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The Heritage of Mumbai

The image that the mention of the word Mumbai conjures up is that of an upstart of a city that made it good due to its colonial past; a city whose existence is nothing more than a recent blip in the endless timeline of Indian history; a city which has no rich cultural past to be proud of, and a city which certainly has no spiritual tradition.

This image is not a very accurate portrayal of this city, certainly not of its rich past. Contrary to the popular belief that Mumbai began its career as an object of dowry in 1661 when Portuguese gifted the island in the dowry to Charles II of England, the city has a long, a very long past going back up to at least pre-Christian era. As a matter of fact the colonial past of this city does not merit more than a ‘footnote’ in the annals of its history. Ancient caves, both Buddhist as well as Brahminical; temples, at least one thousand years old, in Ambarnath; stupa in Nalasopara dating back to the times of King Ashoka, Mumbai has every thing that is needed to earn a full chapter in ancient history books. What makes Mumbai unique is that it is perhaps the only city in the world to have such ancient magnificent monuments right in the middle of city.

Apart from the world famous Elephanta caves which have been written about ad nauseam, Mumbai and its suburbs have four other ancient cave complexes: Kanheri, Jogeshwari, Andheri and Mandapeshwar. These caves include temples, chaityas as well as monasteries hewn out in volcanic breccia rock. Breccia is actually stone fragments being trapped in a matrix are quite easy to work, impart an unusual texture to carvings and is, sadly, highly prone to weathering. As a result many of the carvings in these caves have been defaced beyond recognition and many structures collapsed primarily due weathering.

Among these cave complexes the largest, the most magnificent and the cleanest is the one at Kanheri inside the Borivali national park. Nothing could be more contrasting than the hell like din just outside the national park and the soul-soothing calm barely a few hundred metres into the park, sweetened by chirping of birds and giggles of couples who bunk their classes to steal a few moments of solitude.

The Kanheri caves are relatively well maintained particularly in view of our ingrained apathy towards our heritage. Though the restoration work done by the Archaeological Survey of India in many caves is generally and naturally clumsy, it has managed to keep the place surprisingly clean by banning food packets and plastic water bottles inside the complex. Barring a few 'Ramesh loves Laxmi' kind proclamations in a few caves, all the caves are virtually as these were at the time these were abandoned about one thousand years ago.

The earliest caves in Kanheri were excavated around Ist century BC though the newer structures were added till as late as 9th century AD. As a result the complex has 109 caves in all, dotting miles of hills and all connected by hewn-out flights of steps though many worn out now. According to Thane district gazette, compiled in 1884, Kanheri is a “labyrinth in the hill whose end had never been traced”.

What makes the Kanheri caves stand apart among all such settlements in India and perhaps all over the world is its amazing and still largely extant water supply system which provides water to every cave innovatively harvesting the heavy rains that lash this region during the monsoon months. Narrow rock-cut channels on walls outside caves catch rainwater and guide it into rock-cut cisterns excavated near the entrance to the caves.

The Thane district gazette observes, “Kanheri is the only rock-cut monastery in Western India that has the feeling of having been, and of being ready again to be, a pleasant and popular dwelling place. The rows of cells, water cisterns, dining halls, lecture halls and temples joined by worn flights of rock-cut steps, and the crowded burial gallery show what a huge brotherhood must once have lived at Kanheri.”

The Gazetteer further continues, “In many of the better caves, the front court-yard with its smooth rock floor, broad benches and gracefully rising side walls, the shaded water cistern, the neat flight of easy steps leading to the cave door, the deep flat eave, the cool veranda, the well-lit hall with its windows of stone lattice, the slim graceful sculptures, and the broad easy benches hewn at many of the best view points, have a pleasing air of comfort, refinement, and love of nature; while the long stretches of clean black rock, the steps and the court-yards free from earth, weeds, or brushwood, look as if lately swept and made ready for a fresh settlement of religious recluses.”

Time does seem to have by passed Kanheri: If a group of Bikhkhus, clad in yellow robs wandering in the surrounding hills or chanting hymns in the magnificent chaitya would not appear to be anachronistic at all. As the gazetteer says, “ Kanheri is a town carved in the solid rock, which, if the monks and the worshippers returned, would, in a day or two, be as complete as when first inhabited. ' All things in their place remain as all were ordered ages ago. The main reason why Kanheri has been spared the fate of countless of our other historical monuments is that it is located deep inside a national park.

However other cave complexes in the city particularly the one in Jogeshwari (in the image above) have not been so fortunate. If Kanheri “look as if lately swept and made ready for a fresh settlement of religious recluses” Jogeshwari cave, literally buried under hundreds of shanties and other encroachments, is a saga of criminal neglect on the part of authorities and philistine antipathy on the part of public. Located near Amboli village this Brahminical cave dating back to 6th century AD is the second largest such cave in India after the Elora caves.

A plain, narrow, rock-cut passage which can be easily mistaken for numerous such narrow lanes in the surrounding sprawl of encroachments leads to the cave which is actually a temple. At the end of the passage are six steps, which descend into a portico once richly carved. But due to very nature on the rock and dampness all the carvings are long gone. The Thana District Gazetteer records: “At the ends of the portico were two richly ornamented chambers … separated from the body of the porch by two pillars and two pilasters now in a totally dilapidated condition. These pillars have wasted away to the quaintest skeletons with rough corkscrew like-ridges of harder stone…. The large figure in the right chamber seems to have been Siva in the form of a seated Buddha-like ascetic, and below there is a trace of a side figure now practically defaced, perhaps the giver of the sculpture. The figure in the left chamber seems to have been Siva dancing the wild tandava of which nothing now remains. In the middle of the back wall of the portico is a highly ornamented door with the remains of large warders on either side, and in other parts, with traces of delicate carving of which only a few glimpses are visible.”

The central door opens on vast hall about 30m square and 3.5m high. In this dark and damp hall at about six meter from the side walls, a square cordon of twenty cushion-capitalled pillars, six on each side, divides the cave into four aisles and a central hall about 17m square. In the middle of the central hall is a rock-cut shrine of Jogeshwari Devi.

At the end of the left and right aisles are two chambers now occupied by a very large colony of bats which constant screeching provide the horrible backdrop to the gloomy setting. Pools of stagnating sewage from the surrounding chawls adorn the backyard.

Outside the hall on the right side are remnants of chambers used as living quarters by monks. Once one of the richest caves in terms of historical value it is now the filthiest parts of it being used to dump garbage and as toilets. In April 2005, Janhit Manch, a civic organization had filed a public interest litigation in Bombay High Court to save these caves. The Court appointed a six-member Committee to report on the matter. The committee comprised the Director of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), a heritage expert, an urban historian, government officials and a lawyer. Among the measures suggested by the committee to immediately arrest the further deterioration of the caves was removal of the encroachments up to 100m on all the sides. However, due to votebank politics and acute shortage of space in Mumbai no concrete steps have been taken so far.

Posted On : June 28 ,2014 19 : 43
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