The Water Remains
In Hindi, the word ‘kal’ means both yesterday and tomorrow – the past and the present are seen simultaneously in our perception. Memories, nostalgia, practices and rituals exist simultaneously in our heritage spaces, neither can be divorced from the other. What else separates a pond from a religious tank? How does water, so fundamental to life, infrastructure development, and livelihoods, make one pious by its mere touch? The Banganga Tank at Walkeshwar, Mumbai, is one such example of a religious water tank that has existed for centuries. Through its relationships and dependencies, it has become almost a palimpsest of the culture, times, and beliefs of a changing city, from Bombay to Mumbai. Over the years, Banganga has become increasingly sullied and polluted, as it accepts the growing urbanisation of Bombay. But inspite of its muddy, green waters, Banganga remains sacred to this day, due to people and their practices.
Banganga Tank (Source: Author)
‘Walkeshwar is properly pronounced as Walukeshwar which means God of Sand, shaped in the form of a Lingam (A symbol of Lord Shiva). It is believed that the lingam was installed by Lord Rama and not by mere mortals as in the case of other lingams……
However the lingam that Lord Rama installed is no longer there and there must be a good reason for its absence. There is an unsubstantiated rumour than when the Firangis (foreigners) started ruling this place, the lingam, tired of the rule of the Mleccha kings (a Sanskrit term for foreign kings), disappeared and has not been heard of since…
It is said, that at this spot, Lord Rama felt thirsty and shot an arrow into the ground and produced a spring of water, with which he slaked his thirst. As an arrow or ban produced it, it is known as Banganga.”
- Excerpt from Walukeshwar Mahatmaya, undated.
In one of the earliest known lived biographies of Bombay, Govind Narayan Mandgaonkar, resident of Bombay chronicles the rapidly changing life of urban Mumbai in his chronicle, ‘Mumbai Varnan’, published in 1863. One of the topics of his exploration is the Banganga tank. Before the advent of colonial water supply systems, Mumbai’s water needs were met through public wells, cisterns and water tanks. Tanks were constructed due to a variety of reasons – religious, spiritual and philanthropic. Banganga was likely a pond fed by a natural spring in the 12th century, and only evolved into a tank towards the end of the 1600s. Over time, a temple came up next to the Banganga tank, and the waters of the tank were deemed pious. The Banganga tank measures roughly 147 X 56 m, and is 10-15 ft. deep. Water is held sacred in almost all cultures; in Hindu culture especially, water from the Ganga (as popular myth presented Banganga to have sprung forth from) has the quality of purifying sins committed over lifetimes. It is not uncommon for pious Hindus to bathe in holy waters of tanks or rivers in the morning, and even bottle the holy waters to sprinkle over their households. Banganga carried within its waters a sheen of the sacred.
Govind Narayan further muses that the area where Banganga exists, since the 1600s, was a desolate hill which was mainly used as a pasture for the rich, government officials to graze their animals for no cost. He estimates that the development of the area around Banganga was initiated with the creation of the Walkeshwar temple by Shenvi merchant Ramaji Kamat, who died in 1728. Over time, the Shenvis offered land to other Hindus to build dharamshalas (public resthouses) and houses in the area, in exchange for land, in order to populate the area (Mandgaonkar 2008). One of the earliest communities to occupy this locality around the Banganga Tank was the Gaud Saraswat Brahmans, one of the upper most castes of the Hindu caste system. However, Mandgaonkar describes Banganga as a tank which could be accessed by all castes and religious groups, a truly plural space. Nevertheless, the dharamshalas around Banganga exist only in name, opening its doors only to the moneyed or the well-known. The area had already started becoming a sought after real estate, with the ‘place abandoned for the poor, is now the choicest place for the rich’, in his own words.
Banganga tank in 1855, Johnson and Henderson (Source: Wikicommons)
Malabar Hill, the larger area where Banganga is located in Walkeshwar, is named presumably after the residents of South India who visited the tank for pilgrimages. It has become over the years, a highly gentrified area, with several of the original communities choosing to move away from the heritage core to the suburbs. However, several of the older structures remain, mercifully saved from the clutches of real estate developers. The dharamshalas – Kaivalya Math and Kashi Math, are still operational. The area around the Banganga tank has been protected by heritage laws set by the Heritage Committee of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), which also covers the temples nearby such as Walkeshwar temple, Balaji and Parshuram temples. The Gaud Saraswat Brahman Trust, established in 1879, manages the working and upkeep of the tank. Banganga tank has maintained its sanctity as a place where cremations take place, along with the practice of Pind Daan, a ritual conducted after the cremation of an individual, where ashes are immersed in holy waters. It is also the place where ablutions and pujas are carried out.
The area surrounding Banganga Tank (Source: Author)
Presumably, earlier, Banganga waters were used as a source of drinking water, as per local stories. Banganga was constructed as a stepped tank, with an inlet for water, where potable water is still generated from the depths of the earth. On the other side, towards the sea, there is a manually operated gate which regulates the amount of water that the tank contains. The stepped ghat is accessed by further steps from the nearby historic core of settlements, which is now a pedestrian area. Banganga is located at the lowermost depression on the hillock that is Walkeshwar. This necessitates the access to Banganga through steep stone steps, thereby heightening the spiritual experience of approaching the tank. The journey to the tank from the main road also has a number of surprises, a roundabout features a deepmala, or an ornate pillar like stand with depressions to hold oil lamps, or diyas. At several points along the tank edge, there are secondary, small shrines, overlooking the water. As we catch the first glimpses of the now greenish water from the gaps between settlements, a resonate calm washes over, a respite from the incessant honking and crowds of the bustling metropolis that is Mumbai. Here, the air is rendered by the sounds of aartis, casual chatter of tourists, and the quacks of a multitude of ducks that swim in the waters. Tourists and locals, enjoy feeding the ducks from time to time. There are a few informal houses right on the steps of the Banganga, where life is quite completely dependent on the waters, from cooking to cleaning to drinking. A few metres away, ashes are immersed in the same waters, as are ritual flowers and packets of chips thrown by tourists. The stone steps are dotted with drying clothes, and scattered with puja paraphernalia.
Steps descending towards the Banganga Tank from the western side of Banganga (Source: Author)
The Ram Kund, said to be the inlet to the Banganga tank (Source: Author)
One of the many small shrines that flank the Banganga tank (Source: Author)
One of the stepped ornate entrances into the tank, flanked by deepmalas (Source: Author)
A deepmala at the intersection of two roads within the Banganga precinct (Source : Author)
In this strange mishmash of the sacred and the profane, it is quite a wonder that the Banganga has survived to this day. Banganga is one of the oldest religious tanks, preceding an era where almost all the drinking water needs of the city was met through tanks, wells and fountains. Since the advent of piped water, and the claims from the British Raj that open sources of water ended up being a breeding ground for mosquitoes, most of these tanks and wells were filled up in the early 1900s to the 1950s. Banganga remains as one of the handful of tanks that have survived. “The story of the survival of Banganga is one of the most heart-warming in the city of Mumbai, simply because the area was saved only because of the efforts of locals. I call it a cultural oasis in an urban metropolis” says architect Rahul Chemburkar, one of the architects involved in the conservation efforts of Banganga and the adjoining Walkeshwar temple. What would have happened if Banganga had met the fate of other tanks such as Gowalia tank, which was initially filled up presumably to provide more land for development, but was saved by the efforts of a local businessman, Homy Mody, in 1911? Or of the Mumbadevi tank, which is now a fire station? One of the heritage jewels of Mumbai would have been lost in this tussle against land and water, and the city would have been none the wiser.
Banganga in 2020 (Source : Author)
“It is the locals and the Gaud Saraswat Brahman Konkani trust that actually takes the most responsibility for this tank. The trust hires people to clean the tank annually. I have never seen heritage officials come for inspections, or at least I am not aware of it,” says Sanjay Dave, whose family has lived in one of the homes just facing Banganga for generations now. Over the years, he has seen family friends leaving the precinct for suburbs, and seeing the demographics of the place change significantly. But some things have remained the same for centuries now. “The Sarva Pitru Amavasya (a ritual to honour those who passed away), which occurs some time before Navratri (a Hindu Festival celebrated for 9 days), is a spectacular celebration that happens every year. Several diyas (oil lamps) are lined along the steps, and for a couple of days, the people of Walkeshwar Trust and us locals celebrate a festival, where we call local musicians to perform on the steps. A few years ago, in 1993 to be precise, the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation started a festival called the Banganga Festival to attract tourists, but in 2005 this was discontinued due to the rising decibel levels. But this has been continued by local people since in a smaller, more sustainable manner,” continues Mr. Dave.
One of the only things he worries of is the increasing rate of deaths in the tank itself since the past few years. “As is written in our Shastras (religious texts), never trust water. Water is sacred, but it is dangerous too. The level of water in the Banganga is quite low – say 10-15 ft. But the tank bed itself has percolated so much silt that it is like quicksand. Every year, we see 10-15 people drown in the Banganga, some accidents, and some deliberate.”
Ritual offerings for the immersion of ashes, one of the many rituals conducted at Banganga (Source: Author)
Circles of life and death repeat in the Banganga. The area is dotted with several samadhis (tombs) and cremation spots around, and the ashes of the city’s rich and poor are immersed in this tank. Several times, during the monsoons, the Banganga inundates, and causes havoc with the informal settlements that are located right at its lip. However the water remains, over centuries, even as the skyline changes behind it, in tandem with the people whose lives revolve around this endearing tank.
Mandgaonkar, Govind Narayan. 2008. Govind Narayan's Mumbai: An Urban Biography from 1863. Anthem Press.