The city of Mumbai has always been like a beautiful mosaic of varied cultures, people and traditions. Back in the early 1900s, Mazagaon was home to Mumbai’s thriving See Yup Koon community. Originally from Canton in Southern China, these people moved to India when they were working for the East India Company. They settled in Mumbai as merchants, traders and sailors. In 1962, when the Sino-Indian War broke out, many of the city’s Chinese residents migrated back to China. However, a few families decided to stay on in their homes in what had come to be known as China Town. Today, this place is known as Dockyard Road, Mazagaon.
The beautiful Kwan Kung Temple, the only Chinese temple in Mumbai, is a landmark in the area and a nostalgic reminder of the thriving community that once lived here.
The Kwan Kung Temple, built over 90 years ago, lies nestled in a quaint lane in a two-storey house in Mazagaon. Except for a small wooden gate painted in red, nothing about the ageing building suggests from the outside that there is a a place of worship inside.
On climbing the small wooden staircase to reach the inner shrine, one sees a mural of Fuk, Luk and Sau, the three Chinese gods of blessing, longevity, and prosperity, on the wall.
The entrance to the shrine is adorned with wind chimes, paper lanterns and Chinese calligraphy.
On entering the temple one is greeted by different shades of scarlet. The walls, cupboards, the altar, even the doors and chairs, are all painted red, the most auspicious colour in Chinese culture. Traditional Chinese paraphernalia hang atop the elaborate and intricate altar, and neatly carved figurines sit in front, paying homage to the Chinese god of justice and courage, Guan Gong.
Swathed in silk and protecting the altar is Kwan Tai Kwon, the warrior god, who is believed to remove all obstacles.
A cupboard on the side has traditional joss sticks, paper money and kidney-shaped Jiaobei (moon blocks) for worshippers. Moon blocks are wooden divination tools – each block is round on one side and flat on the other, denoting yin and yang. Ask a question and throw them to the floor – if they fall with the opposite sides up, it means the forces are with you; if not, it means that whatever you’ve asked for is something you should avoid!
Apart from lighting incense sticks and candles while praying, devotees also roll the Chinese fortune sticks before making a wish.
There is a huge board, with files of bamboo sheets fixed under different numbers, in Chinese script. Each number has a corresponding fortune card where people read their fortune, annually. Following the prayers, the brass bell is rung three times, before chocolates are offered as prasad!
Built in 1919, the temple comes to life during the Chinese New Year and Moon Festival when over 500 Chinese gather to seek blessings. Temple caretaker Albert Tham and his mother spend long hours preparing the temple for the occasion, lighting lamps and arranging fruits and cakes as offerings to the god. They have also made another temple dedicated to Guan Yin, a female deity revered for mercy, peace and wisdom, on the ground floor of the building. Tham, born and brought up in Mumbai, says he has never felt like going back to China.
“I have lived here all my life. I’m Chinese but Mumbai is my home, I can’t leave it. Many of my siblings have gone abroad, but I stayed on. I can’t speak Chinese well, but my Hindi and Marathi are good,” says Tham.
Outside the temple, the distinctive buildings in the narrow lanes of the once-bustling China Town have ethnic Chinese names on their doors.
Most of them also bear the words See Yup Koon, which literally translates to “inns for sea merchants.”
The little Chinese temple of Kwan Kung is definitely a hidden gem of Mumbai. With swirls of aromatic joss rising from incense sticks, meditative chants playing in the background and warm red colours imparting a comfortable glow, this old-world shrine is like none other in the city. An absolute must visit for history aficionados!