The pyaavs of Mumbai aren’t just public fountains but a repository of memories, architectural history and an important lesson in water philanthropy. Swapna Joshi, a PhD Student at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Pune, studies them closely to find new meaning in the old.
There is something mesmerizing about the architecture of South Mumbai. As a local train commuter, whenever I step into Mumbai’s CSMT railway station (formerly Victoria Terminus), I notice, despite the hustle, intricate details of the building. Working with a Mumbai based conservation architect’s firm gave me a vantage point to look at colonial period architecture and appreciate it. That’s how I came in contact with the public drinking water fountains of Mumbai, locally known as the pyaavs.
‘Thy thirst repose to quench a handful of life’. This was the quote we chose to restore the first pyaav through a public-private initiative in Mumbai. Why this intense thought in a structural conservation? Was there a story beyond the material fabric of the pyaav? The answer is yes.
This pyaav was in the Kessovji Naik Fountain and clock tower in Bhat Bazaar of Masjid Bunder, one of the busiest markets of Mumbai. Some 100 years ago, a generous patron had decided to support the construction of the pyaav and provide water for the city, without any other motive. How fascinating is this!
Around the same time I read ‘The Water Heritage of Mumbai’ by Dr. Varsha Shirgaonkar, the Vice-Chancellor of S.N.D.T Women’s University. In this seminal work, she painstakingly documents most of the city’s pyaavs, including many whose exact location was not known. Data on about thirty pyaavs of Mumbai are available today. These pyaavs were built during the 19th and 20th century and provided drinking water in commercial zones, along tram routes, in markets, gardens and other public places.
The concept of a pyaav is based on two important things — the generosity of a philanthropist with an intention of giving back to the city; and building a monument in the memory of a deceased relative of the patron. Armed with Dr. Shirgaonkar’s foundation-laying information and with the thought of developing and restoring these pyaavs to their former glory, a group of like-minded people, including me, came together. The group — comprising an architect, a journalist, a historian and a heritage enthusiast — formed a social media group called ‘The Mumbai Pyaav Project’. Our reach was limited because all we had were photos of pyaavs, some in utterly dilapidated condition.
In Carnac Bandar in Mumbai, for example, a pyaav has been transformed into a temple. Similarly, another pyaav nearby was on the verge of being demolished for a developmental project, but was saved because of the awareness of local people. Identifying dangers to the pyaavs would help in their conservation. The need is to look at the data but through a contemporary lens.
In 2017, I received the Sahapedia Unesco Project Fellowship. It enabled me to map all the pyaavs in the city, understand their present condition, interview people associated with them and document them audio-visually. While doing the field work and photo documentation, I came across many pyaavs still in use as drinking water sources. When I saw a small child drinking from the pyaav in the King Circle garden, I was convinced of the need for their revival. I joined hands with people who shared this conviction to retrieve and share information on the pyaavs with a larger audience.
Apart from their heritage value, pyaavs reduce plastic pollution by eliminating the need for packaged drinking water. Commuters I interviewed near a pyaav in Kalachowki area, and the owner of a nearby shop, were delighted that it was being restored. The question of whether working class people were the only ones to drink water from these pyaavs was answered by visits to some modern paanpois (water storage tanks) and earthen water pots kept charitably for passers by on crossroads. Also, almost every tea stall serves water to customers before tea, which is a kind of a pyaav system in itself. The project started building up with all this and the same data now got a fresh relook.
The endeavour was to understand the basic drinking water supply system of Mumbai and functioning of the dams in the city — from when and why they were built to the quantity of water supply to the city. When we showed our audio-visual content, people admitted they passed these pyaavs every day but did not know what they were. Armed with knowledge, they expressed interest in seeing more of these.
Pyaavs are a network of history and heritage, drinking water supply and memories. As of now, three other pyaavs have been restored and many others are in the process of being revived . The re-collation of the data in the Sahapedia project gave me the key to understand pyaavs much better.
The pyaavs have various functions but we have largely failed to admire them as spaces to pause, gather and remember. They are soothing beauties and heritage markers. As the great poet Rabindranath Tagore puts it: “For many years at great cost, I traveled through many countries, saw the high mountains and the ocean. The only things I did not see were the sparkling dewdrops in the grass…. just outside my door.”
[Photo credits: Swapna Joshi.]