“I was surprised that Chor Bazaar surrounded had so much diversity- just not different religious communities but also the diversity within the Muslim community. And they co-exist in harmony, with places of worship of different faiths in the same area”, observed one of the students of Diploma of Social Work studying at Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work. This visit to Chor Bazaar with the students was organized by Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) as part of the “Diversity in Mumbai” Course conducted by CSSS in collaboration with Nirmala Niketan. The visit to Chor Bazaar on 2nd March, 2023, included a visit to the adjacent Null Bazaar as well. The objective of this visit to explore the cultural diversity in one of the oldest places in Mumbai- the iconic Chor Bazaar!
Chor Bazaar- the fascinating colorful Motley:
Before entering the market, one of the students asked me if Chor Bazaar was called so because it had all stolen articles! A sea of rich information was awaiting them. Chor Bazaar is a place which is overwhelming for all the senses for a person who enters this place for the first time. Your first brush with Chor Bazaar will transport you as it transported us to another era- the visuals are full of rustic articles- antiques, wall plates, lamps, furniture, rugs and even old Bollywood movie posters and records! What really personally amused me was seeing typewriters and old telephones at display which are truly redundant but something I have seen growing up and also miss it for the simplicity (and convenience) it offered. The exotic smell of wood and wood polish assails the noses. The shops and lanes have the rustic old time charm to them since they are preserved like they were many decades ago. Some shops look like they are straight out of the pictures of old Bombay. In that sense Chor Bazaar is a small island, untouched in the big sea of the modern metropolis of Mumbai known for its skyscrapers and sky rocketing real estate prices. Some buildings were crumbling and decrepit but one could easily trace the grandeur they once held. Most of the articles are gems and good finds given the fraction of the price they are available here compared to other markets. At the same time, this place is home to some of the most expensive and exquisite antiques and artefacts which have come from all over the world, some even over 100 years old! Some are old articles dating back decades and some are new which are made to look antique.
Heaven for photographers
The students found it most fascinating how Chor Bazaar derived its name? The shopkeepers explained that Chor Bazaar actually derived its name due to the hustle and noise it witnessed right from the times of the British rule in India. It was an important place of commerce and had British settlement especially near Fort area and the famous Crawford market. Due to the noise or ‘Shor’, the market got the name ‘Chor Bazaar’- along the way ‘Shor’ changed to ‘Chor’. But the popular story is that when Queen – arrived in India, in Bombay, she was travelling with her personal belongings which were stolen or misplaced. They were later found at the Chor Bazaar and gained its name. But like mentioned above, it’s far from a market which sells stolen goods.
Most of these shops are owned by Muslims but Hindus work in different positions in these shops. Most of the shops are owned by the families for generations-rich and poor. Interestingly Chor Bazaar is divided in various mind boggling narrow lanes and alleys. Different lanes sell different articles. One lane only has shops after shops of Victorian and Persian style furniture, others of spare parts of automobiles, music records, hardware, porcelain pottery, glassware, chandeliers, lamps and souvenirs etc. The Null Bazaar, which is adjacent to the Chor Bazaar, is equally fascinating. This market also offers a variety of articles- meat, fruits, grocery, utensils, flowers, articles related to worship of both Muslims and Hindus and hardware. The shops in Null Bazaar are owned both by Muslims and Hindus. But the personal favourite part of the visit of the group was the whiff of delectable food from all corners of the Bazaar- kebabs, sweets, fruits, snacks, milkshakes etc. The food is a bonding factor for all communities which are attracted to Chor Bazaar.
Chor Bazaar holds attraction for Indians as well as foreigners alike. The artefacts and other buys Cor Bazaar has to offer are bought or rented by many people. Infact as was told to the group by some shop keepers, the articles here are also rented and used in Bollywood movies. Chor Bazaar has an entire ecosystem of its own which is an example of diversity. Though majority of shops are owned by the Muslims, Hindus are employed in the shops along with Muslims from all parts of the country. Some of the labour comes from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu. The suppliers and other ancillary products manufacturers are also from other communities, all dependent on each other for businesses that are run for decades.
What was perhaps most touching about the visit to Chor Bazaar and Null Bazaar is that it blurs communal lines drawn on religious identities. In the dusty dug up alley in Mutton Street, Mansuri Brothers for instance had displayed the most exquisite looking Hindu and Buddhist idols. This we found was the case in other shops too. Rashid, a shopkeeper of one such shops displaying Hind idol as well as antique pictures of the Hindu gods and goddesses, while attending to a client said, “when the client comes to me to buy these artifact, he/she doesn’t look at my religious identity, but the art and beauty the products offer”. In face of the calls for economic boycotts exhorted by Hindu right wing, such statements came as a ray of hope and re-affirmed the composite nature of Mumbai. In Null Bazaar too, we found that Muslims were selling articles required for worship by Hindus and Hindus were selling articles used by Muslims for worship. This again is a prime example of syncretic tradition of Mumbai.
Diversity of Communities:
The Chor Bazaar interestingly is home to different sects of Muslims and this diversity is discernable. The shop owners include Shia, Sunni and dominantly the Dawoodi Bohra community. The façade of the shops, the articles sold and the appearance of the owners- all were visibly different. The Dawoodi Bohra community stood out in their clothing- women wearing colourful ridah adorned by laces and men wearing white with knitted caps. Their shops were swankier and well lit compared to the shops owned by other Muslims. This diversity manifested itself even in the places of worship. It came as a surprise to many in our group of students that all Muslims don’t pray in one mosque. There are different mosques for different sects of Muslims, having their own rules for worship. Chor Bazaar is home to such different mosques. For instance, Shafi mosque near Mutton Street is open only to Sunni Muslims; Saifee Masjid is open only to Bohras etc. There is also a dargah in the heart of the Chor Bazaar which both Muslims and Hindus frequent. Similarly, the Null Bazaar has shop owners from different communities- Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Marwaris etc.
Interestingly, the students couldn’t help but notice that there were plush towers surrounding the Chor bazaar and it’s a stark contrast. They learnt that Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust (SBUT) has has undertaken a cluster redevelopment of Bhendi Bazaar. Under this project, the SBUT will redevelop 250 shops on 16.5 acres of land. The rationale for proposing the project was to provide a facelift to the crumbling market and to build modern amenities. The students interacted with some of the shopkeepers to understand how this redevelopment project has impacted them. Most of the shopkeepers especially those selling food items were unhappy with the project. They argued that though they were given alternative shop in the new buildings, they lost visibility and clientele since they were situated on higher floors. Most of the shopkeepers believed that though the compensation offered to move is handsome, it will adversely impact their livelihoods and destroy the market. Some of the students resonated with this unfortunate belief that the old time charm of the fabled Chor Bazaar will indeed be destroyed with such ‘redevelopment’ project.
The biggest take away for the students from this visit is that no community is a monolith. There are many prevalent stereotypes about the Muslim community as is for many other communities. Most of these stereotypes prevail since we have limited knowledge about communities and we tend to generalize the little we know based on our restricted exposure. The Muslim community in Muslims as in the rest of India and the world is diverse. Their identity is fluid and multiple based on their sect, region, language, religious beliefs and also caste in India. They are not one monolith or homogenous community. They are diverse in terms of their livelihood, clothes, food, language and even places of worships. This was a big learning for the group.
Null bazaar and the adjacent areas witnessed the Bombay riots of 1992-93. However, the relationships and economic ecosystem of the markets here proved to be resilient. The markets here thrive on the principle of inter-dependence. Though the riots and subsequent tensions brought some bitterness, the economic exchange as well as inclusive ethos prevalent for many decades has kept the communities closely bonded with each other. While one of the oft repeated stereotypes about Muslims recently are they are intolerant towards Hindu festivals and temples, the students were excited to learn that there are quite a few Hindu temples in the vicinity and in the heart of the markets. They are untouched and no conflicts have taken place over them.
For instance, the Satya Narayan temple in the Null Bazaar dates back 120 years. There are other temples too. This is the same area which is home to different mosques. The festivals of both the communities are celebrated without tensions or obstructions. Some festivals are also celebrated together.
The Treasure trove of not only antiques but love and diversity:
“I had no idea that there were temples in this area amidst all the Muslims. I thought earlier this was no possible”, observed Renuka, one of the students in the group. The visit to Chor Bazaar and Null Bazaar compelled us to reflect on the mosaic of cultures and the cementing factors which keep a cosmopolitan Mumbai together and resilient to hate mongering and divisive narratives. The economic interdependence and syncretic traditions at much deeper levels have held together this beautifully chaotic place. This is also an answer to the hate spewing rallies recently being undertaken in different parts of Mumbai which call for economic boycott of Muslims and even slitting throats of Muslims. Places like Chor Bazaar are gems in the heritage and culture of Mumbai. These are places which not only demonstrate how Muslims are indispensible to the economic growth of the city but also that Muslims and other communities have lived harmoniously on day to day basis for over a century. Such relations and diversity has only enriched Mumbai and we want no less as proud Mumbaikars.