Mumbai: Site of temple from which Parel derives name now houses Haffkine Institute

It has served varying purposes from religious to political to finally housing the oldest biomedical research institute in the country

Written by Ruhi Bhasin | Mumbai | Published:September 4, 2016 2:05 am
The building from which Haffkine Institute operates now. Express Photo by Ruhi Bhasin The building from which Haffkine Institute operates now. Express Photo by Ruhi Bhasin

The old temple of Parli Vaijnath provided Parel area, then an adjoining village, its name. With each turn in history, the site of that temple has served different purposes from religious to political to finally housing the oldest biomedical research institute in the country — Haffkine Institute.

With several hospitals in close proximity in the Parel area, most people would not know that the site where Haffkine Institute is located now gave the area its name.

“First, there was a temple at the site. Then the Jesuits built a monastery and then a chapel at the site, some time between 1596 to 1693. The building, thereafter, became the residence of Registrars of Bombay till the demolition of the Fort. The Governors of Bombay used to live in Parel, after leaving the Fort. The building was then known as Government House. At that time, the area was considered to be a very aristocratic locality. In 1885, the Governors left this residence and the premises were used as House of Recorders of the Bombay Presidency. It was finally handed over to Dr Haffkine on August 10, 1899, for plague research,” said a medical social worker who looks after the museum operating within Haffkine Institute.

The building from where the institute operates today was the official residence of the Governor under the British rule. The Durbar Hall, which is presently used for lectures and training programmes, was once decorated specially for the felicitation of Prince of Wales during his visit to the then Governor’s house in 1875. The staircase leading up to the Durbar Hall is adorned with lion heads which are perhaps the only reminder that the building had been the Governor’s residence once.

Wiliam Hornby (1771-1784) was the first governor to take up residence at the mansion at the site. Much later, the governor’s residence moved to its present location on Malabar Hills in 1885.

“During that period, Parel was the posh area, the Fort area being highly congested before the 1860s,” said conservation architect Abha Lambah Narian.

In 1803, Sir James Mackintosh, then Recorder of Bombay, wrote: “We live about 5 miles of excellent road over a flat from our capital. We inhabit by the Governor’s kindness his official country house, a noble building with some magnificent apartments and with two delightful rooms for my library, in which I am now, writing, overlooking a large garden… “

Reportedly, Governor Richard Temple refused to live at Parel because the house was so much out of the way, and he transferred his head-quarters to Malabar Point. Sir James Fergusson, who followed Sir Richard, again took up residence in Government House, Parel, in November 1880. In his time, all the rooms in the Parel building were called by the names of towns. In 1883, Lady Fergusson died of cholera in the house. The house, the permanent residence of Governors from 1829, was abandoned after the end of Sir James Fergusson’s term in office (1880-1885). After this, the house was offered to the then Municipal Commissioner for the Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute.

“More than the other government houses, Parel evokes the combination of magnificence and misery which was the keynote of the Raj in its young days. For along with memories of vast reception rooms hung with crystal chandeliers and noble staircases and a park full of exotic trees, goes the sinister knowledge that the house was abandoned after a governor’s wide died here of cholera,” reads a quote from ‘Palaces of Raj’.

After the building was handed over to Dr Haffkine in 1899, it was designated as Plague Research Laboratory and Dr Haffkine was its Director-in-Chief. In 1906, the Institute was renamed Bombay Bacteriology Laboratory. Dr Haffkine is credited with inventing the plague vaccine. Finally in 1925, due to the efforts of Lt Col F P Mackie, the institute was named Haffkine Institute.

The museum at the institute which tries to put together the history and the medical importance of the place is open to public. The inner face of the institute, which is a grade-B structure, is coming apart with patches of worn-off paint and nets adorning rooftops of rooms serving as research laboratories. The architecture of the outer facade is perhaps the only reminder of the various stories the building witnessed. People working in the institute agree it is hard to maintain such an old structure.

In 1990, a separate two-storied building was constructed to accommodate the institutes’s huge archival collections of medical books and other journals to try retain the history of the place as it continues research for solutions for the future.