It’s a good thing the roads are more or less maintained in the historical parts of Mumbai – for it’s rather hard to watch your step when the buildings are so adorned and embellished 🙂 Even after all these years in the city I find myself looking up quite a lot. Sometimes people slow down and look with me, and these moments are the most rewarding.
The vast array of architectural elements is worth being noticed and acknowledged. Decorative openwork patterns, elegant tracery holding the glass of Gothic windows, pointed arches, intricate stone carvings, and steep-sloping roofs – all of these are the reason to be madly in love with the city.
Sitting with grim solemnity atop the walls, mythological creatures of every kind add a special character to the buildings.
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Gargoyles of Mumbai
Gargoyles of Mumbai are particularly charming. Serving an ornamental function, they are also designed to convey rainwater from the roof and so protect the building from damage. Don’t we imagine a perfect guardian just like this – unshakable, fearsome, and eerie?
Many think gargoyles an invention of medieval architecture, but in reality, the concept of disguising waterspouts designed to carry water away from the walls of a building as animals or mythical creatures is extremely ancient, dating as far back as the architecture of Egypt and ancient Greece, where waterspouts were traditionally carved to represent lions.
Yet what was the purpose of gargoyles in latter ages? In the middle ages, when the Church was growing all powerful, yet still tended to a largely illiterate population, gargoyles perhaps possibly represented the mythical terrors – demons and evil spirits and so on – that the population ‘required’ the church’s protection against.
Whatsoever might have been the original reason behind the inclusion of gargoyles in architecture, it is certain that in the neo-gothic, these fanciful creations – gargoyles and chimeras and grotesques, such as griffins, are entirely playful, included because they bring an element of fairy-tale romance and fantasy to an architectural style that is so beautiful and so almost mythical that it is a wonder that humanity abandoned it for the modern day horrors of glass and concrete, and all that remain of this style are the ‘cities of another age’.
And above even the neo-gothic, is the strange mix of architectural styles that embody colonial Bombay – it is a mix of neo-gothic, with a touch of Saracen architecture, and even some Teutonic influences – in this, architecture perhaps reached as much a zenith of beauty as ever the world has seen.
There are also grotesques. While being very similar to gargoyles, these figures don’t work as waterspouts – their function is purely decorative.
The chimeras of Mumbai are rather peculiar. Who is this guy, for example? One would say it’s a griffin, but he doesn’t have an eagle’s head.
And this one, by all probability, is the Assyrian Lamassu, a hybrid of a human, a bird, and a bull (or a lion). This sculpture guards the entrance to Vatcha Agiary, the Parsi Fire Temple in Mumbai. Descendants of Zoroastrians from Persia, the Parsis found a home in the Indian subcontinent when trying to avoid persecution from the Muslim invaders. These days, they are one of the most distinctive ethnoreligious groups in Mumbai, so the evidence of their culture is the city comes as no surprise.
Where can you find buildings with chimeras, gargoyles, and grotesques in Mumbai?
Generally speaking, keep your eyes open as you walk around the Fort and Colaba districts in Mumbai – both are studded with the most magnificent architectural monuments, and you never know when you can stumble upon a cute mythological creature carved by a nameless artisan from the era bygone.
Here are a few buildings that you shouldn’t miss:
Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly known as Victoria Terminus). Address – Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus Area, Fort, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400001. To have a closer look at the gargoyles, I would suggest visiting the Heritage Museum, located within the terminus.
Municipal corporation building. Address – 5, Mahapalika Marg, Dhobi Talao, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus Area, Fort, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400001.
The Rajabai Clock Tower. Address – Karmaveer Bhaurao Patil Marg, Mantralaya, Fort, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400032.
Vatcha Agiary. Address: 6, Dr. Dadabhai Naroji Marg, Kala Ghoda, Fort, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400001
Some final world
Unfortunately, many of the beautiful buildings in Mumbai – at least those that are not directly run by the government – are gradually falling into ruin, falling victim to neglect and rot and old age and fire. And in many places in the colonial areas of Bombay, one may come upon a stark façade of a single high, blank wall where a glorious Victorian building once stood, whose windows stare out into nothingness like so many blind eyes.
A serious effort to protect and restore the most glorious portion of the city of Mumbai would not be out of place. The government does its part, at least where buildings owned by the government are concerned – but it is not enough. All the Victorian buildings in Mumbai need to be the focus of a dedicated conservation effort. Because…. they are beautiful enough to be worth it.
What is your favorite architectural element? And who is your favorite mythological creature? 🙂
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