A Natural History of Mumbai #1

The monsoon seems an appropriate moment to recall the increasingly invisible natural history of Mumbai. A modern mega city that was once – not too long ago – a group of seven islands, separated by marshy swamps and mangrove forests. The islands were, in fact, only really separated during high tide, when the sea came storming in through the ‘Great Breach’ or gap between the islands of Worli and Bombay, submerging the swamps between the islands. In low tide, it was possible to cross from one island to another in certain parts, as long as you washed your feet (at ‘Pydhonie’ for instance) when you got there.

Note the Great Breach, between Bombay and Worli

To propel Bombay to any prominence and prosperity, more land was required. Land has always been Bombay’s most critical commodity, as it remains today. In 1784, a seawall or embankment, called the Hornby Vellard, was finally built after much trial – damming the sea across the Great Breach and connecting the islands of Bombay and Worli. With the sea kept out, it was possible to fill in that central marsh with rock quarried from hills on the surrounding islands. Across this fresh land major connecting roads were cut. Most of this land would eventually be used for the mills that powered Bombay into an industrial centre in the late 19th century. From Mumbai Central all the way north to Dadar the area would come to be known as Girangaon or the village of mills – almost ironic for an area we now associate with the enormous high rise construction that defines the Mumbai of the future.

An early view of the Hornby Vellard, now Lala Lajpat Rai Marg. Believe it or not.

So next time you’re stuck in traffic approaching Peddar Road from Worli, spare a thought for the significance of the road you’re on?


Mumbai’s Hidden Museums #3

Text contributed by Tamara Rasquinha (IG: @tamararasquinha), team Inheritage.

Kamalnayan Bajaj Art Gallery

In the unlikely centre of the city’s business hub of Nariman Point lies a humble display detailing the life of an even more humble patriarch and his family of freedom fighters – an individual, personal history of the kind that has long been overlooked in the general narrative of the independence struggle. At the Kamalnayan Bajaj Art Gallery,  photographs and handwritten correspondences trace the early life of his father Jamnalal Bajaj, the founder of the Bajaj family business. Key artefacts include rebellious letters  renouncing his inheritance and captivating photographs of Jamnalal leading a satyagraha defying a British ban on flying the national flag. 

Among the gallery’s many highlights, the photographs that struck me most are those of Jamnalal Bajaj, a wealthy businessman, opting to be a ‘C’ class prisoner and undertake arduous manual labour during his many jail sentences. An act that inspired famed anthropologist Verrier Elwin to pledge that he would walk barefoot until India received her independence. We learn also of the the non-bourgeoisie lifestyle practised by this wealthy Khadi-clad business family, which lay in sharp contrast to the luxurious lifestyles led by most wealthy business families at this time.

Discover these hidden faces and stories behind the fight for independence at the Kamalnayan Bajaj Gallery between 11:00 and 7:00 pm, Monday – Saturday. The space is free and open to all and strongly recommended for school groups in search of a more complex, layered engagement with modern Indian history.

Mumbai’s Hidden Museums #2

Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

Off the Western Express Highway at Goregaon, the city fades away inside the verdant campus of St. Pius X College, the Archdiocesan Seminary of Bombay. Since 2011, a small slice of space in the main building, earlier the college gym, has housed the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum. With collections scouted from church attics, crypts and family altars, the museum showcases and celebrates the history and artistic production of Christianity in the Mumbai region. It’s worth the trip just to see a copy of the enormous King James’ Bible, the first ever in the English language, its leather cover decorated with the 12 Stations of the Cross in gold gilding. Or the many instances of artistic crossover and reinterpretation in Christian objects produced in India – works such as the statue of the Saint Paul from a parish church in Malad, sporting a very hindu-ised beard and standing on a lotus shaped footstool. A statuette of Mary with a bindi. Altar parts from a Manori church with angels in Mughal dress with Gandhara style curls in their hair. An evocative wooden image of St. Roch acquired from a church in Bandra stays with me. St. Roch, traditionally evoked against the plague, is believed to have become particularly venerated during the devastating plague epidemic of the 1890’s; he is shown here as he is usually depicted, pointing to a plague sore on his leg.


The Museum is open Tuesdays – Sundays, 9:00 am – 5:00 pm. Guided tours are conducted on prior notice and are strongly recommended.


Mumbai’s Hidden Museums – #1

Love museums? Regularly haunt the encyclopaedic Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum) in Kala Ghoda? Spend your weekends at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla? We’ve probably met. Recently, in a quest to spread my museum wings, I stepped out of my cultural comfort zones in search of ‘hidden’ museum collections in the city. Bite-sized they might be, but these museums can take you places! 

Haffkine’s Institute Museum 

0486Did you know that the first successful vaccine against the horrific bubonic plague was created in Mumbai? In an environment of panic and fear during the last plague epidemic in the city in the 1890’s – which, at its peak, killed almost 2000 people every week – Ukrainian bacteriologist Waldemar M. Haffkine worked tirelessly in room 000 in Grant Medical College to produce a vaccine using clarified butter (ghee). Before conducting any human trials, Haffkine tested the vaccine on himself. Once proved harmless, it was tested on volunteers at the Byculla Jail, after which large scale public inoculations began. In 1899, Haffkine, now Director in Chief of the Plague Research Laboratory, moved into the former Governor’s mansion at Parel to scale production of the vaccine. For about 30 years or so, Haffkine’s vaccine would be used against the disease the world over.

Today, the Haffkine Institute for Training, Research and Testing houses a recently refurbished museum on campus which showcases both the earlier history of the building, as the home of colonial Bombay’s first citizen, and its special place in the sphere of scientific discovery, innovation and learning. My personal highlights included the Haffkine Flask, specially designed by Haffkine to grow cultures of the plague bacteria and a series of striking photographs that take you back to the struggle to rid Bombay of the plague. Science and art merge in almost ethereal fibreglass sculptures of enlarged forms of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), Rabies and E. Coli amongst others. For those with stronger stomachs, the museum is best known for its collection of snake skeletons and wet specimens. And, if that wasn’t enough to get you to visit, you can even clone your own sheep! Don’t believe me? Go find out.

To make an appointment to visit, contact training@haffkineinstitute.org.

Always heritage walking, come rain or storm!

Mumbai, hot, humid and sweaty, has been waiting breathlessly for some real rain. And really rain it finally did, yesterday during my heritage walk through Bandra’s past, present and future. The walk was fully booked and it was such a pleasure to have a large group of enthusiastic and willing participants, who continued walking despite being down-poured upon once, twice, then again and again! Here are just a few images, courtesy walk collaborator Mumbai Riders.

Bring your umbrella and boots and join us, next time?:)


Project Diary: Getting hands-on with exhibition making

In the few weeks since my last post, the final year History students from St. Xavier’s and I been busy visiting a diverse range of exhibition spaces and types in Mumbai – from the large, public Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, which curates and showcases contemporary art for all alongside a historic collection, to the community focused Archdiocesan Heritage Museum in Goregaon, Tarq at the cutting edge of the contemporary art gallery space and the new Piramal Museum of Art, housed, excitingly, within a corporate office building. We were incredibly fortunate to meet several young professionals at many of these museums and galleries, people in diverse roles who generously and honestly shared their experiences, roles, views and advice with the students.

These visits were followed by an in-depth presentation and interaction with one of the city’s leading young exhibition designers. In each of these conversations we kept circling back to what is perhaps the most crucial element in exhibition thinking and building – the audience!

Armed with new learnings and ideas, the class and I held a workshop session during which we highlighted the diverse roles and players required to team-build a successful exhibition, matching students to those roles based on their strengths and interests. Each student will be performing a minimum of two roles. In groups, students are now working under research leads to build the content that will help define the exhibition’s storylines in the next phase.

Next week, we meet the collector and scholar whose stamp collection they will be displaying, and hopefully we will have tons of questions for him:)

I’d like end this update with a shout out to the Department of History faculty and Principal of St. Xavier’s College, for their incredible support and encouragement of this intensive, student-led learning project. We need more educators like them.