Sites of Memory-Reviving the Stories and Memories of Mumbai Mills

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Mumbai Overview

Mumbai initially known as ‘Bombay’ was originally an archipelago of seven islands – Colaba, Malabar Hill, Worli, Mazgaon, Parel, Mahim & Sion. These islands were inhabited by farmers and fisherman and the land was extensively covered with forests. By late 15th century, after quite a few invasions and rulers, the Portuguese took over the islands and ruled without opposition for over a century.

In 1661, the islands were handed over to England as part of a dowry arrangement. In 1838, under the British rule, Bombay islands were amalgamated into a singular mass. Since then the city has been constantly transformed by land reclamation projects. The city is built on a foundation of continuously altered and reclaimed natural and urban landscapes.

Colonial Mumbai was developed as a planned segregation promoted by English ideology. The southern tip of the island city was fortified to create an insulated territory for the colonial rulers. The northern part within the fortification included the elite Indians, Parsis, Bohras and Hindu industrialists or traders. Small native traders, whitecollar workers and the working class lived outside the Fort walls in largely congested areas further segregated on class and regional identities. At first the urbanization of the island only occurred within the Fort area until a massive fire in 1803 provided an impetus for urban improvements and land dispersal that led to expansion of the fortified town. By 1850 Bombay had become the major colonial mercantile and industrial city and cotton textile mills as foundation of its economy. Subsequently many of the great monuments and public buildings in the island city were built with the wealth generated by the textile industry. Land reclamation continued, closing the creeks & creating newer destinations towards the north. With new developments in place and increased employment opportunities, Bombay attracted millions of migrants around the state and country. Soon Mumbai became the fastest growing metropolis with maximum capital accumulation and the most unequal distribution of land. A trading town in its past, Mumbai, today is an aspiring global city where space is a rare commodity created & recreated by land reclamation & rehabilitation.

Mumbai Urbanisation

Bombay is a city conceived by the British merchants, essentially to serve their business and trade interests. Firstly, Bombay was a populous city with ""Merchants, tradesmen and artificers of all sorts""; secondly, it was a chief port of trade; thirdly, it had a cosmopolitan character— its inhabitants included Hindus, Muslims, Christians and a few Europeans; fourthly, there was scarcity of land and therefore the government planned to reclaim 4000 acres of land in Central Bombay, then covered by the flood tides.

Since then, Bombay has grown over the years, and has emerged as a commercial and financial capital of India. It began to rise as a trade centre and port of national importance during the 1860s when Bombay came to be connected with the rest of the country by railways. Bombay gained a net wealth of more than 90 million pounds between 1861 to 1865 (American Civil War). The entire country became a hinterland for the Bombay port. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 turned Bombay into India's window to the West and Gateway to India. Cotton was the King in Bombay for well over a century. As the home of India's textile industry, it became India's premier industrial centre. For decades after 1860, the textile and its ancillary industries provided maximum number of jobs in Bombay. In 1910, out of 160 industrial units 90 were textile mills. In 1921, nearly II per cent of Bombay's population was employed in textile industry. The repeal of Indian Companies Restriction Act (XIII of 1918) in September 1919 gave rise to a boom in the growth of companies and new industries' after 1947, industries like chemical, metal, engineering, pharmaceutical, printing and others developed rapidly.

Bombay remained an industrial hub of India for over a century compared to other port cities of India because of its rail, steam and road facilities. In 1928, General Motors, the noted American automobile company, wanted to set up their assembly plant in India. After investigating other Indian ports for the facilities available, they chose Bombay because it provided more satisfactory answers to their needs than any other Indian port.* Bombay attracts entrepreneurs and financial institutions because of the advantages it offers.

Bombay is a city of immigrants. People have been pouring into it from all over the country as it provides opportunities for advancement. Migration will, therefore, continue as long as Bombay remains a city of opportunities.

Girangaon – The Mill Precinct

“Girangaon” is a Marathi word for “Mill village” or the mill precinct, which is characterized by industrial architecture of more than 50 mills. Over 600 acres of land in this region was dedicated to textile industry in early19th century.

Girangaon was home to thousands of mill workers and their families. The unique housing settlements by workers, their social networks and communities dominated Mumbai’s mill precinct for decades. The precinct stretches from Lalbaug to Parel and Worli to Sewri and spreads across an area of The entire mill precinct is efficiently integrated into Mumbai’s mass transit system and well connected to major streets in the city.


The inception of textile industry in Mumbai goes back to late 19th century when the first mill was stablished by Cowasji Davar in the year of 1856 with the help of 50 leading businessmen in the city. By 1862, four mills were added and this number grew to 21 by 1885.

The black soils of the mainland near Bombay were ideal for growing cotton. This had long been a mainstay of Bombay's commerce. By early 20th century there were more than 50 textile mills in Mumbai which transformed it from a trading town to a manufacturing center. Increased employment opportunities in mills drew thousands of migrants from towns and villages all over the state. By 1931 half of the city’s population was economically dependent on textile industry.


When cotton exports from the USA were interrupted by the Civil War, Bombay gained paramount importance in the world cotton trade. There was a rapid increase in the number of mills. The labour force was constituted mainly of Marathi speaking migrants from the ghats, adding yet another flavour to Bombay's ethnic soup. However, this economic boom was at the base of one of the major problems of the developing city.

Residential, institutional and infrastructure development had already commenced in the south region of the city and development plans were now being modified and extended towards the north. To encourage the development of textile industry and promote industrial production, acres of lands in Central Mumbai were given to the mill owners at concessional rates by the colonial Bombay Government. Mumbai’s development as an economic hub was greatly enhanced by these very mills.


Over 50 mills in less than a 3 mile radius converted this portion of the city into an incredibly crowded, lively and dynamic hub. Almost all of the workers employed by mills lived in close proximity of their place of work. Such an aggregation of workers within a smaller region of the city increased the social and cultural involvement of the workers in the community. This led to stronger community ties and a rich network of physical and social infrastructure.

The map above shows the locations of 58 mills in Girangaon that establish a unique urban fabric of this region. Mill workers housing, recreational grounds (for worker colonies), places of worship and entertainment are some of the dominant elements in the urban characteristics of Girangaon.

Social Structure

In the period of 1891 to 1921 the population of Parel & Byculla doubled whereas the population of Worli & Sewri increased by five times. Mumbai now received migrants from not just east and coastal Maharashtra, but it was also populated by crowds from Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat (some of the other states of India) all employed in textile industry. Mill workers included people from all castes and religion. Soon they established their distinctive places of worship such as temples and mosques and started side businesses in meat and vegetable markets.

Initially in the migrant population, the men arrived alone in order to find employment. Later as they settled they brought their families along. In 1875 when the textile industry was at its peak the housewives of workers too, started working in the mills for additional income. However the male population among the workers community always dominated the female population.

Most of the single men lived in groups. As a result a number of housewives started buffet services and canteens for lunch and dinner. In 1970’s, the mill precinct had over 500 canteens predominantly serviced by the female group. Along with these, most of the residential buildings incorporated side businesses of workers such as retail, grocery, newspaper, flower, sweets shops, snack centers, ice-cream parlors, pharmacy, service shops like laundry shop, domestic flour mills etc. on street level.


Most often, the mill workers were men whose families stayed back in their villages. To begin with, employers accommodated these workers in specially constructed chawls near the mills. Modelled after army barracks, each building had three floors. Every floor contained rooms, each given over to one person, and a common toilet. Sometimes, several such chawls would border a common enclosed space. Such a group of chawls was called a wadi. With the rapid increase in the number of mills, the rooms were often occupied by several people. Eventually, families of workers began to migrate to Bombay, and each room in a chawl would have to accommodate the whole family. Later, even this became impossible, and slums developed around the mills and the harbour.

Due to housing demands from the mill workers, the Bombay Development District (BDD) and Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) built rows of low cost houses in Girangaon. A group of 3 to 4 Chawls were built around a central courtyard that became the venue for family celebrations, weddings, sports, festivals, community fairs and meetings. This congested tenement living created a “Chawls Culture” based upon a unique, shared lifestyle and collective identity. Since the dwelling units in Chawls were very small in area, (Hardly 200sq.ft) most of the residents spent their days in the common corridors and staircases. Small grounds, sidewalks, spaces between the two Chawls, benches under trees, boundary edges, shop fronts and street corners also known as “Chowk” or “Naka” became the social gathering spaces. Mill lands were designed in such a way that they will have sufficient amount of open space around them, so that the nuisance to surrounding community is limited. Hence these lands efficiently merged into the surrounding urban fabric as opposed to standing exclusive. In addition to ‘workplace’, mills became a second hometown for mill workers. They included a place of worship, family clinics and canteens.

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Sites of Memory-Reviving the Stories and Memories of Mumbai Mills. (2021, Apr 05). Retrieved February 22, 2024 , from

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