On a leafy uphill road in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb, a fire burns at a Catholic shrine. Garlands adorn a cross and statues of saints below it as pedestrians walk by wearing masks. A nondescript sign at the back of the shrine tells visitors that the cross was erected in 1897 when the city was battling another pandemic.
Deserted roads, a migrant workers’ exodus, fears of the disease spreading in congested slums — the scenes that have played out in India’s financial capital over the past year with COVID-19 bear a striking resemblance to what life was like here when the bubonic plague hit the city (then known as Bombay) more than a century ago.
The disease was characterized by fever and swelling of the lymph nodes, and was caused by a bacterium that spread via rats carrying infected fleas. The first case was reported in Bombay in 1896. Over the next few decades, the plague killed millions in British India, most of them poor people who lived and worked in cramped surroundings.
Residents look out of their windows at the Dharavi slum during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown.
Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Getty Images
It also shaped Mumbai — literally — and left indelible marks on its streets and buildings. Yet the bubonic plague rarely features in Mumbai’s public memory, historians say.
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‘This Moment Of Rupture’
In fact, says Alisha Sadikot, a public historian and educator who conducts workshops and walking tours that highlight and explain the city’s history, you can’t really understand Mumbai without understanding the bubonic plague.
“The plague was like this moment of rupture,” says Sadikot. “You can physically see the difference in the city even today — places that existed before the plague and places that were planned and implemented as a result of the plague.”
Pedestrians wearing protective masks cross a road outside Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus railway station during the morning rush hour in Mumbai on July 14, 2023. Formerly Victoria Terminus, the railway station was built by the British to showcase Bombay’s might.
Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images
In the late 1800s, British colonists christened Bombay Urbs Prima in Indis—Latin for “India’s Premier City.” They built Victorian Gothic structures — including a clock tower modeled on London’s Big Ben and a sprawling railway station with pointed arches and gargoyles — in the southern part of the city to showcase Bombay’s might. British elites had huge villas or bungalows in the hilly parts of the city, where they could enjoy the cool sea breeze. But farther north, what was called the “native town” — where the cotton mills and working-class neighborhoods were located — was strikingly different.
“Really congested neighborhoods; incredibly unsanitary, subhuman conditions of life; people living in dark, damp ill-ventilated housing,” says Sadikot. “And this is where the plague hits.”
Demolishing Houses, Making New Streets
The British colonial government responded to the plague by establishing the Bombay Improvement Trust, which was responsible for revamping congested neighborhoods. The Trust was tasked with “making new streets, opening out crowded localities, reclaiming lands from the sea to provide room for the expansion of the city, and the construction of sanitary dwellings for the poor,” writes historian Prashant Kidambi.
Borah Bazaar Street in Bombay in 1875, decades before bubonic plague struck and led to a dramatic urban makeover.
Museum of Photographic Arts, Bourne and Shepherd/Gift of the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection via Flickr
One way the Trust sought to redevelop and decongest entire neighborhoods was to demolish houses, says Sadikot.
“[The Trust] literally broke down homes to create these avenues of ventilation,” she says. “It widened roads allowing the sea air from the west to be pulled into the densest, [most] congested quarters of the native town.”
The Trust also implemented anti-epidemic building regulations, such as the “63.5 degree light angle rule,” which determined the distance between a building and its boundary wall to allow improved light and ventilation. Many of the iconic Art Deco-style buildings that adorn present-day Mumbai’s streets were built in accordance with these plague regulations.
The Marine Drive seafront in Mumbai is lined with brightly colored buildings boasting curved corners, stylish balconies and decorative motif.
Punit Paranjpe/AFP via Getty Images
The Trust also established a design rule for windows in chawls, working-class residential buildings with several single-room tenements. Each chawl unit had tall windows built from the base of the wall, so that residents — many of whom slept on the floor — had sufficient light and ventilation.
Sadikot says the Trust envisioned a “community type of neighborhood [that was built based on an] understanding that there are other people living alongside you.”
Residents of a present-day chawl stand on their common balcony. A chawl is a tenement dwelling for the working class.
Punit Paranjpe/AFP via Getty Images
The Trust was zealous in knocking down buildings, but some experts say it didn’t replace enough of them.
“The Trust’s wholesale demolition of tenement blocks, without the provision of alternative accommodation for those displaced, rendered many homeless,” writes Kidambi.
Room 000 And Other Plague Landmarks
Markers of the plague are all around modern Mumbai, says Shriti Tyagi. You just have to look closely. Tyagi led a walking tour of the city in 2016 to mark 120 years since the outbreak, guiding visitors through plague landmarks. The walk included more than half a dozen spots, including Room 000, a laboratory in a stone building where Russian scientist Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine developed a bubonic plague vaccine, and a statue of Dr. Acacio Gabriel Viegas, who first detected the bubonic plague in Mumbai.
The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai. The Indian industrialist Jamsetji Tata commissioned the hotel after the plague struck Bombay. His goal was to to boost the morale of the ravaged city with a new landmark. The hotel opened in 1903.
Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Tyagi says that once you start looking for them, stories and evidence of the plague can be found in unexpected places and structures — even in the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, one of Mumbai’s most famous landmarks. The Indian industrialist Jamsetji Tata commissioned the hotel after the plague struck Bombay.
Tyagi says Tata wanted to boost the morale of his ravaged, beloved city by giving it a stunning new landmark. The fact that someone was willing to invest in an expensive project at a time of severe economic distress gave people hope. “The construction of the hotel itself rebooted a lot of people’s faith in Bombay,” says Tyagi. “Jamsetji Tata staked his faith in the city, and many followed.”