In SoBo, a well that served opium, cotton traders

Under the Horniman Circle Garden, in the heart of Mumbai’s business district, lies buried a 178-year-old well that the city’s cotton and opium traders depended on more than a century ago.

The well, less than 400m from Bombay Stock Exchange, used to be at the centre of what was then Mumbai’s busiest exchange market for cotton and opium traders — the original Bombay Green or Cotton Green. Photographs of early 19th-century Bombay show hundreds of traders sitting under a banyan tree, around this well. They also show an old ‘pyau’ — or tap — on top of the well. Today, the only visible signs of the well’s existence are that old banyan tree and pyau. And, no one would have ever known of it, had the pyau not been part of a restoration project completed a little over a year ago.

Buried in the heart of the city’s business district in Fort is a piece of history – a well, under the Horniman Circle garden, which catered to cotton and opium traders in the 1840s. Thanks to a restoration project, the trap door under the banyan tree came to light and the water is now being used for non-potable purposes.

The well, which is less than 400m from the present day Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE), was built in 1841. Then, it was in the middle of the open air barter market for cotton and opium, the original Bombay Green or Cotton Green of Mumbai. Old photographs or portraits depicting the early 19th century show hundreds of traders sitting under a banyan tree around this well, urging passers-by to trade their cotton bales and opium packets. The photographs also show an old pyau atop the well, which is connected to a deep trough for cattle and horses.

According to historians, between 1865 and 1870, the market at Bombay Green was shifted to Cotton Green, now a railway station on the Harbour line. “As trade grew, the area could not accommodate the large number of traders. This was one of the reasons why it was shifted. The other reason could be the storage space for cotton and opium became prone to fires,” said Arvind Ganachari, head of the history department at Mumbai university.

As residential buildings grew, the Horniman Circle garden was built in 1872, covering the well. In 1873, Bai Mankunver Bai Gangadas Vijbhukandas erected a water fountain (pyau) to use water from the well. This serves as a tanker filling point today.

The well would have become almost obsolete today had it not been for a restoration project of the pyau, which brought the source of water to the notice of heritage conservationists and architects. The pyau, trough and banyan tree are still at the spot, but the well is now underground. The trap door leads to a flight of stairs which take you to the centre of the well through a narrow, dark passageway.

The civic body, its owner, ferries 15 tankers of water from it to nearby areas for gardening and washing.

Sanjay Sawant, head, BMC’s heritage department, said, “Funded by Kalaghoda Association, the pyau was restored on behalf of the BMC. The project was carried out by the UDRI.”

First Published:
Jun 13, 2019 00:21 IST

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