It’s 1874. Mumbai’s first tram has just pulled away from Parel TT towards Colaba. As the horse-drawn carriage trudges ahead, a turn of the head reveals a stepwell, wide enough to accommodate the horses. Remember it is the age of nobility. Little wonder then that the news of Prince Albert’s arrival a year later has Bombay abuzz, especially the Governor’s House in Parel, which will be hosting the royal party. One of the seven islands, Parel is simultaneously prepping to take the Prince to Pune, and a railway station is being expressly built. As are roads, which will henceforth be called the Kingsway.
Paral as it is colloquially known has been the benefactor of British rule, partly due to Golanji hill, an area that’s rife for hunting. But its steady rise has now been halted by the spread of bubonic plague. What was once the Governor’s House has turned the plague research laboratory, headed by Acacio Viegas and Waldemar Haffkine. With much effort, the duo have succeeded but Parel has lost favour with the Britishers.
But by now so has England with the natives. There are uprisings taking place throughout the country. Inspired by Gandhiji’s calls for Swadeshi, Babu Genu, a cotton mill worker, lays down his life. Years down the line, a school teacher is instrumental in the formation of the Marathi-speaking state and is crowned the first mayor. The 2 km stretch, once called Queensway, has now turned Acharya Dhonde Marg. A bust of Genu stands tall on it, opposite the KEM hospital.
Of course, the trams have vanished and so has the stepwell. A SBI branch stands where the latter was, amid dingy shops and faded shop hoardings. In these very mass of hoardings, is a small entryway, you wouldn’t otherwise notice. It’s serene here, with paper flags fluttering in the air. The Vithoba temple must have been built during the Mughal times, going by the dome at the top, we are told. A simple architectural change that let the temples survive the Mughal reign. Outside, the blue and white window frames, with a neatly monogrammed year, points to a much later era, but one that too is slowly on its way out. As at Golanji hill, where the array of old houses are slowly being turned into high rises, these windows will too crumble and fade soon.
There is so much history here, so many different eras to peel off, yet I was unaware of it until this heritage walk with Khaki Tours. As we climb the stairs for the end of the trip, we come face to face with a piece of history, dating even further back, hiding in plain sight. In awe, we keep staring at this 3-metre monolithic statue of Lord Shiva, not wanting to move our feet.
Khakhi Tours organises heritage walks across Mumbai and Alibaug. They have recently also started food walks. You can check them out on their Facebook page here
A shorter version of this story appeared on The City Story