Hidden from the public eye in an umbrella of greenery, the INHS (Indian Naval Hospital Ship) Asvini hospital has been witness to more two centuries of Indian history. From the time the East India Company set up its establishment in the port town of Bombay to the tumultuous period of World War I and II, the two-and-a-half century old hospital is not only the city’s oldest hospital, but also the country’s oldest command hospital.
The idea of constructing a hospital in Colaba struck Britishers during their hunting expeditions, an official from Asvini said. The hospital, then called the King’s (Seamen’s) hospital, was first built in 1756 on Old Woman’s Island as a convalescent home for ailing British soldiers.
“However, In 1769, a sepoy hospital was built where the current hospital exists for the Indian troops, and King’s hospital was shifted here,” said Commander Rahul Sinha, chief public relations officer (Indian Navy). Interestingly, the Sepoy hospital, then a barrack but symbolic of British history, was demolished to give way for larger structure.
While the hospital dates back to 1756, several historians consider its history to begin from 1860 when the ground-plus-one-storey family hospital was built. “While it is ancient and has history attached to it, the hospital had no architectural features to flaunt. It was built with stone and was well spaced,” said city historian Deepak Rao.
According to hospital authorities, the maternity ward in the hospital was called hawa mahal because of the constant sea breeze it got. For a long time, family members of both Indian and British soldiers were treated there for simple ailments or for deliveries.
The modest stone structure, however, lost its charm after the requirement of expansion led to construction of a six-storey building nearby. Rao said, “The family hospital was a Grade-I structure. However, the new hospital building built in 2004 was not congruent with the old structure and the heritage category was dropped to Grade-II.”
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Interestingly, the hospital has been renamed thrice till now. While it was first named King’s (Seamen’s) hospital in 1756, the name was changed to “Bombay Marine hospital” in 1788. Finally in 1951, Lady Parry, wife of then Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Navy, named the hospital “INHS Asvini”. It is said that the name Asvini was derived from ‘Asvini Kumars’ — twin gods symbolising fusion of medicine with innovation and leadership. Asvini also means ocean-born.
The hospital also has smaller structures built alongside, which date back a century. The Jeffrey’s wing, the current college of nursing and the school of medical assistance are all housed in heritage structures.
There is a unique feature of the hospital which is still not known to several working there — the ancient Banyan tree close to the family hospital building. “The tree exists even before the family hospital was constructed in 1860,” said Rao. A surgeon from the hospital said the tree, now “grand and old”, continues to give shade and add beauty to the property.