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Pyaavs of Mumbai: From Past to Present

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An audio-visual exploration of the munificent pyaavs, the drinking water fountains of Mumbai, starting from the tip of Bombay right up to Matunga.

 

Voiceover Text

My cousin writes from Hyderapot
My only chance to snatch,
And says the climate is so hot,
She says that I shall much delight
To taste their Indian treats,
But what she likes may turn me quite,
Their strange outlandish meats. -
If I can eat rupees, who knows?
Or dine, the Indian way,
On doolies, and on bungalows -
I'm going to Bombay!

 

How excited the girl is in this Thomas Hood’s poem! She is romanticizing her visit to Bombay.  Her longing and urge to visit knows no bounds! However, everyone who comes to the city with hope, is soon aghast by the way the city functions. It has travelled a long way for name; Bombahia for the Portuguese overlords, Bombay for the British colonisers, and then Mumbai in independent India. The city on wheels, the city of dreams, the economic capital of our country and also the city which flaunts masterpieces of iconic heritage. Exemplary Victoria Terminus station, the Gateway of India, the General Post Office building, headquarters of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, the Flora Fountain and many other edifices are so striking that we simply cannot avoid their compelling beauty. The built heritage of Mumbai not only encompasses these larger than life examples but also a variety of public utility structures like fountains, cast iron lamp posts, milestones etcetera.

 

Erstwhile Bombay embodies varied heritage elements one of it being provision of free drinking water facility resultant of philanthropic practices by noblemen from the contemporary society. There are quite a few examples of drinking water fountains in the city that are given the colloquial name of pyaav. The tradition of patronizing a pyaav was usurped in 19th century Bombay where water charity was commemorated in the loving memory of dear ones who had left for their heavenly abode. Depending upon its utilitarian nature, a pyaav structure has two requisite architectural elements, a stone basin with a spout for humans to drink water and stone troughs at ground level where the water from spouts spill over and quench the thirst of the animals. They are spread across the island city of Bombay along the old tram routes, traffic islands, busy market areas, and pedestrian localities. Every pyaav is special and strategically situated, but sabotaged by the urban chaos of today. Busy streets or filthy corners, lonely areas or spic and span localities, pyaavs can surprise a commuter from any neighbourhood. They are not just monumental expressions but connect directly with the social ethos of colonial Bombay. ‘Yehi baahi yetha paahi.. ghaatli hi paanpoi.. Dharma, jaat.. Konati ti.. Bheda aisaa yetha naahi.' (Come one, come all. Have a look at this drinking water dispenser. No one is discriminated here on the basis of religion or caste.)  Kavi Yashwant’s lines innately express a harmonious gathering of people irrespective of their religion, caste or creed in the neighbourhood of a drinking water dispenser.

 

Starting from Colaba, they are placed in various parts of South Mumbai and further also spread to suburbs like Parel, Dadar, King Circle, Matunga and Bandra. Mumbai Metropolitian Heritage Conservation Society initiated a project under the guidance of Dr. Varsha Shirgaonakar, on the Water Heritage of Mumbai and published a monograph in 2011. In this work they have notified most of the pyaavs and also since then have been exploring a few more.

 

This pyaav is situated abutting the Horniman circle garden entrance, in the area which was once known as the Bombay Greens. Probably a steady increase in the mercantile community raised the need of drinking water facilities.  The construction project was initiated in 1873 as a piece of charity by Bai Mancooverbai Randas the widow of one Late. Mr. Bhukandas. Before this pyaav was constructed, there existed a well here, which was used by the localites for drawing water. Today, it is heart-warming to see this edifice restored to its original glory.    Mumbai Municipal Corporation undertook the work, which was executed by Urban Design Research Institute Mumbai, an organisation working in the field of built heritage conservation. Now, it is a ready available water facility, under the management aegis of Seth Gangadas G.Mulji Religious and Charitable Trust. Unique in its architectural typology and form, the pyaav adds to the nostalgia evoked in regarding the historic Elphinstone Circle and its periphery.

 

Not quite far from Horniman Circle, we have the Crawford market, a heritage structure that houses three fountains on its premises; two of them are drinking water fountains. Lane by lane we roam and discover you at the fag end! Almost at the back of the market, crowded by new setups, there is a pyaav, as if making a hue and cry for help. The plaque tells us that back in 1911, the shopkeepers had donated this pyaav, for public use. Built in malad stone, the structure has simple ornamentation in the form of a projecting stone chajja supported by brackets while two facades of the pyaav has arches in relief work with stone basins to dispense water. One of them is now broken. Strategically placed in the market area, the pyaav if restored even today can serve the purpose of dispensing water to the workers, as envisioned by its makers. The other pyaav on the premises of Crawford Market is the one that we confront upon entry. Years have passed, people have moved on, sellers and buyers have changed, but the pyaavs are still an indispensable part of the market.

 

One cannot leave the yester Fort area of Bombay without paying heed to the pyaav at the heart of the traffic island, opposite the GPO of Mumbai. Depicting the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture through such elements as   minarets, dome, stone frieze, parapet, relief jali panels, troughs and water dispensers in the shape of a blooming lotus, this pyaav is an exceptional piece of architectural heritage. A plaque states that after the demise of his daughter Leelavati Kothari, Devidas Parbhudas Kothari initiated the construction of this pyaav in the year 1923. Other plaques provide information relating to renovation at various points over the years by several contributors. The pyaav is undergoing conservation now and soon would be made open for public use. The conservation process yielded a number of hidden facets of the original structure that now the working team pledges to retain. Being the third fountain in the city that has been given a new life, Kothari pyaav is like the lamp of hope that someday we will see all pyaavs restored and functioning again.

 

Next, our pyaav trail sets forth towards the severely occupied gallis or lanes of Masjid Bunder area.  Located in Bhat Bazaar a generous donation made by the Late. Kessovji Naik, allowed for the construction of this mode of water supply in 1876, so that people and the city could benefit. Unlike other designs, this one incorporated a clock, in addition to the water facility for which it was annotated, and thus stood there tracking time for the passers-by and also quenching their thirst. The architectural language is an amalgamation of components with sculptures in the form of peacocks and elephants adorning the dome; and motifs that draw parallels to the Indian temple architectural styles. A spatial layout of the plinth with nandi icons on the step guard portrays a mythical sense of the planning and design that is employed. Revival and conservation plans were recently undertaken by the Kacthi Oswal community and executed by Vaastu Vidhaan Projects, a conservation architectural firm based in Mumbai, thus pumping new life into this age-old monument. Kessovji Naik fountain is credited to have been the first pyaav in the city that was restored, through a collaborative effort of public private participation. The newly installed plaque at this pyaav pays tribute to the movement of philanthropy that gave this city so many drinking water fountains. Thy repose to quench a handful of life.  (Long live the people who funded the construction of pyaavs to quench city’s thirst.)

 

Pyaavs at Jijamata Udyan

 

The quintessential Victoria Gardens of Byculla, currently known as Veer Jijabai Udyan or colloquially referred to as ‘Raanichi Baag’ has four pyaavs housed inside the premises. All of them seem to have been shifted from original locations to their present abode. Two of the identical pyaavs were bequeathed from the charity fund left in his will, by Late. Ardeshir Dadabhoy Dadasett. Scholars opine that the original location could have been Dadysett Wadi in Walkeshvar where two pyaavs were commissioned by Late Mr. Dadysett, as corroborated by the information from contemporary newspaper Parsee Prakash. At some point, owing to certain infrastructural developments, they must have been shifted to the garden. Recently the pyaavs have been restored and soon fresh water will also be dispensed from them.

 

There is, additionally, a fountain in the Greenhouse nursery of the garden, built in 1903 in the memory of Seth Samaldas Nasidas. Whether the structure was uprooted from some place is difficult to say. Mr. Sanjay Mayekar, photographer and explorer in the team that worked on the project of water fountains of Bombay, shares his experience of finding this pyaav and his journey through the project.

 

“The superintendent at that time, Mr. Naringrekar, we had sent him a letter, he replied that since you are working with such a great interest, there are four pyaav’s in “Ranichi Baug”. Out of the four pyaav, one is situated here in the nursery and one is in the corner of the nursery. The one in the corner is well intact and this other one has been brought here from somewhere. So, this is a very good fountain, there are lions heads on all the four sides, from where water must have once flowed and there is a plaque here at the bottom, which is in English and there is one on the other side in Gujarati. We still don’t know from where this fountain has been relocated to this place.

 

Once Dr. Varsha Shidorkar received this project, the BMC gave us all the relavant information. With the help of this information our team searched every nook and corner for these fountains. Sometimes there was not even a road leading to the fountains and they were known only by their local names. I and my team members have worked very hard to find these fountains and get information about them”.

 

Just besides it at a distance of a few meters is another modest fountain built in 1933, and plaque which dedicates the structure to the donation of one Khimji Randeria, following the sad demise of his wife Devibai.

 

The extent to which pyaavs are spread in present day Mumbai is exasperating. While some are prominently identifiable, others are camouflaged in their respective surroundings. The best examples for this are the pyaavs at Do Taki and Char Nall. The pyaav at Do Taki is just next to the police station, quarantined by metal sheets. The original stone structure of Do Taki pyaav has been coated with layers of unwanted paint, but the original architectural composition of the fountain remains unharmed even today. Two tanks existed at the junction of Duncan and Grant Roads in the early 19th century that supplied ceaseless quantities of water, where the pyaav was built later to commemorate the presence of these two historic tanks. This makes the pyaav not only an impending water supplier but also a marker of history. In Char Nall pyaav, what remains are the four iron brackets while everything else is encased in new material skin. It was erected in 1913, by Hon. Sir Jairaj Peerbhoy, head of the Khoja community. It still does its duty by providing water, but current custodians of history have failed to let the edifice breathe.

 

This structure stands as a true testimony to time as it was conceived as a memorial by Mr. Lowji Megji, J.P in memory of his daughter Kusum Bala. The malad stone structure, portraying eight columns lifting the dome above, is situated in the Food Corporation of India, near Reay Road Station. One of the most common issues faced by most of these structures is either the disappearance or spoiling of the animal trough, caused due to the levels of the roadways being raised over a period of time.

 

Bequeathed from the generous donator Sir Cowasjee Jehangir, the pyaav at Kalachowki is a small yet pivotal structure in the area. The uniqueness lies in the red spotted granite used for its construction. Very few similar pyaavs are found in the city, the other important one being at Marine lines. It catered to the commuters and was positioned just along a tram route. A shopkeeper from the vicinity very fondly remembers the pyaav in its heyday and is excited to see it functioning again. This pyaav too will soon undergo restoration and conservation.  

 

A fountain erected on an octagonal base of Kurla Stone located inside Bai Sakarbai Petit Animal Hospital is the edifice built in memory of Edulji Furdoonji Allbless by his father. Following Gothic inspirations, the fountain shows intricate and intense network of arches and carvings along with the troughs managing the overflowing water. This is one of kind of charity that was done in major part to fulfill the needs of the animals as opposed to other designs that served dual purposes.

 

Located in a strategically crowded and chaotic locality of Gokhale road, in proximity to  Dadar station is another memorial, locally known as the Anand Vitthal Koli pyaav. Given the encroachment and neglect caused due to miscreants and drug addicts, Zandu Pharmaceuticals located within its boundary took the initiative of safe-guarding the memorial by erecting a fenced boundary and thus putting a stop to various unethical practices.  The pyaav not only served as a quick source to mill workers in the yester years but also fulfilled the requirements of devotees on and their return from Siddhvinayak. As per the information given by civic authorities, it will see the light of conservation day in a few months.

 

Positioned in the swarming neighbourhood of Dadar, along the footpath of Shivaji Mandir, stands the pyaav constructed by a philanthropist named Ramji Setiba. Apart from his name, absolutely nothing is known of this kind man who left behind more than one such form of absolute charity. Walking down the jam-packed streets of this suburb, one often admires the structure and feels the need of this pure source.

 

Not quite far from Shivaji Park is the plaza theatre facing this huge garden right at the heart of the traffic island. A local gentleman, Mr. Sahasrabuddhe patronized the fountain in the memory of his wife Indirabai in 1930. This area in Dadar suburb comprising theatres, railway station, market and people travelling up and down the Tilak Bridge, was blessed to have the pyaav at their disposal. A composite structure made of stone and brick, it is ornamented with side pilasters, stuccowork and centrally placed arch with the requisite water bowl on its two sides.

 

The garden that was once built in two parts, separated by the tram route, housed the Seth Devram Keshawji Contractor pyaav. The location of the water fountain made it viable for tram travellers as well as by the soldiers lodged in the Matunga unit for regular parades. Built in 1943, the fountain was deemed to be dysfunctional, given the unification of the two parts of the garden, to form a circular landscape.  However, after having been taken over by Larsen and Toubro, an overhead tank was installed, thus reinstating its past utility.

 

A reminiscent representative of pyaavs is found in the Bandra area of North Bombay. Located near the quasi urban market areas of Hill Road, the pyaav is just outside the boundaries of St. Andrews Church. Typologically this pyaav is very different in its architectural language. Spill over troughs, dispensing basins, ornamental lion heads and foliage pattern; they all provide an elegant look. What remains is the need for constructive restoration measures and the provision of water to flow through the spouts.

 

End Note

 

The tale of pyaavs doesn't end here. There are many more locations where these antiquities have mingled in the growing social ethos. The need for public water is same today as it was for our forefathers, who built the pyaavs in recognition of their centrality to the community. We run the risk of falling short of their-of their humanitarian selfless deeds through the buildings they left for us. However, we can adopt measures that seek to preserve of this these immensely precious structures. Putting them to use would be an unmitigated boon act as a boon. It could curtail the heavy requirement of packaged water. What Nature almighty provides us free of charge, water and life, we tax for ourselves.  The pyaavs are assigned various roles but we have been failing largely in protecting, admiring and drawing inspiration from them in their multiple roles as spaces for pause, community gatherings, the location of memorials, the soothing promise of architectural aesthetics, and markers of markers, among others. 

 

As Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore says “For many years at great cost, I travelled through many countries, saw the high mountains, the ocean. The only things I did not see were the sparkling dewdrops in the grass just outside my door.”