Mumbai: City of blinding lights

Oct 07, 2013, 08:51 IST | Dhara Vora

Mumbai's street lamps burn brightly throughout the night; after all, it's a city that never sleeps. It was 148 years ago, in this month that the city received its first gas lamps as it heralded a new chapter in its development. Here's a lookback at how the metropolis was lit differently, with the passage of time

Would you believe that there was a time when people would marvel at the wonders of a street light in the city, and follow the lamp-lighter on his routine walk during evenings? Times have changed with the gradual change in city plans, as we discovered while sifting through the pages of our city’s history books. In October 1865, the city welcomed gas lamps on its streets for the first time.

In order to beautify the locality and keep up with the theme, these vintage-looking lamps were put up all around The Gateway of India. Pic/Dhara Vora

The planning, however, had taken years and the story begins with Parsi benefactor Ardeshir Cursetjee. Shripad Narayan Pendsay, in his book, The Best Story, documents the beginnings of Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST). He reveals that Cursetjee had installed a plant for producing coal-gas at his home. And, the first gas light was lit by him in 1833. It is said that the Governor of Bombay even visited Cursetjee’s home to see it lit up with gas lamps. It was in the same year that street lighting for Mumbai was proposed.

However, the deliberations over this topic continued for 10 years, and it was finally in 1843 that lights first made their presence felt on Mumbai’s streets, in the form of kerosene lamps.  By 1865, Bhendi Bazar, Esplanade Road (now Mahatma Gandhi Road) and Churchgate Street (now Veer Nariman Road) were the privileged streets that were chosen to be lit by
gas lamps.

City historian Deepak Rao divulged an interesting detail about the numbering method of street lights in the city. It had us look closely at several poles. He informs, “Though the names of several roads in the city have been changed, some street lights still bear the initials of their original names. So, Queens Road, which is now Maharshi Karve Marg still has a mention on these markings as ‘QR’.” Likewise, southward, we found this lamp post (in photo) on a street near Lalbaug with the initials ‘GG’ as seen in this photo. It represents Government Gate Road though the road is now known as Dr SS Rao Road.

It is said that the idea of gas-lighting became so popular that several well-to-do citizens of the city donated large ornamental gas-lamps for being put up at important spots in the city. This photograph of the Khada Parsi statue in Byculla, before it went under restoration, shows the intricate base for lamps (which were stolen). 

Pic/Sameer MarkandePic/Sameer Markande

Then and now
Conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah sheds some light on the design element of our street lights: “The earliest lamps were cast iron lamps and were imported from England. These were Victorian in design. It was later, when Richardson Crudas set shop that they started manufacturing the lamps for BEST. However, the lights on the Marine Drive stretch, which came later, followed the Art Deco style of architecture. These can be seen in old photographs of the city.”

A cast iron column stands neglected on the almost 100-year-old Currey Road Bridge. Lambah confirmed that this structure, quite possibly, could be remnant of an old lamp.

Pic/Suresh KKS

The ornate lamp with angels looking down still remains at the entrance gates of Horniman Circle Gardens. 

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