Sunday, September 13, 2009

Banganga Temple, Bombay, January 2008

Banganga Tank: A Symbol of Hope Bridging Old and New India

Shortly after the year turned, we walked up a narrow promontory of land, cradled on three sides by huge swathes of the Arabian Sea, up to the Ban Ganga water tank. Gazing down at the brown sands of Chowpatty beach, at the colonial pillars of Wilson College opposite the beach, and the sleepy road with morning traffic still to wake up, we could have been taking our walk a hundred years ago, and expected at any time to see a Victorian horse-drawn buggy clip-clopping into the distance, disappearing into the foggy lights of the Queen’s Necklace.

But as we continued our walk, different eras of Mumbai’s past began to emerge. Here and there, we spotted a building from Mumbai's British past--the Chief Minister’s bungalow, a Rajasthani palace built out of red stone, looked incongruous, even a little absurd, next to the concrete apartment buildings of our time, most of which sat squat and ugly, hugging the road so closely that not even Bombay’s tenacious trees could take root next to them.

Then, as we neared the tank, Mumbai’s ethnic identity from before the arrival of the Europeans began to assert itself. We found ourselves walking on narrow cobbled lanes built not for cars but pedestrians, lined on either side with temples, flower and fruit vegetable stands, and small houses with doorways engraved with intricate wooden carvings and upturned roofs. We looked on as a priest washed the steps of a temple close by and performed his morning puja to welcome the day--a scene that we might have witnessed several hundred years ago.

And there in the center lay the tank. The steps leading to the water were broken and strewn with plastics and remnants of food, and the water itself was murky with garbage and dirt. Men, women and children lay sleeping on its steps, nuzzled by geese who hoped to find a morsel or two in the folds of their blankets. A child defecated on one of the steps and his mother washed his bottom, and then washed away his stools with some water from the tank. A man cleared away some of the garbage from the rim of the tank, enough to let him collect a cup of water with which he brushed his teeth, spitting it back into the water’s dirty foam after he was done.

Despite the filth and squalor, the tank still maintained a quiet dignity as it lay shaded by an umbrella of ancient trees, a dignity enhanced, no doubt, by the inscriptions on a plaque at one end. The tank was built in 1127 A.D. by the Silhara Kings of Thane though the Walkeshwar temple on its banks was built even earlier in the eight century. We stepped even further back in time, into mythology when we read that Lord Rama pierced the earth with his arrow on this very spot to release a spring of fresh water, supposedly a hidden off-shoot of the Ganges river--the source of fresh water in the tank up to this day.

Stories are told and retold to remember memorable events, and mythologies are built around miraculous happenings. Looking at this fresh water tank, it is easy to see why the spring, and this spot would be deified. Having a fresh water spring that survives on this tiny sliver of earth surrounded by the salty waters of the Arabian sea seems nothing short of miraculous but finding this underground spring seems even more incredible. It is a testament to human kind’s intelligence and ingenuity, the god-like ability in us.

Today, with the wounds from the terrorist shootings in Mumbai still not completely healed, we must remember that this land of Mumbai is a special land, and a sliver of hope runs through it. And, more importantly, that its inhabitants can and will overcome the conflicts threatening to tear them apart by bringing forth their inherent intelligence and wisdom, a bequest from the land.

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