To restore the 150-year-old Flora Fountain, the iconic heritage structure at Hutatma Chowk in the Fort area of Mumbai, to its former glory required study of copious amounts of historical background. Understanding its intricate water engineering system, however, was a months-long affair for the team working on the project.
The mystery of the water network was revealed only when conservation architect Vikas Dilawari and his team of structural engineers chanced upon a seven feet and six inches deep chamber at the centre of the fountain that had been sealed off, possibly more than half a century ago.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) decided to restore the sculpted structure after it stopped functioning a couple of years back and the project was allotted to Dilawari and his team in June last year. Before the work could begin, Dilawari had to conduct a detailed investigation of the fountain to understand why the water had stopped flowing. “Initially, the system mainly ran on gravity and there was no need for pumps. However, with time, the fountain stopped being used regularly and lack of regular maintenance contributed to the problems. Eventually, water stopped flowing. We had to do a detailed investigation to understand which part of the system was malfunctioning,” he said.
Dilawari said it took at least two months to diagnose the problem before they were able to start the actual repair work on the structure. “For two weeks, we visited the site every day to try and figure out the problem. We first removed the layers of water proofing we found on the pipes. As we probed further, we found the chamber that was responsible for the regulation of water pressure for the fountain,” he said.
According to their observations, people who were maintaining the fountain had done a patchwork rather than rectify the problem and gradually, the water stopped flowing out of all the outlets placed at the fish’s mouths.
Accompanied by his teammate and structural engineer, Kiran Bhavsar and members of Burjoor Fryamjee Plumbers, who are among the city’s oldest plumbing firms, Dilawari tried all non-invasive methods to determine the problem. “The problem was that when the water went up, it would start leaking. We wanted to try endoscopy but it was expensive and would increase the project cost. While we were studying the structure, we found three protruding pipes that were choked. After cleaning them, we inserted a tape down the pipe to measure the depth which is when we realised that the cavity was more than seven feet deep. We then sent small digital cameras down the pipe and spotted the valve mechanism inside,” he said.
During the investigation, the team also tried other methods, like thermography that didn’t yield any conclusive result. “We also tried the reverse water testing system where we poured water into the fish’s mouths to see where it drained. But we weren’t able to solve the problem,” he said.
Dilawari added that the existence of the valve had never been documented and after making inquiries, civic officials said they did not have the key to operate the valve.
“The manual chamber had been concretised and judging by the contents we found inside, the cavity was sealed more than 50 years ago. We removed the concrete and found the access to the chamber which contained four valves,” he said. After the chamber was discovered, Dilawari and his team cleaned the area and placed two support beams. “Two people can easily fit inside the chamber. We have set up a waterproof entrance to the chamber and installed four sluice valves to replace the damaged ones. The key to the door will remain with the civic body so that when there is a problem in future, technicians will be able to access the valves easily,” he said. They also repaired the water system at the upper level tray of the structure where another leak was spotted. “Once we fixed the leaks, the water started flowing properly,” said Dilawari.
The team found glass bottles, bottle openers, iron rods and cloth dating back to the early 1960s in the chamber. “We were successfully able to restore the water flow and the fountain is now functional. We have documented the entire process in a systematic manner and all details have been shared with the heritage committee,” he said.
Inaugurated in 1869, the Flora Fountain is made of Portland stone and was dedicated to Governor Bartle Frere. It was commissioned by the Agri-Horticultural Society of Western India and built at a total cost of Rs 47,000, a big amount at that time. The design was prepared by R Norman Shaw and the fountain was sculpted in imported Portland stone by James Forsythe, who was among Britain’s finest sculptors.
Owing to its rich historical background, Dilawari decided to try and contact the family members of both Shaw and Forsythe as part of his research. “I was able to get in touch with Forsythe’s family members last year. They said they have never had the chance to see Flora Fountain although their relative’s name is carved on the south side of the heritage structure. They asked if we could send them pictures of the structure after the work is complete since they are unlikely to come to Mumbai,” he said.
The BMC has divided the restoration project in two sections and the cost of the entire project amounts to Rs 3.71 crore. While one part involves cleaning, repair, and restoration of the monument, the second part deals with the development of the surrounding area of the fountain. Work on the second part is yet to begin and the restoration is expected to finish in at least three months’ time.