On a rather mildly sunny afternoon, the waves of a greyish-blue Arabian Sea come crashing against the rocks creating a net of pure white foam; the coconut trees around dance to the tunes of the wind blowing across the perfectly-trimmed lawns, and far across the shore, the entire skyline of Mumbai seems like a distant world altogether from Raj Bhavan. Little did one know that the official residence of the Governor of Maharashtra houses a real chamber of secrets that remained unearthed (quite literally) for years.
Being in the premises of Mumbai's Raj Bhavan complex is an experience in itself: Spread across 50 acres of land, surrounded by the sea on three sides, a mile-long stretch of thick forests, and, of course, several remnants of a bygone era. To enhance this experience further, the gates to an underground bunker museum — spread over an area of 15,000 square feet — will be opened for the general public. From historical anecdotes, tokens of colonial craftsmanship, to virtual reality booths that offer a cannon-firing experience — Raj Bhavan's Bunker Museum (as it is being called now) is almost like travelling back in time to the 19th century.
The christening of the place as 'Raj Bhavan' is rather new and dates back only to the post-Independence era, but the history of the place precedes the independence of India. The complex, before Independence, served as the Government House of Bombay. All British governors, starting from Lord Reay (1885-1890), have lived here. The previous Government House was in Parel where the Haffkine Institute stands today. It served as the residence of the Governor of Bombay from 1771 to 1883. Before that, the Governor resided in Bombay's Apollo Street in what was called the 'New House' as it was the first time the Governor's residence was shifted from his first address - The Bombay Castle, situated at the heart of the Fort, behind the Town Hall and between the Mint and the Old Custom House.
Prior to 1885, the current Raj Bhavan was used as an occasional retreat or summertime home of the British governors and prior to 1857 that of the governors of the East India Company. Colonel George Sydenham Clarke, who served as the Governor of Bombay from 1907 to 1913 had a strong military background. It is most likely that the bunker was constructed during his tenure to provide shelter for guns and ammunition.
Vikas Dilawari, the renowned Mumbai-based conservation architect, was invited to make the conservation plan for the bunker. In his report, he quotes lines from Jan Morris's book Stones of Empire: The Buildings of the Raj (1983) that notes: “...in the last days of British rule, when the city seethed with patriotic unrest, they built an underground bunker beneath the happy bungalows of Malabar, equipped with bedrooms and kitchen for a long stay. A motor road led into it big enough to accommodate the governors Daimler and a water-gate in the rock face gave access to a jetty in the case His Excellency needed to make a hasty getaway”.
The story of its discovery is rather interesting. Speaking to Firstpost, Umesh Kashikar, Public Relations Officer to the Governor says that for many years, the old-timers in the complex, whose parents had also served in Raj Bhavan, would often say that they had been told about a tunnel somewhere hidden under the Governor's residence. But, no one would take it too seriously. Also, nobody could actually verify it as there was no way to find where the so-called tunnel started and ended. "In August 2016, during one of his regular walks, the current Governor Shri C Vidyasagar Rao noticed a section that seemed superimposed on the existing rock wall. He asked the Public Works (PW) staff to knock the wall down just to see whether there actually exists a tunnel or not. And what they found came across to them as a big shock," he reveals.
Having been sealed for so many years, along with newer constructions done over and around it, all its light vents were covered and it was pitch dark inside. The PW staff members went ahead with a lot of apprehension and fear, armed with torchlights of their mobile phones. They found filth and rubble all around; water was seeping through the ceiling (from the lawns above the ground) and all the metal — gates, levers, pulleys, railings etc — had completely rusted away, Kashikar mentions.
Upon returning, the PW staff told everyone that it was no tunnel, but a bunker with 13 rooms of different sizes. Some of these rooms bore names such as Shell Store, Gun Shell, Cartridge Store, Shell Lift, Pump, Central Artillery Store, Workshop, etc. What was also remarkable about the underground bunker was that it had a proper drainage system and inlets for fresh air and light. Going further, there was a 20-feet tall majestic gate which opened to the original entrance whose structure resembled a fort.
Soon after the bunker was discovered, Rao called up Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavais and both of them stepped inside the bunker to see it for themselves. "They consulted experts and decided to first go through the history of the place and when the bunker was created; second, figure out ways to restore it, and lastly, how to make it accessible to the people in a democratic setup. At the end of the day, the land belongs to the people," says Kashikar.
He adds that in order to kickstart the restoration process, a committee was set up that comprised Dr Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Director, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Rajeev Mishra, Principal, Sir JJ School of Architecture and Dr M Nambhirajan, Archaeological Survey of India as conservator experts. Pravin Kide, Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department was appointed as the coordinator of the committee. IIT Bombay was brought on board to carry out the structural audit of the bunker, while Chetan Raikar of Structwel Designers and Consultants supervised the waterproofing of the bunker.
Kashikar mentions how C Vidyasagar Rao stressed on making it a modern museum with features like virtual reality that give the public a closer look and feel of the past. There are two-three themes that will be employed to engage people, he says. "We will offer a cannon-firing experience to the people. We will also throw light on the freedom struggle movement of India and how it won its independence. Then, it will also offer some history of the forts of Maharashtra. The Honourable Governor also plans to recreate the courtroom scene of Bombay High Court — during Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak's trial when he said: 'Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it' — in the fort section of the bunker; that place actually suits it."
Note: On 1 September 2019, C Vidyasagar Rao was replaced by former Uttarakhand Chief Minister and RSS veteran Bhagat Singh Koshyari as the new Governor of Maharashtra.
— All photos by Suryasarathi Bhattacharya for Firstpost
Updated Date: Sep 10, 2019 09:23:29 IST