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MUMBAI / SOCIETY 

City by the sea

A geographical history of Bombay (Mumbai) 

Mumbai originated from seven different islands that were joined together to create a single island called Mumbai

BY HARPREET KAUR

It took over a 150 years to join the original seven islands of Mumbai. These seven islands were lush green thickly wooded, and dotted with 22 hills, with the Arabian Sea washing through them at high tide.

Mumbai or Greater Mumbai today encompasses 436 sq km. It has been a natural shipping and trading centre throughout its history and has grown in spite of lying in a seismically active zone. 

The original island of Mumbai was only 24 km long and 4 km wide from Dongri to Malabar Hill (at its broadest point) and the other six were Colaba, Old Woman's island, Mahim, Parel, Worli, Mazgaon. Though the list does not exhaust the number of islands that were merged into the modern city of Mumbai. In particular Salsette the large northern island, which remained under Portuguese control til 1739 is not counted among the seven.

A massive stone causeway across the Flats of the island of Bombay (low lying areas between Dongri and Malabar Hill, separated by Island of Worli), is the only proof of work that was probably done to join the islands before the arrival of the Portuguese. But, after the British arrived, the demand for land steadily increased, and by 1730; it was becoming impossible to accommodate the entire population of Mumbai inside the Fort. 

The sea was making inroads at Worli, Mahim and Mahalaxmi, which turned the ground between the islands into a swamp, making travel between Mumbai islands hazardous. Many commuters going to Fort by boat between the islands lost their lives whenever there was a storm during the monsoons. 

The first major reclamation took place in 1708, to construct the causeway between Mahim and Sion. 

The second major reclamation took place in 1772, to stop the ingress of water and the consequent flooding of central Mumbai, and to connect Mahalaxmi and Worli. This is regarded as the oldest unauthorised construction that took place in Mumbai and the offender was the erstwhile Governor of Mumbai, William Hornby at a total expenditure Rs 1,00,000. The approval for the reclamation had been sought from the company of directors in England, Hornby did not expect a rejection and went ahead with the construction. The rejection arrived a year later, but, the causeway was complete and Hornby was sacked. This causeway was named Hornby Vellard, sealing the Great Breach (Breach Candy) between Dongri, Malabar hill and Worli. 

At the fortified Dongri hill, an esplanade and parade ground was cleared, from the walls of the Fort to the present day Crawford market. The flat lands (from Mahalakshmi to Kamathipura, named after the Kamathi workers from Andhra Pradesh who settled here) were reclaimed only after the completion of construction at Breach Candy by Hornby in 1784. In 1803, Mumbai was connected to Salsette by a causeway from Sion. Colaba Causeway joined the island of Colaba to Mumbai in 1838, and Mahim and Bandra were connected by a causeway in 1845 at a total cost of Rs 1, 57, 000 donated entirely by Lady Avabai Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, wife of the first baronet Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy (the government refused to build these causeways).

Colaba Causeway
The Thane and Colaba causeway were built during the tenure of Sir Robert Grant, the Governor of Mumbai. He was also responsible for the construction of a number of roads between Mumbai and the hinterland. The Colaba Causeway was completed in 1838 joining Colaba, Old Woman's island and the H-shaped island of Mumbai together. Land prices shot up and Colaba became the centre of commerce. The Causeway was widened and strengthened in 1861 and again in 1863 (Cusrow Baug is built on the causeway). 

The horse drawn tramcars revolutionised transport in Colaba. The Prongs Lighthouse was constructed off the island in 1875 and in the same year the Sassoon Docks were built by David Sassoon on reclaimed land. The BB & CI (Bombay and Central India ) Railways established a terminus at Colaba. 

90,000 sq. yards of land was reclaimed on the western shore of Colaba by the City Improvement Trust, though opposed by eminent citizens like Sir Pherozeshah Mehta the work was completed in 1905. A seaside promenade (Cuffe Parade) was completed the next year and was named after T W Cuffe of the Trust. 

The next reclamation came in 1836, when the development of the Mumbai port had already begun. Major quarrying had already begun in 1870. The hills of Chinchpokli and Byculla were quarried and dumped into the sea, to fill the land near the railway line, the swamps and also the port to prevent the accumulation of stagnant water. The first railway line was laid down in 1855 from Bori Bunder to Thane.

Byculla soon became a fashionable place to live in, bungalows of the British and affluent Indians came up. The armoury was moved from the Bombay Castle to Mazgaon in 1760 and the docks were completed in 1790. It was in 1793, that William Hornby built Bellasis Road to join Mazgaon with Malabar Hill. This left Mazgaon landlocked with the reclamations of the docks, mills came up and became the work area for the next 30 years. The fumes from the mills drove the people out from Mazgaon and into Byculla. With the closure of the breach, Byculla came into great demand as a prosperous and an elegant suburb with grand British and Parsi homes with a church that eclipsed St Thomas's Cathedral in the Fort area. The Byculla Railway station was completed in 1857. 

By 1862 the town become widespread and the constructions that took place began to give rise to the modern city of Mumbai. This became a regular feature in the succeeding years. The Fort walls were demolished and the tanks right up to Parel were filled. From 1870 to 1970, industrial and commercial development prospered, which increased the spate of reclamation that ended with the famous Backbay reclamation. 

The opening of the Suez in 1869 made the city prosperous, additional plans were made to reclaim more land for building roads and wharves. Mumbai began to attract fortune hunters and the population grew from 13,726 in 1780 to 644,405 in 1872 in less than a hundred years. By 1906 the population of Mumbai was 977, 822.

Backbay Reclamation
Mumbai recognised its potential as a centre of maritime commerce. Gerald Aungier, second Governor of Bombay, developed the harbour, docks and industrial base, especially for the Parsi, Jain, and Muslim merchants and manufacturers from Gujarat. Its growing cotton trade gained momentum with the American Civil War, which had stopped the American supplies of cotton to Europe, and increased further due to the opening of the Suez Canal.

Mumbai's prosperity was seen in its impressive civic and commercial buildings that came up in the second half of the 19th century. Many still exist to give Mumbai its character as the repository of Victorian architecture. A blend of colourful bazaars, religious structures, and vernacular houses, crowded into narrow winding lanes, collectively display an incredible dynamism.

The first Backbay Reclamation Company (BRC) was formed in the 1860s with the express purpose to reclaim the whole of Backbay. With the end of the American Civil War in 1865, land prices fell. The government took over the narrow strip of land created by the BRC and gave it to the BB & CI Railways (Bombay Baroda and Central India) to construct a new line between Churchgate and Colaba. 

A proposal was made in 1917 to reclaim 607 hectares of land between Colaba and Backbay by a group of prominent citizens and a private company. The project was taken over by the Development Directorate who planned to reclaim 463 hectares and would have to relocate the Colaba terminus, which was moved to Bombay Central. Eventually, in the meantime, W R Davidge proposed a development of wide-open spaces into recreational spaces, residential and commercial areas. It would take them until 1945 and cost them a total of Rs 11 crores, to complete the project. The Backbay Enquiry Committee spearheaded by K F Nariman found irregularities such as an inefficient dredging craft and a newly constructed sea-wall, which had already let slip 900,000 cubic yards of mud through it. Eventually 177 hectares was developed by 1929 of which 94 hectares was sold to the military for Rs 2.06 crores and 6 hectares was incorporated into the Marine Drive and its sea wall.

Independence did not end the reclamation work but a third Backbay Reclamation was put into effect and yielded the acreage on which stand the high rises of Nariman Point and Cuffe Parade. East of the Naval Dockyards some land was reclaimed and work was done to the north too. Eventually, the Supreme Court injunction protecting the shoreline and access for fishermen has slowed down the work since 1970. And the Supreme Court has added more restriction in 1990s with the Coastal Regulatory Zones. The Backbay Reclamation Project symbolised a major shift in the spirit of the city from Victorian to an International city. 

Sources
Bombay - The Cities within by Rahul Mehrotra and Sharda Dwivedi; 
Introduction to India by Toby Sinclair and Marie D'souza 
and www.theory.tifr.res.in 

BY HARPREET KAUR

 

 

 

 

 

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