It is only 9.30 am, but the sun is quite intense and if not for the sea breeze would have been quite unbearable. I am on the upper deck of a launch berthed at the Gateway of India in Mumbai trying to peer through a haze that has dulled the shimmer and sparkle of sunlight on water. In front of me, and as far as the haze-driven visibility allows, are ferries, fishing boats, luxury yachts, launches, security vessels… The sea looks like one big parking lot. 🙂
On board the launch, my co-passengers indulge in some gentle jostling for prime spots to photograph, discuss whether the haze would play spoil sport for photography, and generally chat about what is it that we are likely to see in the next couple of hours. As we wait for the launch to leave the jetty, anticipation for the upcoming trip grows. An anticipation for the first of its kind tour of Mumbai’s Port and Harbour organised by the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2014, in association with the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT).
Our tour guide is Dilip Vishwanathan from the MbPT and his narrative takes us through the pre-maritime history of Mumbai, its natural harbour, the seven original islands of Mumbai, the coming of the Portuguese, then the English and the East India Company, construction of the docks, and present day Mumbai Port and Harbour. Mumbai’s natural harbour and port was known to seafarers and traders from as early as eighth century BC or even before. Though it wouldn’t have looked like the view in the photo above to them !
Though I am familiar with some part of the history, it is always nice to hear it from someone else’s perspective. As the tour guide outlines the route for the trip, I am excited to find that we will be passing through areas that are out-of-bounds to the public.
Join me aboard the launch for this tour. I must confess that it is going to be a long one that will take you Mumbai’s maritime history and my own memories.
The earliest written reference that one can find of the original 7 islands that eventually became the island city of Bombay (and later renamed Mumbai) is by the Alexandrian, Ptolemy in 150 CE. He called them Heptanesia. Later, the English named them Colaba, Old Woman’s Island (also called Little Colaba), Bombay, Mazgaon, Worli, Matunga (also known as Parel in some other accounts) and Mahim. See the map below.
The islands were inhabited by fisher folk. Though coins from Egypt, Babylon, Persia and Arabia have been found in the region, Mumbai’s natural harbour and port was used more as a pit stop than for serious trading, which happened elsewhere at Surat, Bharuch, Sopara, Janjira, etc. It is the English, or rather the East India Company, who recognised the potential of Mumbai’s natural harbour and set about developing it. The development and growth of Mumbai into the city that it is today is intricately and intimately linked to the development of the port and growth of maritime trading.
If Augustus found Rome a city of bricks and transformed it into a city of marble, the English found Bombay a city of fisherfolk and turned it into a centre of trade and commerce, eventually raising it to the proud position of Urbs Prima in India… Gerald Aungier was the one who literally started the growth of Bombay, by planning the town, the fortifications, its trade, agriculture and land revenue systems.
~ M.V. Kamath, Tides of Time: History of Mumbai Port (2000)
As you leave the Gateway of India, the Naval Dockyard is on the left and a little further ahead is a tiny island called Middle Ground, which is now under the jurisdiction of the Indian Navy. We had barely gone some distance before a coast guard vessel came zooming in to find out why we were straying so close to the docks. It left once it had ascertained that we were harmless. 😉
With the opening up of the Suez Canal in 1869, maritime trade got a big boost and Mumbai literally became the gateway to India. This led to the setting up of the MbPT in 1873, the construction of Sassoon Dock (India’s first wet dock) in 1875, followed by the Prince’s and Victoria Docks in 1880 and 1888 respectively. Alexandra Dock (later renamed as Indira Dock in 1972) was set up in 1914 at Ballard Pier and this is where the boat trains that came from Europe would dock. Passengers alighting here could directly board the Frontier Mail waiting for them at the Ballard Pier Railway Station and travel all the way up to Peshawar (in present day Pakistan) if they so wished to. Even today, a majority of all maritime trade in India happens at Mumbai port.
I had been looking forward to seeing Alexandra Dock for the longest time and ever since my mother recounted her tale of visiting it in 1948. The occasion was the goodwill visit of the USS Toledo to Mumbai, where it was stationed at Alexandra Dock. My mother was a 12-year old then and even after so many years has vivid memories of her visit that day: the blue sea stretching far into the horizon, of the ‘million’ ships she swears she saw that day, of the yellow frock and brown sandals she wore, of running up and down the warship’s 3 decks, of being indulged by the US sailors on board with chocolates and candy…In other words, she had the time of her life 🙂
My earlier attempt at trying to enter or at least peek into Alexandra Dock had ended in disappointment. This was a little over two years back during a walk through the Ballard Estate area. After a lot of begging and whining and pleading, the security guard at the entrance of the Alexandra Dock, allowed me to look inside the gate for some 10 seconds! All I can say now is that it was worth the wait to finally see Alexandra Dock and that too from the sea.
As our launch passed the Ballard Pier extension, we noticed a small motor boat making its way towards us at full speed. It was MbPt’s security boat with CISF (Central Industrial Security Force) personnel in it. They had come to investigate why a passenger launch was in restricted waters. I did mention that we were to travel through areas normally out-of-bounds to the public, didn’t I? 🙂 This time it was our tour guide who intervened and assured the CISF that we had the necessary approvals and were harmless.
The next landmark we pass is the Ferry Wharf, locally known as Bhaucha Dhakka. This seves as the port for local fishermen and also as the ferry station for services to other nearby ports like Uran, Rewa, JNPT, etc. Till the mid-90s, ferry services to Goa would also begin from here, as did the short-lived luxury catamaran services to Goa. I had boarded one such catamaran to Goa 20 years back in early hours of the morning.
The first surprise of the trip was up next when our tour guide pointed at something and said rather casually, “That is Darukhana, Mumbai’s ship-breaking yard.” What? I didn’t even know Mumbai had a ship-breaking yard. Darukhana developed with the creation of the Mazagaon dockyard and became the place where ‘retired’ ships are broken down to iron rods, metal sheets and literally, nuts and bolts for scrap.
After Darukhana, the launch headed Southwest towards Mumbai’s 3 lighthouses. This was my second surprise. I mean, I knew that being a harbour and all that, Mumbai would have a lighthouse. But 3 lighthouses? Actually, there are 4, but we were only going to see 3 of them — Prongs, Sunk Rock and Dolphin Rock.
This was an enjoyable part of the journey with seagulls flying alongside us to give us company for the sake of tidbits thrown to them by my co-passengers. Some crows also tried to join in, but soon gave up; they simply did not have the stamina for flight like the gulls. This was also around the time that my camera gave up, so the next few photos are taken on my tablet or borrowed.
As we sailed towards the lighthouses, our tour guide told us about the Harbour Channel through which all ships coming into Mumbai entered. led and guided by a pilot vessel. He pointed out a shipwreck and spoke to us about tides and pirates and warning systems and what not. Soon we were in sight of the lighthouses.
Prongs Lighthouse is situated at the entrance to Mumbai’s harbour and derives its name from the reef on which it is situated. At 156 ft high, its light is visible in clear weather for 27 km. During low tide, a narrow stretch of rocks connects Prongs Lighthouse to Colaba (you can see that narrow strip of rocks to the right of the lighthouse in the photograph below). Though navigable, one requires permissions from 3-4 different authorities before visiting the Lighthouse this way.
Sunk Rock Lighthouse was built in 1884 and is unmanned. It is 94 feet in height and is situated further inside the Mumbai Harbour. Our tour guide said that it had been raided by pirates and stripped of all the equipment it had.
Dolphin Rock Lighthouse is the closest to the Gateway of India, the oldest (built in 1854) and smallest among the 3 lighthouses, and also the one most likely to be missed. Even at 58 feet height, it tends to get missed among all the different boats ‘parked’ in the harbour. I have been to the Gateway of India innumerable times, walked past the road you can see in the background in the photo below and yet, never noticed it (you can also spot it in the very first photo of the marine parking lot) In fact, if the guide had not pointed it out, I would have missed it completely.
I was 4-years old when I first visited Gateway of India and saw the sea. Our family had just shifted from Bhopal to Mumbai and this was our first outing. I still remember that first sight of the sea as my oldest brother lifted me up to get a good view of the sea.
It was late afternoon and the sun, the sea, a boat ride and a strong breeze made for an unforgettable memory. That day, I think was the beginning of my fascination with this city of mine. It is a fascination that gets reinforced every time I’m at the Gateway of India watching the hypnotic rise and fall of the boats parked at sea, or take a boat ride. This tour did that too. But the tour was also extra special as it also helped me re-discover this city of mine and place it’s maritime history in context to the development of the city as such.
Over the years, and particularly in recent years, discovering Mumbai has been an exciting adventure, as this city does not wear its history visibly for all to see, unlike say Delhi. Mumbai does not reveal itself to you easily and one has to be patient and learn to look beyond the obvious.
And I can attest to the fact that patience always pays – travelling 20 km at 6 am in the morning to join an indisciplined queue and wait for over an hour to collect a token for the boat ride definitely pays 😉
- Due to a malfunctioning audio system, I could not hear all that the tour guide said. So, I had to fall back on the Internet to fill the gaps. And what treasures the Internet revealed.
- I referred to two books that I found on the MbPT website: The Port of Mumbai and Tides of Time: History of Mumbai Port. Both the books are treasures and I highly recommend them.
- I always found it surprising that considering its maritime history, Mumbai does not have a museum on this theme. Actually, there is one that has been set up by the MbPT, but they need a proper space to exhibit and also trained personnel to curate and manage the collection. I hope this happens soon. Watch this space for more news.