During my trip to Paris in 2017, the tour guide in our bus while giving instructions appraised us about the free drinking water facility available in the city. It turned out to be useful information for our group as we went about exploring the places largely on foot and public transport and in between refilled empty bottles from the taps beating the summer heat. Thus, we could conveniently quench our thirst, save money, reuse and reduce plastic waste.
Back-in Mumbai while I was cycling in the Fort area, I noticed the existence of a defunct drinking water facility. On reading the plaque I learned more about its history and that augmented my quest to embark on a ‘Fountain Trail’.
Drinking water fountains colloquially known as ‘Pyaav’ or ‘Pyau’ are a result of water charity. Built in the 18th and the 19th century period, the Pyaavs in Mumbai are laid out between Fort and Dadar area – basically the Tram routes which once served the flourishing trade activity in the Old Bombay. Under the colonial rule, a number of wealthy businessman funded public infrastructure and amenities that includes building of drinking water fountains. The idea of water charity is somewhere linked to religious beliefs and traditions of earning good karma through ‘daan’ or ‘donation’.
Every fountain I was able to locate has a distinct feature and story behind its origin. For instance, Lowji Megji, the cotton merchant from Bombay dedicated a public drinking water fountain in memory of her loving daughter ‘Kusumbala’ who died of terminal illness. It is said that young Kusumbala often accompanied her father to the factory, interacted with the workers and distributed water to them. After her untimely demise, Lowji Megji decided to dedicate a fountain to the public.
Another businessman Mulji Jetha dedicated a fountain for his deceased son; a fountain that serves both humans and animals and is one of the most elaborate and intricate designs with a statue of a boy on top holding a book represents his son ‘Dharamsi Mulji’ who loved reading . Perhaps, the deed of commemorating a Pyaav was not just worked to be a memorial for the deceased, but also a reminder to the crucial events in history that could live in the form of a monument.
Fountains that were commemorated majorly via philanthropy came to exist in busy market places and high movement areas, and were primarily meant for the working population and everyday travelers who handled transportation of goods in those days. Pedestrians, horse-carriages, bullock-carts and cyclists could stop at these fountains for a quick break.
As I observed, the architecture of the fountains are of a blended form denoting different cultural styles, geographic connections and social significance. Some of the fountains adorn detailed motifs of animals, birds and flowers that stand-out sharply like in the case of Furdonjee Dhanjeebhoy Allbless Fountain and the Keessowjee Naik Fountain both of which have towering features, supporting columns, arch shaped mouldings, and are elevated from the ground protected with small boundary walls. While some fountains are compact bearing straight-forward designs emphasizing on the utility aspect for example, Ramji Setiba and the Cowasjee Jehangir Pyaav.
Shockingly, one cast-iron fountain I went tracing was found almost buried inside a roundabout; all that is visible is the tip of the metal structure and the lion heads. Negligence and poor maintenance is a familiar characteristic seen across majority of the heritage structures. These uniquely designed street furniture were once a spotlight of the cities social fabric and were in active use and served average citizens; but now gives a dismal look. Vandalized and broken pipes, damaged spouts, thrash objects, unwanted vegetation and street vendors misusing the premise put up depressing visuals to our urban heritage.
More sadly, some of the fountains are permanently wiped-out in the development process and live only in the history books. Systemization of water distribution through piped connections directly to homes and establishments is also a factor that caused gradual decline in the importance of pyaavs. Over the years, entities with commercial interest are filling the need-gap by selling packaged drinking water and carbonated beverages that have become proxy’s.
The fountains that had gushing water and hydrated millions of travelers are themselves feeling thirsty and have gone dry. They are thirsty for our attention and yearning to keep our legacy alive for the next generation. All they are silently asking for is a renewal program and regular maintenance. There is still hope with architect and conservationist like Rahul Chemburkar and his team who is spearheading the revival of as many pyaavs in the city. Dr. Varsha Shirgaonkar, an independent consultant and PHD in history has published a book ‘Exploring the Water Heritage of Mumbai’ and working on the revival of the pyaavs. And there are quite a few travel and touring companies who have started ‘The Pyaav Walk’ to create awareness and promote heritage tourism.
My intent to do a series on Drinking Water Fountains is to –
- Create awareness about our urban heritage
- Visit the sites in person
- Mark them on Google map
- Document the images in this blog
Some scholarly articles suggest 50 or even more fountains were commemorated, however, so far I have managed to locate 25 of them and my list covers even the décor fountains. I call for your support in locating the missing ones and help me complete the series. I firmly believe, this exercise will certainly add value to the historians working in this space.
Author: Vijay Malhotra, Mumbai