Early Sunday mornings around Banganga are nothing like the rest of Mumbai. While most of the city is still shaking off the excesses of the previous night, Banganga is bustling. Priests prepare for the day’s rituals; women dry clothes on the steps of the ancient water tank; children splash and swim in the tank’s cool green waters; and, else where many mounds of motichoor laddoos and pedas are being readied.
It’s been a little over a decade since the first and last time I visited Banganga for a classical music festival. It is one of my most memorable moments in the city. The tank was decorated with twinkling lights and flowers and the sonorous sounds of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia’s flute formed the backdrop as we watched the sun fade into the Arabian Sea. It was so magical that I didn’t notice anything else.
So, when Khaki Tours announced a two-and-half-hour parikrama around Banganga, I signed up.
The area around Banganga, which is the oldest continuously inhabited quarter in the city, remains insulated from time. Even as the surrounding Malabar Hill has gone on to become one of the most expensive areas in the country, Banganga maintains its old-world atmosphere.
Led by Khakhi Tour’s Tapan Mittal-Deshpande, a conservation architect, a dozen of us, started from Walkeshwar bus depot to discover this little slice of Mumbai that has temples, monasteries, royal cenotaphs, samadhis , akhadas and a dhobi ghat .
Banganga is situated in Malabar Hill, which was named after the Malabari pirates who operated in the area. The tank itself predates historical records, and its origins are rooted in legends. According to popular folklore, the eternal sweet-water spring of Banganga is a result of an arrow shot into the ground by Lord Ram while he was on his way to Lanka to rescue Sita. “There’s another legend that says that an axe thrown by Parshuram craved out different portions of the coast and resulted in the spring,” said Mittal-Deshpande.
It’s also believed that Ram created a sand Shivling (waluka ishwar), which is how Walkeshwar got its name. The Walkeshwar temple stands between the tank and the sea. The current avatar of the tank finds mention in early 18th century. Its earlier looks have been described in texts between 9th and the 13th centuries. Banganga is probably the oldest surviving Hindu centre of pilgrimage in the city.
One of the first temples on the walk was the turmeric-hued temple of Khandoba. A widely worshipped deity from the Deccan plateau, Khandoba had multiple wives from different communities. Sandwiched between two high-rise apartment buildings, was the Jabareshwar Mahadev temple. Mittal-Deshpande tells us, “The lane was called Jabareshwar because it was forcibly taken over by a trader called Nathubai Ramdas, who also build this temple.”
The Portuguese destroyed all the original temples in the area during their time. The most famous temple in the area is the non-descript Walkeshwar Temple.
The current temples were built with funding from the Gaud Saraswat Brahmin community, who were the earliest settlers in the area. Many temples are house shrines that have been assimilated by the community. Each temple has idols in its own interpretation or regional design. Our guide for the walk explained, “You’ll find Hanuman with a bow and arrow or a dagger instead of the traditional mace, and Ganesh in Peshwai and Konkani style”.
Also found around the tank, are branches of several mathas (monasteries) like Kashi, Kaiwalye and Kawle, where it’s not uncommon to find young monks deep in study. On the periphery of the tank are five towering deepstambhas , built in Kolhapuri style.
A crying need for conservation
Banganga continues to be one of the lesser-known areas of Mumbai. “I have lived all my life in Kemps Corner,” said one walker, “but for some reason, I had never been here before!”
Regardless of how many photos you see of Banganga, the first glimpse of the tank will leave you awe-struck. You can see ducks swimming alongside kids, a makeshift cricket pitch, and barbers giving Sunday morning champi, all in one frame.
However, it’s also impossible to ignore that Banganga reeks of decay. Access to the tank has been closed at multiple points with piles of rocks, and exquisitely carved statues are strewn around the steps. The lane leading to the sea, just off the south-eastern tip of the tank is filthy and overrun by slums. There’s an urgent need to restore this heritage precinct to its former glory.
Sweet eternal life
Parikrama done, Mittal-Deshpande asked if anyone was interested in the extending the walk to an akhada to sample fresh mithais, and to see probably the only Hindu burial ground in Mumbai. Everyone signed up.
We walked past the dhobi ghat with its crisp white sheets and the fragrance of detergent to the Darshnami Akhada, which is home to the burial ground. The hanging roots of banyan trees sweep the top of stone graves of the Dashnami Goswami community that buries its dead sitting in padmasana . Graves for men are marked with intricately carved Shivlings and Nandi bulls, while women’s tombs have engravings of padukas (feet).
The last stop of the day was Hanuman Mistan Bhandar that supplies to Napean Sea Road’s much-loved mithai shop, Amrit Bhog. We sampled mini ghewars, motichoor laddos and pillowly pedas as they were rolled and fried. Situated inside Bhagwandas Akhada, the sweet shop shares the space with a hanuman temple and small homes for priests.
Hopped up on sugar, I walked out of Banganga’s serpentines lanes knowing the city I moved to over a decade ago, a little bit better.
For more information on future walks, see: facebook.com/Khaki.Tours
Wear comfortable shoes that can be slipped on and off easily as you’ll be stopping at many temples
Carry water and wear sunscreen
Don’t forget to eat breakfast