Vikas Dilawari’s Restoration Preserves The Past For The Future

hira baug


Vikas Dilawari is a conservation architect whose work has won 15 UNESCO awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. Mrigank Warrier toured parts of Charni Road, Thakurdwar, and CP Tank with Mr. Dilawari and explored two of his conservation projects.

The Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Parsee Charitable Institution, 33, Maharishi Karve Marg, Opp. Charni Road Railway Station, Mumbai 400 004.
Hira Baug, CP Tank, Mumbai 400 004.


Moments after we meet outside Charni Road station, Vikas Dilawari asks me to inspect its signature railings: “They’re a replica of those at the Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway building (Western Railway headquarters) outside Churchgate station.” And just like that, a short tour of two of his conservation sites becomes an evening of introductions to Bombay’s omnipresent heritage.

Obscured as it is by the remnants of a demolished pedestrian overbridge, the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Parsi Charitable Institution is a Gothic Revival building I must have walked past countless times, dismissing it as yet another colonial edifice commandeered by an obscure government department that one must avoid on principle as a museum of paperwork. But this 1908 structure – the first project of Mr Dilawari’s 27-year career – is a school for children of all communities.

We admire the imposing façade of this gorgeous building, and I can almost picture it filled with students: scores of exuberant children scampering through the portico into the lobby and pausing for a beat; tipping back their tiny heads, they gaze up the wide, sunlit stairwell with open-mouthed wonder at the pitched roof, four high-ceilinged storeys above their restless feet. Some of the more daring kids might risk a slide down the burnished bannister before scampering off to class through corridors shielded by ornate wooden screens and balustrades. The recently trained bladders of the tinier toddlers may drive them to the toilet, where an intricately chiselled screen of Porbandar stone brings elegance to that most utilitarian of spaces.

The more pensive ones will savour the soft tread of their canvas-shoed feet on the teakwood stairs and pause on the Minton-tiled landings to contemplate the serene marble tombstones of Bada Kabrastan in the adjacent plot. But the performers amongst them will surely make a beeline for the many-columned hall with its stage and stone balconies and hug a stone pillar for how wonderful it feels against their cheeks.

Only the most dauntless will climb onwards to the fourth floor library – painted a most welcoming tint of green – for its vista of the sea right in front and Malabar Hill and Walkeshwar in the distance. I doubt their teachers permit them to step onto the terrace on either side as Mr. Dilawari and I did, where he immediately pointed out that the blue and white roof of Charni Road station clashes with the brick red roof of the Government Press behind it. And I’m certain no student is allowed to clamber up the Mangalore-tiled roof of the school and look upon the quiet sanctuary of the Cowasjee Jehangir Atash Behram next door and the domes of Victoria Terminus on the horizon.

Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Parsi Charitable Institution

But they and you and everyone else can admire the windswept statue of Athena, holding a spear and shield, visible at the very top of the school from the very bottom. “It could once be seen all the way from Malabar Hill,” says Mr. Dilawari. “But it had fallen down or been removed and was replaced by a hoarding of 505 soap for a very long time. It was quite a feat to place that statue at the top, at a height of about 80 feet, facing the sea.”

As we descend the stairs, Mr. Dilawari – a most affable man – issues stern orders to workers giving finishing touches to another round of restoration. His eye for detail does not waver even when we stroll on Thakurdwar Road: he points out the Art Deco turret and stairwell jaali of the Vinay Health Home building as well as two staircases in the same chawl: one original, wooden, and still beautiful, the other recent, metal, and ghastly. Walking with him, one develops a type of vision that strips every sight of its tasteless modern additions to visualise each structure as it was in its heyday.

Turning onto Nath Madhav Road, I immediately spot a corner of my favourite Mumbai building, the interiors of which – in a happy coincidence – Mr. Dilawari restored. If real estate is a status symbol, Hira Baug is the most glorious of them all. Built in 1905 by a wealthy Seth, its frontage – which abuts two streets – overlooks a traffic island and public toilet but once commanded a view of the historic CP Tank.

hira baug

Mr. Dilawari crosses the intersection with carefree aplomb, unmindful of the blaring traffic (“This is Bhuleshwar, nothing will happen”). With sweeping arms, he explains how just a ground-plus-one structure can have such a large footprint, how buildings across the street complement its curves, and how the balustrade of its recessed, triangular terrace is perfectly parallel to the front of an adjacent building.

Mr. Dilawari describes its design as “Gothic outside, Indian inside” (If I come across as an architectural expert in the following sentences, it is only because I am quoting him). The façade of Hira Baug has Western ornamentation such as trefoils (a raised outline of a three-lobed leaf) and finials (slender, carved projections crowning the apices of its roofs). But it also sports carved motifs of Indian animals, and its eaves are lined by finely-crafted, desi wooden lengths called fascia boards. The longer one examines its façade, the more detail it reveals.

hira baug

We pass through its gates to an oasis of calm. Mr. Dilawari explains how Hira Baug was planned keeping human senses in mind: the stone-paved courtyard hardly admits the din of traffic outside; a young woman sits on a verandah, studying. The structure is oriented to welcome the south-west wind, which sweeps through the building through louvered ventilators. The last rays of the setting sun shine upon its walls, tingeing its yellow ochre hue to something indescribable.

In photographs dating from before Mr. Dilawari’s restoration, Hira Baug appears discoloured, decrepit, and altered, with little consideration for its original design. We clamber up one of its many staircases to the gallery of a space now used as a wedding hall; once painted an odious grey all over, its original, colourful stencilled pattern with ‘HB’ at the centre is resplendent once again. The terrace next to it offers a splendid view of a hidden Art Deco clock tower right in the middle of Bhuleshwar. We walk along a balcony-corridor onto which a row of residential rooms opens; its cast-iron railings display the ‘HB’ motif as well. The windows of the rooms open into the quiet courtyard. The lower panes of their shutters are solid, for privacy, while the upper ones are transparent and admit sunlight. Hira Baug is a building designed for its people.

hira baug

As we leave, I see a man go up the stairs with a giant tiffin. Hira Baug was once a dharamshala whose rooms were subsidised by its shops;  the watchman Dubeyji informs me that, a century later, the rooms are still given free of charge to the families of cancer patients from out of town who need to stay in the city for months on end.

Mr. Dilawari says, “Any modern building is like a human being; until you’re 30, 45, 50, you’re fit. At 60, you start going for check-ups. The very fact that Hira Baug has completed 100 years without asking for external repairs is remarkable.” This resonates with the email signature of this man who spends his days protecting and preserving that which he loves most about his city: “It’s good not because it’s old, it is old because it is good.”



Find Solitude At Bombay Panjrapole


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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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Antiquated Thirst Quenchers At Davar & Co.


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Well before the juggernaut of Pepsi and Coke, there was the cold drink.
Null Bazaar is perhaps not the most salubrious of locations at the height of summer, but its twisting streets throw up a handful of surprises. One of these is Davar & Co. Take your taxi up to Gol Deval and then drift through the road that unspools from the temple. Keep on until you reach the corner and there, on your left, stands that curious creation – an entire shop dedicated to the humble “cold drink”.
The decor is what is politely known as “unassuming”. Davar & Co. is nondescript, a rustic relic of Mumbai’s history that is said to have opened in 1948. The proprietor hunches taciturnly over the worn cash counter while his minions sit around. A few tables and benches are strewn about the place by way of furniture. But it is a veritable oasis in the summer, a Willy Wonka-esque wonderland of rainbow-coloured syrup bottles, all ready to be transformed into icy elixirs. The shop is arrayed from floor to ceiling with them.
A board perched high above our heads tells us that milk-based drinks, cold drinks and squashes are available here. The list of squashes is very brief. The cold drinks list is rather long. What is the difference between the cold drink and the squash, we enquire? The squash is made from pure fruit extract, whereas the cold drink is a blend of fruit and essence. The milk drinks I avoid, having an intense and unmanageable dislike of the white stuff since childhood.
We order our drinks. At Davar & Co, you can get your squash in a bottle or a glass, with or without ice. If you are sturdy of heart and stomach, go for the ice.
For your own sake, I make a few gentle suggestions – if you feel like drinking the varhiali drink, stomp the urge underfoot. It’s dreck. You may try it with flecks of rock salt, if you like; salt shakers sit on every table, presumably to rescue the taste of the drink. But dreck wrapped in a cloak of rock salt is still dreck.

At Davar & Co, you can get your squash in a bottle or a glass, with or without ice. If you are sturdy of heart and stomach, go for the ice.

Similarly, my friend tried the sekanjabin syrup and lamented long and loud over its synthetic flavour. However, the sekanjabin is by far the most popular syrup, so don’t take my friend’s word for it. In May, bottles simply fly off the shelves into thirsty traveller’s shopping bags. The green mango sharbat is very sweet, but drink it with plenty of cold water and ice and a smidgen of the aforementioned rock salt and it will immediately elevate the taste.
My favourite though is the kokam (spelt “cocum”), listed neatly with nimboo, aam and orange under the Squash section. But if kokam doesn’t float your boat, there are also plenty of other flavours such as rose, strawberry and phalsa, which are also nice. Taste every one. Drink as we did, until your belly is swollen with syrup. Then stagger out with bottles of the stuff.
Davar & Co., 533, Maulana Azad Road, Null Bazar, Bhuleshwar, Mumbai 400 004. Phone: 022 2346 2314 
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Goddess Of The City Of Dreams


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I love the name “Bombay”. Each time I look at old black and white photographs of the city – the Oval Maidan, Victoria Terminus, and Churchgate – I register them as photos of landmarks in Bombay. It’s the way I wish the city was still known. Perhaps I’m not the only one resistant to the change. The Mumbai airport code is still “BOM”.

I recently went looking for the lady behind this city’s current name. Jewellery shopping and the lure of street food had drawn me to this vicinity several times before, but I never knew the Goddess was hidden away in a nook off the bustle of Zaveri Bazar. I walked past several jewellery stores, my family’s favourite sweet shop, asked for directions over and over, weaving through lanes and dodging market vendors, until I finally found her – the Goddess Mumbadevi.

The neighbourhood is typical of space-starved, cheek-by-jowl, chock-a-block Mumbai. Sequestered between glitzy showrooms selling gold and silver, blink and you’d miss the entrance to ancient Hindu temple, dedicated to the Goddess Mumba, a local incarnation of the Devi (Mother Goddess). You must keep an eye out for the flower and sweet vendors, the only giveaways to her location, as they entreat you to buy an offering on your way to visit the Goddess. You may also see the security detail; a grim reminder of the bomb-blasts at Zaveri Bazar in 2011.

For many migrants to Mumbai, a visit to the temple marks an auspicious beginning to their road to prosperity in this, the city of dreams.

Though relatively “modern” (the temple was rebuilt in the 18th century) architecturally, the temple looks like any other historic, Hindu place of worship. The small entrance passage is a portal to a Hanuman temple, a Shiv Lingam and two Devi temples all ensconced in one little compound. Pujaris, or priests, in saffron robes move around as devotees with a platefuls of offerings progress in an organized queue to meet Goddess Mumbadevi.

Since ancient times, the sons of the soil, the agris (salt-collectors) and kolis (fisherfolk), aboriginal to the seven islands have offered prayers to Goddess Mumbadevi along with the Dravidians. Now their voices are joined by the faithful from other cities, villages and communities who come to the city to make it their home. For many migrants to Mumbai, a visit to the temple marks an auspicious beginning to their road to prosperity in this, the city of dreams.

Goddess Mumbadevi, dressed in bright colours, wears a silver crown, a Maharashtrian nose-stud, a golden necklace. Before her, is the statue of a tiger, her carrier. To her left is a stone idol of Goddess Annapurna seated on a peacock. The altar is strewn in sacred marigolds. The story seems to run through your mind. This was the eight-armed goddess that Brahma pulled out of himself to vanquish the evil Mumbaraka.

I retreat back into the bustle that is Zaveri Bazar, still in awe of Mumbadevi. Yet, nothing will change that fact, that to me, this city will always be Bombay.

In 1995, the capital of Maharashtra was officially renamed Mumbai, which comes from a mix of Mumba (after the goddess) and ai (Marathi for mother). The Mumba Devi Temple was first built in Bori Bunder in 1675. The temple was destroyed and reconstructed at Zaveri Bazar, Bhuleshwar in 1737.

Mumba Devi Temple, 9, Mumba Devi Marg, Mumbadevi Area, Bhuleshwar, Mumbai 400 002


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