‘Fountain’ is a precinct in South Mumbai not meant for the faint-hearted pedestrian, especially at rush hour! And presiding over the teeming millions and perpetual chaos is Flora. Standing 7 feet tall atop an ornate and exquisitely sculpted fountain – yes, that’s how the precinct got its name – the Roman goddess of fertility, flowers and spring is one of Mumbai’s most recognisable landmarks.
Yet she almost never made it here.
Built in 1864 by the British colonial government that then ruled Bombay, Flora Fountain was originally intended for Victoria Gardens (now Jijamata Udyan) in Byculla but was eventually installed at its present location.
Designed by Richard Norman Shaw and sculpted by James Forsythe, the monument was constructed by the Agri-Horticultural Society of Western India at a cost of 9,000 pounds or Rs 47,000, a princely sum in those days. Of this sum, Rs 20,000 was donated by Cursetjee Fardoonjee Parekh, a wealthy Parsi businessman.
The origins of the fountain lay in the demolition of the fort walls by then Governor of Bombay, Sir Bartle Frere (1862-67), in the 1860s. For more than a century, the people of Bombay lived within a fortified town referred to as the ‘Fort’ – which lent its name to the business district adjoining ‘Fountain’ – but all that changed when the walls of the fort were torn down. During this time, there was a pressing need for Bombay to expand and the governor implemented various plans for the city’s restructuring and improvement.
The Fort had three gates – Bazaar Gate, Apollo Gate and Church Gate – and Flora Fountain was installed at the spot occupied by Church Gate before its demolition. Bombay was at a crossroads and Flora Fountain, built in honour of Sir Bartle Frere, came to symbolise a new chapter in the city’s history.
Made of Portland stone imported from England, the fountain is 32 feet tall, including the statue of Flora that crowns the monument. Its design is influenced by Neo-Gothic and Indo-Saracenic architectural styles and boasts beautifully carved sculptures all over. At Flora’s feet are four fishes and there are 20 lion heads placed all over the fountain. The base of the fountain has four sculptures, one in each corner of the monument. These sculptures represent India’s cereal and plant foods, in keeping with the theme of ‘abundance’.
Standing at a busy traffic intersection, the fountain, which is a Grade 1 Heritage structure, became coated with layers of grime, moss, soot and paint over the years. And, in 2017, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) decided to restore Flora to her former glory. This two-phase plan kicked off in early 2017, when a team comprising Conservation Architect Vikas Dilawari, the BMC’s heritage cell, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage and structural engineer Kiran Bhavsar started work on repairs, plumbing and sprucing up the fountain. This phase culminated in January 2019 when a refurbished fountain was unveiled to the people of Mumbai.
Interestingly, many hidden facets of the fountain came to light during the conservation project. The team found a chamber with a complex system of water engineering underneath the monument. The chamber had been sealed with layers of concrete, which was carefully removed before the hydraulic system could be restored.
The fountain itself, which appeared to be white under layers of grime, is actually beige! The team also discovered tracks of Mumbai’s bygone tram system near the fountain.
Many details on the sculptures at the base of the monument that weren’t visible before have now been bought out. Turns out, one figure wears a braid and another, a bit of a smirk! One wears disc earrings and a matching necklace while another sports anklets.
Many elements of the fountain, like missing arms, legs and the noses of the various sculptures have been repaired and restored by the conservators. The fountain’s vicinity will have wrought iron metal grills and lights more fitting of its heritage character.
Originally meant as a symbol of the British empire, over the course of its 150-year-history the fountain has taken on meaning of its own in the hearts of Mumbaikars.