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Take a walk by the Bombay High Court. It’s no longer just a place to go for a fight

The weight of history presses on those who walk past the HC building. It’s where Jinnah and Ambedkar practised law and where Lokmanya Tilak was tried.

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Rahul Mhaskar is passionate about his workplace, so much so that he even spends his weekends there. When he’s not striding across the imposing gothic corridors or fighting cases in the hallowed courtrooms of the Bombay High Court building in Mumbai’s Fort area, the lawyer is leading groups of tourists and residents on a heritage walk where legal history is the focus.

Mhaskar points to a statue of Lawrence Hugh Jenkins, who was the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court. It dominates the main entrance of the building, overlooking Oval Maidan.

“He relaxed the rules for Indian lawyers, which otherwise made it difficult for them to practice law,” said Mhaskar. The statue had been shipped all the way from Calcutta to Bombay. Both port cities have long since been renamed, but Jenkins stands proud on his pedestal.

Mumbai may be the city of Mammon, devoted to the pursuit of money, but it also embraces art and culture with ease. It has heritage walks, guided seafront strolls, Chor Bazaar and Crawford Market tours, Kala Ghoda and Art Deco walks, Bollywood guides, chaat, and food trails. There’s even a Dharavi slum tour for tourists. 

And now, legal heritage walks are the latest offering. The highlight is the Bombay High Court building, which was awarded a world heritage tag by UNESCO in 2018. The weight of history presses on those who walk past the Bombay High Court building. It’s where Jinnah and Ambedkar practised law and where Lokmanya Tilak was tried.

“These tours are a mix of entertainment and enlightenment,” said Sameer Korde, creator of Samsona Getaways, which organises legal and cultural walks in Mumbai. It goes beyond buildings and architecture, and offers a peek into how courts functioned under the British and in the early years of India’s Independence.

Realising the potential, even the Maharashtra government’s Directorate of Tourism started organising weekend tours of the Bombay High Court building in October 2021 for Rs 100 per person. 

When he’s free, Mhaskar moonlights as a guide for Samsona Getaways, which usually conducts walks twice a month on the second and fourth Saturday. Unlike the government tours, these walks are limited to the outside architecture of the high court building. Each group has no more than 10-12 people, and tickers are priced between Rs 550-750 per person. 

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Fullers folly, ‘negative’ wells

The Victorian Gothic structure carved in stone with gabled rooftops, vault-like chambers, and high ceilings is a visual feast. The building stands 179-feet tall at its highest point. Its statues and carvings, and even the roofs, bear the signs of disgruntled workers and the fanciful follies of architects.

Its distinctive sloping roofs were added on the whim of Lieutenant-Colonel John Augustus Fuller of the Royal Engineers, who was commissioned to design the building. He was inspired by German architecture during a holiday, says city chronicler Bharat Gothoskar, founder of Khaki Tours. But the roofs were not for show and were designed for the heavy snow that Germany sees in winter. 

“But it doesn’t snow in Mumbai, it rains. And he didn’t set up any protection from the rain. So, whenever it rains heavily, water seeps into the courtrooms and that’s why they say it’s Fuller’s Folly,” said Gothoskar.

But this was not the high court’s first home. The Bombay High Court was first housed in Admiralty House on Apollo Street, where the Recorder’s Court and the Supreme Court held their sittings at the time. This building is about a kilometre away from the current court complex.

Though the location was ideal due to its proximity to traders and merchants, the lack of space made it difficult to carry out proceedings. Its current home was commissioned in April 1871. The building was completed at a cost of Rs 16,44,528 lakh – Rs 3,000 less than the sanctioned estimate. 

“Only the British know how they built this with such less amount of money than what was required,” said Mhaskar.

Seven years later, in November 1878, the building was ready. The structure is 562-feet long, 187-feet wide, and is spread over 80,000 sq. ft.

“When you enter the High Court, you will see a tablet with all the information on its history, a lot like the way museums display information,” said Mhaskar.

The judges have private staircases in the two octagonal towers on the western side of the building. The main staircase and entrance for the general public are to the east. 

Hidden within the high court are little vignettes. Carvings of monkey judges and fox advocates in lawyers’ bands can be seen peeking from the pillars. According to reports in The Hindu, this was said to be the “mischievous work of a disgruntled sub-contractor, a Parsi, who avenged himself on law and justice by libelling the lawyers and judges of the High Court.” 

A little further from the entrance, there is a well. “But the inscription has been painted over and it is said that the well gave out negative vibes,” said Mhaskar.

It does not offer full-fledged legal heritage tours, but some of its walks in the Fort area cover the Bombay High Court.

An unsolved mystery is the high court’s independent press. There’s little evidence of the press today, but according to Mhaskar, it ran from 1868 to 1933. “We are trying to find out exactly where it was located. There is a reference in one of the books, but it doesn’t mention the location,” Gothoskar added.

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People at the High Court

The Bombay High Court was authorised to have 15 judges when it was established, but it started with only seven. “It is remarkable that, for about 60 years thereafter, the High Court managed to pull on with just seven judges,” said Mhaskar.

At that time, there were no typewriters, so whoever had a good handwriting was called and given the job to write judgments.

The statue of Jenkins dominates the entrance. “His Lordship was particularly well up in both English and Indian law. His Lordship surprised the Bar by the extent of his knowledge of Indian law, which he had apparently read up on his voyage out,” the website reads.

Another prominent judge was Sir John Leonard Stone – the 12th and last English Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court. On the night of 14 August 1947,  members of the Original and the Appellate jurisdictions, solicitors, officers, and the entire staff of the High Court, accompanied by other ladies and gentlemen, gathered in the Central Court at about 11.35 pm, according to the Bombay High Court records.

Sir Stone and the other judges took their seats at 11.45 pm. A temporary flag post was put up near the seat occupied by the Chief Justice.

No tour of the Bombay High Court is complete without a mention of Jamshed Kanga – ‘the grand old man of the Bombay Bar’. “Around 1958, when the high court was being expanded, many senior advocates were asked to vacate the Old Building and move to the new Annexe building. Kanga was not impressed. ‘If I am not sitting in the High Court, I am not practising. And I am not concerned about the new building,’ he said. And so a bridge was made connecting the two buildings,” said Mhaskar.

Some of the anecdotes are new even to lawyers who practise in Mumbai. Supreme Court advocate Mohini Priya enjoyed it thoroughly when she attended a legal walk organised by Samsona Getaways. “Despite studying law in Mumbai for five years, I wasn’t aware of the history of the building,” she said.

(Edited by Tarannum Khan)

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