Bombay…or as we know it now, Mumbai, is as much a city of contrasts as it is a city of dreams. A city housing those who were born and bred here and those who’ve made it their home now and can never imagine themselves anywhere else.
A mix of cultures and communities giving it a cuisine and taste of its own. A city where white collared professionals rub shoulders with dabbawalas on the local trains. Swanky and shiny cars jostle with auto-rickshaws on the roads, and heritage buildings cling on for space and relevance amid the vast expanding sea of modern skyscrapers.
And while there is no dearth of places that strongly reinforce the many ironies quintessential to the city, there’s one in particular that elicits a kind of rustic, spiritual calm. We’re talking about the Bangagna Tank, a little piece of history and culture ensconced by a string of high-rise luxury apartments, in Mumbai’s exclusive Malabar Hill area. The oldest living areas of the city often known as the mini-Benaras of Mumbai, this freshwater tank, along with the neighbouring Walkeshwar Temple, was built in AD 1127 by Lakshman Prabhu, a Goud Saraswat Brahmin minister in the court of Silhara dynasty of Thane.
The Legend of the Banganga Tank
Legend is that when Ram and Lakshman were searching for Sita, they stopped at Rishi Gautam’s ashram. Thirsty, Rama shot an arrow on the earth releasing Bhogawati or the underground Ganga. Lakshman used to fetch the Shivalinga from Kashi for Rama’s daily worship. Once when Lakshman didn’t return in time, Ram created a Linga using the sand available here and worshiped it. The Shivalinga came to be known as Valu-ka-Ishwar meaning God made of Sand and gradually became Walkeshwar. The Walkeshwar temple still stands on the eastern edge of the Banganga Lake and lends its name to this area. Over time, other temples came up which gave this place the status of a place of pilgrimage.
Centuries later, Banganga and its vicinity, with its unique sights, sounds and aromas still harken back to a simpler, quieter time and remains a great spot to escape the city’s usual cacophony. As you make your way down one of the many narrow alleys branching out from the main road and leading to the tank, you are surrounded by a motley crew of temples and old houses bathed in vibrant hues of red, yellow, orange, pink and blues. Old wizened women perched comfortably, almost permanently outside their houses to kids running around as playful and eager monkeys, who might have been residents here at some time.
Throughout Its History
The walls on either side of the alley are in different states of disrepair, but still look quite alluring, thanks to the colorful murals that adorn them, depicting scenes from mythology, history and folklore. The peeling wood columns and beams in a state of disrepair stand braving the winds. Due to its proximity to the shore, the air here is humid and thick with the smell of the sea, but often you catch a hint of scents emanating from incense sticks and flowers, or those of food being cooked from residential kitchens. Most of the property here, including the Banganga tank and the Walkeshwar temple, belongs to the Goud Saraswat Temple Trust.
In fact, after the Portuguese destroyed the temple in the 16th century, it was rebuilt from a generous donation made by businessman and philanthropist Rama Kamath, also from the same community. Many Goud Saraswat Brahmin families still reside within the temple complex. The surroundings of the tank are relatively free of crowds, save for a smattering of people on the steps performing religious rituals or simply relaxing. The atmosphere is abuzz with the sounds of aarti, religious chants, the ringing of temple bells and the quacking of ducks, which far outnumber the people you find here. As you sit on the steps and watch the activities unfold in front of you, you find yourself far removed from the realities of this city that never sleeps.
The Tank and its Environs
The most unique and disarming spot I found here is the Dashnami Goswami Akhada, or the Banganga Goswami cemetery. This is no ordinary cemetery where all and sundry are cremated (Hindu deaths), but this is a special area reserved for those who have taken the vows of Sanyas (renunciation) – Sanyasis as we know them. Where one would expect fear or dread to envelope the air, you are surprised by the inherent calmness and still of the sanctified spot.
A quaint sweet workshop makes it presence known by its fragrance where traditional sweets are prepared with utmost patience and skill by the masters of the art, while the owner sweetly pitches his wares by nudging us to taste them. The dhobhi ghat filled with rows and rows of clothes drying spoke of an era gone by where huge Victorian style bathtubs lined the area and men continued their daily chores of washing and drying in the windy afternoon.
A smattering of snack shops dot the premises as people continue their normal lives in a world that seems almost surreal and alien to those of us who’ve grown up in much more synthetic and modern environments. An interesting afternoon which left me yearning for more stories of Bombay’s rich culture and secrets it hides bravely in it’s folds, open only to those who are willing to caress and love this amazing place for what it was, how it has evolved while still maintaining the backbone as it keeps embracing and welcoming all those who’s hearts find their way here. As for me, I have a Bombaywala Dil Mumbai meri jaan.
Getting there: The closest railway station to Banganga is Charni Road (about 3-5 km away) from where you can easily find a taxi or a bus.
Best time to visit: The calming beauty of Banganga is best enjoyed during the early hours of morning or evening when the sun isn’t too harsh and a gentle breeze keeps the surroundings cool.