Dressed up as a deity

For researchers, these artefacts are a goldmine of information about the Mumbai that was. For the faithful, they are simply a manifestation of the divine

Dressed up as a deity

Aparna Joshi

Next time you bow before a vermillion smeared stone figure in your neighbourhood temple, pause for a closer look at the idol. Chances are you could be gazing upon a completely unrelated piece of architecture from medieval Mumbai that’s been dressed up as a deity.

Take a small stone stupa lying behind the Siddhivinayak society near Shivaji Park, for example. While experts believe it to be a votive offering by 8th century Buddhists, locals regularly offer it flowers believing it to be a Shivlinga. A hop across at Parel, near the Chandika Devi temple is an imposing 12 feet high figure which archaeologists have termed the Parel heptad--it apparently features a Shiva, surrounded by six other figures.

The unfinished stone relief was discovered underground in 1931 during the construction of a road that links the Parel and Sewree stations. Experts believe it could have been a backdrop to a Chaturmukha Linga dating back to the 5th or 6th century. Other relics were also found alongside, all of which found a home in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalay. But local residents dubbed the figure ‘Baradevi’ (12 goddesses) and refused to let it be moved to the museum. Baradevi continues to be worshipped by locals and the area is now known as Baradevi!

A few miles away in Mahim, history researchers found locals worshipping a structural remnant of a temple inside the Johnson and Johnson compound. Placed inside the Amba Mata temple in the premises, the deity being worshipped is in fact a ‘keechaka’ or a load bearing bracket that holds up the temple roof.

Across at Eksar, Borivali, there is a set of stone panels, known as hero stones in historians’ parlance as they depict the heroic exploits of fallen warriors. This unique panel at Borivali shows a naval battle, which historians estimate took place in the 11th or 12th century, when the area was governed by the Shilahara dynasty, which ruled from Thane. Locals however worship these hero stones as their goddess.

Over the years, fragments of Mumbai’s hoary past have turned up at the unlikeliest of places during road construction, laying of pipelines and railway tracks or even the foundations of high-rise buildings. These stone artefacts-- small stupas, temple pillars, property markers-- have been ritually and reverentially been set aside by an unsuspecting citizenry.

Unwilling to unknowingly desecrate and dishonour a possibly sacred stone, people moved these artefacts into places of worship. A couple of garlands and a touch of vermillion and these gradually transformed into ‘deities’ that bless, provide solace and ward off ills.

Across the city and suburbs, beneath trees and inside temple compounds, lie these remnants of a forgotten and ill understood past. City historians and archaeologists who have turned their attention to unearthing Mumbai’s past in the last few years, are now painstakingly documenting each find and piecing together the chronicle of a city thus far untold. Their work isn’t simple.

For locals, there is a sense of sanctity for the relics that turn up unannounced and are considered omens. Locals are often afraid to invite the wrath of God by disposing of them, so worshipping them is the next best option. Over time, these become established deities.

The strangest of these ‘deities’ that have turned up in temples in Mumbai and other parts of the state however are land grant records that were inscribed on stone. These stone sculptures are unique artefacts called ‘gadhegals’ or ‘ass curse stones’ that provide an interesting insight into the Mumbai of a thousand years ago, which was ruled by the Shilahara dynasty. A majority of these stones are found in Mumbai and Raigad because the Shilaharas ruled from Thane under the auspices of the Rashtrakutas in Karnataka.

The stones served as declarations of land grants given to feudal or Brahmin families, and depicted a curse or punishment that would befall the person who violated the order, in the form of an illustration of a donkey in sexual congress with a woman. The stones would be placed on the boundaries of the plots and served as territory markers. The inscription would name the giver and the receiver of the grant, and a sun and moon inscription at the top meant that the grant would be valid forever. The inscriptions were sculpted on the stones in Marathi.

Many of these stones were discovered in unlikely settings during a year-long study in 2015, when the Centre of Extra Mural Studies of the Bombay University undertook the largest urban archaeology project in India, conducting a systematic survey of the area formerly known as Salsette (Shashti, the cluster of 66 villages that made up the Mumbai of yore). An estimated 12 such Gadhegals have been found over time in Mumbai.

Six or seven gadhegals are with the museum today, while there is one at Pimpalwadi in Girgaum which is worshipped as a deity by locals visiting the nearby Shiva temple. Its location has led experts to believe that there was once a village there, which had land enough to be granted to families. While another gadhegal, originally at the Jogeshwari caves, has found its way to Portugal, there is another at Bhandup, which is today worshipped by locals as a goddess, Meldi Devi.

For researchers, these artefacts are a gold-mine of information about the Mumbai that was, telling us names of places, rulers, their lives and social mores. For the faithful, of course, they are simply a manifestation of the divine.

(This article was published in National Herald on Sunday)

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