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Tuesday, August 03, 2021

What can ancient milestones tell us?

Heritage conservation project on way markers comes with promise of new stories waiting to be told.

Written by Shiny Varghese | Mumbai |
Updated: January 11, 2021 1:18:28 am
Mumbai heritage conservation , BMC, bmc heritage conservation, milestone heritage project, umbai News, indian express newsProposed sketch of a milestone after restoration.

It’s very possible that you could have walked out of Chitra Cinemas in Dadar and never seen it. In black basalt stone, barely two feet above the ground, you would see a triangle-top, obelisk that reads ‘V Miles from St Thomas’s Church’. In almost fading Roman lettering, there is another milestone opposite the S P Jain Centre for Management, which is barely a foot above the ground, and says ‘I Mile’.

These milestones dot Mumbai’s streets and have been part of its growth for centuries. Currently, Mumbai’s Vaastu Vidhaan Projects, a heritage conservation firm, along with BMC, is creating a heritage circuit to map the 16 milestones that were once road markers in British India.

Rahul Chemburkar, who helms the project and is co-founder of Vaastu Vidhaan, sees this as an opportunity to tell the histories of the city. Chemburkar and his team are also working on the conservation of drinking water fountains of Mumbai. This milestone heritage project, which was initiated in 2017, has recently got all approvals to begin work.

Mumbai heritage conservation , BMC, bmc heritage conservation, milestone heritage project, umbai News, indian express news I Mile at Kalbadevi. (Vaastu Vidhaan Projects)

“Such milestones were present all across India at the time when transport was limited to walking or travelling by horse or bullock carts. In Mumbai, the zero mile was counted from the St Thomas Cathedral Church in Fort, which, three centuries ago, was the centre of the city. The city has grown linearly, from south to north ever since. The Bombay Fort walls couldn’t accommodate people and needs, and were brought down over the years. The city limits were till Sion Fort and we see these milestones till Sion,” says Chemburkar.

IV Miles at Chinchpokli. (Vaastu Vidhaan Projects)

A stone tablet at zero point – St Thomas Cathedral – records that it was built in 1718 and milestones were commissioned in 1817. These milestones are documented as “Grade I heritage structures of the erstwhile Bombay island city”.

In the book Bombay: The Cities Within Bombay (India Book House, 1995), authors Rahul Mehrotra and Sharada Dwivedi write: “In 1794, under the Governor George Dick, the City Civil Architect Lt. John Cunliffe was directed to set up stone markers in selected areas that marked the limits of the town of Bombay. These were constructed 18” above the ground level.”

The Milestone Society, UK, which commended Chemburkar on the project, records the history of milestones as markers way back during Roman times, when they had to move soldiers across metalled roads. After the Romans, local churches were boundary keepers. As trade grew and roads developed, milestones not only told travellers about direction and distance, but helped horse coaches to keep schedule and charge for change of horses at inns. These distances also helped calculate postal charges. Soon, with rail transport and vehicles on the road, these milestones lost their significance.

Chemburkar and his team visited five locations of these milestones, which includes I mile in Kalbadevi, and VI and VII Mile in Dadar. Engraved on monolith stones, these obelisk-kind of markers are six feet in height and usually are two feet underground. With a triangular pyramidal cap and Roman numerals, these milestones in many places in the city are almost vanishing.

“In India, we consider only big structures as heritage. The small ones, what I like to call dew drops, are often neglected. For instance, most of these milestones have either been demolished or built over. With road widening and plinth height of pavements increasing, sometimes, a milestone is barely a foot above the ground,” says Chemburkar.

In the past, some of the milestones have been locally restored by individuals or organisations at the ward level. Vaastu Vidhaan, in its report to the heritage committee, has suggested that in restoring these milestones, they could be given a common identity.

“There would be a plaque next to the obelisk to tell about its brief history, have it laid around a cobble stone paving. We have a QR code to mark the milestone, and this creates a heritage circuit for tourists. There could be heritage walks or cycle trails as well,” says Chemburkar.

“It will need community participation, we only want to be facilitators. It’s about integrating heritage into today’s context. The idea of oral storytelling is important to the building up of the city’s narrative. On board, we have Nilesh Thakkar of Jeernodhar Conservators Private Limited to help us with the project. Today, if you want to dig up the milestone and give it a foundation, you have to be mindful of the cables and service wires beneath the ground. Keeping all this in mind, we see this project taking at least six to eight months to be completed.”

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