Once upon a time there was a house on a hill…

Ruins of the 19th century home overlooking Land's End, Bandra

Ruins of the 19th century home overlooking Land’s End, Bandra

Land’s End or Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Point is a peninsula comprised of Bandra Fort and its adjoining area, including the hill that rises above it.

As the southern-most tip of Bandra, Land’s End played a critical role in the history of the suburb in the 17th and 18th centuries. Capitalising on its strategic location overlooking Mahim Bay, the entrance to Mahim creek and the erstwhile islands of Bombay to the south, the Portuguese built a fort and military outpost at Land’s End in 1640. The Castella de Aguada or ‘Fort of the Waterpoint’ was named after the area’s fresh water springs and housed a garrison of soldiers. In fact, the popular Mount Mary Church was built for use by the soldiers who were stationed at the Castella de Aguada, today known as Bandra Fort. From 1661, with the British in control of the islands of Bombay, the Fort assumed great strategic value, situated as it was between two foreign powers – the British and the Portuguese.

View across the Mahim Bay today

View across the Mahim Bay today

The early 18th century witnessed a decline in Portuguese power and their defeat by the Marathas in 1739. At this time, the Castella de Aguada was destroyed by the British in an effort to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Marathas. Bandra would eventually come under British control in 1775, after a short period in the possession of the Marathas.

Whilst the Fort is relatively well known and very frequented, fewer visitors make the climb up the hill above it. Here lie the ruins of the 19th century home of Parsi businessman and philanthropist, Byramjee Jeejeebhoy. Little remains of the house today, but clearly visible are the remains of the structure’s plinth and windows that once framed a spectacular view of the Arabian Sea. A little further away are the ruins of what is likely to have been a guest house, or servant’s quarters. You can’t miss the stone steps at the entrance to the out-house that are amongst its only surviving remnants.

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So much history

 

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Carved stone steps to the out-house

Byramjee Jeejeebhoy acquired this land from the British East India Company in 1850. In addition to building his residence on the hill, Jeejeebhoy spent much of his personal wealth to develop its surroundings. In 1878, Jeejeebhoy funded the construction of the sea road connecting the Land’s End to St. Andrews Church and the rest of Bandra. Popularly known as Bandstand, the road is officially named after Byramjee Jeejeebhoy even today. 

 

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Hidden ruins

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The area has had a tumultuous recent history, but that’s the subject of another post. For now, the gorgeous green garden was grown and continues to be maintained by the Bandra Bandstand Resident’s Association. Go visit.

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Of Museums and Malls…

A lot has been written on what museums can – and should – learn from shopping malls. When you think about it, this makes complete sense. Malls have perfected the art of inviting visitors in, and getting them to stay for prolonged periods of time. A typical mall is a safe public space that offers its users a variety of engaging activities, food and drink choices, places to simply hang out, opportunities to browse easily and for free, and finally, a range of products that compete to connect with the lifestyles, needs and desires of buyers. Each visitor is able to create, and has ownership over, his/her own mall ‘experience’. An experience that is likely to be enthusiastically repeated on a regular basis. Malls also successfully attract visitors of every age group – including teenagers, a group that is especially difficult for public institutions like museums to engage!

Since museums aspire to all this and more, there are clearly lessons in popular appeal to be learned from malls, and museums across the world are learning them. And contextualising them. Really well.

Fascinatingly, a new mall that I stumbled into last week in Bangkok’s busy city centre appears in turn to have taken a few lessons back from museums . . . and the result was – is – amazing!

The Mall’s design denotes an airport terminal; its main information board is suggestive of an arrivals and departure board, and its escalators lead you to different world destinations – specifically, the Caribbean, Rome, Paris, Istanbul, London, Tokyo, San Francisco and Hollywood! This is where the ‘museum’ influence comes in. The brilliant design of each floor creates an immersive experience (extended even to the restrooms) and together with the merchandise on display, provides insight into the material and visual culture of the place it represents. The mall’s floor plan is a ‘passport’ and its tag line, The Whole World is Here.

Mine wasn’t a planned visit, nor one with many expectations – we are talking about a mall – but one that was surprisingly stimulating and really fun. Perhaps I’ve even learned a few things about the places I have yet to see. Definitely not your regular shopping experience, with an innovative approach that left me well impressed!

A story to share over coffee!

On a trip to Coorg in Karnataka some months ago, I took a guided tour of one of the region’s many famed coffee plantations, and, in doing so, combined two of my favourite things – walking tours and coffee! For 2 hours on a chilly winter evening, as day passed into dusk and we were interrupted only by mosquitoes, our local Coorgi guide shared with us his stories about Coorg and, by extension, about coffee.

Coffee, a drink – even a word – familiar to cultures and countries across the world, was first discovered in modern day Ethiopia. According to the legend, a goatherd named Kaldi grew curious when his goats wouldn’t sleep one night after eating the berries of an unfamiliar plant earlier that day. What, he wondered, could have caused such a “kick”? Intrigued, Kaldi returned to the site the next day, collected more berries, and deposited them at the local monastery. When the berries succeeded in keeping the monks alert – even during evening prays – news of this amazing discovery spread quickly!

By the 16th century, the coffee drink had been embraced across the dry Arab world; an acceptable substitute for banned alcoholic drinks, it was commonly called the ‘wine of Araby’. It was drunk in the privacy of homes and served in public coffee houses that were popular meeting places and hubs of social and political activity. This dark drink also seduced thousands who travelled to Haj on pilgrimage every year. However, coffee production remained a closely guarded secret; whilst the finished product could be exported, no berries or cuttings were allowed to leave the Arab peninsula. In this way a monopoly over the coffee trade was attempted, successfully for a time.

Then, in the 17th century, a Sufi named Baba Budan, whilst on pilgrimage to Mecca, secreted just seven coffee beans through the Mocha port in Yemen, and into India. Of course! He planted them on hills known today as the Bababudan Hills in the Chikkamagaluru District of Karnataka, – and so began the story of South Indian coffee. The Bababudan hill region remains the largest producer of coffee in India, with Coorg a close second.

Inherited Memory

A version of this text was first published at http://thecityslacker.com/2011/08/08/my-grandfathers-new-car/

My Grandfather’s New Car – By Sheena Khalid

Growing up my grandfather told me the best stories ever; stories about this huge family, their massive house in Gujarat and the crazy tales of growing up so many decades ago. One day, when my Dada (paternal grandfather) was seventeen or so, there was a massive storm that caused many trees in their compound to come crashing down. One particularly massive Banyan tree managed to fall right where the cars were parked and turned automative engineering into steel pancakes. It took days to clean up the mess. All the leaves from the fallen trees were gathered in a pile where all the sheep owners brought their flock to graze. The branches were chopped and given to the various houses in the vicinity for fire wood. Finally, some men came and salvaged what they could of the once grand cars to use as scrap material. A few days later my great grandfather (the then Dewan of Junagadh) decided to purchase a new car. He went into the city and returned a week later with a brand new Rolls Royce.  My grandfather would describe in exquisite detail how he was standing on the verandah when the car glided through the front gates and stood magnificently in front of their house. A few hours later all eight children piled into the car like loose change and went for a ride around town. My great grandfather was a very serious man and my grandfather would say “I can count on one hand the amount of times I saw him smile”. Dada would then chuckle and with a faraway expression in his eyes he would say “But he was always smiling when he drove that car of his”.

Many years later, my grandfather moved to Bombay. Life had dealt him a cruel hand and he landed up in this city with nothing but a few clothes in a bag. He met my grandmother and they lived a modest life in a small one room apartment in Worli. Even though he went from living in the lap of luxury to making do with the basic necessities, he was never bitter. Whatever he had, he was always willing to give. Their front door was always open and there was a constant stream of visitors.

There is a philosophy that believes in identity and memory being one and the same. You are a sum total of your lived experiences. Not that I do not agree with this. Of course I am the person that I am today because of the many things that I have witnessed and events that have occurred in my life. However, I strongly believe in memory that one can inherit. So, yes, I am all that I can remember, but I am also so much more. I am my mother and father’s life, I am the stories of my grandparents, the fears and hopes of their parents and the happiness and sadness of those before them.

I have never sat in a Rolls Royce and I doubt I ever will, but, thanks to my Dada, I can recall the scent of the leather seats. I can be blinded by the shine of the bonnet and I can smile and press my nose up against the glass window of their new Rolls Royce.

Stories worth remembering…

Growing up, I was a member of the KKK. Yes, the KKK.

Ok, not the KKK, obviously! This was actually a slightly more exclusive KKK – a group open to only five other people. Rather unfortunately named, the KKK stood for the Kids Kaleidoscope Klub (of course, ‘club’ had to be spelled with a ‘K’!), which functioned out of my home, my cousins and I its only members.

I should elaborate here that I grew up in a sort of joint family way, living on one floor of a family home, with two aunts and their families on the floors above. So, in short, there were 6 of us cousins, not very far apart in age, and the stage was set for great amounts of absurdity.

Coming back to the KKK. I can’t recall when exactly my eldest cousin and ring leader had this particular brainwave – I only know that some of my earliest childhood memories revolve around this club and its ‘kaleidoscope’ of activities. It seems now as if there were great stretches of time spent in a sort of parallel, Enid Blyton-inspired, existence. Days where we trooped upstairs and down asking for “odd” jobs in exchange for money. Mornings spent “spring cleaning”. Mid-night feasts – as if we didn’t see enough of each other all day – to which were invited even more cousins. Writing a family newsletter, holding “craft sales” and “restaurants” in the loosest sense of those terms – decorated old tins and coke-floats anyone? Enacting Roald Dahl plays and staging concert performances. Evidence of tremendous parental love was the fact that each of these endeavours had a – seemingly willing – audience! Most secret (and now embarrassing) was us trying to solve those seemingly unknowable mysteries – what was that watchman, the neighbours really up to?

If I were ever to write a memoir, this would be one of my earliest entries.

What about you? How would you start your story? With memories of your own version of our KKK perhaps?

Making it fun!

To begin, I apologise for the hiatus in my writing here, just in case anyone’s been impatiently awaiting their heritage fix;) By way of explanation – over the last couple of months, with the general holiday atmosphere and (rare!) pleasant weather in Mumbai, the inheritage walks have kept me both occupied and tired (see Participate). At the same time, researching new routes to offer has meant several busy days visiting the many, varied heritage sites and areas in the city. Places we’ve all heard of, but most of us never been. These visits have proved fascinating, but also quite frustrating.

Take the Kanheri caves, hidden inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Ask around, your parents and grandparents are likely to remember this as a popular picnic spot. You might have visited as well, most likely on a school trip? What, if anything, do you remember about that visit? Not much? Aggressive monkeys from the park perhaps? Anything about the actual caves? Were you perhaps left wondering what the big deal was? I wouldn’t be surprised, nor would I blame you.

Standing at the caves, looking out over the park

Another view of the national park

Totalling 109 in number and named Kanheri after the Sanskrit Krishnagiri or ‘black mountain’, the caves were carved by hand from a basalt rock-face and date from the 1st century BCE to 10th century CE – yes thats correct, some of these caves are over 2000 years old! To stress this point – that’s as old as the Roman Empire! And they still survive today, relatively intact, in the heart of Mumbai city.

Very briefly, the caves were created for use by Budhhist monks as viharas (places of study, meditation and simple living) and chaitya halls (places for congregational worship). Kanheri was evidently well-known, at one point even becoming a renowned university. Wealthy merchants, citizens and members of the ruling class donated generously to the monks, earning distinction through their association with the site. Because of Kanheri’s long life, the caves tell the critical story of change and development in the Buddhist religion. One such piece of evidence is the presence for worship of rock cut figures of the Buddha; for, in the early years of Buddhism, the Buddha who never claimed to be a god, was not depicted in human form. This would come later, with change in Buddhist thought, belief and practices of worship. In addition to telling the story and development of Buddhism in Western India, Kanheri also represents amazing human effort – for, carving into basalt in this manner was no small technical feat! Finally, surviving cisterns and canals also indicate a sophisticated system of harvesting and using rain water.

Cave 1 - believed to contain the Buddha's relics, stupas have always been the focus of Buddhist worship

Cave 1 - note the Buddha represented on the wall around the stupa

Monumental Buddha image

Chaitya Hall - note the carved stone capitals

Steep climb up the hill, the cement banisters are a later addition

We were told by a security guard that this was the 'university'. The stone cells at the back were presumably where the monks lived

The university from the outside

Further up the hill

More caves

Water tank and channel

Water filled even today!

I am far from an expert on Kanheri. This information is basic, and easily available. You wouldn’t learn any of this though, were you to actually visit the site. Interpretation of the site’s history, story and significance, is shockingly non-existent. Lip service is paid to this by two information panels that lay by the way side as you climb up the hill to the caves. These panels are in a rather poor condition which only serves to enhance their ill-thought-out and inaccessible design.

Panel 1 - written in capitals and located too far behind the barrier to read comfortably

Panel 2 - reading a panel placed parallel to the ground is harder than you'd think!

No maps on site

So, on Sunday morning, when the surrounding park is filled with families on safari, people walking, jogging, cycling and playing, the caves remain comparatively deserted. We overheard the only other visitors we saw remark that the experience of such an important public heritage site, in any other country, would be so different! Agreed. The difference lies in interpretation, an effort completely absent at Kanheri.

Interpretation may be understood as the communication processes or means by which a site’s significance, value and meanings are revealed to its audiences. Interpretation is NOT merely information about the site, although it is based on this information. Effective interpretation means creating a visitor experience that caters to, stimulates and satisfies various potential audience groups – here park-goers, families, youth, school groups, adult visitors, tourists, Buddhists –  and builds public appreciation, understanding and eventually support for the site.

The practice of interpretation begins with drafting an interpretation plan, premised on an interpretive theme and objectives. What in a nutshell is special about a site? What should visitors to the site learn, feel, how should they behave on site and what should they take away? Who are the site’s potential audiences? Once these questions have been answered, interpretation is realised through a number of varied interpretive media, such as text panels, audio-guides, guided tours of sites, exhibitions and so on. Selecting appropriate interpretative media makes the heritage resource accessible and engaging. Also, popular. Successful. Alive.

I venture a few suggestions based on my training in heritage interpretation and, more importantly, my experience as a visitor to Kanheri. I repeat that I am not a Kanheri expert – neither are the majority of potential visitors to the site. And that is essentially what interpretation is about  – creating a stimulating experience for the many different types of people who might visit, not just the experts who probably know it all anyway!

Interpretive Theme: the fundamental message or idea communicated to visitors, based on the site’s USP. Of the ones I thought up, the following is my favourite.

  • Celebrating Buddhism through the life, belief and experiences of a Buddhist Monk

Interpretive Objectives:  the measurable outcomes of the interpretation provided, aimed at realising the interpretive theme and the site’s eventual purpose. The defined objectives inform the selection and design of interpretive media and techniques.

- Visitors should begin to understand

  1. the life and practices of a buddhist monk (then and now)
  2. the teachings of the Buddha
  3. the innovative technology used to create and sustain the site
  4. the importance of Kanheri as physical evidence of a world long past

- Visitors should begin to feel

  1. a sense of wonder at the technology used to create and sustain life at the site
  2. a sense of wonder at the (hard and rigorous) life of a monk, and the depth of belief that made this possible
  3. an affiliation with the monk, if only through difference – could he/she have lived like that?
 – Having achieved the above, visitors would be moved to refrain from dirtying the site or decorating it with carvings and inscriptions of their own. Finally, visitors would want to come back to the site!
Potential Interpretive media:  From the range of interpretive media and techniques available, the most appropriate for a particular site are chosen based on mission, target audiences, interpretive theme, objectives and, critically, available resources. I thought of two solutions that might work at Kanheri.
  • Interpretation panels are clearly not ideal at Kanheri because of the outdoor nature of the cave site – let’s face it there’s very little that’s more annoying than a panel that’s disfigured and illegible. An easy alternative could be creative and accessible hand-held pamphlets that visitors can pick up at the ticket office and carry with them. Include a map marking the position of each of the 109 caves so visitors can find their way around rather than guessing which way to go. And highlight the significance of each cave, interpret its particular features and history, so visitors know what to look for once they’re there. It really isn’t rocket science.

For instance, in one of the caves further away (I forget which number) is an image of the Buddha painted on the ceiling. There’s no indication of this at the site though, so you could just as easily decide to skip that cave, and so miss something pretty cool. These pamphlets could double as souvenir takeaways. A note of caution is perhaps necessary: rubbish bins would be a necessary addition were this suggestion to be taken up.

The Buddha painted on the ceiling. You could miss it if you were'nt looking.

The painting, close up

But sure, not everyone reads interpretation panels or pamphlets. Indeed very few do. So let’s get a little more imaginative now.

  • Instead of merely having guides show you around (I’m told there are a few although again there were no obvious signs for this), why not try to ‘people’ the caves? Get amateur actors involved, or anyone that’s interested in volunteering, and have them dress up and use the site as the monks that built and used the caves back when. Live interpretation in this way is both engaging and accessible: visitors can actually see and experience the site as it might have once been, get first or third person accounts, individual attention and even have questions answered.
  • To engage visitors further, particularly children in school groups, why not have them dress up as Buddhist monks and experience life and practice in the caves, rather than just imagining it? You could also provide the opportunity to experience more specialised roles – that of those who actually built the caves, carved the figures and created the water system. Learning by doing. Not to mention, having fun. I’d bet this would keep people intrigued and more likely to understand and retain the information they receive. To make it feasible, this could be organised only on holidays and weekends perhaps.

There are enough books and scholars on Kanheri’s history and epigraphy to provide the basic subject information that is necessary to feed such interpretive practices and media. Where specific records do not exist, perhaps what is known of similar Buddhist cave sites, like Ajanta, could be used to draw parallels instead? I’d like to see the ASI, that manages the site, begin to think along these lines. Its simple really – make heritage visits fun and more people are likely to visit and participate. In the long run, with public participation, understanding and appreciation, perhaps some of these sites will be preserved for posterity.

What do you think?

What’s in a name anyway? – I.

With place names in Mumbai/Bombay having changed so radically and completely in recent years, the etymologies and histories of those that do survive – often only in popular memory and usage – become that much more fascinating. As a result, I’ll attempt, periodically, to highlight some of these stories here.

Let’s start with Nariman Point. Ever wondered how South Mumbai’s premier business district got its name? Obviously its been named after someone called Nariman, but who was he? What did he do? Was it even a he?

Ok, yes it was a he, and an interesting one at that – a Khurshed F. Nariman, best known for his actions in holding the Bombay government up to public scrutiny for its controversial and hugely unsuccessful Back Bay Reclamation scheme in the early 1920’s.

The Back Bay Reclamation or Lloyd’s folly

Under Sir George Lloyd (governor of Bombay from December 1918 – December 1923), the Bombay government instituted a scheme to reclaim land along Bombay’s ‘Back Bay’, from Marine Lines southward to Colaba. This scheme was proposed to create land for upper class housing along the city’s western shore, which was intended, ostensibly, to relieve the overcrowding in the working-class neighbourhoods of the inner city. Hmmm….?

The reclamation project was placed under the jurisdiction of a newly formed Development Directorate, intentionally situated outside public scrutiny and accountability. Sir George Buchanan was hired as the consulting engineer – not quite the best decision as Buchanan would ridiculously under calculate costs and approve equipment woefully ill suited to the project requirements. In a rush to begin, and without considering Buchanan’s report too closely, the government introduced a bill in the Bombay Legislative Council in August 1920 and work began in 1921.

The plan for the reclaimed area, drafted by British town planner W.R. Davidge, deserves detailed description – picture in your mind a grand, seaside complex of public and office buildings set around shaded quadrangles and a mall lined with palm trees running the length of the reclamation with the Rajabai Tower in the north and an equally monumental public building in the south. The remaining area would have residential quarters in neat rectangular plots.

Clearly, this was a plan with no space for the poor – ironic given its stated intent of solving the city’s housing and congestion problems. And, by the mid-1920’s, it was a plan that appeared increasingly impossible to realise, given the extent of problems that already plagued its execution. Within a year of the project’s commencement Buchanan had been forced to revise his estimate and did so with an 89% increase! With equipment ill suited to its requirements, the project’s timeline was also shifted forward by decades.

The Development Scandal Monger

Finally, in steps our protagonist Nariman, as leader of a campaign that channelled public ire against the scheme. A lawyer and Congressman, Nariman used the nationalist newspaper the Bombay Chronicle for fierce and sustained criticism of the Development Directorate under the name, the Development Scandal Monger. As a member of the Legislative Council, he denounced both department and project (‘Back Bay Bungle’, ‘Back Bay Muddle’ and so on), going a step further with strong accusations of graft and misuse of funds. In return the Directorate would accuse him of seeing corruption where it did not exist, probably because it existed in his own environment! In addition to writing in the Bombay Chronicle, Nariman would also address public meetings, openly combative and provocative as he spread the dirt he had unearthed on the Directorate.

Finally, the Bombay government was forced to institute an enquiry committee, whose proceedings the Chronicle would broadcast daily. When Nariman gave testimony before this committee, revealing one abuse after another, the Chronicle dedicated five sensational pages to his performance titled, ‘Mr. Nariman Speaks Out.’

The drama continued with Nariman then being charged with defamation as the Governor and his Directorate attempted to absolve themselves of any blame by placing it squarely on the shoulders of the ‘expert’ Buchanan. If anything, defamation charges served only to enhance Nariman’s popularity and he was re-elected to the Legislative Council a few days later with overwhelming support. In court, Nariman was masterful in his own defence, putting on quite the show as he negated the prosecution’s case against him, and added further revelations of official misconduct and failure. On January 27, 1928, Nariman was cleared of all charges, a public hero for his many supporters.

The Back Bay reclamation scheme would never be completed, with only four block of 439.6 acres being developed by 1929, as compared to the initial plan to reclaim and develop 1145 acres.

One author has said that the real significance of Nariman’s contribution was that he placed colonialism itself – with its arbitrary exercise of British power – on trial, through his expose of corruption and failure in the Back Bay project. It is exceedingly  ironic and unfortunate then, that in Independent India so many years later, the flaws against which Nariman fought continue to remain depressingly familiar.

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