MUMBAI: Long before it began housing chief ministers and tycoons, Malabar Hill was home to hyenas and tigers, one of which had padded down to Gowalia Tank to quench its thirst. A forest till late 18th century, this swish high heel of Mumbai began to trade its trees for bungalows after the congestion that followed the “Great Fire” of 1803 which devoured a large number of homes inside the fort walls of Bombay.
This devastation—followed by the demolition of the walls of Bombay Fort in the 1860s and epidemicscaused the elite including Englishmen, Parsis, and Hindus to seek refuge on the airy basalt headland called Point Malabar. “In those days, Malabar Hill was called a suburb,” says Viraat Kasliwal, whose tour company conducts walks in the area. Getting to the hill, which housed the Tower of Silence, entailed going through the streets of Girgaum to reach the wooded area in which sunrays would barely reach the ground in certain pockets.
Before it served up scenic views to the British though, this vantage of Bombay benefitted pirates from the Malabar coast who would climb it to plan a pillage of trade ships, inspiring the British to not only build a lookout tower near today’s Hanging Gardens but also christen it ‘Malabar Hill’.
While Sir Evan Nepean, Governor of Bombay (1812-1819), had a small room at Walkeshwar on the edge of Malabar Point, it was his successor Lord Mounstuart Elphinstone who erected a bungalow there and made it his occasional summer residence. Then, in 1877, Sir Richard Temple shifted from Parel to the bungalow at Malabar Point, says Kasliwal. Later, Governor Sir J Fergusson–who lost his wife to cholera during his stay in the Parel government house in the 1880s–too followed Temple’s cue.
Soon after this relocation, the Maharajas began building their ‘Bombay Palaces’ all over Malabar Hill and surrounding areas to be in close proximity to the Governor. Laced by beach and forest, conditions here favoured the English and their love of hunting. “The feathers and lace on the hunters’ hats were no match for the starting heat of the tropical sun. Soon a hunting lodge came up at Malabar Point,” says the Raj Bhavan’s official website.
With its nippy air, vast outhouses and servants’ quarters, Malabar Hill had the vibe of present-day Mahabaleshwar, says avid philatelist and hoarder of city trivia Rajan Jayakar whose picture postcards from over a century ago substantiate his analogy.
Next to the Governor’s House lies the 1,000-year-old Banganga Tank. This ancient natural talao on the hill’s western side—on which the Silahara dynasty built temples and ghats between the 9th and 12th century including the famous Walkeshwar temple dedicated to ‘Valuka Ishwar’ or ‘Sand Lord’—is believed to have sprung forth when a thirsty Lord Rama, on his way to Lanka, made a stopover and shot an arrow or ‘ban’ into the ground.
The Walkeshwar temple was built to replace the original structure destroyed during Portuguese rule. Near it stood a cleft-like rock called ‘Sri Gundi’, which was not easily accessible yet drew pilgrims, including Chhatrapati Shivaji. The original settlers here were Gaud Saraswat Brahmins who permitted other Hindus to build temples and dharamshalas so that over time, several shrines came up around the only stepwell in the city whose natural aquifers continue to spout potable water. Incidentally, in the 1870s, there was a proposal to make a tunnel through the Hill along the same path as the present coastal road.