Walking in Bhuleshwar

In the ‘Theory of the Dérive’ (1956), Guy Debord identifies two possible goals: ‘to study a terrain’ or ‘to emotionally disorient oneself’. When walking in Mumbai, my disorientation was always profound.

At the same time, the entanglement of shared histories, however inglorious on my country’s part, led to a curious alternation between confusion and recognition, self-recognition and self-loss. As Debord indicates, the possibilities overlap, where disorientation is partly discovery and vice versa.

On January 16th, I did not take a map with me, nor take a profusion of photographs, nor take deliberate note of names and locations. Since returning home, I have stalked our footsteps on the internet, in books and journals and tried to learn more about our route, which began somewhere towards the Southern end of Kalbadevi road, in the part of the former ‘native town’ of colonial Bombay known as Bhuleshwar, between Fort and Girgaum. As Kaiwan Mehta tells us, ‘getting lost is the order of the day’ in Bhuleshwar, particularly if you are already lost.

I was walking with artists Ranjit Kandalgaonkar and Shrikant Agawane. We took as a loose focus Kandalgaonkar’s artistic and research interest in philanthropic trusts, which have been and continue to be one focus for his work, emerging from a combination of walking explorations of Mumbai and historical study. Kandalgaonkar’s artwork begins with his engagement with cities in India and elsewhere, comprising projects on, for example, shipping, markets, city ‘blindspots‘ and cessed buildings in Null Bazaar.

Agawane, meanwhile, has made the only film I have found on walking as a cultural practice in India – Walking in the City (2014) – which links ritual and functional walking, flâneurie, and walking art in a portrait of walking in Mumbai. While walking is not a continuous theme, slow and perceptive looking at city activity does recur in several of his works. For instance, Flex n Faces (2009), explores the use of flex political banners and their ubiquitous presence in Mumbai. Interviewees faces are slowed or still, inviting us to look more closely, while the banners are shown as part of the movement of the busy street. I particularly enjoyed the account of one designer who had illustrated the slogan ‘Only Maharashtrian man can sacrifice for Maharashtra’ with an image of a female soldier, clumsily disguised with a moustache. Another videoKolte, is an observation of artist Prabhakar Kolte chalking an image onto the pavement. We watch his fingers as we hear his words.

Our walk together was neither guided tour, nor quite dérive, but the theme of the charitable trusts provided a framework or lens, varying between the temple in the courtyard of a wadi (community housing) and the more public animal welfare charity. In either case, I was a little incongruous; though their roots are in the shared and conflicting idea of colonial Bombay, their public works are not tourist displays.

When Ranjit told me that there were about 250 trusts in the area, most of them temples, I was shocked. This seemed not so much a profusion of gods as almost an infestation. However, my point of reference being limited to the parish church, I had little understanding of the complex social and commercial functions of such trusts. The history involves convoluted legal definitions, ambiguities and changing contexts, but here is an attempt at a brief explanation:

The British concept of the Charitable Trust (Charitable Trusts Act 1853) (where a trustee managed a gift from a donor, on behalf of a beneficiary) mapped awkwardly onto Indian traditions of gift for dharma. In particular, British imposition of distinctions between public and private benefit misread pre-Colonial practices of providing simultaneously for family and wider community. So, too, the imposed distinction between gift for religious purpose and government-controlled secular philanthropy (in 1890) designated all Indian endowments ‘religious’, ignoring their broader public benefit, or their role in secular economic enterprise and status. Philanthropic and religious trusts were exempt from tax (from 1886), while private enterprises were not; moreover the charitable trust status included only those endowments intended solely for religious or charitable purposes, disallowing what Burla calls ‘multitasking forms of endowment’ (Burla 2009:79).

However, the rather disingenuous policy of so-called ‘non-interference’ in Indian culture meant that indigenous endowments were not government regulated and where funds were intended for ‘religious purposes’, the latter term was left vague. Mercantile family firms would frequently endow deities with property managed by a single joint family, though other, sometimes associated, social endowments included wells, animal shelters, healthcare, feeding the poor, educational institutions and rest houses, often combining different ends so that it was difficult to distinguish between religious function, public charity and private interest. This not only led to further legal distinctions in the early decades of the twentieth century, but to some legal inventiveness – for instance, not only was the temple deity considered as a person, carrying the status of a child whose wealth must be managed; but god could also be subject to tax, should the temple property be used for commercial gain (see Burla 2009:68-103).

So the many endowments in Bhuleshwar represented various advantages to the giver – a ritual act of devotion; the pragmatic avoidance of tax; a way of securing property and wealth in perpetuity for a community or family; and the means of providing in various ways for the needs of family, local community or wider publics. The emphasis in each case has not always been particularly clear cut, and has often been the subject of legal dispute.

In his ‘Stories of Philanthropic Trusts: An Image Study’, Kandalgaonkar comments: ‘As they age, these trusts seem almost to hide their informally networked mode of living in order to survive in the current city scenario. There is scope to recognise, delineate and maybe re-invigorate some of these older practices in the present state of affairs. It remains to be seen for how long some of these bastions might be able to hold out against the inevitable.’

Kandalgaonkar’s texts and images both suggest some of the scope and activities of the trusts and juxtapose this research with drawings that do not directly illustrate and document, but rather respond to such places in Mumbai. They evoke atmospheres, artforms and concepts that relate to the historical and contemporary richness of these varied spaces.

‘No photos’ read a notice at the Bombay Panjrapole Trust, perhaps the best known of those we saw. In his online collection of images and texts, Kandalgaonkar represents this trust this with a violent image of Sepoys brandishing weapons in an onslaught towards a frightened pig – referring to the fact that in 1832, hygiene conditions in the barracks caused the British to order that pigs and dogs should be shot on sight. This angered the locals, leading to the first recorded riot in Bombay. The trust was established by leaders of the Parsi and Hindu communities working together, negotiating the cessation of violence against the dogs, and founding the organisation in 1834, as a shelter for strays.

There are no dogs there any more, with cows the overwhelming animal presence. One cannot tell that the cows were originally brought there to give milk for the dogs, the latter now moved elsewhere. The trust used to be supported by rents, but when Rent Control froze this income in 1947, the funds dwindled. Milk is now sold, and in 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of workers protesting their wages, that the milk production and property management constituted an industry, rather than a charity, though the maintenance of sick animals did not (Times of India August 17 1971) . However, the trust’s secretary, Adi Mogrelia still asserts that the milk production is minimal and not processed, but donated to the sick.

Besides the many cows in the central barns, there are cats and pigeons (cats among pigeons?), and even the tiniest, least remarkable birds were perched in cages when we visited. The previous week’s kite festival (Makar Sankranti) had its casualties, when glass on some of the kite strings hurt the birds, I learned. In one barn are ‘special’ cows – specially holy, since their colour or physicality is unexpected. You can pay to feed the animals, to gain good karma.

Shrikant bent down, gently picked up a kitten by the neck, removing it from the path of a water truck.

At the more private end of the scale – if one can call it a scale – is the small Nar-narayan temple in Javer Baug. We walked through a gateway through which cows were playing on the hot paving stones, a startling muddle of rippling hump backs, curved horn and big eyes. The carvings there were undergoing slow, expensive renovation. A group of women sat threading flowers onto wires while we took off our shoes to look at the ceiling, at a small image of Krishna sitting on a lotus leaf, brightly painted. I noticed a gleaming silver doorway at the back of the temple, under the scaffolding. Ranjit talked quietly with one of the men there, while Shrikant talked to me about walking, the slow pace it allowed, the state of mind it enabled, the fascination of shadows, the importance of doing nothing.

To one side, there were workmen, slotting together the parts of a large wooden cradle. Krishna in every child, I remember. ‘We have good ideas in our religions; we just don’t act on them’. The cows, gathered under shelter now, were approachable and we fed them grass, touching them gently. A mandala on the pavement. Some chickens. It was unfamiliar to me that a place of worship should be found within a residential courtyard, or that the boundary between public and private should be so unclear, so blurred into the row of shops outside. Unfamiliar, yet familiar too, the mix of twentieth century, art deco style metalwork (iron from London) and the old, elaborate carvings. The unfettered presence of cattle in the inner city.

Kandalgaonkar confirms that this temple is managed by a trust. The surrounding buildings house the Marwadi Sammelan, one of the oldest trusts set up in 1914 by Rajasthanis primarily directed towards improving education for girls. Other initiatives are directed towards health, the empowerment of women and a range of other cultural activities.

As for the temple itself, there are references to Gandhi speaking at the Narnarayan Temple on Kalbadevi Road in April and July 1919, in connection with the Satygraha Sabha.

History and place together, where trajectories meet: what Doreen Massey calls ‘a simultaneity of stories-so-far’, the meeting points for co-existing narratives producing lived space. And spaces, as she also reminds us, are always unfinished (Massey 2003:118).

In the Dwarakadhish or Radheshyam or ‘monkey’ temple, an ornate building that gains its nickname from the carved monkeys on the exterior, Ranjit and Shrikant pointed out the way that the carved figures on the beams resembled angels. They did. They also looked like figureheads, travellers, leaning forward as though attached to a ships prow, still hearing the echoes of distant places, though freshly painted and quite belonging here.


With many thanks to Ranjit Kandalgaonkar and Shrikant Agawane, for their generosity and patience.

Birla, Ritu. (2009). Stages of Capital: Law, Culture and Market Governance in Late Colonial India. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Massey, Doreen.  2003. “Some Times of Space.” In Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Project. Edited by Susan May. Exhibition catalogue. London: Tate Publishing. Pp. 107-118.

Mehta, Kaiwan. 2009. Alice in Bhuleshwar: Navigating a Mumbai Neighbourhood. New Delhi: Yoda Press.

Not known. 1965. Source Material for a History of the Freedom Movement in India: Mahatma Gandhi. pt. 1. 1915-1922India: Government Central Press.