Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Raj Bhavans of Bombay

Raj Bhavans of Bombay

Many Mumbaikars as well as visitors to Mumbai have not visited a charming but grand colonial bungalow in a very scenic location, in the midst of flora and fauna, and surrounded by the sea on three sides. Yes, that’s Mumbai’s Raj Bhavan and it is open to visitors who need to take an early morning guided tour to see around this beautiful property.

The present Raj Bhavan, the official residence of the Governor of Maharashtra is situated at Malabar point, the tip of the Malabar Hill gradient. But in the last 355 years of Mumbai’s history, this is the fourth location on which the Governor’s residence stands.

When Humphrey Cooke became the first governor of the islands of Bombay in 1665, there was no residence officially marked for use by the governor. There existed a Government House which the Portuguese called the Manor House, but in 1665 this building was in a bad shape having been burnt down earlier by the Dutch and the British when they invaded the Portuguese held islands of Bombaim. Subsequently, this building, situated behind the Asiatic Society building in Fort was repaired, fortified and renamed Bombay Castle. It became the official residence of the English Governors of Bombay from 1674 onwards.

In 1757, the government of the day purchased John Spencer’s House at Apollo Street (now Bombay Samachar Marg) for use by the Governor, and renamed it New House. With the passage of time, as Bombay began to grow and the heart of the city, Fort became congested, Governor William Hornby preferring  “the climes at the occasional hot weather residence at Parell”, shifted residence there. However, the administration continued to function from New House for a few more decades before shifting to Parel. New House still stands, now occupied by many commercial firms, making it one of the oldest standing buildings in Mumbai.

In 1827, the Government House during the tenure of Sir John Malcolm moved entirely to Parel. This grand colonial building surrounded by gardens in the peace and quiet of an idyllic ‘suburb’ of Bombay was aptly called Sans Pareil, meaning without peer or beyond compare. It was indeed a grand mansion where “melody and mellifluous voices filled the Durbar Hall during gala evenings when china and crystal would glitter under the chandeliers in the Banquet Hall”. Many memorable events in Bombay’s colonial history took place at Sans Pareil. It was here that Governor Jonathan Duncan held a banquet in 1804 to launch The Literary Society of Bombay which is now known as the Asiatic Society.  It was in this building that the future King-Emperor Edward VII and the last Czar of Russia, Nicholas II were entertained when they visited Bombay. Sadly, with the mills coming up in and around Parel in the second half of the 19th century and the resultant rise in pollution, this place was abandoned in 1882 after the wife of Governor Lord James Fergusson died here of cholera. Like New House in Fort, the Government House at Parel still stands and is now known to us as the Haffkine’s Institute.

Governor Sir Richard Temple initiated the formal transfer of the Government House from Parel to Malabar Point. Marine Villa, the building that housed the early residence and office of the Governor stood on a fifty-acre property laced by beach and forest. Over the years many more structures were added to make it into a formidable administrative complex from where British Governors held sway over large swathes of Western India known as the Bombay Presidency.

Upon independence, Government House was renamed Raj Bhavan. The Raj Bhavan serves not only as a residence to the Governor of Maharashtra but also for visiting dignitaries such as the Prime Minister and the President of India, as well as visiting heads of state. Momentous occasions such as swearing-in ceremonies and functions felicitating litterateurs and artists are also held here.

The Mumbai Raj Bhavan has a precious collection of beautiful carpets, paintings, exquisitely carved doors and elegant French style chairs and sofas with intricate portraits on them, and is a treat to the lovers of art and history.

Most significantly, Mumbai’s Raj Bhavan at Malabar Point breathes a century and a half of history making it a must-visit destination for all wanting to know more about our city.

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