The Asiatic Society

Where in Mumbai will you find a finely sculpted collection of statues that pay tribute to its earliest thinkers and administrators, and a library that stocks some of Asia’s rarest books? From philanthropist Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy to visionary Governor Mountstuart Elphinstone, you’ll spot their statues inside the Town Hall building which houses the Asiatic Society of Mumbai (previously Bombay).

You need to climb thirty steps to enter what is possibly one of the most historic buildings in the city. But before you do so, look out for a stone slab at the base of the first step with ‘0’ (zero) engraved on it. Known as the Town Hall datum, this represents the point at sea level. The Asiatic Society was founded in 1804 by James Mackintosh and 16 other English gentlemen as the Literary Society, to create a platform where great minds could encourage the arts and sciences. It was the heart of intellectual thought and discussion in Bombay. The current structure, one of the city’s earliest examples of neoclassical architecture, was designed in by Thomas Cowper. The Asiatic Society moved into the building in 1830. The site for this building was chosen because it is near the Mint, the Bombay Harbour and St Thomas Cathedral.

The Town Hall has been witness to several historic events – the first exhibition of electric lights in 1847; Lord Elphinstone’s announcement of the Queen’s Proclamation of transfer of power from the East India Company to the Crown in 1858; the first convocation of the University of Bombay in 1862. In 1948, grieving citizens paid their last respects to Mahatma Gandhi, whose ashes were kept here in an urn for public homage. It has hosted Western classical music concerts and theatre performances.

The Society’s massive library is home to 2,000-plus manuscripts and over 2.5 lakh titles. It boasts of rare antiquities, artefacts, coins, maps, and literature from not just English and Indian languages but also European languages, Pali, Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian. While the Town Hall was the seat of civic activity, the Asiatic Society was a centre for research and knowledge gathering. Their symbiotic association resulted in it becoming the nucleus for education, dialogue and debate in erstwhile Bombay. The Society has introduced awareness programmes and drives to encourage public participation in its conservation efforts. If you’re keen to learn about how the city grew from a cluster of islands to the Crown’s most prized city, this is the best place to begin that discovery.

Where: Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg, opposite Horniman Circle Garden, Fort.

The Asiatic Society Library. | Picture credits: A Savin/Public Domain.

The Bombay Samachar

A stone’s throw away from the Asiatic Society, in the heart of the original city, you will spot a nondescript, red brick-coloured building. It houses Asiaʼs oldest newspaper that is still in operation. The Bombay Samachar (renamed Mumbai Samachar), a Gujarati-language daily, has been in circulation since July 1, 1822. The newspaper was established by Parsi scholar and priest Furdonjee Marzbanjee, who is often hailed as the father and founder of the native press movement in India. It proved to be an instant hit among the Gujarati-speaking population in the city, many of whom had migrated from the neighbouring Gujarat. Another chunk of readers were Parsis and Iranian Zoroastrians, who also speak Gujarati. It was a weekly till 1832, continued as a bi-weekly till 1855, and has been a daily since then. It remains one of the most read newspapers among Gujarati speakers of West India. The Cama family has been running the paper since 1933.

Nearby, you will notice a beautiful circular garden and a semi-circular enclave. It was designed by James Scott in 1865 and the buildings were completed in 1873 to become Bombay’s first planned business district. The garden was laid out in 1869. Both these landmarks were originally called Elphinstone Circle and Elphinstone Circle Garden (in honour of former Governor John Elphinstone). While there, look out for the keystone heads of men and women etched on each floor level of these buildings. The Circle and Garden were renamed in 1947 after Benjamin Horniman, the fearless, pro-Independence British editor of the English language newspaper, Bombay Chronicle, that was in publication till 1959. It was also printed by The Bombay Samachar Press.

Where: Bombay Samachar Marg, near St Thomas Cathedral, Fort.

The Bombay Samachar press. | Picture credits: AroundTheGlobe CC BY-SA 3.0


Once upon a time, the British built a Fort with impregnable walls and watchtowers, and canons that were aimed towards the coast, in case of an enemy attack via the Arabian Sea. This Fort housed British settlements and military and administrative offices. Only a few Indian homes and establishments existed on its fringes. It had three gates – Bazaar Gate, Church Gate, and Apollo Gate. Each of these gates was named after the area in which it was located. Of the three, the name Church Gate was inspired from the St Thomas Cathedral that is located near the spot where it is believed to have been built. As the population began to grow within the Fort, the farsighted Governor of Bombay, Sir Bartle Frere (term: 1862-67), ordered that its walls be brought down to de-congest the area and improve living conditions.

Interestingly, many of the names connected with the Fort remain till date. The best example is the Churchgate building that housed the offices of Bombay, Baroda, and Central India Railway (today’s Western Railway). This building was opposite the Churchgate station. It was completed in 1899 by British architect FW Stevens and his eldest son, Charles, along with Rao Saheb Sitaram Khanderao Vaidya. The stunning white-coloured building is a combination of Venetian Gothic and Indo-Saracenic styles. The gates and the Fort are long-gone but the name has stuck. The building was made of white Porbandar stone, and has ornamental wood carvings that are quite spectacular.

If you step outside this landmark, turn to your left and look in the direction of Flora Fountain, you might actually be able to spot the top of the bell tower of this Cathedral, and relive your own moment from the past!

Where: Veer Nariman Road.

An India Post stamp showing the Churchgate railway station.| Public Domain.

Excerpted with permission from H for Heritage: Mumbai, Fiona Fernandez, illustrated by Sumedha Sah, HarperCollins India.