Losing a room of one's own

Updated: Jul 05, 2020, 08:32 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

In a manic city starved of space, serene religious homes have offered refuge to many. Six Mumbaikars rewind to pre-lockdown to remember what they might have lost

Pic/ Pradeep Dhivar
Pic/ Pradeep Dhivar

In a post COVID-19 world, will religion and spirituality be more personal, than communal? It's a question on everyone's mind, especially with religious places in the city, having shut doors since late March. The extended lockdown in Mumbai only means that a trip to God's home may elude us for a while, at least. What then happens to the believers, for whom temples and shrines, have been a mainstay, or even to those for whom they aren't a place of ritual, but comfort?

'You can sit here for hours, and nobody will bother you'

Aparajita Ambastha, who moves to Delhi this month, says she is sad that she won’t be able to visit the temple one last time
Aparajita Ambastha, who moves to Delhi this month, says she is sad that she won't be able to visit the temple one last time

Aparajita Ambastha,
Media student
On: Babulnath Temple, Girgaum Chowpatty

Visiting the Babulnath temple was a ritual that began when my parents were briefly posted in Bombay, in the early 1990s. When we shifted from Delhi to Mumbai in 2015, my father started taking us here, almost every week for the evening aarti. He would also regale us with the many legends associated with the place. Because I am not very religious, I wasn't too keen on these trips. But the more I visited, the more I started developing a connection with the place. Unlike other temples, it's quiet and peaceful here. You can sit and meditate for hours, and nobody will bother you.

It was after I joined Sophia College at Pedder Road, that my temple visits became more frequent. While travelling from my home in Navy Nagar to college, I'd cross the temple daily. It became a sort of habit to bow when the bus passed by. I also had this habit of taking a flower from the Shiva ling at the temple, and placing it on my study table. For me, it was a symbol of positivity.

We are moving back to Delhi at the end of this month, and unfortunately, because of the lockdown rules, I might not be able to visit the temple before we leave. I connected a lot of small things with it, especially my achievements in life, for which I prayed here. It might be a long time, before I see it again.

'I am one with myself here'

Viji Venkatesh during a visit to Ma Hajiani dargah at Worli
Viji Venkatesh during a visit to Ma Hajiani dargah at Worli

Viji Venkatesh,
Cancer care professional
On: Ma Hajiani Dargah, Worli

Driving past Haji Ali, Worli, my eyes would always travel to the turquoise blue dome-like structure on the opposite end of the Arabian Sea. Somebody once told me that it was the erstwhile summer palace of a maharaja, and I believed it to be the case. So, despite living in Mumbai for over three decades, this place had eluded me. It was only 12 years ago, when my office shifted to Worli that I finally got to visit. This place was a five-minute walk from work, and for some reason, was calling out to me, just like the Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia Dargah in New Delhi, the place of my childhood. I can't explain the feeling, it was surreal.

One day, during lunch time, I decided to find out for myself. I was awestruck by what I had witnessed. It was almost magical, like love at first sight. I'd later learn that the dargah was named after Ma Hajiani, who was interred here, and who as legend goes, was the sister of Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, the saint venerated at Haji Ali dargah.

After that day, I'd keep visiting the dargah on some pretext. Sometimes, every day, or if I was busy, once during the week. I am not a religious person. For me, God is nature; it's what makes the sun rise and the flowers bloom. It's my universe. I found that connection with nature inside the dargah. I have sat here for hours, soaking in the beauty of the ruins, staring into its expansive courtyard, and listening to the fleeting sounds of birds, and the crashing of the waves. It made me feel one with myself. I loved this place so much, that I'd bring everyone I knew here, especially some of my cancer patients; they found a great sense of calm here. Seeing somebody's wonderment, only added to my joy. I felt like I was sharing something that was mine.

Recently, when I was approached to do a small role in a Malayalam film by Akhil Sathyan, I took the young director to the dargah, too. As soon as he saw the place, he said, 'We must shoot with you here'. Life had come full circle. This was to be my first film, and in my most cherished place in the city. I was overwhelmed.

Last week, when I visited Worli after months, I asked my driver to take me to the dargah. Unfortunately, when we drove by, the gate was closed. That day, I realised what the lockdown had taken away from me.

We all want something tangible that reminds us that everything will be okay. We invest a lot of our insecurities, sadness, and joy into it. Losing that, however, rational a person you might be, can be painful. To me, the dargah represents this. It also represents Bombay.

The city that keeps giving. Bombay gave me this place. And I am eternally grateful.

'A magnetic force keeps pulling me to the Mount'


Leena Elizabeth Abraham, Quality auditor for an educational app
On: Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount, Bandra

The first time I visited the Mount was in 2010. I had had this really bad dream; it felt very real and involved some people who were dearest to me. I remember feeling helpless. It was around this time that a friend asked me to accompany her to Mount Mary. Now, I am a Syrian Christian by birth, and our churches are stark. We don't keep statues in our churches, and don't pray to them. Yet, I didn't hesitate to go. I still remember experiencing peace when I went there that day; I wondered why I hadn't come here before. Even the fear, which had crept in, due to the dream, had lessened. I got the feeling that if I kept visiting this place, no harm would come to the people who had been hurt in the dream, and that they would always be protected. That's really the beginning of my journey with the Mount.

Leena Abraham started visiting the Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount in 2010, following a bad dream
Leena Abraham started visiting the Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount in 2010, following a bad dream 

Since then, I made it a point to visit the shrine every week. All my friends and family know of my fascination with the place. I simply loved the routine of going there, lighting a candle and saying a small prayer. I don't spend a lot of time—just about 10 or 15 minutes. There have been times, when I have been stressed or lost, and visiting the place has made me feel lighter. It could be psychological or spiritual, but my faith in the place continues. I feel like there's a magnetic force that keeps pulling me to it. I also made a lot of friends here. I remember once while praying, I met this 75-year-old woman named Jean, who was part of a prayer group; I had a pain in my leg and they said a small prayer for me. Jean and I are still in touch.

I am a little lost, because times are uncertain and I can't go there right now. I feel like I need to be there more at this point, but I can't. When I miss it, I visualise myself standing near the grotto. It's like I never left the Mount.

'The mandir is where I'd take a pause'

Pic/ Suresh Karkera
Pic/ Suresh Karkera

Rahul Chemburkar, Conservation architect
On: Shri Bhavani Shankar Mandir, Tardeo

Sometimes, a place gives you a sense of solace. I have felt that each time I have walked into Shri Bhavani Shankar Mandir. I am neither religious nor ritualistic. But, visiting the Shiva temple in this 19th century mandir, has been a ritual of sorts for over two decades. I have a long association with this place. This was one of my first restoration projects in 1997, as a fresh graduate from architecture school. Late Sadashiv Vasantrao Gorakshkar, who was the then director of the erstwhile Prince of Wales Museum [now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya], asked me if I was keen on restoring the temple. It came as a huge surprise, that I had even been considered for this, but I took up the challenge. That was the turning point in my career; it was an entry into the world of art, heritage and restoration. It all started here.

Rahul Chemburkar outside the Shiva temple at Shri Bhavani Shankar Mandir, which he restored in 1997
Rahul Chemburkar outside the Shiva temple at Shri Bhavani Shankar Mandir, which he restored in 1997

These days, I work on multiple restoration projects at the same time, and I divide my time between sites. But back then, this was the only project that I was handling. I remember spending time here from dawn to dusk— sitting on the scaffolding and documenting my feelings and experiences in a diary. Unknowingly, I developed an emotional and cultural bond with the place. As the years rolled by, this connection only became stronger. I try and visit the place a few times every year, and sometimes, if work brings me to South Mumbai, I make it a point to get the driver to make a stop here.

I don't really go there to pray. I just sit in the veranda and speak to myself. I call this prayer. I experience a positive vibe here, and it makes me more confident to face the challenges ahead of me. That feeling is inexplicable. This place is so strongly connected with my identity that recently when I found some repairs being done there, I immediately reached out to the family, which runs the temple trust, letting them know that they could use my expertise.

Chemburkar’s sketch of the temple
Chemburkar's sketch of the temple

It's because of this mandir that I have developed a strong attachment to other temples in the city, including those at Banganga Tank and the deolwadi run by Shri Bhulingeshwar Devalay Trust in Chembur. Each time, I have wanted to steal some moments of peace, I head to these temples. I call them my 'pause place'.

The lockdown has made me more reflective. I know that it will be a while, before I can visit any of these, but instead of being remorseful about it, I try and remember my interactions with the spaces, and how they helped me heal. Sometimes, I reimagine them in sketches, or go back and read the random jottings in my diary.

'Chanting at the gurudwara brought me inner peace'

Pic/ Atul Kamble

Shilpa Chawla,
Social media influencer
On: Gurudwara Dhan Pothohar Nagar, Santa Cruz West

Shilpa Chawla says she’d visit the gurudwara after a stressful day; the karah parshad Chawla offered the gurudwara in March
Shilpa Chawla says she’d visit the gurudwara after a stressful day

After a stressful day at work, if there is one thing that calms me, it's a visit to the gurudwara. I was raised a Hindu, but for me, God is beyond religion. I find a sense of inner peace in religious places, and somehow the flow of energy there, can be very uplifting. I used to attend the ardas [a worship service] at the Dhan Pothohar Nagar gurudwara in the evenings; there is a point in the service, where they switch off the lights, and everyone chants, 'Waheguru'. That experience was most calming; you feel all the tumult inside you, ending.

I always had this wish to offer a karah parshad [a wheat flour halva] at a gurudwara. Fortunately, I managed to do so, just before the lockdown was announced in March. I remember making it at home, and then walking to the gurudwara, and offering my parshad to the guruji there. It was my way of saying, thank you.

The karah parshad Chawla offered the gurudwara in March

I have had moments of apprehension, over the last three months. The situation outside is not helping. Now is when one feels the need to connect with a higher power. But I still chant, even if it's early in the morning, in my balcony.

'At the Cross, I would feel like I have a direct line to God'

Pic/ Suresh Karkera

Melroy Fernandes,
HR professional
On: The Holy Cross, Cross Maidan

Since childhood, I have been very spiritual. But, my connection with the Cross is something else, altogether. It's here that I feel like I have a direct line to God.

The first time that I asked something for myself at the Cross was right after my Class 10 board exams. The Cross was just a stone's throw from my home in Chira Bazaar. I remember going there daily during the summer vacations, asking for just 70 per cent—nothing more or less. Surprisingly, when the board results came, I had scored 70.26 per cent. It's then that I felt there was this strong, miraculous energy there, which was listening to me. I had become a believer, and there has been no looking back.

The Holy Cross is my place of refuge. I may not attend mass during the week, but I can't imagine skipping a visit to the shrine. It's a small alley of peace, in the busy and bustling Fashion Street. People usually visit the Cross on the first Friday of every month. I don't really follow that. I go there when I am happy, or when I'm down in the dumps, or when I simply, want to be heard, or spend some alone time. It's like meeting a best friend.

Leena Abraham started visiting the Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount in 2010, following a bad dream Melroy Fernandes says most of his prayers have been answered at the Holy Cross

When my father, who passed away some years ago, was battling poor health and had to be admitted to GT Hospital, I would go there daily. I have also offered prayers for friends, and they've rarely gone unanswered. It's why they also believe in the Cross, as much as I do.

I feel like I have lost my crutch right now. It was what helped me get by. When the lockdown lifts, it's going to be the first place I will visit.

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