The original watering holes of Bombay

Till less than a century ago, Bombay was dotted with quaintly designed drinking water fountains which helped humans, animals and birds satiate their thirst with sparkling clean water, free of cost!

A pyau near Asiatic Library in Mumbai
A pyau near Asiatic Library in Mumbai

Aparna Joshi

You could be passing a defunct pyau on your morning jog in Mumbai, or while walking to the chaiwala across the office and not know of its existence. Commissioned by Indian philanthropists, these fountains are architectural gems that lie hidden in plain sight today.

A chilled mineral water bottle at a roadside stall is often the shortest way out for the Mumbaikar to quench their thirst on the go in the perennially hot and humid climate of Mumbai.

But till less than a century ago, the city of Bombay was dotted with a number of quaintly designed drinking water fountains which helped humans, animals and birds satiate their thirst with sparkling clean water, free of cost!

Tanks and wells had been around since the time the original inhabitants of the islands of Bombay dug for potable water or harvested rain water. But drinking water fountains, or pyaus as Bombay called them, sprung up between the late 1800s till the mid-1900s in local squares, parks, along tram routes and thoroughfares as the city grew as a trading hub. Drinking water for merchants, workers and animals who commuted incessantly became a necessity.

Water, water everywhere

As people flocked to Mumbai for work, and piped water made an appearance with the Vihar lake supplying potable water to the city in the 1860s, the need for drinking water facilities was felt acutely. Native philanthropists, rather than the ruling British, stepped in to fill the gap. Cutting across communities, these benefactors built drinking water fountains for the public, often in memory of loved ones or as an act of piety.

There’s a Gothic drinking water fountain in London’s Regent Park that stands testimony to the generosity of an Indian, Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney who gifted the fountain to the city, leaving his philanthropic signature on the very centre of imperial power, just as he had across his native Bombay. Readymoney, a wealthy Parsi, is credited to have bequeathed 40 stone and iron water fountains in various parts of Bombay, 32 of which were brought from England in 1860s.

Most of the fountains were laid out between the Fort area and Dadar, along the horse drawn tram routes that served the trade activity. There were the bazaars too - Bohra Bazar, Duncan market and Bori Bunder market - through which there was a constant churn of pedestrians, horsemen and bullock carts. A quick rest near a pyau meant the weary commuters could stop for a refreshing draught and the animals could have their fill at the troughs in the fountain where the water flowed.

By the natives, for the natives:

Ramji Setiba, Furdoonji Jeejeebhoy, Keshavji Naik and Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy were some of the benefactors who contributed to building pyaus in the city. While the provincial government admired the public spirit of these benefactors, it was loath to maintaining them and sanctioning the water that fed them.

It proposed instead to establish a meter at all such charitable fountains and the donors were required to pay for the water as well as the fountain, to make sure the water was given to the poor and not wasted.

Not every benefactor had only philanthropy at heart. A rich Baghdadi Jew, David Sassoon (whose name is also linked to the library at Kala Ghoda) wanted to put up a highly ornamental drinking fountain at the Esplanade, and even proposed that its use should be restricted to certain hours of the day, to avoid nuisance by water carriers who would throng there in the evenings!

Nonetheless, the pyaus, functional and ornamental alike, fulfilled a basic need of Bombay’s citizenry for well over 100 years, till piped water started reaching households and made the public fountain obsolete. After the 1960s, the fountains slowly fell into a state of disuse and disrepair, ignored by citizens and uncared for by civic administration. Many were demolished, like the 19th century pyau in Parel opposite Bharatmata Talkies was demolished for road expansion in 2010.

By the 1970s, bottled water and aerated drinks made their entry and even the bhishti, the traditional water carriers who supplied potable water in leather carriers, made a gradual exit.

And they flow again!

Mumbai woke up to the inherent beauty and potential utility of these forgotten relics of the city’s hydraulic heritage when it commissioned architect Rahul Chemburkar to restore one of these fountains. Chemburkar and other architects have been on a mission to restore these fountains since 2008. While there are no clear numbers on how many pyaus Mumbai once had, close to 30 of these are being restored or are already functioning. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some like the Ramji Setiba pyau in Shivaji Park stands about five feet tall while the Keshavji Nayak pyau at Masjid Bunder soars to over 20 feet.

Their architectural styles vary widely too. The Kothari pyau opposite the GPO has an Indo-Saracenic edifice was built by Devidas Kothari in memory of his daughter Lilavati in 1923 and appears to borrow elements from the neighbouring building, including decorative friezes and small minarets on the corners.

The quintessential structure of the pyau consisted of spouts for dispensing water and spill over troughs that were used to quench the thirst of animals. The water was either directly lined up to the spouts through municipal water connections or external water storage tank arrangements were made. The word pyau itself appears to have been borrowed from Gujarati, as the equivalent word for these drinking water fountains in Marathi is paanpoi, a word rarely used by Mumbaikars.

Most of these fountains are now classified as grade II or III heritage structures, and Chemburkar and his team work on restoring and repairing them with the help of local Malad stone which was used widely in the original structures, and making the water supply tenable. Some of these fountains, like the four in Byculla’s zoo precincts, have been restored and some even offer water supply to the passing commuter, at least for some hours of the day.

Some, like the 1876 Keshavji Naik pyau with its shrine like look with sandstone pilasters and a cupola carved with peacocks and the Crawford Market pyau that’s inspired by cathedrals, are architectural marvels by themselves and speak of a city which boasted a unique identity till just a few decades ago.

Some experts believe investment in more pyaus would help fight against plastic.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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