Denied Place in Museum, Sculptures Languish in Mumbai Slums

If the famed Ariyannur Umbrellas in central Kerala are ASI-protected prehistoric megalith burial sites near Kunnamkulam in Thrissur district, the metropolis of Mumbai has ancient sculptures languishing in its slum areas. A look at the Hindu and Buddhist statues being worshiped by people in the western Indian city with a sizeable Malayali population:

Some Hindu and Buddhist sculptures of exceptional grandeur excavated from caves in Mumbai are now languishing in slum areas of the metropolis with local people worshipping them as deities, unmindful of their artistic and heritage value. That has left a celebrated archaeologist worried.

Instead of finding its rightful place in a museum, ‘Heptad’ — the seven-head sculpture of Lord Shiva — is placed in a tiny room of a slum house in Parel, the industrial centre of Mumbai, according to archaeologist-historian M K Dhavalikar, a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society.

The 6th century AD sculpture, housed in a room measuring 15 ft by 10 ft, is known as the ‘Parel Heptad’ while locals call it ‘Baradevi’. Declared a ‘grade one’ heritage monument by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the 11.5 ft by 6.5 ft idol, somewhat unfinished and stylistically akin to the Elephanta Cave sculptures, was found among stone pieces during road construction in 1931. It was meant to be installed in a cave or in a public place as it was too big for a temple. Residents did not allow it to be taken to the museum. So, a replica was made for display and the original installed in Parel.

The ‘Parel Heptad’ was found among stone pieces during road construction in 1931.
The ‘Parel Heptad’ was found among stone pieces during road construction in 1931.

It is a huge panel depicting seven human male figures, with three standing one behind another and two males emanating from them on either side, making a complex of seven images while at the base there are five musicians, three on left and two on right. When discovered, it created a sensation. Historians are unanimous that the figures are the manifestations of Shiva and they place it in the 6th century.

“The constant onslaught of urbanization in Mumbai is a major factor for this sorry state of affairs which is illustrative of our callous neglect of the country’s priceless heritage,” says Padma Shri Dr. Dhavalikar, who worked with the ASI and was also former Director, Deccan College Post-Graduate Research Institute.

“Similar is the pathetic story of five 12th-century hero stones (war memorials) in Eksar, a rapidly urbanising fishing village in Borivli (West). They are standing in sun and rain by the roadside with people worshipping them and may vanish one day. This is how we care for our antiquities,” he bemoaned.

Urbanisation in Mumbai is a major factor, feels Dr. Dhavalikar
Urbanisation is a major factor, feels Dr. Dhavalikar

Maritime Link

The Eksar Memorials provide perhaps the only proof of an ancient civilisation’s naval prowess, but they are now standing by the site of the Western Expressway. The Eksar memorials are flat basalt tablets, between four and eight feet high, with intricately carved panels depicting ships and sailors — which make it distinct from other hero stones, which usually depict battles.

The Eksar stones are the only ones in Maharashtra that indicate that the 12th-century Shilahara dynasty had a navy and fought a sea battle. However, these are yet to be listed as heritage or protected antiquities. They now stand on the edge of what was once a pond, then a private clubhouse, and now a luxury residential complex. The stones cannot be moved to a government museum unless they are listed as heritage structures.

The naval battle depicted in the Eksar memorials has no parallel and can be said to be a historical document. But it is languishing in the open and may vanish one day as no one is interested in their safety.

By the roadside in Eksar - 12th century hero stones (war memorials)
Eksar – 12th century relics out in the open

“Ideally, these memorial pillars excavated from the Kanheri caves ought to be in a local Mumbai museum, but they are now being worshipped by the local people in slum settlements,” he said. “They are still in good condition and it will be a crime if they are not removed to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya,” he says.

The archaeologist pointed out that there are 150 cave temples in Mumbai and 50 per cent of them are closed because of the growing pressure of urbanisation. Mumbai is a complex of seven islands — Bandra, Mahim, Parel, Worli, Mazagaon, Little Colaba and Mumbai Main Island, which make the western metropolis a Treasure Island. For centuries these islands were marshy and most unhygienic, with absolutely no incentive for habitation. With sparse population of fishermen, toddy tappers and pirates, life there was miserable. No British officer wanted to be posted there. The seven muddy islands were gifted by the Portuguese in dowry to a British king, but the British turned them into a centre of international trade. “During 1771-78, Mumbai experienced a massive spurt in urbanisation so much so that the colonial British rulers wanted to declare it a metropolis,” he points out.

New-age Damage

The relentless process of urbanisation has done massive harm to the cultural artefacts. For instance, Sopara, a busy suburb of Mumbai in Thane district, has become an important place in the Buddhist literature. The excavations at the ruins of a Stupa there revealed a stone coffer which contained eight bronze images of ‘Maitreya’ (the future Buddha) in mint condition and stylistically similar to Buddha figures in Ellora. The images belonged to the 8-9th century AD.

Sopara, the Shurparaka of the Mahabharata and Ophir of the Old Testament, had trading contacts with the West. Claudius Ptolemy, an Egyptian mathematician, astronomer, geographer and astrologer, described ‘Soupara’ as a busy trading town. Jain cultural history is also associated with the town with Sopara being declared one of the sacred 84 tirthas or sacred cities.

Ancient Stupa built by King Ashoka in Sopara
Ancient Stupa built by King Ashoka in Sopara

Maurya king Ashoka built a stupa to enshrine the begging bowl of the Enlightened One, known as The Sopara Bodhisattva.It is also associated with the legend of Parasurama who is said to have pushed back the sea with his battle axe (parashu).

The first settlement in the Mumbai region, according to the archaeologist, took place in the 6th century BC when Purna, a merchant of Sopara, travelled with his friends to north India to listen to Buddha’s sermons. On return, he built a sandalwood monstarey for Buddha. During the early historical period, trade developed and Sopara became the hub of international trade.

Prestigious Site

Sopara occupies a place of honour because of its association with Buddha, the Buddhist stupa and the Ashokan edicts. Also, Buddha is believed to have visited it once at the request of Purna. According to the Purn-avadana, Buddha went to a place in Sopara where 500 widows lived. He preached them dhamma and converted them. He also gave them some of his hair and nails over which a stupa was later built, which came to be known as ‘Widow Stupa’. Presently, there is a stupa mound at Sopara which is known as Rajacha Kot. It is an impressive edifice comparable to the Sanchi and Amaravati stupas.

“However, the fact is the place is not properly excavated. A number of Ashokan edicts have been found there which contain some old Persian dialects and talk about conversion of fire worshippers (Zoroastrians) to Buddhism,” Prof. Dhavalikar says.

Kanheri cave
Kanheri caves are the largest Buddhist complex in western India

Further, the Kanheri caves, located in the suburb of Borivili, are the largest Buddhist complex in western India, but they are probably the most neglected although they contain a magnificent chatiya (Buddhist prayer hall), a new type of vihara (monastery), exquisite sculptures and inscriptions. The apathy may be due to the fragile rock in which they are carved which has caused large-scale damage.

Also, the Jogeshwari cave is situated in a crowded locality by the side of Western Express highway. It is a Saivite shrine excavated in the slope of a low hill but is carved in an extremely fragile volcanic rock and is therefore badly damaged.

Urbanisation is not the only culprit; the colonial rulers also destroyed some precious artefacts. For instance, Portuguese soldiers used the Elephanta Caves for their shooting practice, damaging priceless sculptures.

(The writer is a freelance journalist and media consultant based in Delhi.)