In 1883, James Douglas, author of several books on Mumbai said: “Malabar Hill seems, like Clive and Carnac, born to command.”
Two years later, the governor of Bombay moved to Malabar Point, sealing the area’s destiny as a housing estate for the rich and the elite.
The shift from forest to expensive real estate was not sudden. On January 11, 1838, the then resident of Government House in Parel (now the Haffkine Institute) Sir R Grant recorded in his minutes that his home was an unhealthy place. Every gardener and servant was ‘laid up with fever’, he noted.
Sadashiv Gorakshkar, former director of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly called the Prince of Wales Museum), who studied Malabar Hill’s history for his book Raj Bhavans in Maharashtra said there were two factors that influenced the decision to shift the government house from Parel.
In 1883, Lady Fergusson, wife of the governor Sir J Fergusson was reported to have died of cholera at the Parel government house. “A slum was developing around the government house. The British wanted to shift from that morass,” said Gorakshkar.
The other reason was the prospect of better security in an increasingly crowded city.
Though the rocky headland of Point Malabar with a ‘varied and extensive view’ — as described in a government communication — was identified as a possible site for a new house, it was only half a century later that the governor moved permanently to the area. “Some of the governors had already stayed in houses near Malabar Point and they were aware of the area’s advantages. Mumbai was growing and the British needed a place to isolate themselves. They were thinking of buying the Town Hall but found Malabar Hill to be isolated. It had suitable weather conditions and they could keep a watch on the sea from there,” said Gorakshkar.
The development of Raj Bhavan and Malabar Hill’s growth as a residential area for the rich are interlinked. But the area’s recorded history dates back to at least the 9th century. The area is mentioned in two old books — Walkeshwar Mahatmya and Sahyadri Khanda. The hill originally called Walkeshwar once had four Shiva temples that were built in the Shilahara period between the 9th and 12th century.
The first European to refer to Walkeshwar promontory as Malabar Point was Dr John Fryer, a surgeon who came to India in 1672. In 1710, John Burnell, an ensign described the two hills (puckereys or pakhdis) of Wallkosher (Walkeshwar) and Cambell (Cumballa).
Though the Duke of Wellington stayed at Surrey Cottage on the slope of the hill around 1800, few other people stayed in the area.
The south-western tip with its temples and tank was inhabited, but the hill was largely a jungle.
In Mumbai: The City of Dreams Dr MD David, former head of history, Mumbai University, says that Malabar Hill was forest till the end of the 18th century. The Parsi cemetery in the northern end of the hill was set up in the late 17th century. The first access road to Malabar Point was built in 1828. David said that the jungle had hyenas and jackals and there is even a report of a jackal from the forest spotted in the Bombay high court compound.
What is now known as the ‘Great Fire’ changed that. “The fire on February 1803 devastated most of the city inside the old fort walls. The British administrators encouraged residents to build homes outside the fort. The first houses came up near Malabar Hill,” said David.
The 1826 census, according to Gorakshkar’s book, counted over 2,000 people living in the area, including 59 English, 44 Portuguese, 119 Parsis and the rest mostly Hindus.
The area became a housing destination for the rich much later.
Solicitor Rajan Jayakar who has a large collection of artifacts from Mumbai’s pre-Independence days, including photographs and paintings of Malabar Hill, said the elite moved to the area after the demolition of the walls of Bombay Fort in 1864.
“Before that, everybody, including the British and wealthy Indians lived in the fort. When the fort walls were broken down, there was the question where would the elite go. The fort was congested. Malabar Hill was the choice,” said Jayakar.
The Fort area, which was partly residential, became largely commercial after the shift. “Malabar Hill became an elite housing area after 1870. Most of the houses were located in large estates like those in Mahabaleshwar, the summer capital of Bombay province,” said Jayakar.
“There is a tendency to flock around authority. Rich families made houses in Mahabaleshwar too when the governor’s residence was built there,” said Gorakshkar.
The skyscrapers started replacing the garden bungalows in the 1970s.
The first high-rise was El Cid, followed by other skyscrapers.
“The surviving bungalows can now be counted on the fingers of the hand. But it had to happen as the character of Mumbai is veering towards vertical growth,” said Indrani Malkani, honorary secretary of the Malabar Hill Residents’ Association.
An old-time resident of the area said: “Malabar Hill has changed drastically. The bungalows have been demolished and the gardens have been reduced to widen the roads. There are more people staying here.”
The influx of new wealth has often sparked allegations that the newcomers were changing the area’s cosmopolitan nature. “Old wealth was inconspicuous,” said Malkani. “It is still cosmopolitan. Malabar Hill’s inherent character should not get compromised. It is an iconic area like many other localities in the city.”