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Asiatic Society Library - Mumbai

As you enter the Asiatic Society library at Fort, you get the feeling of stepping into another era: a gentler, slower dimension of Time, when the eminences frozen in marble – Juggannath Sankershet, Sir Bartle Frere and Sir John Malcolm among others – in the library’s foyer, were men of moving flesh and blood.

It was an era when horses and handsoms still clip-clopped in the streets of Fort; a time when the banks girdling the Town Hall library were yet to be set up and other venerable old buildings of Mumbai – Victoria Terminus and Rajabai Tower did not exist.

Reality however brings you back to the present with a start. As you go towards the foyer from the Reserve Bank side, you can see police billets in the basement. The stamp office is housed below the library and the cops are on duty day and night to guard the treasury. A locker-room smell of sweat and shirts pervades the area. You notice, however, that the sentries are armed, not with lshapore semi automatics, but with World War I vintage Enfields.

Outside, the area is dominated by banks. These massive mansions are the financial nerve centres of India. But how nouveau riche this area is, can be gauged from the fact that while the Town Hall was built in 1833, the RBI skyscraper and the Mumbai Stock Exchange skyscraper (designed by an Indian disciple of the world-renowned Finish architect Alvar Alto) came up in the 1970s.

Again, one consolation here is the recently rejuvenated Horniman Circle garden opposite the stately stone steps leading up to the imposing ionic-columned façade of the Asiatic Society.

Resurrected at a cost of 40 lakhs in 1986 by the Tatas, the garden was originally known as Elphinstone Circle garden, and was first laid out by the Mumbai Municipality in 1869. It was later named after Benjamin Guy Horniman, the legendary editor of the Mumbai Chronicle, founded by Phirozshah Mehta in 1912.

Next of the Horniman garden the 159-year-old Gujarati newspaper, Mumbai Samachar, is till going strong unlike the Chronicle which closed down in the early thirties. Incidentally, the Samachar is almost as old as the Asiatic Society building which was designed by Colonel Cowper and completed in 1833 after 12 years at a cost of Rs. 656669.

The new Horniman garden is luxuriant, bursting with lawns, exotic plants, pathways lined with hundred-year-old hardwoods and cool founded replete with a recent metal sculpture by B. Vithal. The ornamental grills fencing the garden were originally imported from England.

As you climb the curving stone steps towards the reception of the Asiatic Society library you feel you are ascending into loftier, ethereal regions. It’s the change in lighting which plays this trick on you and also affects you sense of time. The large circular skylights overhead are responsible for this marvelous effects. Even when it rains or gets dark, the light merely becomes more translucent. And at nigh it becomes phosphorescent.

Dante, the Italian poet who wrote the Divina Commedia surely had such a light in mind when he wrote his classic. Nor is this a tenuous connection. Dante’s manuscript of the comedy, written in 1307, is one of Asiatic Society’s most valuable possessions. The other, even more precious is the stone coffer containing copper, jade, silver and gold caskets and gold flowers bearing fragments of Gautama Buddha’s begging bowl. These were excavated in 1822 by Bhagwanlal Indraji.

Despite the dark, varnished wood paneling, the library is also suffused with natural light throughout the day. Set on a high basement-cum-pedestal, it harbours at its heart a large hall surrounded by ionic columns. The library is ventilated by tall windows and doors which lead on to balconies and provide a commanding tree-top view of the thoroughfare outside. The spacious aspect is subtly offset by rows and rows of volumes – about 225000 of them – quietly ageing on the shelves set all around the walls.

The old worldly ambience produces a sense of relaxation so profound that many readers invariably fall asleep on the cushioned club chairs set in the periodical room! Entrance to these hallowed portals is restricted to members only. Outsiders can avail themselves of the general reading rooms and reference section from 10 a.m. to 5.45 p.m., free of charge.

The Asiatic Society began its life as the Literary Society of Mumbai on 26th November 1804 in what is now the Haffkine Institute at Parel. Seventeen prominent citizens including the Governor Johathan Duncan, resolved to promote “usually knowledge particularly such as was more immediately concerned with India.” Later it moved to its present quarters and merged with it to become a Mumbai branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Today, however, more than the Society, it is the Asiatic library that is well known among citizens. In 1950, it was established as the Central Library for the state of Maharashtra. Although in recent years the resources of the library have been severely strained because of it’s awesome ambit and responsibilities, it sir still one of the handful of superlative libraries in the country.

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