Find Solitude At Bombay Panjrapole

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FIND SOLITUDE AT BOMBAY PANJRAPOLE

WORDS BY MEHER MIRZA AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SURUCHI MAIRA

Meher Mirza finds sanctuary in animal shelter Bombay Panjrapole animal shelter, surrounded by cows and human-free time.

Panjrapole makes me wiser.

The first time I go there is with my mum and her friend, a lovely lady with a fierce love for the lost worlds of Mumbai. It is a weekday when we visit, and we are immediately swamped under a sea of scurrying humanity as we pivot towards Madhav Baug, the portal that leads us to Bombay Panjrapole. At Panjrapole, I raise my phone to take a photograph of the striking verdigris architecture, when a stern security guard rushes over to me. "Photo not allowed, photo not allowed," he admonishes me, his moustache quivering with indignation. It is too late though, I have already taken a photograph, and it is good. Afterwards, I post it on Instagram where someone helpfully comments, saying photography is not allowed at Panjrapole. The lesson learned here is clear. Photography is not allowed at Panjrapole.

I walk through birdsong and the soft lowing of cows and feel my frustration stilling, soothed by the sad eyes of these gentle, ambulatory animals.

The second time I go is with my friend, as part of a walking tour with a bunch of wide-eyed tourists. Panjrapole is one small part of a much larger meander through Bhuleshwar, and as we dip in and out of the area's many temples, untying and retying our shoelaces, my atheist friend becomes increasingly irate. At the final temple (just outside Panjrapole), while the others ooh and aah, he absolutely refuses to go in. I, of a less surly disposition, go forth happily and learn of the shelter's history. Way back in 1834, the British were ruthlessly culling the city's stray dogs, and Bombayites' hackles rose in protest. It was Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and Amichand Shah, the soft-hearted sethias of Bombay, who opened the Panjrapole as a shelter for the street dogs and pigs. Today, it serves as a shelter and infirmary for cows – who have names – stray dogs, donkeys, hens, parrots, goats and ducks.

The third time I go, I go alone to commune with the cows and their adorable calves. I've had such a frustrating week dealing with intractable clients and petulant parents; I need human-free time. While navigating the crowds, a man gropes my bottom and I instinctively whack him with my umbrella. But he is gone before I can raise my usual hell. Still dismayed by his effrontery, I wend my way to the main gates of the Panjrapole to pay my entrance fee. Inside, I walk through birdsong and the soft lowing of cows and feel my frustration stilling, soothed by the sad eyes of these gentle, ambulatory animals. I hold out some unidentifiable grassy blobs that the Panjrapole authorities sell, and there is a tiny riot behind the barrier, the calves all scrabbling to reach my hands. I feel the softest gnaw followed by appreciative belches. I lean over the barrier and pet one's head. In return, it peers over the barrier and nibbles the hair off the top of my head.

I suddenly realise that this is the happiest I have been in weeks. It’s the littlest things that often help dissolve the din in my brain, things like the playful nudge from a calf or even a grateful belch from its mother. And perhaps that is my third lesson. Or, then again, perhaps it is that I shouldn't lean too far over the barrier. I don't know.

Bombay Panjrapole, Near Madhav Baug Post Office, Bhuleshwar, Mumbai 400 004. Phone: 022 2242 5493

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