Mumbai's History Began Earlier Than Popularly Believed Say City-Based Relic Hunters

Mumbai's History Began Earlier Than Popularly Believed Say City-Based Relic Hunters

If you find people in plain clothes digging and polishing stones in your area, don’t be alarmed. They might just be archaeologists and researchers trying to preserve Mumbai’s ancient history.

These modern day relic-hunters (who are far more competent than Nicholas Cage in National Treasure we might add) belong to various special fields of archaeology and research and have banded together for The Mumbai-Salsette Archaeological Exploration Project. In the two years since they began, they have found a treasure trove of history right in our backyard. Vinayak Parab, a journalist and an expert in Archaeology, Geology and Buddhist studies claims that he has found prehistoric cavemen tools dating back to thirty thousand years that could provide an insight into the footprints cavemen have left behind in Mumbai.

“The history of Mumbai begins earlier than popularly believed. Mumbai was a cluster of 66 villages called Shahashasti. The Portuguese arrived by the 14th and 15th century and pronounced it as Salsette. My team began by exploring Kanheri caves. We observed that if such a cave has existed for so long, there might be construction workers behind it. Where did they decide to live? Where would they make their homes? Surely their living quarters must be nearby. We procured permission by the forest department and went in the core area. By applying our scientific methods, we found seven more caves that dated back to Kanheri and even beyond that period. There were relics of a Buddhist Stupa which was a major discovery,” he explains. Parab is one of the five directors of this exploration project. The Centre for Extra Mural Studies (CEMS) in partnership with the Centre for Archaeology from Mumbai University, Sathye College and India Study Centre trust (INSTUCEN) that are putting their backs into this work before it is lost forever to the urbanization of the metropolitan city. “Mumbai might lose its archaeological heritage and there is no exhaustive urban project in India till date. We have divided ourselves in five groups and cover separate areas in the city and I cover the Mulund to Chunabhatti area along with Sion and Aarey,” Parab says.

Image credits: University of Mumbai/ Hindustan Times.

A report by the Deccan Chronicle stated that Salsette is bounded on the north by Vasai creek, on the north-east by the Ulhas River, on the east by Thane creek and Bombay Harbour, and on the south and west by the Arabian Sea. The original seven islands of Bombay, which were merged by land reclamation during the 19th and early 20th centuries to form the city of Mumbai, are now practically a southward protruding peninsula of the much larger Salsette Island. Siddharth Kale, who had conducted exploration in the Vasai taluka, said: “Sopara seems to be the only site hitherto known in the Konkan where human habitation has continued unchecked for the last 2,300 years.” Sopara (now Nalasopara) was a unique port site and administrative centre which has been mentioned in various inscriptions and literature right from the 1st century CE till at least the 14th century CE,’ said the report. The city was also called Bimbasthan in the Shilahara and Bimba Dynasty period.

He along with other researchers found an inscribed tablet from 14th century lying in the Baba Atomic Research Centre by accident. “A horticulturist at BARC is our friend and we told him about the work we were doing when he arrived to our cabin. We asked him if he has come across anything interesting. He said yes, and sent us photos of this tablet. We saw it and found that it was a type of land grant. The Sultan of that time Firuz Shah Tughlaq who ruled from Delhi had given this land to Hambir Rao. We also found pre-historic monolith and microlith structures near Tulsi lake that date back to thirty thousand years. It seems that it was the eastern and western suburbs where the early civilization of Mumbai existed and the Portuguese and British history were better preserved,” he said.

Prehistoric objects found by Parab and his team, that are 30,000 years old. Image credits: Mr.Parab.

According to his research, Marol was the capital of the city which was shifted from Mahim. He found Dewaras or prayer centres in his area that were thousands of year old and were still being frequented by people and the worship of old Hindu gods continued. He found Portuguese pottery from 15th century in his friend’s house and a headless Buddhist idol that could date back to the 13th century. Gadhegal or Ass Curse stones were also found. These stones depict a woman having sexual relationships with a donkey and were made by lenders to warn miscreants that any mischief with the lease of land would mean that their mothers would be humiliated in a similar fashion. The research has been possible with people opening their homes and re-telling their stories to fresh set of eyes.

Dr. Prachi Moghe has been documenting the History of Agris,Kolis and Bhandaris that are considered as the original inhabitants of Salsette before it became Mumbai. As an indologist and an expert in ancient indian culture, her work has taken her inside the lives of Kolis and East Indians. Interested in traditions and de-mystifying socio-economic reasons behind rituals, Dr.Moghe is trying to piece the history together through the people attached to it. She found 12th century temple ruins in a Juhu house where a man had collected the fragments and stored them together in his compound.

“We found Koli relics and oral history in Dharavi area. We interviewed many Christian and Hindu Kolis and traced back the ancestors of the Pathare Prabhu community. Many rituals and festivals are still being followed in the same manner since the 18th century but much of the history is fast disappearing. Young women are not wearing their traditional 9 yard sarees or jewellery anymore. Even the diet has undergone change and the cuisine has also lost some of the earlier recipes. There have been changes in gender roles but there are some rituals where women are still not allowed in temples,” she said about her observations. Dr.Moghe also found the high level of religious tolerance in these communities from Dharavi, Khar Danda and Juhu. “Even in inter-religious marriages, the traditions of both families are carried out. There are homes where a Hindu god is prayed to alongside a Christian god. Everybody from the community despite their religion visit the temples of the Hindu deities that are the protectors of their village, sea and travel. Some deities are ancestors of the family that have become mainstream deities. These four temples and pillars have existed for centuries as well,” she said. She did mourn at the loss of a few traditions. “They have forgotten their indigenous dance form,” she said.

Temple architecture found in Mr.Rane's Juhu home. Image Credits: Dr.Moghe.

Dr. Moghe is trying to co-relate the literary data with the archaeological data. “Many oral traditions have the mention of such places and they are helping us in identifying and corroborating facts. We are trying to preserve both abstract and material culture. We need to do it fast as it is fading rapidly because of urbanization. I also research about ancient trade routes and Mumbai might have some lost links that we can study. We need development and we need technology but we need to preserve and learn from our past and weave the history of Mumbai together by co-relating the sequence of events,” she said.

Dr.Kurush Dalal, Director & Field Director at CEMS and INSTUCEN, has been working on the large number of temple relics he found in Thane which is considered as the capital of Shilahar Dynasty from 10th century A.D. Marol is said to be the capital of Bimba dynasty. “We are still not sure what came first, if they were branches of the same tree or entirely different entities. We have found 15 land grants stones and eight were added to the list of such stones found in the greater Mumbai area. If there were such large temples in the city and there were Bhramins who were responsible for maintenance, where are they now?

If there were structures of this scale that existed in the city, it must have been a large urban centre which catered to a wide audience even before the Portuguese arrived. Mumbai city has the largest number of rock cut caves in the world and we found a preserved monastery in Kanheri caves in the middle of SGNP. How did it survive by itself? We knew that the city had such a history but the knowledge was sporadic. We are now looking at it in a scientific and holistic manner with art historians and researchers specifically looking for things,” he said.

Temple fragments found by Dr.Moghe and her team in Mr. Rane's house in Juhu. Image credits: Dr.Moghe

Before the car shed for the metro project takes up the space in Aarey Milk Colony, the team wants to dig up the past and preserve it in the university. Parab said that it would be criminal though to remove structures away from their original places. Dr.Dalal wants the city to have a sense of identity, roots that they can go back to. “We want people to have pride in the history of the city and educate them. We want to preserve the artefacts before they are permanently destroyed,” he said. A team of 40 people along with the core members is conducting the exploration and plan on releasing a book on their findings in three to four years. They publish annual reports and their project outline for the coming year is ready. Dr. Dalal is waiting for the monsoon to get over so that they explore the Vihar lake. “We want to make sure that the prehistoric tools are not a stray find. The history of the city can positively be dated back to lakhs of years,” he said.

Dr. Suraj Pandit and Dr.Abhijeet Dandekar are also directors of the project and bring their own strengths in Epigraphy, pottery, Indian history and culture to the diverse group. Dr.Dalal said, “We have evidence that such things exist in the urban concrete jungle that we find ourselves in. We have now tasted blood and it is a race against time to save more of it.”

You can visit some of these structures. Read the report here.

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