Thirst quenchers of yore bear testimony to city’s hospitality
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The century-old water fountains or pyaaus of the city stand as reminders of a time when 'water charity' by merchants from diverse communities comforted thirsty travellers who came to Old Bombay in caravans from far-off lands. Usually commissioned in memory of the departed, there is local lore attached to these fountains that have become integral to the city's history.
Of over 50 fountains built between 1860 and 1930, around 10 remain today, and have now been brought under the protective ambit of the proposed 2012 Mumbai heritage list as Grade II and III sites.
According to historian Rafique Baghdadi, many of these fountains were donations made to the local community by merchants, mainly Jews, Arabs, Gujaratis and Parsis. "The fountains were usually donated in the name of a merchant's deceased family member. It was believed that this would help the soul of the dead to attain peace," Baghdadi said.
The pyaaus also served as storage water tanks, and for musafirs or travellers, they were the only source of water. "In our culture, the first thing you offer guests is water. In those days, water was not available easily in the city. There were few restaurants or Irani cafes. People would travel in caravans for long hours. The more philanthropic merchants constructed these as a noble deed. It has often been reminisced that the water from these pyaaus was very sweet," Baghdadi said.
The fountains were built in vernacular architectural styles and mainly constructed from locally available Kurla or Malad stones.
"Though not used today, the pyaaus still lend an identity to their neighbourhoods. From an urban development perspective, they form important landmarks for the areas they are located in. For example, the eastern suburbs would hardly have any reference points as there aren't many water fountains there, but the Fort portion of the island city can be easily identified by the Ruttonjee Mulshee pyaau on Mint Road," said Pankaj Joshi, executive director, Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI).