Neighbourhoods of Mumbai is a series that will explore the different areas of Mumbai, their history, their sub-cultures, their architecture, the changes sweeping through them, and what makes them tick.
No discussion or debate on urban heritage and conservation in Mumbai is complete without a mention, and then some more, of Khotachiwadi, a neighborhood / village / hamlet (depending on your perspective) in the Girgaum area of South Mumbai.
I first came across Khotachiwadi in a newspaper article on the rising builder–politician nexus in Mumbai and how old neighbourhoods and enclaves of the city were in danger of being demolished to make way for highrises. The grainy black and white photographs that accompanied the article were all of Khotachiwadi’s cottages. This was sometime in the early 1990s and while I don’t remember who wrote the article or even the newspaper it was published in, I still remember the sense of wonder I felt at seeing the cottages. I actually double checked to be sure that Khotachiwadi was indeed located in Mumbai !
The article was also responsible for sparking an interest in urban heritage and conservation issues. It is an interest that has sustained till date and I still keenly follow the (always heated) debates on this topic. Even after two decades, Khotachiwadi still remains at the heart of such debates.
And yet, in all these years of living in Mumbai I had never visited Khotachiwadi. Something that was remedied when I visited it for the first time two months ago as part of a guided walk of the area organised by Breakfree Journeys. Our group met at Charni Road station and walked the short distance to Khotachiwadi. When we turned off from the main road and into the lane leading to Khotachiwadi, we left the crowds and the cacophony of Girgaum and stepped into a world of peace and quiet. The contrast was so great that I felt I had stepped through a portal and entered another world, another time.
Pretty cottages with wooden stairs, balconies and red-tiled roofs, a zig-zag lanes, and a mellow golden evening light added to the feeling of being far removed from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai. I almost expected people in period costume to walk past me, but all I saw was a stray dog crossing the lane ! On the right was a little chapel and the wall running along it had a beautiful painting of Mother Mary with the Infant Jesus seated on her lap.
Girgaum, where Khotachiwadi is located, has been inhabited for more than five centuries. It started developing as an urban centre even before Mumbai or Bombay became a city. Inhabited by the Agri and Koli communities, Girgaum was once full of tamarind groves and palm trees, and according to this account was full of plantations or wadis till mid-19th century. Khotachiwadi gets its name from Dadoba Waman Khot who received lands in Girgaum from the East India Company. Initially, he leased or sold land to Hindus and later extended it to the East Indian Christian community in the area and also the local church. By 1880, the area came to be known as Khotachiwadi, or “Khot’s plantation”.
The homes occupied by the original residents of Khotachiwadi — the Hindus and the East Indian Christians — had distinctive architectural styles. While the former lived in row houses or spacious chawls, the latter lived in Indo-Portuguese type of cottages. Later constructions of the 1920s and 1930s in Khotachiwadi were built in the Art Deco style. The community at Khotachiwadi grew with Christians from Goa settling in the locality as well. By the time Khotachiwadi was fully ‘developed’ it had 65 cottages, two chawls, row houses and some art deco buildings. Narrow lanes criss-crossed and connected different parts of the locality. It was a community in the real sense that lived and celebrated together.
But winds of change blew into Khotachiwadi, and well… set things into motion the effects of which are still being felt today.
As the years went by, younger residents of the community started migrating to other parts of the world leaving behind the older residents who found it difficult to cope with the changes happening around them. A combination of falling incomes, the Bombay Rent Control Act, and lack of financial support for maintaining their cottages coincided with the growing need for space in the expanding city of Mumbai.
The stage was set for the ‘re-development’ of Khotachiwadi — it was time for commercial builders to move in. Many homeowners in Khotachiwadi found it difficult to resist the money offered by the builders and as well as the pressure put on them by the builder–politician nexus and soon the cottages started making way for highrises. Just how much the builders succeeded is evident from the fact that of the original 65 cottages, only 25 remain. [For a more detailed analysis of on this topic, I urge you to read this well- researched article.]
The highrises come as a bit a shock — their very existence as well as their design. Though I did see a highrise looming over the cottages when I entered Khotachiwadi, I thought it was not part of the area. How wrong I was ! Though the eye is drawn to the pretty cottages, the ugly highrises — built without any thought to existing design sensibilities or character of the area — cannot be ignored.
Looking at the new buildings it is clear that the builders had only one thought in their mind: to cram in as many dwellings as possible at the cost of ventilation, natural light, privacy and open spaces. Just look at the photo on the right — the space between the two buildings is not enough for a car to pass through ! If highrises had to be built at all, why couldn’t they have followed the art deco style of architecture? At least they would not have stood out like an eyesore !
Our group couldn’t have had a better guide than André Baptista, a resident of Khotachiwadi. Erudite and soft-spoken, his passion for the history and unique culture of the Khotachiwadi was infectious. We began the ‘walk’ with a visit to Andre’s beautiful 150-year-old family home. Over some delicious refreshments, we were oriented to the history and development of Khotachiwadi, and some thoughts on its future, after which we went on the actual walk.
Having finally visited Khotachiwadi, I can say that the walk was delightful in parts, and equally frustrating as well. The walk showcased a part of Mumbai’s fascinating history and also showed the direction that the city is taking. It is the perfect example of development dilemmas that city planners face, that is if they consider it a dilemma in the first place at all. It is definitely a dilemma for someone like me who believes in preserving the historical and cultural development of the city.
The fate of Khotachiwadi’s future lies, to a large extent, with its residents. It has taken a while, but the residents of Khotachiwadi have now united to stop any further incursions by builders into their area. They have organised themselves under the banner of the Khotachiwadi Welfare and Heritage Trust and have also revived the local Catholic Gymkhana to foster a community spirit.
While the changes happening in Khotachiwadi is not unique or confined to that area alone, and is symptomatic of development all over the country and perhaps, even the world, there is something about Khotachiwadi that makes it deserve better treatment than it has received till now. It requires support in the real sense from the powers that be, and I don’t mean a heritage tag. While this gate outside one of the cottages at Khotachiwadi may deter the casual visitor, I wish it also deters the greedy land sharks and builders !
Note: The Khotachiwadi walk conducted by Breakfree Journeys was not a free or sponsored walk. I paid the full fee for the guided tour.