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Thursday, Sep 19, 2019

Mumbaiwale: Go underground and back in time at Raj Bhavan’s bunker museum

15,000 square feet of tunnels and ammunition storage cells, plus virtual reality booths - it’s a spooky walk, and a new way to discover the city

mumbai Updated: Aug 24, 2019 17:37 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
The Bunker, a subterranean warren of passages and storage rooms under the Governor’s house, will soon be open as a modern museum.
The Bunker, a subterranean warren of passages and storage rooms under the Governor’s house, will soon be open as a modern museum.(Kunal Patil/HT Photo)
         

Like many before him, Maharashtra governor CH Vidyasagar Rao loved taking a walk along the periphery of his official residence in Raj Bhavan, Who wouldn’t? The lush 50-acre property in posh Walkeshwar comes with a view of the sea, the Nariman Point-Cuffe Parade skyline and Prong’s Lighthouse in the distance.

Then one day in August 2016, he did something different. He decided to find out what was behind a brick wall within the stone archway on the south side. As workers broke down the wall, a 60-year-old surprise emerged – a warren of tunnels and tiny rooms that once served as a wartime bunker right under Jal Bhushan, the governor’s office and residence.

A section of the bunker.
A section of the bunker. ( Kunal Patil/HT Photo )

It was, as bunkers go, damp, dark and musty. It seemed to have been built in stages, right when the governor’s house moved from Parel to its present location in 1885. Ante-rooms were labeled Gun Shell, Cartridge Store and Shifting Lobby. There were wall niches with signs for a Lamp Recess, and Hoisting areas in some corners. It spanned 15,000 square feet. And it was spooky.

Rao’s discovery was exciting enough. But he went one step ahead – he decided to get the bunkers cleaned, restored and developed into a public museum. Over three years, engineers conducted a structural and security audit, historians were roped in for research, and conservationists and architects set about creating the museum.

You’ll be able to see the result of their efforts from October, as The Bunker opens to the public. It’s as much a journey into the past as a leap into tomorrow. The pathways and rooms are discreetly illuminated and air-conditioned. Those niches now have flickering artificial lanterns. Old signage has been replaced with new. The walls are painted white, taking away much of the spookiness. There are plans for recorded audio commentary, virtual-reality booths (one even lets visitors fire virtual cannons), and a buggy service to ferry visitors to it.

In some sections, it’s hard to if you’re underground, let alone under Raj Bhavan.
In some sections, it’s hard to if you’re underground, let alone under Raj Bhavan. ( Kunal Patil/HT Photo )

The museum aims to orient visitors about Mumbai’s maritime military history, the threat of sea attack, Raj Bhavan’s own history and how Maharashtra developed its coastal defences. Fake barrels contain fake cannonballs. The murals and displays often bear generic images of soldiers. But nothing takes away from the bunker’s inherent mystery and sense of covert cunning. You don’t want to be stuck down here – there isn’t even mobile network!

Outside, right in front of Raj Bhavan’s sumptuous banquet hall, are two 22-tonne cannons that date from before World War I, but were unearthed last year at the base of a hill on the property and have since been restored. They’re believed to have belonged to the battery near the coast as part of the defence of Bombay Castle from naval attacks. So make the most of the trip and look around – perhaps you might find another portal to the past.

First Published: Aug 24, 2019 01:14 IST