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A Dip into History: Mumbai’s Banganga Tank through the lens of Foy Nissen

Foy Nissen’s black and white photographs of Mumbai are a testament to the living heritage of the city. Puja Vaish, Director JNAF takes us through selected photographs of Banganga Tank, one of his favourite spots.

Foy Nissen’s images of Mumbai are an invaluable archive of the city’s heritage and architecture. After Nissen passed away, his legacy comprising gelatin prints, slides and negatives was gifted to the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF) by the Estate of Foy Nissen. In addition to its vast modern and contemporary art collection, JNAF houses the complete range of photographic work by Foy Nissen (1931-2018).

Nissen played a foundational role in the development of the heritage conservation movement in Mumbai initiated in the 1990s. The JNAF aims to present aspects of the city that the Nissen Archive encompasses.

On the occasion of World Environment Day 2020, take a look at Banganga, a heritage site in Mumbai – through the photographs of Foy Nissen:

In recent years, environmentalists have pointed to the dipping water level of the site and a shift in the ecological balance due to water pollution and other factors. Nissen’s images from half a century ago are a testament to the changing landscape of the city.

Banganga 1970’s | Foy Nissen

Water, in its diverse occurrences has cultural connotations, especially in a city on the edge of the sea with monsoon as its defining season. Through the featured photographs, Nissen captures local life centred around this small water body.

mumbai banganga tank foy nissen
Nariyal Poornima at Banganga, 1973, Foy Nissen

As documentary stills, the selected angles and compositions display not only great photography skill, but also allow for a detached yet close viewing, never intrusive or disruptive. Seen together these images construct an intimate narrative of the place.

Banganga is laden with myth, legend, religious, historical and cultural significance. Many meanings are ascribed to the waters of Banganga, contributing to the collective memory of the place in the city.

mumbai banganga tank foy nissen
Thread Ceremony at Banganga, 1970s, Foy Nissen

The Walkeshwar temple along with Banganga tank in the Malabar Hill area, is the oldest existing Hindu temple complex in the city.

In the complex, there are twelve temples of various Hindu deities, the Shri Kashi Math and Shri Kaivalya, that fall under the ownership of Goud Saraswat Brahmin Trust. The families of the priests live within the temple complex.

The complex also has a crematorium, and Hindu funeral ceremonies take place on the Banganga ghats. The temple site is believed to have been built in the 12th century during the Silhara dynasty, and rebuilt in the 18th century. Though just off the sea, the tank contains spring water, and is home to fish, ducks, tortoise and birds.

The legend of the Banganga Tank

As per legend, Lord Rama stopped here on his way to Lanka, and needed to quench his thirst. Surrounded only by sea water, he shot an arrow or baan into the ground and out sprung fresh water of the holy river Ganga, hence the name ‘Banganga’.

Yet another story from the Skanda Purana describes how Parashurama with the aid of his Parashu (battle axe), established fourteen self-created lingas and near each, he shot an arrow to pierce the ground and release a gushing natural spring that emanated from the Ganges. ‘The most sacred of these tirthasthanas was considered to be ‘Valukesho Mahashreshttho Banganga Saraswati’- Banganga on one of the seven Bombay islands’

The pilgrim site is dedicated to Lord Shiva and the water is believed to be therapeutic.

mumbai banganga tank foy nissen
Banganga, 1970s, Foy Nissen

In the manner of the ghats of Varanasi, the rectangular tank is enclosed by steps, on which rituals take place.

Have you been to this state-protected heritage site in Mumbai? Share your photos of the Banganga Tank on social media and don’t forget to tag @jnafmumbai

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Puja Vaish
Puja Vaish is the Director of Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF)
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