Mumbai, often referred to as the city of dreams has always attracted people from all over, throughout history. It was no different in the 1660s, when the British East India Company acquired the rights to set base in the island of Bombay. It was luck that had landed this island with the British crown in the first place. Few would have been able to fathom, how the dowry that the Portuguese Princess got with her, when she married Charles II of England, would one day prove to be such a gold mine.
Till the 1660s the East India Company was based out of the port city of Surat in Gujarat, but the problems with the Marathas and the Mughals forced them to move out to the island of Bombay. However, there was little to rule over the desolate island, that the Company had to build up from scratch. One of the first things they did was to build a fort and establish their business and residence within it. This is the present day Fort area of South Mumbai.
The residences within the new Fort were however an exclusive preserve of the British. Gradually a few others were allowed in. The rich Parsis and Jewish businessmen who contributed towards the booming British Raj of 1800s.
The British and the rich within the fort, referred to the traders as folks who lived ‘Behind the Bazaar’
But the rich and privileged ensconced in the Fort formed a small portion of the traders and entrepreneurs that a new, rapidly growing commercial center needed. Over time a steady stream trooped in, settling near the market area North of the Fort. These traders who belonged to different communities like Jains, Marwaris, Memon Muslims, Bohra Muslim, Hindus and Bene Israelis set up their shops and homes around what is today the city’s crowded Crawford Market (Jyotiba Phule market). To the British and the rich within the fort, these were folks who lived ‘Behind the Bazaar’ so often was the term used that over time, this entire area came to be known as ‘Bhendi Bazaar’ a corrupted, colloquial version of ‘Behind the Bazaar’!
Today the ‘Bhendi Bazaar’ and areas around it like Chor Bazaar and Masjid Bunder are among the most densely populated places in Mumbai. They also are the most diverse culturally.
One of the landmarks in the area is the large marble mausoleum, Raudat Tahera of the Dawoodi Bohri Muslim community. The Dawoodi Bohras are a sect of Shia Muslims. The term ‘Bohra’ comes from the Gujarati word ‘Vehru’ meaning trade and the Dawoodi comes from the support given to Dawood Bin Qutubshah during a schism that the community faced in 1592 CE when there was a leadership dispute. The dispute took place within the community over who would be their 27th leader. The Dawoodi Bohris believed that Dawood Bin Qutubshah was the successor and leader as opposed to Sulemani Muslims, who believe that Suleyman Bin Hassan was the 27th leader.
The entire Quran is inscribed on the 776 tiles of the mausoleum
Raudat Tahera is the mausoleum of Syedna Taher Saifuddin and his son and successor Dr. Syedna Mohammad Burhannudin, the 51st and 52nd religious leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community whose official residence is on Malabar Hill with a major part of the Bohri population residing in Bhendi Bazaar area. The marble for the mausoleum is from the Makrana quarries from Rajasthan which are the same quarries from which the marble for Taj Mahal was used. The entire Quran is inscribed on the 776 tiles of the mausoleum depicting the 776 pages from which the Syedna or the leader is to read daily.
The Gol Deoul Shiva temple was marked to be razed down in 1902
The Bhendi Bazaaar area is also home to Gol Deul which is right in the centre of the bustling road today. This Shiva temple was marked to be razed down in 1902, in a street widening scheme which was met with passionate protests from the local community. In early 1909, the trustees of the temple accepted the plan of the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) architects to pull down parts of the temple blocking the road, enclose the round platform with a plinth and railings and crown the temple dome. For over a year, the trust did not carry out the work and the BIT had to carry out all the work on their own expense, all in a bid to open up the traffic on that road before the 1911 ‘Royal’ visit of King George V and Queen Mary.
Less than a kilometre from the core of Bhendi Bazaar is the oldest Bene Israel synagogue of Maharashtra– the Shaar Harahamim built in 1796 CE. Inspired by a vernacular style of architecture, this one storey structure is a representation of the Orthodox style of Jewish synagogue architecture with different section for men and women. The synagogue, built by Sameul Ezikiel Diwekar, a Bene Israel who served in the British army against Tipu Sultan, is located on the street named after him – Samuel Street. Close-by, the Masjid Bunder railway station is named after this synagogue which is also referred to as mashid in local Bene Israeli terms.
The zari wallas are traders who specialise in removing gold and silver zari from old sarees to sell the precious metals
Apart from the places of worship and the market, the area is also known for its numerous traditional professionals, who have carried out their work for over a century. These include the zari wallas- the traders who specialise in removing gold and silver zari from old sarees to sell these precious metals in the market. The other notable business is that of oil pressers who sit in small cubicles and demarcated open spaces, with small oil pressing machines and a price chart consisting of around 90-100 types of oil. The owners of these shops claim that their families have done this work for generations
One of the communities which dots the adjacent Chor Bazaar area is the Memon Muslim community who are converted Muslims, originally from the area of Kutch and Sindh. They belong to the sect of Sunni Muslims. Chor Bazaar, located on Mutton Street and known for its antiques and imitations is dominated by this sect of the Muslim community.
Though there are various legends about how the area came to be called Chor Bazaar, the most likely one is that that the British found this market very noisy and the natives referred to it as ‘Shor Bazaar’ meaning ‘the noisy market’ which got mispronounced as Chor Bazaar or as the market of thieves.
Today, Bhendi Bazaar and its neighbouring areas are in the throes of change. Old buildings and shops are being razed down and the area is going in for a major redevelopment, one of the largest in urban India. Covering an area of 16.5 acres, the entire project is being funded by the Bohri community trust – Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust (SBUT).
Each street of Bhendi Bazaar is a reflection of different communities coming together. As one crosses from one street to another, the community, residences and names change and they denote the change in the community that dominates that tiny lane. The Bhendi Bazaar area is a seamless mix of communities who came to Bombay to make a living in this vast and diverse city.
Cover Image - Pydhonie mosque adjacent to Bhendi Bazaar/Harsunit