Nostalgia: Lighting up the colonial Bombay

While street lights are now taken for granted, the city’s journey from darkness to light has a fascinating history. Bombay got its first kerosene street lamps in 1843. In 1882, came the electric lamps

Nostalgia: Lighting up the colonial Bombay
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Aparna Joshi

Tucked between roots of a sprawling peepul tree in a Lalbaug lane is a yellowing basalt slab with the inscription- B.G. Co. LTD. B. 1912, the only marker of a forgotten past, of an institution that once lit up Mumbai’s streets for almost a century. The Bombay Gas Company.

The installation of the first two LED fitted unidirectional traffic lights at Worli Sea Face and Goregaon earlier this year would have been a leap of imagination in 1912. Indeed, since 2016, Marine Drive has been gleaming with yellow LED lights after a brief honeymoon with white LED lamps, which critics said had robbed the lustre of the glowing Queen's Necklace.

The BMC has been pushing for replacement of the existing sodium vapour lamps in the city with LEDs for the last 4 years, but political sparring and the pandemic have delayed the project.

A part of an original gas lamp post
A part of an original gas lamp post

The city today sparkles with 1.26 lakh street lights, an estimated 37,045 of which are operated by BEST, 12,000 by the MSEB and the rest by Adani Electricity. From Cuffe Parade to Dahisar, these light poles guide pedestrians, light up isolated spots and intersections and even offer a shoulder to illegal hoardings and banners ranging from birthday wishes for local politicians to easy home loan offers.

The street light is something Mumbaikars today take for granted as they do the local train and the pedestrian subway. But in the 1830s, Bombay was used to darkness after dusk. The city was just beginning to be dazzled by the power of gas lamps that glowed in a handful of houses of influential Parsis in the Fort area.

In 1843, Bombay got its first kerosene fuelled street lamps. By 1862, the Bombay Gas Company came into existence and by 1865, prominent citizens had donated ornamental lamps at key points in the island city to light up important roads and promenades.

Gas light workers maintain a lamp post, Bombay, 1946
Gas light workers maintain a lamp post, Bombay, 1946

The city hasn't forgotten the legacy. A row of replicas of those decorative lamp posts (now run on electricity) continue to glow warmly every evening at the promenade adjoining the Gateway of India, harking back to the times when elegant Victorias trotted to the sound of crashing waves.

By 1874, the Bombay Gas Company had established its headquarters in Lalbaug. The lane continues to be called Gas Company Lane even today!

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An astonishing 400 kilometres of pipelines crisscrossed the city then to carry coal-fuelled gas to the lamps which were lit manually every evening and doused every morning by municipal lamp-lighters. Senior citizens fondly recall the daily ritual till the 1960s when gas lamps were phased out.

Only a handful of the gas lamps survive today, say young scholars Riddhi Joshi and Yogini Aatreya, who presented a research paper 'Bombay: The City of Lights' last year. The gas lamps lit up public spaces and made navigating in the city safer after dark for citizens, they pointed out.

By 1882, however, electric lamps were blazing a trail and the iconic Crawford Market became the first public structure in the city to be lit up by electricity. The electric company however soon went bust and gas lamps again ruled the roost till 1923, when tungsten filament powered electric lamps arrived in the city.

In 1938, the city tried out mercury vapour lamps with some success along Hornby Villard Road (Dr Annie Besant Road in Worli for the unfamiliar). In 1947, the British owned Bombay Gas Company was bought over by an Indian firm.

The proposal to switch from gas to electric street lights was however met with resistance from citizens who felt a part of their life would be darkened forever! A referendum was finally held with lights of varying fuel, brightness and colour installed at public squares with ballot boxes below each of them. Electric lights won the battle. Air quality concerns finally forced Bombay Gas Company to halt its operations in Parel and Lalbaug, pulling down the curtains on the gas-lit era.

The city, in its quest for more energy efficient street lighting, is exploring the use of solar energy in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Mumbai continues to shimmer at night and Queen's Necklace and the Sea Link to glow like jewels.

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