Nestled in a quiet bylane in Mazgaon, a residential locality situated along the seaside in south Mumbai, the Kwan Kung Temple is a remnant of Mumbai’s vibrant Chinatown dating back nearly 100 years. In the early 1900s, Mazgaon was home to the See Yup Koon (translates as ‘inns for sea merchants’) community. The adjoining bylane is known as Nawab Tank Road, named after Nawab Ayaz Ali, a distant relative of Tipu Sultan, the 18th Century Mysore ruler, who settled in Mumbai in the late 18th century.
Getting to the temple is not a straightforward journey. There is very little information available online. If you take a train, get off at the Dockyard station (Byculla). Once you reach the walls of the dockyard, take a left. Then take the first left while walking and turn right. Caveat: If you’re not careful, you will miss the turn. As I entered the lane, I found a pavement strewn with a mulch of fallen leaves and interspersed with yellow and pink bougainvillea flowers.
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When I reached the temple, the doors were locked. There was absolutely no one around the temple, but at a nearby ironing store, three people — a cycle mechanic, a policeman and a grocery store owner — were laughing and chatting.
I approached them and introduced myself. I told them I wanted to visit the temple. “Ten people have come today and they have all gone back,” said the cycle mechanic, pointing to the locked doors. “Is there anyone I can request for a key?” I asked, refusing to let go of hope.
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The three men spent some time mulling over the possibilities. “See the opposite building? You can ask Stephen (name changed) who lives there.” I went to meet Stephen who belongs to the See Yup Koon community. I introduced myself, explaining why I wanted to see the temple. “Go up the stairs to the first floor of that building. You’ll meet someone there. If he’s willing, he will give you a key.”
I went up to the first floor, but found no one. So, I pottered around and took pictures of the outside and glass windows until, suddenly, I saw someone. “Excuse me! I would like to see the temple. Can you help me?” Upon speaking to him, I realised he was a designated temple caretaker. He took out the keys and told me which ones were for which floor: “Once you’re done, return the keys to me.”
Upon entering the temple, I noticed that the ground floor was dedicated to the Chinese goddess Guan Yin, a deity worshipped for mercy, peace, wisdom and often considered the embodiment of compassion. Upon climbing the stairs, I could see the murals of Fuk, Luk and Sau, the Chinese deities of blessing, longevity and prosperity. The entrance to the shrine had red paper lanterns and beauteous dragon motifs. I was also fascinated to find Jiaobei (moon blocks) for worshippers and also scented incense sticks. There was also a wall of fortune. The top floor is dedicated to Kwan Kung or Guan Gong, the god of war, power, courage who was an able leader and tactician.
Jonaki is the pseudonym of Reeti Roy. When not writing, Reeti is an entrepreneur running her own creative content services firm, Aglet Ink.