Arsenal or Bunker? A British India Structure in Mumbai Evokes Curiosity and Excitement

Mumbai's Raj Bhavan at Malabar Hill, where a British era tunnel has been found under this lawn. Credit: Wire Staff

Mumbai’s Raj Bhavan at Malabar Hill, where a British era tunnel has been found under this lawn. Credit: Wire Staff

History buffs in Mumbai are agog with the news of the discovery of a British era tunnel under the state’s Raj Bhavan. For the last few days, ever since the news was announced, journalists, historians and archeologists have been touring the maze of rooms under the Raj Bhavan lawns and speculation abounds what they were used for.

The sign of the Cartridge Store

The sign of the Cartridge Store

There are a total of 13 rooms and some of them have signs such as ‘Cartridge Store’, ‘Shell Store’ and ‘Gun Shell’ , ‘Pump,’ ‘Workshop’, marked on the doors, leading to the obvious conclusion, that it could have been a large storage space for weaponry and perhaps also used as a bunker. There is evidence that some rooms had doors with metal bars though most of the doors that have been discovered are made of wood. But there is little else physical evidence or documentation available to throw more light on when and why it was made.

“It’s clearly an arsenal, but for what and against what is the question,” says Sadashiv Gorakshkar, a former director of the city’s Prince of Wales Museum and the author of a book on the Raj Bhavans of Maharashtra. Walking along the warrens of the tunnel with Dr Gorakshkar proves to be an illuminating experience as he picks out details that others may miss. “The tunnel was clearly made at two different times,” he says. One part is made of stone, with very high ceilings, almost like the forts of the times, the other consists of rooms and corridors with whitewashing that looks relatively recent. According to a staffer, in one corner of the second portion, where the doors were marked with signs, they found two signatures, “Sheikh 1959” and “Sawant 1959” leading to speculation that civil work or maintenance was done at the time-what exactly it was, is again not clear.

A metal ring embedded in the wall in the tunnel

A metal ring embedded in the wall in the tunnel

The tunnel was possibly closed after that. A few weeks ago, Governor Ch Vidyasagar Rao, having heard stories of just such a tunnel, ordered a wall to be broken. A couple of staffers of the Public Works Department entered it with trepidation, worried at what they would find inside. Another concern was that gases would have been trapped within, which could be dangerous.

They were pleasantly surprised when they found not just a drainage system but also vents for fresh air that provided ventilation, an example of good structural engineering of the time. A carcass of an animal too was discovered. But it was the rooms and the doors, with the engraved signs that thrilled them. Along with those, there were pulleys, metal rings, staircases leading upwards, metal rings embedded in the walls, alcoves (possibly to place lamps) and much else. All this could possibly be part of a system to store and move ammunition to the surface to supply troops.

A sign with the engraving Shell Lift 10 B L Gun

A sign with the engraving ‘Shell Lift 10 B L Gun’

Gorakshakar’s book mentions an 1828 reference to a “Signal Flagstaff” and “Gun Platform” and a 1868 site plan shows a structure with five vents as well as an underground passage. “Quite likely the underground chamber served as an ammunition store and the gun was mounted on the gun-deck above strategically located to keep a watch on the approach to the harbor,” he has written.

Malabar Point – named because it was at a height and used as a look out for pirates from Malabar (the stretch down the western coast) and the hostile Dutch and French navies – became the Governor’s residence in the late 19th century. Attempts were made to shift earlier, because Parell, where the Governor then lived, was deemed unhealthy and Malabar Hill was found suitable for its salubrious air and exclusive isolation. But while they used it as a summer residence, successive Governors were reluctant to move permanently and it was only in 1885 that the shift was formally made by Lord Reay to the sprawling complex with its colonial bungalows. It was then called Government House.

The Prince of Wales, later Edward VII came to Bombay in 1875 but there is no record of him having stayed at Malabar Point. The next Prince of Wales, later George V did stay here in 1905; could the underground bunker have been beefed up for his security? One part of the tunnel, with the higher ceilings, is directly under the Governor’s current Bungalow; was it created for a quick getaway in case of an attack? Two successive World Wars followed in the 20th century and Bombay was open to attack from the sea; a bunker for the safety of the city’s most important person would have been a necessity. Again, no one has yet found any documentation on it.

The view of the Arabian Sea from Mumbai's Raj Bhavan

The view of the Arabian Sea from Mumbai’s Raj Bhavan

What is possible is that after the civil works of 1959, the bunker was sealed and whatever was considered important was taken out. However, the little bit that is still left and the shape and size (which could measure up to 5000 square feet) is fascinating and is likely to keep historians busy for a while.

Governor Rao has formed a committee of experts to research into the tunnel and also consider the security aspects. One of his innovations has been to allow citizens to explore parts of the Raj Bhavan on Sundays; the tunnel too could become part of that experience. For the moment it is being closely guarded with a sentry posted outside a newly installed metal gate.

All photos by Wire Staff