It’s a little island – nay lane, of cobbled streets, old houses and an old square. Each year before Christmas, the local families here get together to walk down memory lane and celebrate the Ranwar Fair, and why not. After all this chowk or square, in the heart of Mumbai’s hip suburb Bandra, is one of the original hamlets in Mumbai that dates back 300 years!
Ranwar was one of the original 24 pakhadis or hamlets that surrounded the local port of bandar (many believe that’s where Bandra gets its name), near the Portuguese fort Castella de Aguada, in the early 18th Century CE. The earliest reference to Ranwar dates back to 1716 and is in the Register of the Church of Santa Anna, now kept at the Church of St. Andrew, another heritage landmark, at walking distance from Ranwar. This was built in 1575, even before the Taj Mahal!
Once an area dotted with paddy fields , not surprisingly most of the people who lived in Ranwar village were the Kunbis or rice cultivators. The closely-packed houses that you still see today, are a giveaway of the origins of the settlement. As was the norm, rice farmers would not build on their lush paddy fields, but on slight elevations so that they could keep an eye on their crops.
The area was under Portuguese control until 1739, when they evacuated Bandra and the Marathas took possession. The Marathas were in turn ejected by the British in December 1774. They, allowed the farmers to take over the land they cultivated.
The rice trade in Ranwar flourished, as the land was fertile. At that time, commerce between the mainland and the port of Bandra in British Bombay happened through Bandra and it also served as a major access point to the Bombay harbor via Sion.
Ranwar being steps away from the port greatly benefited from its location. Bombay was soon becoming the commercial hub of India and as the population there increased, most of the rice and vegetables to the mainland were being run through the port of Bandra.
This era of prosperity was reflected in the houses that were built during the time. Some of the earliest constructions in Ranwar, still standing today, date back to these years.
Interestingly records claim that the area’s many water wells doubled up as safe deposits or wealth stores! The local residents hid their gold to protect them from marauding pirates and raiders along the coastline. There was frequent threat from them. There are records of a major face-off which took place off the coast here in March 1700. The attack by Arab pirates was thwarted and records claim that they lost about 600 of their men!
Later in the 19th century, epidemics of typhoid, cholera etc. all made their presence felt and closely-knit villages like Ranwar were at particular risk. The bubonic plague in 1896 turned the old Ranwar houses into death traps, killing people in the hundreds. The rice fields of Ranwar served as temporary shelters to escape the devastating contagion.
Walk through this chowk, on Veronica Street (named after the celebrated Saint Veronica, who is said to have offered Jesus her veil to wipe his forehead, when he carried his cross to Golgotha) and you will be transported through time, to a simpler past, before Bandra became the buzzing heart of the city’s life.
And while you are there you can’t help but wonder how long Ranwar will be able to retain its identity. Will it crumble under the greed of real estate developers wanting a piece of this prime land. Or will it be able to retain its charm and live on as it has, a slice of a forgotten past.
A traditional Christian tableau used to be re-enacted during the season of Lent in Ranwar, with a local woman playing the role of Saint Veronica, who is said to have offered Jesus her veil to wipe his forehead, when he carried his cross to Golgotha.
The lady would be formally dressed as the Saint and carried on a palanquin in procession through Veronica Street to the Church of St. Andrew, in the re-enactment. This was an annual local tradition for the community which helped keep their culture alive.
Only time will tell if the story of one of Mumbai’s oldest and most interesting neighbourhoods endures.
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