Friday, December 7, 2012


Rishi Majumder obsessively tracks down Mumbai's two-century old "milestones", a journey that has left him with some more wanderlust
Posted On Sunday, September 30, 2007 at 02:35:48 AM

Many years ago, I had a discussion with a director of the Prince of Wales Museum on whether the milestones should be removed… and put into the grounds of the museum. His contention was that, by this, we could ensure their preservation. I endorsed his sentiment but felt that a milestone, which had little aesthetic value, only had real value as a historic marker on a road that had come up over an old route. As events have turned out I wish I had accepted his advice. Sadly, I succeeded in convincing him and so he did not press his idea for relocating them with the authorities.

- Saleem A. Ahmadullah, unanimously applauded by conservationists for locating, researching, documenting and spreading awareness on Mumbai's old milestones.

These basalt stones, originally three or four feet tall, mark miles from St Thomas's Church (today St Thomas's Cathedral) which, in the eighteenth century, comprised the city-centre. Most congested city streets, where these stones lie today, were then country paths connecting Bombay to settlements it later incorporated. Their last record, available at the Mumbai Heritage and Conservation Committee office, was apparently completed around 10 years ago (the names of certain landmarks quoted ceased to exist then). It cites inscription, location, landmark, date and remarks on the condition of each stone. We traced these locations. Only six of 13 stones mentioned, all Grade 1 heritage structures, remain. Some have allegedly been removed, submerged or demolished by none other than road labourers hired by the BMC itself.

Inscription: "1 Mile From St Thomas's Church"
Location: Kalbadevi Road, in front of Navlakhi
Date: 1816-37 

We asked 50 people in Kalbadevi about Navlakhi. One of them guided us to a publisher who informed us that Navlakhi, a once renowned publishing set-up, had shut down 15 years ago. But he directed us to its current location. In its place stands 'Double Dot, The Share Café', a stockbroker service, which has 'Navlakhi & Co" inscribed minimally in the corner of its signboard because the BMC licence it uses is still registered under that name. Once painted the same blue as Navlakhi was, the stone is today grey, and has sunk into the pavement. So much so, that only "1" and half of the "Mile" of it's inscription is visible. "I have seen this stone go half into the ground," says Kishan, a paan seller here next to the stone for over 25 years. Shops and buildings on this footpath have gone in as well. In fact the steps once leading to them have gone way under and you now have to step into the old stores, rather than up to them. Kishan knows of the stone's history from what he could piece together of professors lecturing student groups during field trips, particularly from St Xavier's nearby: "I can't understand English but after hearing the lecture over a hundred times it made sense."

Inscription: "3 Miles From St Thomas's Cathedral"
Location: August Kranti Marg, in front of Central Bank, Gowalia Tank Branch
Date: After 1837   

It is obvious that this milestone is in better shape than others in South Mumbai. The number of miles not being in Roman numerals, a distinct design and St Thomas' being called 'cathedral' instead of 'church' propound its comparative newness. Located almost at the foot of the Central Bank ATM, the guard stationed here directs us to a vegetable vending lady on the same footpath. "This stone, like the others, will go with the footpath and road rising," she forecasts shrugging. She, like Kishan, is categorized as a juna aadmi (a person living there for long) of the area. Every 'stone search' has revealed such juna aadmis, some illiterate, who impart a ready account of the area's heritage, and what it has withstood.

Inscription: "III Miles From St Thomas's Church"
Location: Javji Dadaji Marg, opposite Bhatia Hospital
Date: 1816-37 

This milestone is caught at history's final crossroad. With only the "III" of its inscription showing, it should attain extinction if unheeded for a few more years. Embedded next to one of the older Kaamat restaurants, the manager of the same comments: "Maine socha, 'kuch to hai', par itna puraana hoga, ye nahin socha." We stand around with him, peering inquisitively at the remnant. A thin crowd from a Ganpati procession stands around, peering inquisitively at us.

Inscription: "IV Miles From St Thomas's Church"
Location: At the junction of N M Joshi Marg (Deslile Road), Sane Guruji Marg (Arthur Road) and the Chinchpokli Bridge
Date: 1816-37  

Another juna aadmi leads us to the milestone proudly. Rooted today near Blue Bird Bakery, it has managed to stay above ground right till the "St Thomas's" but lies hidden from pavement walkers by a concrete bench. The season's festive spirit celebrates it unintentionally, framing it in a gateway of advertisement hoarding. Above it hangs a photograph of an aamdar (possibly the same one who erected the bench) proclaiming his "Hardik Swagat" to Ganesh bhakts. The hoarding advertisement reads, "Jet Vitrified Tile. Feel the difference."     

Inscription: "VI Miles From St Thomas's Church"
Location: Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marg, opposite Chitra Cinema.
Date: 1816-37

Slanting at a 15 degree angle, this could well be re-dubbed the leaning tower of our heritage, except that our indifference might soon leave it with nothing to lean on. This is sad since it shows the whole of its inscription, which is more likely to be toppled, than sunk. In its backdrop is an Air Tel showroom, whose occupants are as unaware of its existence as thousands of daily passers by, some using the stone as support for a brisk shoe lace tie up.

Inscription: "VIII Miles From St Thomas's Church"
Location: Scheme No. 6 Road No. 30, infront of Karnataka Bank, Sion (E) Branch
Date: 1816-37  

The farthest extent of the old city milestones. The Karnataka Bank branch has shifted location now so one has to walk 50 metres ahead to where the old branch was at Brij Bhushan Building. The least affected of all because it is in a quiet lane.  We were unable to locate 7 of the 13 milestones listed. The milestone showing two miles at Ibrahim Rahimtullah road "fell in with rubble" during road re-construction by the BMC, as alleged by Abdul Shaikh, an old shopkeeper and eyewitness to the event. B R Bendkhale, who introduces himself as a "senior Shiv Sainik" claims the milestone showing four miles, in front of Voltas House at Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marg, was actually uprooted by BMC workers years ago because "it caused inconvenience to their work". He also emphasises that not Voltas (which was sent a legal notice by the Heritage Committee for the act) but the BMC is to blame for its removal. The milestone showing six miles at S K Bole Road sank into the ground with the road level being raised (again by the BMC), according to Ram Pandit, a flower seller nearby. If this is true, then disintegrating pieces might still be found underground. One milestone, showing three miles at Mascarenhas Road opposite Union Bank, was supposedly uprooted by a businessman (who has now shifted), because it spoilt the look of his shop. This leaves three milestones (four miles at N M Joshi Marg, opposite ESIS Bhavan, five miles at S S Rao Marg and eight miles near Lady Jamshetji Road's Junction with Kataria Marg at Mahim). Despite hours of searching and asking juna aadmis, these couldn't be found. The locals claim there is no way they would have survived. But if you do find them, you know who to call.

(With additional inputs by Santosh Mishra)