Landscape over a Water Tank
-Ritesh Sharma and Mihir Payelkar
The Hanging Gardens in 1905 (Source: India Ilustrated, Wikicommons)
Malabar Hills is one of the prominent residential areas in the city known for heritage precincts containing Walkeshwar temple and the Banganga tank. This hillock is situated at a height of 50 meters, the highest point in Southern Mumbai. For centuries before piped water supply, the Banganga tank and domestic wells used to supply water to the precinct. But around the late 1800s, when urbanisation threatened to overwhelm the traditional water supply to this area, plans were set in motion to construct the city’s first water reservoir in the area. In 1880, commissioned by the erstwhile Municipal Commissioner, Littlewood Pallonji and Co. built the Malabar Hill reservoir with an extended holding capacity of 30 million gallons.
Dr. Madhu Kelkar, who is a coordinator at the Asiatic Society, a historian, and who has pursued a passion for uncovering Mumbai’s colonial water systems all her life, speaks about the functioning of the colonial reservoir: “To address the shortage of potable water in the city, several hills were selected as storage tanks by the civic administration in 1880. Water from the Vihar Lake was pumped to the Malabar Hill reservoir, which was then distributed to the city. The entry of hydraulic engineering techniques, via the construction of Vihar Lake in 1860, changed this reliance on traditional tanks and wells. This modern but naturally flawed water supply system, unplanned urban development and the ensuing insanitation provoked cholera and malaria epidemics, endemic to the city, threatening its imperial trade.” Owing to the loss sustained by these epidemics, stagnant, open water reservoirs were hastily closed, lest they breed malarial mosquitoes, but remained functional underground.
The Malabar Hill reservoir was no exception. This contentious reservoir used to be open until the British built a garden over it a few years after it was built in the late 1880s. As the garden was terraced over a hill slope, it came be known as the Hanging Gardens. The Hanging Gardens are situated along the western slope of Malabar Hills, opposite to Kamala Nehru Park. The park was initially built to prevent the water from the reservoir getting polluted from outside sources. Local people say that it was set up with the aim of covering and protecting the water of the reservoir from the polluting activities of the Towers of Silence (a Parsi crematorium), situated nearby. The garden is named after Sir Pherozeshah Merwanjee Mehta, who was an Indian Parsi politician and lawyer from Bombay (Mumbai) and who was later appointed the Municipal Commissioner of Bombay Municipality in 1873.
Vihaan Shah a budding architect and resident of Malabar Hill says, “As an architecture student, I have lived next to Hanging Gardens since I was born and it has been a gathering place for many for years now. It's one of the largest open spaces in South Bombay and its location is what makes people flock to it. The park provides space for people of all ages and backgrounds: there are places for children to play, walking paths, and some spots from where you can get fabulous views of the city and also a viewing gallery that’s just opened. It’s one of the iconic spots in Bombay and it’s also frequented by tourists. What's really beautiful is the sense of community - my grandmother has been going to that park for the past 60 years with the same group of friends. It’s one of the last few gems of Bombay.”
The Hanging Gardens was renovated recently and is bedecked with musanda, bouganvillae, periwinkle, champa and a variety of seasonal flowers. The pathways are lined with tropical trees, including jack fruit, a variety of palms, etc. This urban oasis would never have betrayed its secret, had there not been a stone plaque that reads ‘MUNICIPAL WATER WORKS - The reservoir underneath this garden was constructed in 1880 and extended to hold 30 million gallons,’ proudly bearing its heritage. Trapped or open, the gift of water keeps on giving.
Ritesh Sharma and Mihir Payelkar are architecture students studying in the third year in IES College of Architecture, Mumbai.