The sacred fresh water spring tank, at the heart of the City of Mumbai, is a perfect example of the term ‘cultural continuum’. A precinct that has a multi-layered history and continues to manifests its ingrained essence. The unbroken lineage of rituals and ceremonies can be experienced with all the senses within this ‘microcosm’ precinct of ‘Banganga’. ‘A jewel in the sands of time’ is seemingly the best anecdote to describe the intimate and cosy precinct of ‘Banganga’.
Winner | RTF Essay Writing Competition May 2021
Category: Essay: Complex Pasts – Diverse Futures
Participant: Dhiraj Salhotra
Banganga an ancient tank, also known as Metamuse is located at Walkeshwar, the heart of the busy, bustling city of Mumbai. The precinct is believed to be the reminiscence from the mythological Epic of Ramayan, wherein the origin of the tank was from an arrow (baan) struck by Lakshman brother of Lord Ram. The original temple precinct was built in 1127 AD and then sustained to be rebuilt in 1715.
Today, the rectangular sacred pond is a home to various clans of spiritual gurus, that have served the precinct diligently and rendered the enigmatic essence of its mystical past. The site continues to be an auspicious location for the last rites, owing to the mythical beliefs and sacredness associated with its location. The surroundings have undergone a sea of change, but Banganga continues to maintain its serene calmness midst all the urban chaos, that has managed spring all around it. It is a micro Benaras (Varanasi), the temple town of India. The temple precinct with the ghat like steps acts as the barricade of protection of this water riparian zone, that has mystically survived against all odds. The periphery is lined with humming population of temple precincts that act as the guardians of the tank. There cannot be a better example of living heritage that has its history over 2000 years and maintaining the customary practices as a lineage.
The humane scale of spaces, traditional use of stone as a material for construction and details offer the tactile and visual quality of being monumental and each structure being immersed in the spirituality of form, space and shades of light. The shallow steps leading to tank followed by multiple smaller aedicular shrines are surrounded by towering spires of varying heights of temple shikharas that are in turn shadowed by the towering urban skyline, describes its settings today. Banganga is an Oasis of Cultural heritage and vibrant with variety of attires and customary practices that co-exist midst urban chaos. The meandering paths leading to the tank are enlivened with ringing bells, smell of fresh flowers, burning of incense and camphor. The multiplicity of the City is manifested in the rooted past that converges the aspirations of the inhabitants and visitors continues to ensemble all.
The Banganga is a mystical sweet water tank at the fringes of the saline coastline, imparting it with magnitude of grace. The dwarfed skyline of the precinct is a home to ducks that ambulate the tank as the caretakers of the heritage. The ceremonies have shortened over the period of time but the rooted values are still in the vogue. The neighbouring inhabitants as the rightful caretakers of the cultural heritage have managed to protect the sanctity of the precinct against the urban pressures. The multi- layered complexity of diverse influences over the period of time have created traces of layers that ironically continue to fiddle with the authentic past. The conflicting forces have been trying to engulf the precinct, shrinking to its bear essential but rooted ethnic values and vigour. The interdependence of the community for carrying rituals have supported a sector of livelihood that has survived generations of neglect. The astrologers, palmists, flower seller, ceremony pandits, local vendors selling ceremonial materials have continue to co-exist meet the expectations of the stakeholders.
At the time, when global cities are investing in conservation plans and imparting awareness sessions to its citizens towards sensitizing them. The Banganga precinct sets as a distinct example of cultural survival through people’s participation. The Cultural Complexity has led to a diversity of interests and yet it manages to carry gracefully the duality of being contemporary yet rooted in traditional value systems, although some rituals may even be termed as ‘archaic’. We have a witness of 3000-Year-Old Cultural History midst the contemporary era of our times, working coherently in co-existence at Banganga.
The traces of bygone era are visible in the staggered lanes, the living cultures of the inhabitants, daily rituals of the streets. The occasional festivals are imbued with the spirit of the past and act as gentle reminders of the glorious past. The distinct culture of illuminating lamps, floor decorations with sand power, flowers and rice paste as reminiscence of traditional practices enlivens the space. The culture of greeting even with the strangers has gradually vanished but the overall ambience of courtesy and eyes on the street is still a welcome relief in this digital surveillance era of ours.
The Banganga Festival, is an amazing ritual that brings to life the eloquence of a journey back in time. The set up becomes a backdrop during the days of the fest and hosts musical evenings during the twilight hour as a perfect euphony of spiritual engagement. The Banganga Festival has witnessed the presence of musical maestros perform midst the mystical arena under dimly lit ambience of lamps. The precinct remains calmly isolated from the attention of the busy city dwellers otherwise throughout the year, only to be visited by ritualistic performers of last rites and for occasional prayers on auspicious days.
The conflicting urban character undergoing transformation, gradually is busy uprooting the spatial identity while the commercial value optimization policies acting against the survival of the precinct. The complexity of cultural change has given rise to various ethnic groups interested in protecting the heritage and maintaining the spatial harmony. The involvement of citizens as the caretakers of the heritage has seen a surge in the last couple of decades.
Heritage precincts are living organisms that thrive on the community that connects with it. Culture is the unifying thread of intangible values that keeps weaving relationships with the built and the unbuilt heritage intact. A precinct protected but without a value system of supportive community faces challenges for its survival. The ethnicity of cultural practices, however archaic they may be, owing to their inherent mystical nature. The potential of such practices is always centred around creating an harmony of co-existence that is for protection.
The various associations between riparian water holes of ancient eras and the lives of the people drawn as a network of symbiotic and ecological engagement has valuable lessons for conservation practices. The diverse interests of the society governed by policies and practices may be reflection of the contemporary times, however value systems when engrained act as enshrined virtues that imparts timelessness. The future complexities however diverse when imbued with the spirit of celebration of biodiversity and ecological sustenance by adding rituals as a way of commemorating them can create subtle ties that have universal and timeless meaning.
The connection with elements that go beyond satisfying functional requirements as a response to immediate natural settings, when celebrated with celestial events, create harmony, that can bridge any complexity and diversity of times, to establish a ‘cultural continuum’. The Banganga precinct is a distinct example of living heritage that has survived the test of times and invasions of various kinds. Each era imposes a unique layer, adding to its complexity and it is from these diverse backgrounds that forms the undeniable ethnic enrichment.