted to Cotton Green. We walked around the circle spotting the Mumbai Samachar building, home to Asia’s oldest newspaper.

Our favourite stop was St Thomas’ Cathedral, the city’s first Anglican church. Its restoration was completed a decade ago (its origins date back to the 1700s). One of the gates of the fort, Churchgate (after which the station is named), got its name from this church. Apart from stunning stained glass architecture, the church houses beautiful memorial plaques.

What we liked
The city buff in us had several queries, and Dhulap had the answers to each one, and a bit more too. So, the walk was insightful. We also liked the old photographs printed as postcards as our take-home. Kitab Khana is ideal for a mid-walk stop.

Horniman Circle, St Thomas’ Cathedral and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus building

What we didn’t like
The walk didn’t cover parts of the actual Bazaar Gate area like Bora Bazaar Street and the GPO, as well as bylanes like Cochin Street and Goa Street. A huge minus, this. Instead, we trailed across Flora Fountain, the Oriental Building, all the way to Bombay Gymkhana, Fashion Street, Metro theatre, Crawford Market, even BMC and CST buildings. When we asked Dhulap, he reasoned that non-Indian tourists usually sign up for their walks, with the request to include such stops.

Another downer was the over-three-hour-long duration. It would be inhuman for anyone to trudge in Mumbai’s soaring heat for so long. And, we’d strongly suggest changing the name of this walk to Fort Walk, or the like; interested folk might get misled otherwise.

Cost Rs 1,500 

NOTE: The guide reviewed this walk anonymously.

The 'other' Sion

Stumble upon the suburb’s rare historic facts

1. How Sion got its name
In the 17th century, Sion was a waste land of saltpans. It was perched on the northern limit of the Bombay island, the last frontier before the waters separated it from Salsette. This is how it acquired the name ‘Shinva’ or ‘Sheev’, (Marathi: boundary). There are other theories. The word ‘Sion’ in Hebrew means ‘highest point’, apt for a hilly region with several lookout points. Another legend states that in 1534, after the Portuguese wrested the region from Bahadur Shah’s control, land was given to Portuguese priests to build a chapel, who named it after Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

Such milestones were used to map miles from Fort’s St Thomas Cathedral

2. Fortified Sion
The solid black rampart running along the eastern side of Sion station is all that remains of Riwa Kila, today. This was one of the five fortifications that ran along the northern fringes of the island; others being Mahim Fort, Sewri Fort, Wadala Fort, Kala Kila in Dharavi, and Sion Fort. There is an unverified myth that an underground tunnel connects Riwa and Sion forts.

The ammunition dump is six feet high, part of which lies underground

3. Why Duncan Causeway matters to Mumbai
The construction of a causeway to connect Sion in Bombay island with Kurla in Salsette was commissioned by the then Governor Jonathan Duncan in 1798. Prisoners jailed in Vasai (Bassein) fort were made to walk to the construction site as labourers daily.

4. In ‘Bombay’s last house’
Flanking a board announcing the Ayurvedic sanatorium on Duncan Causeway is a quaint yellow bungalow. This was the last house standing on the northern limits of Bombay island, at the edge of the waters that had to be crossed to reach Salsette. Beside it stood a Customs House, which collected taxes from ferries that made their way into Bombay from Salcette. In the same region stood lime quarries. The area probably got its name — Chunabhatti meaning lime kiln — from these quarries.

5. Spot an ammunition dump from World War II
This octagonal site has seven holes along its periphery, probably used as firing posts. The dump is six feet high, part of which lies underground. Its walls are so thick that builders over the years have failed to demolish it. In the course of her exploration of Sion, MA student Ashwini Nawathe, our guide, learnt that a family lives in it today, paying rent to a landlord in the Konkan region.

6. A slice of history inside a BMC pumping station!
Made from basalt, milestones were erected by the British when they were mapping miles from St Thomas Church in Fort. Ashwini stumbled upon it on the verge of being appropriated as a grinding stone by a labourer, and asked the officials at the pumping station to look after it. There is another such milestone in Tamil Sangham Lane, across the street from Sion Hospital.

About the walk
The Bombay Local History Society conducts similar walks regularly for its members and interested participants. For further details:
At: Heras Institute, ground floor, St Xavier’s College, Dhobi Talao. EMAIL blhs@xaviers.edu.

First Published: 20 March, 2014 09:26 IST

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