Gateway of India

S. Balakrishnan

It would be both amusing and interesting to know that instead of the Gateway of Indiait was a mere “plaster of paris” (or cardboard)replica of TajMahalthat initially welcomed the King and Queen of the colonial British Empire on arrival in Bombay!When Their Majesties King George V and Queen Mary, the first British monarch to land in India, arrived at Apollo Bunder of Bombay on 2nd December 1911, only a plaster of parisreplica of TajMahalcould be put up, becausesanction for the welcome arch ‘Gateway of India’ had been finally approved only in March of that year; hence there was not sufficient time to erect this massive structure. However, the foundation stone had been laid on 31st March 1911 itselfby the then Governor of Bombay, Sir George Sydenham Clarke. It was a pathetic Tajreplica as it looked lean and mean. The king later attended the Delhi Durbar of 1911.

  Architect George Wittethad designed this arch on Indo-Saracenic (combination of Hindu & Mughal architectural) style, with more leaning towards Gujarati style, and basically modeled on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It took almost ten years for completing this monumental project, as land had to reclaimed and fortified; George Wittet’s final design was approved in 1914 and the monument was inaugurated on 4th December 1924. However, the actual construction since completion of foundation in 1920took just five years. What a vanity project! It cost a mighty 21 lakh rupees merely to commemorate the landing of the Empire.It is of interest to note that three Georges were involved in this project!

Standing 26 meters (85 feet) tall, the yellow basalt stone and reinforced concretemonument faces the Arabian Sea and is situated in South Mumbai at Apollo Bunder ferry point at the end of ChhatrapatiShivaji Marg. Due to wear and tear, now it may look black. Constructed by Gammon India, the arch is joined with four corner turrets and has intricate carvings and jalis onit. It is claimed by Gammon India that India's first pre-cast reinforced concrete piling was done for the foundations of the gateway.This archway has now become a symbol as well as synonymous of Mumbai and is a star tourist attraction with plenty of pigeons flocking the area. It presents a glorious floodlit view during nights. While the majestic TajMahal Palace hotel (built in 1903) is a bit aside, the ugly tallTajMahalTower Hotel (1973) appears looming behind the Gateway and spoils the aesthetic view of the archway from sea side. The monument is an ASI protected one.

 

                I too majestically passed through this archway as we proceeded to board the ferry to Elephanta Caves. That was in 1989, much before the 2008 terror attack when this area was the hotspot of action, what with the iconic twin Taj Hotels, the main targets, situated nearby. But we did not have time to leisurely appreciate the monument as we were in a hurry to board the ferry. While returning from Elephanta Caves we were just too tired even to look up at the monument. It was a tiring day carrying around our 9 month old chubby son. Our daughter who is younger to him by five years was much agitated for many years that we had taken him around to Bombay but not her! She cooled down only last year when she went, to my envy, on a solo trip to Mumbai during Ganesh Puja. But that poor boy doesn’t remember anything of that trip. For that matter, even I don’t remember much now, after 30+ years. It seems Bombay is calling, sorry, Mumbai is calling me. Maybe I will also stay for a night at the plush TajMahal Palace hotel @ Rs.14,500 + taxes;just dreaming!

After its inauguration in 1924 the Gateway was used as a symbolic ceremonial entrance to India for Viceroys and new Governors of Bombay.  Ironically, the last ship with British soldiers left from this very Gateway after India’s independence! The First Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry passed through this gateway on 28 February 1948. Similar was the fate of a statue of king George V that stood nearby that was replaced by that of ChhatrapatiShivaji in 1961.

 While some dispute it as a ‘symbol of slavery’, people simply flock to it merelyas a leisure spot to get some fresh air. I am curious if the king was at all aware of the trickery of plaster of parisTaj instead of the planned welcome arch ‘Gateway of India’!…