Water is ethereal, shapeless and by all definitions, formless. It take the form of the container in which it is placed; pour water in a tumbler- it takes that shape, pour water in a tank, and it occupies the available space. Water therefore merely becomes an occupant of the container that houses it; it may be as organic as a natural water reservoir, or as ornamental and grand as a multi-level stepwell. These forms impact the way be perceive, describe, and feel water, which inherently remains the same. An intricate form of housing water in Mumbai are the drinking water fountains, or what is colloquially known as a ‘pyaav’. Designed to be sculptural stone water dispensers, these pyaavs were dotted throughout the island city beginning in the 1860s, dispensing water to travellers, workers and residents of Mumbai alike. Over time, these fountains fell into disrepair and oblivion, built over, or simply demolished with the pace of urbanisation and the emergence of piped and later, bottle water. Another form of housing water is the intricate, ornamental fountains, which did not provide potable water to the city, but added value to the city’s urban design and aesthetic. Since the past decade, these fountains have been taken up by historians, heritage enthusiasts, conservation architects and even the Municipal Corporation of Greater Bombay (MCGM) for restoration, finally shining the spotlight on these beautiful artefacts, and letting them reclaim their spotlight in glory as part of our liquid heritage.
The history of Fountains and Pyaavs
Before piped water supply started becoming the primary source of water supply in Mumbai, the water needs of the city was met through wells, tanks and natural lakes and reservoirs. When plans for the first long distance modern water supply system at the Vihar lake was formulated close to 1860, it was a reaction to the increasing water demands of the city, that could not be met with the existing wells and tanks. Development of offices, housing and other infrastructure were also crowded in what is now known as South Bombay, and to supply water to this area was crucial. The new piped water connections from the Vihar and subsequent lakes, led to the creation of these fountains and pyaavs, which took on the duty of either ornamentation or public water supply. One of the first fountains to have been sanctioned in Bombay was the Wellington fountain, located near Kala Ghoda in South Bombay, and built in 1865 (Shirgaonkar 2007). It was built to commemorate the visit of the Duke of Wellington to Bombay in the early 1800s. Sanctioned by the Municipal Commissioner of the Bombay Presidency at the time, the Wellington fountain was brought in from England and installed on a beautiful pedestal at the site. The function of the Wellington fountain was to venerate the Duke, and it was designed to be beautiful, grand and ornamental (Shirgaonkar 2011). Fountains were also built as memorials, in obeisance to a deceased family member.
Several other fountains that were constructed after this pilot fountain were smaller in scale and stature, and were primarily built to dispense water to passers-by. These were known as pyaavs (drinking water fountains).These were donated by businessmen from different communities – Parsi, Gujarati, Muslim etc. A Parsi business, Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney, sanctioned as many as forty fountains as an act of charity in and around the Fort area of Mumbai (Shirgaonkar 2007).
Most of these fountains and pyaavs were located on busy roads, and intersections (crossroads) or tram routes, where they could service harried travelers and workers. The incentive to offer water, free of cost, in the colonial period of the late 1850s when heavy tariffs for piped drinking water were being levied, also added a layer of inclusivity, by catering to the urban poor which would otherwise not be able to afford drinking water. Here, these pyaavs harken to cultures of free water distribution in South Asia, such as the Hitis of Nepal (urban water spouts), and the parabs of Gujarat.
The era between 1860 and the early 1940s was a fertile period for the construction of these fountains and pyaavs. Geographically, the fountains remained confined to South Bombay, where urbanization and commercial spaces were centered. The furthest that a pyaav was built was in Bandra, in the courtyard of St. Andrew’s Cathedral. A possible explanation for the same could be that the rural villages beyond Bandra were very well serviced by their own domestic and family wells, and these fountains catered particularly to the working urban population (Chemburkar 2020). This particular function of the water fountain then gave a unique architectural form to how it was designed.
Design and Types of Fountains
For conservation architect Rahul Chemburkar, who has worked extensively on the reconstruction and restoration of pyaavs long with his conservation architecture studio and partners at the Vastu Vidhaan Projects; their study has led him to realise that in effect, all drinking water fountains in Mumbai come down to the same basic principles in their design – they are usually on a pedestal, with a spout that dispenses drinking water for human beings, a trough that allows for drinking water for cattle and animals, and a commemorative plaque that notes the donor of the fountain, and the date it was built (Chemburkar, The Pyaavs Walk: Water Heritage of Mumbai 2020). With these basic elements, there could be umpteenth permutations and combinations, in the size, style, shape and material of the fountain itself. According to Varsha Shirgaonkar, a historian working with these pyaavs, they can even be classified as per their function in addition to that of dispensing water. For instance, a couple of pyaavs in Bombay also have an attached kabootarkhana (a home for pigeons), or some pyaavs may merely be ornamental, without any function to dispense drinking water (Shirgaonkar 2011). The array of similarities and differences between these fountains and pyaavs are immense, and Chemburkar sums it up eloquently – “I just imagine pyaavs to be houses for pipelines. Intricate, beautiful and sculptural, they change the experience of drinking water. If you strip it open, the internal structure is nothing different from the standing water tap that you see on roadsides!” (Chemburkar, The Pyaavs Walk: Water Heritage of Mumbai 2020)
The fountains which were merely ornamental, had no drinking water spouts. The designs of these often harkened back to the fountain designs in England and Europe, exploring a bounty of flora, fauna, and gods and goddesses.
The immense beauty of these ‘water houses’ also seems to emerge from each individual donor, a classic example of architecture flourishing under a patronage. The experience of drinking water from today’s water taps, a soulless, infrastructural, sterile experience – pales in comparison to the act of partaking water from these beautiful structures. A sip from these pyaavs, lets you experience history, decipher meaning in its intricate ornamentation, and shudder with delight when you read the date on its inscription. Someone in fast paced Bombay decided that the act of drinking water from a piped water source need not be only utilitarian, but an expression of the donor’s personal style, a reflection of the time it was built in, and a worthy addition to the streetscape of a beautiful colonial city.
Some notable Fountains and Pyaavs:
Mumbai is truly lucky that in this burgeoning metropolis, there still remain around 40 such pyaavs, and several grand fountains. Of these, today, there are a few functional pyaavs – The Keshowji Naik Pyaav, a pyaav in Maheshwari Udyaan, and Mankuwarbai (Chemburkar 2020). It is a significant decline in numbers from the 150 fountains and 30 cattle troughs that flourished in 1909, the peak of pyaav building (Campbell 1909). Several jewels were lost when major road and infrastructural projects were undertaken, and some just crumbled into decay. Today, led by Vikas Dilawari, (a conservation architect and principal architect of Vikas Dilawari architects, who led the restoration of the Wellington and Flora Fountain, amongst others), Rahul Chemburkar (and his team at Vastu Vidhaan Projects) and several other historians and heritage enthusiasts, the movement to conserve and restore these heritage fountains and pyaavs has picked up pace. Since 2007, even the Heritage Cell of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai has taken on the onus of listing, grading and restoring some of these fountains. Of these, the notable restored fountains are-
Flora Fountain (1869)
Flora Fountain in 1905, India Illustrate (Source: Wikicommons)
Flora Fountain is perhaps one of the most well-known fountains in Mumbai, and occupies a position of prime importance at the Hutatma Chowk in Churchgate. Built by architects James Forsyth and Norman Shaw in honour of then Governor Bartles Frere, the fountain is said to be built in the exact location where the erstwhile ‘Church Gate’ of the South Bombay fort walls stood. It is widely believed to be an expression of the Governor’s wish to build a new public realm for Bombay, with colonial Victorian buildings being constructed, and new wide avenues culminating in the sculptural Flora Fountain. However, this was not the Flora’s original location. It was initially designed to be constructed at the Victoria Gardens, or what is now known as the Rani Baug near the Bhau Daji Lad city museum in Byculla; and was commissioned by the Agri-Horticultural Society of India. It was however shifted to its current location in Fort, after an increase in the price of installation of the statue brought in new donors and the Esplanade Fee Fund Committee.
Towering over the pedestrians milling about on the square, the Flora (a Roman Goddess of flowers and the season of spring) statue itself is 7 feet tall, with base pedestal being 38 feet tall. The statue also occupied a hundred feet circumference on one of the busiest road junctions in South Bombay. The Portland stone statue, had intricate carvings of flora and fauna on the base, and reliefs of 4 sculptural goddesses at the base which dispensed water. At the time when it was built, Flora fountain’s glory was unmatched in terms of its architecture and engineering.
Flora Fountain in 1947(Source: Sonal Trivedi)
Over time, the area surrounding the fountain became a formalized parking space, and the fountain lost its grandeur. The fountain developed leaks and cracks, and by the time it reached the hands of architect Vikas Dilawari in 2007, it had been completely decommissioned. In 2007, the Heritage Cell of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai initiated the project, supported by INTACH and Vikas Dilawari architects.
“In all the old pictures that I have looked at the Flora Fountain, I have never seen the fountain functional.”, says Vikas. The fountain consumes 40,000 liters of water to remain functional, and this amount of water expenditure in today’s time is almost unthinkable. The fountain before restoration had also spurted several leaks, and hasty repairs and alterations. The functional water jet spout at the base actually caused damage to the statue at the base, and the fountain had extensive moisture and moss damage. “These fountains have to be effectively designed in a way that the façade of the fountain does not get wet when the fountain is functional. This means that the water pressure, and angles of all the jets have to be meticulously designed.” Says Vikas Dilawari, who ensured this in the two and a half years that he and his team spent in restoring the fountain. This restoration included an investigative process that included identifying the original plumbing and water engineering of the fountain, and replacing pipes and rotting connections with newer stainless steel spouts. The water connection was also rerouted to a nearby bore well in the chowk, to ensure a steady connection. However, the water is only switched on for 2 hours in the morning and in the evening. “It may seem like an overabundance to use water for such purposes, but the Flora Fountain is a city icon for Mumbai” (Dilawari 2020).
The process of restoration also included replacing and even rebuilding some parts of the statues that adorned the fountain, especially delicate parts of the statue such as hands. The neck of the statue of Flora itself also had a crack, and the almost surgical process included dismantling the neck, and inserting a new stainless steel dowel to support the head of the statue. In 2019, the restoration of the Flora Fountain was awarded an honorable mention at the UNESCO Asia Pacific awards.
The fountain has resumed its pride of place after being unveiled in 2019. It is only hoped that a meticulous plan for its annual maintenance is ensured, so that it continues to hold the position of pride in the hearts of Mumbaikars, and does not fall into disrepair again.
A notable example of a restored pyaav:
Devidas Parbhudas Kothari Pyaav and kabootarkhana :
While Flora fountain has been one of the most prominent and largest of the fountains in the city, there have been several small scale, but equally charming drinking water pyaavs that have dotted the city, but were unable to receive the kind of funding and visibility to afford their timely restoration, until only very recently. One of these pyaavs is the Devidas Parbhudas Kothari Pyaav located in South Bombay near the General Post Office (GPO). This pyaav was restored recently, in 2018, by architect Rahul Chemburkar and Bhalchandra Tope of Vastu Vidhaan Projects and initiated by the Heritage Cell of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM).
Early picture of Kothari Pyaav (Source: Mumbai Pyaav Project/ Vastu Vidhaan Projects)
Built in 1923, the Devidas Parbhudas Kothari Pyaav, or Kothari Pyaav for short, was primarily a pyaav made to cater to animals. This is evidenced by the lack of a drinking water bowl, and only a low trough where water is filled. “The intricate ornamentation in its architecture, at the frieze and base was inspired by the architecture of the General Post Office. The pyaav also had a kabootarkhana built next to it, but by the time of its construction, the kabootarkhana had expanded and occupied most of the plaza of the pyaav. More shockingly, the pyaav itself was built over by modern construction like what seems to be an cabin, a tree and tables where letter writers for the GPO,” says Mr. Chemburkar, who spent a considerable time in piecing together the history, architecture and materiality of the pyaav by uncovering the structure bit by bit, exposing its internal water systems and form.
Mr. Chemburkar also had to deal with the unique challenges of restoring a pyaav in the new water challenges of Mumbai, prime among those being water cuts. “The Kothari Pyaav received only 2 hours of water supply with the new water norms in the area, and we as architects had to design an overhead tank to ensure that water supply remained uninterrupted. We also designed a filtration system for the pyaav.” The Kothari Pyaav originally supplied water to both human beings and animals, a shallow water trough was also observed near the kabootarkhana, which Rahul Chemburkar assumes to be a bird path. But in the Mumbai of today, the honks of cars are heard over the neighs of horse baggis (carriage), and the water trough remains unused. But after the restoration, water is used by the community around, albeit not as frequently as the architect would like. “I would like to build a celebration around the act of drinking water from the pyaav, it is the only way it can be sustained.” says Mr. Chemburkar.
Reconstruction of Kothari Pyaav (Source: Rahul Chemburkar, principal architect, Vastu Vidhaan Projects)
Reconstruction of Kothari Pyaav (Source: Rahul Chemburkar, principal architect, Vastu Vidhaan Projects)
The reconstruction of the Kothari Pyaav also allowed Mr. Chemburkar to redesign the old colonial gas lamps along the circumference of the pyaav. “Traditionally, there used to be a person whose job was to light these gas lamps around these pyaavs, but with time, they got replaced by electric lamps. But the tradition of lighting gas lamps was a cultural tradition of Bombay, which is something that we need to preserve in addition to our built heritage.” Rahul Chemburkar’s response was to build a sculpture of a man on a ladder right next to one of the restored gas lamps, based on his own site sketches, thereby preserving that moment in history.
Art installation at Kothari Pyaav (Source: Rahul Chemburkar, principal architect, Vastu Vidhaan Projects)
The future of these pyaavs and fountains
In Mumbai, communities, livelihoods, ecosystems and the sea itself have been bulldozed over in the process of development. It is therefore not so improbable that histories and icons like these pyaavs would be too. Several have faced threats, or have been demolished in order to make way for roads and other infrastructure. But due to a community of avid enthusiasts and cultural caretakers, the pyaavs of Mumbai are seeing a resurgence in their value and restoration. Chemburkar’s Mumbai Pyaav Project for instance, has conducted heritage walks across South Bombay to disseminate information on these often ignored structures. He has even initiated a QR code enabled information plaque at the Kothari Pyaav, a pilot project that will provide detailed information on the history of the fountain.
Information Plaque at Kothari Pyaav (Source: Rahul Chemburkar, principal architect, Vastu Vidhaan Projects)
Another crucial aspect of the restoration of these pyaavs has also been the need to redesign them in keeping with the times. “When pyaavs were originally built, they had an infrastructure supporting them. They were usually in an open space, or at major routes, or many times at the entrance of a commercial enterprise like mills. This ensured regular water supply, and also regular users. Today, when we restore pyaavs or fountains, it is necessary to ensure either additional infrastructure, such as say tanks, to combat the intermittent water supply, or to completely relocate it to a space that may be more suited to its use and water supply, such as a public park. It is important to look at this heritage in conjunction with the evolving city, to ensure its success.”
These fountains and pyaavs of Mumbai are gatekeepers of a unique tradition of dispensing water, pipes enclosed in a shroud of stone, sharing water and the dreams and aspirations of its donor, and providing respite from the grind of those weary souls who partake of it. The future does not seem so stark for these beautiful structures, when it is backed by such eminent and enthusiastic guardians.
Campbell, James Macnabb. 1909. Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency. Mumbai: Government Central Press.
Chemburkar, Rahul, interview by Ipshita Karmakar. 2020. Pyaavs of Mumbai (July 18).
Chemburkar, Rahul. 2020. The Pyaavs Walk: Water Heritage of Mumbai (March 8).
Dilawari, Vikas, interview by Ipshita Karmakar. 2020. Flora Fountain (July 28).
Shirgaonkar, Varsha. 2011. Exploring Mumbai's Water Heritage. Mumbai: Aryan Books International.
Shirgaonkar, Varsha. 2007. Listing, Present Fabric Status and Conservation Plan for the Fountains and Pyaavs in the City of Mumbai. Mumbai: MMR Heritage Conservation Society.