This is a longer version of an article first published on the holiday of Mahashivratri in Mumbai as “Squaring the Circle”, Mumbai Mirror, Sunday Read, 22 February 2015.
“I need not dilate on the urgent necessity in the interest of our work of removing temples, where necessary, otherwise than by force. In laying out schemes I exclude every religious edifice that I can. But in the case of Hindoo temples it is not possible to exclude all, for they are sprinkled over the City like pepper out of a castor. And if our schemes are not to suffer, we must treat each case liberally”.
Proceedings of the Trustees for the Improvement of the City of Bombay, Special Meeting, 15 January 1907, T.R. 11
On this week’s festival of Maha Shivratri, devotees annually offer prayers in Mumbai’s oldest temple dedicated to Shiva, the Nageshwar Mandir at Sardar Vallabbhai Patel (SVP) Marg. Popularly known as the “Gol Deval”, few who circle around its swayambhu (self-manifested) ling are aware of how this “Round Temple” came to be in the middle of a busy main road. Known before 1955 as Sandhurst Road, this arterial avenue was named after the Governor who tackled the outbreak of bubonic plague in western India in 1896. Lord Sandhurst created the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) in 1898 to immunise the city in the wake of the epidemic, arming it with draconian powers of acquisition, demolition and redevelopment, to unclog the city’s arteries and increase its circulation by redeveloping its slums, swamps and streets.
Sandhurst Road was an early showcase scheme of the BIT, spanning the breadth of the island from the eastern docks to the western seaboard. For the poor worst hit by the plague it was a way in – for fresh air and natural light in their crowded lanes and cramped chawls. For upwardly-mobile merchants it was a way out – quickening the commute between inner-city shops and godowns and upmarket Gamdevi, Cumballa and Malabar Hills.