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A Hindu goddess, a Muslim pir, a unique view of the city

india Updated: Jun 10, 2012 01:12 IST
Ayaz Memon

Before the Bandra-Worli link came up, the first glimpse anyone got of the Arabian Sea while driving into south Mumbai from, say, the airport was on reaching Hornby Vellard — unless you digressed to Worli sea face en route.

From where Hornby Vellard starts, near Vallabhai Patel Stadium, the vista changes dramatically. This stretch of road, leading into Tardeo, Peddar Road and Breach Candy, provides a tantalising introduction to Mumbai as a coastal city. The sudden expanse of sea on the right catches you unawares, but what grabs particular attention is the Haji Ali shrine plonked, precariously it would appear, in the water.

Mumbai has several famous ‘views’ to take in, the Queen’s Necklace at Marine Drive being perhaps the best known. My favourite one, especially in the monsoon, is from the mouth of Hornby Vellard near the iconic Eden Hall, situated on part of what was once the Gwalior Estate.

From here you get a sweeping view of the Haji Ali dargah in the foreground, the Mahalaxmi temple in the background and, beyond these, the looming, ever-rising skyline of SoBo, defining the contours of Mumbai as India’s premier megalopolis. Stories of devotee passion, these two places of worship, and this road are fascinatingly enmeshed. Haji Ali, showcased so beautifully by Hornby Vellard today, actually predates it by more than three centuries.

The shrine’s website says it was constructed in 1431. The saint in whose memory it was built was actually a rich Iranian merchant, Sayyed Haji Ali Shah Bukhari.
Strong leanings towards Sufism and a life apparently replete with miracles established him as a Pir. The story of how Bukhari reached India is riveting. It seems he once saw a woman crying copiously in his hometown because she had dropped the cooking oil she had just bought and if she went home without it her husband would beat her.

The Pir took her back to the spot, pushed his thumb into the ground and, the story goes, the oil flowed like a fountain. Strangely, this miracle left him disturbed. He was troubled by dreams of having wounded the earth and fell seriously ill. With his mother’s permission, he decided to travel and eventually found himself in Bombay, somewhere near Worli, where he decided to settle and spread religious goodwill.

Since the Pir had no descendants, the story has come down by word of mouth. As the website sternly observes, “Some people tried to portray themselves as his descendants or heirs and have destroyed the exact history of the Saint, his Tomb and the dargah.”

Of its unusual location, the story goes that the Pir told his followers not to bury him in a graveyard, asking instead that his shroud be dropped in the ocean and that he be buried wherever it was found. It was found on a mound of rock in the sea, which was later connected to the shore by a dirt road.

The story of Mahalaxmi temple is more recent but no less compelling. For Bombay’s early settlers, the sea made life difficult, swampy land breeding mosquitoes compounding the problems of commuting. The only connection between the islands was by boat. In the monsoons, this made travel treacherous.

Hornby Vellard, which today connects Breach Candy to Worli, was a major effort to stop the sea at Worli creek from making inroads into the mainland and flooding low-lying areas. As it is these days too, the infrastructure project was not without controversy, though then it was less about graft and more about ego-driven conflicts.

According to Bombay: The Cities Within by Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra, work was started on it in 1782 by William Hornby, then governor of Bombay, despite objections from his bosses in the East India Company. Hornby even ignored his suspension orders and the Vellard was completed in 1784. The cost was an estimated Rs 1 lakh, a little less than what one square foot in a premier building costs in this area today, but that’s a different story.

Apparently, as Hornby Vellard was being built, portions of the wall collapsed twice. The chief engineer, a devout Pathare Prabhu, then dreamt of a Laxmi statue in the sea near Worli. He searched for and found the statue and built a temple for it, after which the work on the Vellard was completed without a hitch.

The temple was completed in 1785. It houses idols of Mahakali, Mahasaras-wati and Mahalaxmi. Of these, early settlers were perhaps more enamoured by Mahalaxmi, and the temple got its name. Some say this also established the ethos for Bombay becoming the country’s financial capital.

ayazmemon@hotmail.com

When he is not following sport, Ayaz Memon writes about the city and its different worlds