God with wives from across caste lines, a temple aided by Muslims, a burial ground for Hindu ascetics and a fresh water tank surrounded by the sea in Mumbai, sounds impossible? Welcome to Banganga, one of the oldest continuously inhabited neighbourhoods of Mumbai.
During the 30 minute ride from Mumbai CST to Walkeshwar Depot, I kept wondering about the origin of Malabar Hill. At the depot, I recounted an earlier conversation with a conservation architect, who explained that the hills that mark the area, are not known so because they have anything to do with the Malabar region of Kerala. Devotees from the south of Konkan would visit the Banganga and in those days, anyone coming from the south was known as a Malabari.
As I landed at the Walkeshwar Depot and looked around, I was prepared to be surprised. The beginning of the walk at Banganga led me to initially believe that it was a walk for the spiritually inclined. While it does help if you lean towards history, mythology and spirituality, the walk in itself is quite secular in composition. It transcends the boundaries of religion as we know it. In one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in Mumbai, it was surprising to find temples in an onion shape, reflecting Islamic influences or finding some displaying Buddhist symbols while negotiating through myths, some of which find common ground across religions.
|The Khandoba Temple|
After a while, I admit the temple hopping made me restless. I stopped over to ask, ‘Banganga kahaan hain?’ and the corner shopkeeper points me towards a small side lane by telling me, ‘Down the stairs to your right.’ I smiled and headed downstairs. Arriving here, I find myself greeted by tall deepsthambhas, pillars that hold diyas. Looking around, I realised that the Banganga is the place where one takes several steps back in time even as one marvels at the paradox of traditional life co-existing with unplanned modernisation.
The chiming of the bells and the mantra-chanting pujaris and the occasional strains of Indian classical music, playing on radio greet me to the tank where Lord Rama stopped over en route to Lanka. Lakshmana, the brother of Sri Rama, is said to have shot an arrow into the ground, leading to the formation of the natural spring of Banganga. The source of the spring is largely believed to be a tributary of the River Ganga and the mossy green waters of Banganga are said to be just as sacred as the Ganga itself and is widely known for its healing powers.
|The Banganga Tank|
Next up on the agenda was the most important and oldest temple of the vicinity, the much reconstructed Walkeshwar Temple. On being advised to worship Lord Shiva and finding no idol, Lord Rama proceeded to make a linga with the sand available around him. This ‘Valuka Iswar’, which lends the place its name of Walkeshwar, is derived from the word for an idol made of sand.
Sitting on the staircase leading to the Banganga Tank, I wondered about how mindless development has ruined the area of its spiritual essence, which also marks the juxtaposition of Mumbai. My mind turned to thinking of simpler times when deepasthambhas must have dotted the skyline when temples did not look out of place in a concrete jungle. Despite all, the Banganga stands silently as a testament narrating the city’s growth from nothingness to being the financial capital to those who care to listen.