Fountains of Mumbai

Resurrecting an icon

Print edition : February 03, 2017

The Kessowjee Naik pyau in Bhat Bazar after restoration. Photo: Lyla Bavadam

The Devidas Purbhoodas Kothari pyau dates to 1923.This pyau has a kabutarkhana, a place to feed pigeons and other birds, attached to it. With arches, relief work, decorative brackets and octagonal pilasters, its design shows Indo-Saracenic influences. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

The Madhavdas Laxmidas Kothari pyau. The Kala Ghoda Association has taken up its restoration. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

The restoration architect Rahul Chemburkar (centre) at the restored Kessowjee Naik pyau. Photo: Lyla Bavadam

The drinking water fountains of Mumbai, an architectural celebration of water, community, and the spirit of giving, fell into disuse with the coming of piped water. They are being restored now by the Municipal Corporation.

THE drinking water fountains, or pyaus, of Mumbai are unique. These architectural gems, invariably commissioned by civic-minded private citizens, were designed to be used by people and animals. “ Pyaus are totally Mumbai-centric. No other place in India has this combination where water is distributed to humans and animals alike. You have haodis [cement ponds] in Pune and Ahmedabad, but none of them is as integrated as Mumbai’s pyaus,” says the restoration architect Rahul Chemburkar. The pyaus embodied all that was good about the erstwhile Bombay—civic sense, compassion, charity, a cosmopolitan character, and high aesthetics. Like many of these, the pyaus too have seen better days.

The pyaus lost their relevance when piped water became commonplace in homes. They fell into disrepair, and most were encroached upon by local vendors, who used them as stalls or as a place of storage. Chemburkar puts it kindly when he says that “society owned the pyaus”, but the fact is that stones were removed from them for other purposes, attic-like structures were constructed inside for storage and sleeping, and the ubiquitous peepul trees were allowed to take root.

The pyaus would have vanished gradually through neglect and vandalism, or to the bulldozer, but for the intervention of Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta, who believes that Mumbai’s small structures and artefacts such as pyaus, fountains and statues can easily be restored and made relevant for the city yet again.

A sum of Rs. 50 crore was allotted in the budget for their restoration. The first of these restorations was completed recently when the 141-year-old Kessowjee Naik pyau and clock tower were restored by Chemburkar’s Vaastu Vidhaan Projects at a cost of Rs.55 lakh. The project was funded by the Shri Anantnathji Maharaj Jain Temple and the L.T.S. Sadharan Funds Trust.

The plaque at the site says the pyau was built in 1876. Like many people of his time, Kessowjee Naik, a Gujarati merchant, decided to give something back to the city that had brought him wealth. The pyau was presented to the people of Bombay at a ceremony held on January 8, 1876, by the then Governor of Bombay, Sir Philip Edmond Wodehouse.

This pyau is in the Bhat Bazaar area of Mumbai. With the docks situated nearby, this area forms the core of the old trading district of the city. Narrow lanes, close-set buildings and the pulsating energy of thriving businesses characterise the area. On a busy day, even the pyau is lost in the throngs of people with just its upper structure visible. It is quite possible that commerce thrived as much in this area in 1876 as it does now, which was why Kessowjee Naik chose this particular location for the pyau. Its location also meant that even when it became dilapidated the pyau continued to function, with water being stored.

It resembles a small ornate gazebo and is one of the most structurally elaborate of the pyaus. It stands at a point where the narrow road widens slightly and then tapers off again. Built on a five-foot-high pedestal of grey Bombay basalt, the pyau reaches a height of about 20 feet (six metres). It has three troughs that hold spill-over water and serve animals. The original clock in the dome had broken down and its replacement is a digital one. The pyau is listed as a Grade II heritage structure.

This pyau embodies “a huge range of design, material and water engineering,” says Chemburkar. It has all the classic iconography of Indian art—a nandi, elephants and peacocks adorn it. There is no distinct style to the structure. It is not Bombay Gothic, Indo-Saracenic, Edwardian or Victorian. The pilasters are Gothic; the dome is reminiscent of the Orissa style; the brackets reflect the Gujarati tradition; the canopy is classic chhatri; and the panels all around have an overall Indian stamp. Even the variety of stones used makes this pyau an architectural carnival. The rounded pilasters are of Agra stone or red sandstone; the plinth is Bombay basalt; the walls are yellowish-brown Malad stone or trachyte; and the dome is yellow Porbandar stone or miliolite limestone. “Here architecture becomes the language of celebration… a celebration of water and water charity,” says Chemburkar.

That the pyaus were built purely as a public service is apparent from the fact that they are located along what used to be the main tram routes. Most of these pyaus still survive, with the exception of the one at the old Bharatmata cinema, which was demolished in 2011. This was destroyed because of road widening, and the “rubble” was disposed of before anyone could do anything about it.

Another gem that silently disappeared was a small but exquisite marble one near the Afghan Church in Colaba. This was removed by the military authorities under whose domain it fell, and an ugly wire mesh and coloured lights monstrosity was erected in its place. No one knows what happened to the original fountain. Indeed, the late Sharada Dwivedi, the doyen of Mumbai heritage sites, was not even aware of its existence until she was alerted to its disappearance.

Quenching the thirst of man and animal has always been an act of compassion. Earlier, there were wells dug by wealthy families or rulers for public use. Some of these, such as the elaborate Rani ki Vav stepwell in Gujarat, provided more than just water. They were places to socialise and relax in, especially during the searing heat of afternoons. In urban areas, too, pyaus served as more than water points. There were the invariable social interactions while people waited to fill water. All this stopped when piped water was brought directly to homes, though the pyaus remained relevant as public drinking-water points.

To some extent, the camaraderie that water seems to engender continues even now. The attendant who doles out water at the Kessowjee Naik pyau has a certain air about him that comes from his “giving” position. “I give water to almost a thousand people a day,” he says. And while his estimate is almost certainly exaggerated, there is no doubt about his status. As people accept water, they exchange a quick word, pass on some local gossip, joke and, in general, slow down and briefly reconnect with the community atmosphere that such places evoke. “The local people have begun to cherish this pyau. A local grocery store even had its picture on a flyer it was distributing,” says Chemburkar, illustrating the pride with which the structure is held in the locality.

Pyaus were designed with flowing water, and the idea of an attendant is a modern imposition. Chemburkar is adamant that “the water should be flowing” and that the original intention of the pyaus as a source of water for humans and animals alike is maintained. There is, however, a technical hitch here. Sanjay Sawant, a civil engineer in the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai’s (MCGM) Heritage Conservation Cell, says that flowing water is a problem now because there is less pressure.

“The flow used to be gravitational in the old days, but now there are so many people and the water demand is so much that the pressure is low.” This explains why water is now stored at the pyau and given out by an attendant.

All the pyaus are owned by the MCGM. “The land belongs to the Corporation, whose ownership extends to the land the pyau is built on. It also has the responsibility to provide potable water. The pyau is constructed by a private individual and then donated to the Corporation,” explains Umesh Nagarkar, deputy municipal architect, Heritage Committee of the MCGM. Nagarkar believes that these pyaus are not difficult to preserve. “Even if they come in the way of any project, they are easy to dismantle and rebuild elsewhere, as was done with a small pyau in a garden in central Mumbai. The garden was being redesigned and the pyau was dismantled stone by stone and reassembled in another part of the garden,” he says.

About 50 pyaus have been identified in Mumbai and the first quarter of 2017 should see restoration work beginning on these pyaus built by Sir Cowasjee Jehangir, Vithal Koli, Devidas Purbhoodas Kothari, Madhavdas Laxmidas Kothari and the widow of Gungadass Virzbhoocundass.

“The city owns the pyaus but has forgotten them. Restoring a pyau is like giving back to the city,” says Chemburkar, speaking of the city as a body of people rather than an administrative unit. “ Pyaus are the city’s best sociocultural icons. And this new awareness by the municipal corporation to conserve them is a great step.”