Do you know? Mumbai Once Had Three Time Zones
In 1905, if the clock tower of Crawford Market struck 12 noon, it meant it was 12.39 pm at railway stations in Bombay City. That was the difference between Bombay Time and Indian Standard Time. It was also the city’s way of refusing to bow down to the coloniser.
In the 1960s, Australian scholar James Cosmas Masselos came to Mumbai to study urban history, a phenomenon that aroused curiosity in him from the city’s past was when people turned up late for appointments, it was not uncommon to blame your tardiness on “Bombay Time”. While the Indian sense for punctuality has been the subject of countless jokes, the excuse makers didn’t quite know the back story to their excuse. Masselos says that he dug deep into documents at the Maharashtra State Archives at Kala Ghoda, and, in London, at the archives of the East India Company and pre-1947 government of India.
Bombay’s clocks and time signals were an amalgamation of three standards Bombay Time, Railway Time (also variably called Madras Time and Indian Mean Time), and Port Signal Time. He called it the ‘battle of clocks’.
Bombay Time, which was based on the movement of the sun was followed only in Bombay City, up to Sion and Mahim. On the other hand, the railways, telegraphs, Suburban Bombay, and most other parts of colonial India, followed a unifying standard set by the longitude of the Madras Observatory.
But, Bombay just wouldn’t follow suit. So, while Madras Time followed GMT +5 hours 21 minutes, Bombay Time was GMT + 4 hours 51 minutes. The 30-minute difference in the two time zones meant that when the clock tower showed 10 AM, the Railway Time would be 10.30 AM. Citizens of Bombay had learnt to live with these two time zones. People would leave half an early by Bombay Time if they had to catch a train by Railway Time. It did cause confusion sometimes, and as Sir James Fergusson (the Governor of Bombay from 1880 to 1885) found out, it wasn’t too uncommon that people missed their trains when they failed to factor in the time difference.
However, these two competing standards weren’t the end of the city’s tryst with time. There’s more. Port Signal Time was followed by the naval ports and dockyards on the eastern seafront. The director of the Colaba Observatory astronomer Nanabhoy Ardeshir Framji Moos was also the Director of Time Communication of the Harbour. With a desire to standardise, as of June 10, 1900, he set Port Signal Time to GMT +5 hours.
The city in 1900 was divided into a grid of time standards clock towers, church bells, time signals, mill sirens and the railways were all part of this patchwork. It was like moving between time zones, while you were still very much in the same city.
In 1905, a new time standard, set by the longitude through the Allahabad Observatory GMT +5 hours 30 minutes was effected. Madras Time phased out. On July 1, 1905, Indian Standard Time (IST), which is followed till date, was implemented country-wide and was adopted by Indian railway companies and government offices in the Bombay Presidency except, of course, aamchi Bombay. Bombay refused to add 39 minutes to its time standard and keep up with IST.
Public bazaar clocks, which were run by the municipal corporation, continued to signal Bombay Time. It became the city’s way of resisting colonial power. ‘The clock time of the city was effectively split between officialdom and the Indian public,” writes Krishnan. The 4,500 workers at the Jacob Sassoon Mill in Lalbaug (now India United Mill No. 1) smashed the clock and went on strike when the time was changed from 5.30 am to 6.09 am.
It was only in 1950, when Bombay city was unified with suburban Bombay, that the city finally adopted the IST.
“However, Bombay Time is a brilliant excuse to turn up late,” says Masselos, laughing hard over the phone, “We should try not to make it disappear.”