Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bombay's Constructed Ground

Mumbai, January 23, 2013

Up until the middle of the 18th century Bombay was a collection of seven islands.  In 1782, the British colonial governor William Hornby began a project--known as Hornby-Vellard--to connect the islands.  If you look at a present-day map of Mumbai, it's a little difficult to figure out the original topography, but at the end of the 19th century it was still possible to identify the islands in the structure of the city.

Let's try:

Starting from the south, Colaba and Old Woman's Island still appear as small islands connected to the larger mass to the north by Hornby's causeway.  Next is Bombay proper, a large island in the shape of a wide "H", whose lower half arches around the Back Bay.  The east (right) side includes the port and the colonial city.  The west side is the Malaba Hills.  The upper part of the "H" is already filled as the area reserved for the local population (not-so-subtly labeled "Black City".)  The western hills continue north in the island of Worli that together with Mahim, a green area in the map, define what is now Mahim Bay.  The eastern side includes two other islands, Mazagon rendered in red as a small neighborhood, and Parel as a long green area.

Looking at the whole enterprise from a foundational--here meaning both origin and substrate--point of view, the seven islands can be seen as the initial pieces of a puzzle that gets reinterpreted through successive land-reclamation projects.  And most fascinating, the interpretations are both topographic (what gets filled) and social (the high ground for the colonial power, the filled marshland for the local population.)

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