Mumba Devi’s Mumbai – A Temple Trail With Bharat Gothoskar

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Anuradha Goyal – Bharat Gothoskar is my go-to friend in Mumbai. When I first met Bharat, he took me to Lower Parel and showed me a beautiful sculptor from the ancient history of Mumbai. The last time I was in Mumbai, I wanted to go to the Mumba Devi temple and Bharat took me there, and then he took me on a walk around the temple. What he showed me, came out to be something like a temple town within Mumbai, the existence of which was lost on me. In fact, he always ends up showing me a Mumbai which I have no idea about. So today I have requested him to take us through a part of Mumbai which most of us seem to be oblivious to. Welcome, Bharat.

Bharat Gothoskar – Thank you.

Mumba Devi Temple, Mumbai
Mumba Devi Temple, Mumbai. Image courtesy Shutterstock

Mumba Devi Temple trail with Bharat Gothoskar

Anuradha – Bharat let’s start with Mumba Devi today. Mumba Devi lends her name to the city of Mumbai. So tell us about her temple, its history, and its association with Mumbai.

Bharat – You know, most people think that the city was renamed in 1995, from Bombay to Mumbai, which is not the case. This island has been known as Mumbai since probably the 12th or 13th century. The story behind the name is very interesting. According to the legends, the locals prayed to a goddess, seeking protection from a demon called Mumbarakh. As she defended them from a demon called Mumbarakh, the locals started calling her Mumba. So, the one who defeated Mumbarakh is Mumba Devi.

It is very interesting that Mumbarakh is the local version of the Sultan of Delhi, Mubarak Shah. So, Alauddin Khalji’s son attacked this region which is believed to be protected by the goddess, and Delhi Sultanate has some connection to the name of Mumbai.

Original Mumba Devi Temple

Earlier the original temple used to be approximately at the location where the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT) station stands today. It was in the town of colonial Bombay and stood just outside the Bazar Gate. When they cleaned that area, they shifted it to the current location which is the native town. The fort area was the white town where the Britishers stayed and the locals stayed across, which is known as the native town. So, it is to the north of the Crawford market that Mumba Devi has resettled and the temple at the current location is two centuries old.

Anuradha – Okay. So how did Bombay or बमबई get its name?

Bharat – There are multiple theories to it. Some people believe it is derived from Bombaya which means ‘the good bay’, a Portuguese name. There’s another theory that there was a King Bimbasthan in this area who was the first king to proudly have a capital on the seven islands that were at Mahim. Eventually, Bimbasthan could have potentially given it the name Bombay. But there are old Portuguese maps which call the city Mombaim also. So, Bombay and Mombaim could have been used interchangeably at some point in time and then it got anglicized to Bombay. That’s how the legend goes. There are various theories but there is no proper record.

Decorated idol of Mumba Devi, Mumbai
The decorated idol of Mumba Devi, Mumbai. Image courtesy Shutterstock

Anuradha – In fact, after you took me there, I came back and was doing some research when I stumbled upon something called Mumba Devi Mahatmya.

Bharat – Yes, yes. That’s where all this Mumbarakh demon and stuff is mentioned.

Temples around Mumba Devi Temple

Anuradha – Right. So can you walk us through some of the important temples around that area of Mumba Devi that you took me to?

Bharat – What is fascinating is that there were temples older than the Mumba Devi temple itself. It was relocated and rebuilt, originally destroyed during the Portuguese regime. All the temples, just like in Goa, were demolished during the Portuguese regime. Similarly, the northern territory of Mumbai, Vasai, right up to Daman and to the south up to Alibag was under the Portuguese and in most of these places. The temples were destroyed by the Portuguese and rebuilt in the British era.

Fifty years ago most of the temples were rebuilt, including fascinating old temples in the area like Buleshwar. Bhuleshwar is a magnificent three-century-old temple with a lovely Naqarkhana. Right about at the entrance is an exquisitely carved wooden chamber where the musicians would sit. Typically in a palace or a haveli, this is a ceremonial entrance. When pilgrims and on special occasions, dignitaries would enter, that is when the music would be played in the naqarkhana and people would be allowed inside. The one in Bhuleshwar is a unique naqarkhana, with carvings similar to those found in Nasik, Gujarat, and Khandesh.

Architecture

The temple itself is in the North Indian style of architecture, which is the Nagar style of architecture. Sabha mandap is made up of cast-iron pillars. So, just the way Mumbai is the amalgamation of various cultures, people, and cosmopolitan, so is the architecture. The entrance is very similar to the Portuguese arch on which there is a Gujarat-style naqarkhana. There is a mismatch of styles which is very fascinating.

Mumba Devi is the main temple and Kalba Devi is another temple nearby. Mumba Devi is in Zaveri Bazar, the jewelry market whereas Kalva Devi or Kalika temple is in the fabric market area. Bhuleshwar has multiple smaller lanes like Phool Gali, Chandi Gali, and Papad Gali. You have been there and so you know it’s probably one of the most crowded places on earth. When we do open jeep safaris through that area, people are shocked that places can be so crowded. There are some very fascinating temples around here.

Mota Mandir

One of my favorites is something which is called Mota Mandir, spread over two and a half acres. Now, in Mumbai to get a space that is two and a half acres is exquisite. The temple is two and a half centuries old, it’s a palace. It is a palace dedicated to Krishna and he is treated like a baby. So from morning to night he is woken up and sleeps to lullaby. There’s a Chappan Bhog, a garden to graze his cows. A ceremonial darbar is held on special occasions, he is the God and his courtiers come to pay him a visit. The whole darbar is an exquisitely wooden craft and magnificent.

There is this other rare mandir called the Samudri Mata  Mandir. I’ve read about the Varun Temple in Karachi, dedicated to the God of the sea. Down south there is a temple dedicated to the Goddess of the sea.

Samudri Mata

Samudari Mata Mandir - Mumbai
Samudari Mata Mandir

Anuradha – There is one in Daman as well called the Samudra Narayan Varun Dev temple.

Bharat – Very interesting. Samudri Mata, also I found very interesting as Bhuleswar is a land-locked area, it’s not sea facing. The question is how come Samudri Mata is in this area. When we looked at the maps, we realized that the seven islands were different and the heart of what is today South Bombay was marshy, watery land. So Bhuleshwar was actually sea-facing at one point in time and Samudri Mata could have been at the edge of the water. Now that everything has been reclaimed, you don’t see it that way.

Panchmukhi Hanuman Mandir
Panchmukhi Hanuman Mandir at Mumbai

Panchmukhi Hanuman temple has four faces that look in four directions and one of them looks towards the sky. There’s this famous story in Ramayan where Ahiravana, the Adipati of Paatal takes away Lord Ram and Laxman to the nether world and wants to kill them. That is when Hanuman takes the special avatar with five different faces. So one is the horse, Arigriha, and all those faces. Five lamps in five directions being extinguished in one go were how Ahiravana could be killed and so that is the story of the Panchmukhi Hanuman. I have been to many places with Panchmukhi Hanuman but this is the only place where the five faces point in the five directions.

Anuradha – It almost looks natural.

Bharat – It does. Mumbai was made out of a volcanic eruption and this is also a volcanic rock. The temple is exactly opposite the main Bhuleshwar Temple and not many people know about it because there is no signboard indicating the same. So, it’s mostly the locals who are in the know.

Anuradha – By Mumbai standards, it’s a rather large temple.

Bhuleshwar

Bharat – Even the first Swaminarayan temple in the city is in Bhuleshwar, in what is known as Teeja Bhoiwada, the third lane of Bhoiwada. It is magnificent with exquisite carvings and paintings. You know it’s a psychedelic delight, a vision to see. There’s one more magnificent site known as Surajwadi in which there is a Suryanarayana temple, which is unique because Mumbai doesn’t have any other sun temple. As far as I remember there is one in Konkan, down south on the coast. But of course, we know of Modhera Sun templeKonark Surya Mandir and you know there are various temples including Kashmir.

Ancient Bhuleshwar Temple in Mumbai
Bhuleshwar Temple in Mumbai

Mumbai is very interesting because at the end of the 19 century it created a modern temple considering the fact that Surnyanarayan was not being prayed to for a long time. Brahmins came together to study and consecrate a temple of Suryanarayan and its mesmerizing. It opens at sunrise every day and closes at sunset. Sunday is obviously an exception as it is the day of the sun. So yes it’s magnificent but there are some 100 temples in the area and I can keep talking on and on.

Anuradha – Not many people know that even Delhi had a lot of Sun temples and while Surajkund survives and others are lost, there are areas named after the Sun and there has to be a connection. They will definitely make a comeback when they have to. That brings me to a question. So you are saying that all these temples have had to be built in the last 300 or 400 years maximum, where you would say is the oldest inhabited area in Mumbai.

Walkeshwar

Bharat – If you look at it, of the seven islands, one of the islands was Mumbai. During the colonial era when Hindu communities made money in trading. Under the British, they built these temples but there’s a far older enclave that is the ancient Tirtha. It is mentioned in Puranas. It is an area known as Walkeshwar, the main deity in the area being Walkeshwar.

The legend says that Rishi Gautam had an ashram, which was located here. On the way to Lanka, Lord Ram was staying in Nashik, where the Panchavati is, and passed through this area. Rishi Gautam advised Lord Ram that he should pray to Lord Shiva in the Sphatika lingam which should be brought from Banaras. It is believed that Laxman was sent to get the lingam and was delayed and till then Lord Ram created a Lingam fashioned out of the sand and is called Waluka. Derived from Waluka, Walu-Ke-Ishwar is the real pronunciation. That was a magnificent temple.

Shilaharas Dynasty

We don’t know how old the original temple was but around a thousand years ago there was a ruling dynasty in the area called the Shilaharas. They built multiple temples, one of which survives to date is the Ambarnath temple on the outskirts of Mumbai. A very beautiful temple indeed. A similar temple stood where the Rajbhavan stands today, known as the Walkeshwar. Then it was of course damaged during the Islamic invasions. What the Portuguese used to refer to as a black pagoda was demolished literally by cannons. Remnants of these temples can be found even today in different samadhis, on the corner of a tank called Banganga.

The other legend is that this area has a step-water tank, as large as a football field. It is believed that as there was no fresh water and sea on all sides. Lord Ram struck an arrow and out came Bhogawati or Goddess Ganga, providing fresh water. This water is collected in a pool which was created and it overflows into the sea. It was only in the Shilahara regime that the steps were created to allow people to reach the water. Of course, the geologists tell us that it is a natural lava flow that has a dip where the water collects but it is a freshwater pond right next to the sea, it’s on a sea cliff.

Oldest Structure

Technically speaking, it is the oldest structure built in South Mumbai. If you look at Mumbai as a city, which is within the municipal limit, then Kanheri caves may be older. According to the original limits, this is the oldest structure, though, and is ringed on all sides with temples.

Of course, these temples are built in the British era because all the older temples were totally demolished. Temples similar to Buleshwar were an amalgamation of different styles. You have Nagar style and temples with domes among others. Along with the Islamic invasion came the art of making domes, arches, and vaults making the structure similar to how mosques are. The dome is atop Garbhagriha and then there is the Sabhagriha with lovely carvings.

There’s the Balaji temple with the distinctive style of Marathi woodwork. Some other temples are very Nagar style in the Garbhagriha and very Konkan style in the Sabhagrah which have Mangalore tiles. These temples are more particularly seen in the Konkan area.

Siddheshwar is another magnificent temple believed to have been built by Peshwa Raghunath Rao according to the legends. It is distinctively Deccan in style, made completely out of stone, similar to the temples you see in Pune and Kolhapur.

Sadhu Akhadas

What I find beguiling is that there are very many akharas in this area, just like you have akharas in Nashik, Ujjain, Banaras, or Kanpur. I mean the Sadhu Akhadas. So, at one point in time to prevent invasions, sadhus took up arms in order to defend their faith. Many of them like the Jairam Gir baba Akhada have converted them into sweet meat factories or residential areas while others continue to be temples. Attached to these Akhadas are the graveyards of the sadhus, the Samadhi Sthal. You are aware that the sadhus are buried and not cremated and they are buried in Padmasana.

There are square or cuboidal graves in which they are buried. If there is a Shivlingam on the top of the grave, it belongs to a male sadhu and if there are two footprints carved on it, it belongs to a Sadhvi. At one point there were several Akhadas and burial grounds like these but not many survived.

Inchagiri Sampradaya

Then, of course, there is a sampradaya in Navnathpur called Inchagiri Sampradaya. The samadhi of one of the saints from this Samadhi, Siddharameshwar Ji is at Banganga. So there are multiple samadhis there like those of royalties like Gondals and Britishers, considering many royal families had palaces on Malabar Hill during the Colonial era. People look at Banganga as this tirtha where you go, you pray and you come back and miss out on the essence of it. They probably go there for somebody’s last rites but fail to explore the area, they don’t look at the Dharamshalas.

Lakshminarayan Mandir in Mumbai
Lakshminarayan Mandir

One of the most interesting Dharamshala has to be the Punjabi Dharamshala and it’s written there, “Amritsar Ke Dukandaro Ki Dharamshala.” Shopkeepers in Amritsar took out the money and built this for Punjabis when they come to Mumbai for darshan where they can stay. Hundred years ago, when the initial phase of Punjabi actors came to the city to get their career started, the likes of K.L. Sehgal, many of them stayed at the Punjabi Dharamshala. The Bollywood Holi that you see has its origin at the Punjabi Dharamshala at Walkeshwar. It’s a sea-facing property that is obviously in bad shape now.

Krishna Temple

The original Krishna temple has faded away due to the sea waves crashing against the temple. The few families still survive there and what is interesting is that even among this debris, there is so much out there that can be explored. There’s a Jayant Samadhi there. There is this building called Anurag where a saint has taken Samadhi while he was still alive and is believed to be in perpetual meditation. You have to look at these small yet magnificent things.

There is also this temple dedicated to Parshuram, which according to the legends, the Konkan was created when Parshuram stood on the Sahyadri ranges, Northern Peninsula, and threw his battle axe at the sea. The sea receded to create Konkan which he named after his mother, Renuka also called Konkana. There are many legends about where he threw the axe from and where it landed. One of which says that it landed at Banganga. So Banganga Lake was created where the battle axe landed. There is a magnificent temple built by the Bhansali family, so I believe Sanjay Leela Bhansali comes from the same family.

Vithal Rukmini

There is so much to see in that area and temples belonging to two communities. There’s a small temple dedicated to Vithal-Rukmini. There is a book called 2 states, I call this 4 states in Maharashtra – though the temple is in Maharashtra, he is referred to as the Kannada Vithal. He belongs to Karnataka and speaks Kannada and is a Kannada-speaking god in Maharashtra whose shrine is in Mumbai, owned by a Gujarati family and he is dressed like Shreenathji of Rajasthan. The diversity of Mumbai, the most cosmopolitan city, even the temples show the cosmopolitan nature.

There are two mutts there. There is Kaivalyam math or Kavalam math as it is locally known, which has an auxiliary branch in Mumbai. This 3-4 centuries-old mutt has the Shantadurga shrine in it. So the Mumbai Sthan of Shantadurga is at Walkeshwar. It is an auxiliary to Kashi math, the original math being in Kashi. So there are pretty rare places out there.

Malabar Hills

Interestingly, Malabar Hills as we call it today is because of the Malabar pilgrims who came and landed there. Everything south of Mumbai was Malabar Coast for them. It was called Sri Gundi and there was a cleft in the rock called Divine Yoni. From there, everybody is born and if you pass through the rock you are born again being absolved of all your sins. It is believed that Chhatrapati Shivaji passed through it. It was there for 30- years and then probably because of the lashing of the ocean waves, the rock cracked and fell down. So it’s a very interesting place.

Anuradha – I remember attending a concert at Banganga once and I always thought this is the origin of Mumbai, the freshwater, and everything must have come later but just the presence of freshwater means you can have a settlement here.

Bharat – Totally. Probably for 12 centuries somebody or the other has always lived here so there could have been older settlements that have depopulated but somebody is constantly present.

Anuradha – So could you talk about the caves in Mumbai quickly?

Kanheri Caves

Bharat – There are different caves from different points in time. Kanheri, I believe was the oldest, before Christ. There are cave temples that were built around the fifth-sixth century known as Mahakali. Then there is Jogeshwari and Mandapeshwar. There is also one called Magatne which is in bad shape. There is a slum within the cave. People staying in Magatne don’t know that there are caves there.

Excavated Cave at Kanheri Caves
Excavated Cave at Kanheri Caves

Mandapeshwar at one point in time was converted into a church during the Portuguese era and there is a cross carved out and things like that. Mahakali is a Buddhist cave. People will say it’s a Mahakali temple, but it’s a Buddhist cave. Jogeshwari is a Brahmanical or a Hindu cave and probably one of the oldest Hindu temples surviving. I’m sure that most people who stay in Jogeshwari haven’t seen the temple because it is surrounded by slums.

Trade Route

Anuradha – I have seen that but the question I have is that were these cave dwellings or were they a part of the trade route because you have ancient ports close to Mumbai.

Bharat – Definitely, the temples were totally along the trade routes. So, the capital at that time, at different points of time were, Zunnar or Paithan on the plateau. All along the trade routes like Sopara, and the ghats and passes, you’ll see caves all along the path. Depending on which religion was peaking at the time, the local kings would grant their support accordingly. You have Brahmin caves, Hindu caves, and Brahmin caves converted into Hindu caves. Where you have the Bhumisparsha pose of Buddha in a cave called Gomashi, people call it Brighu now. It’s about how locals start interpreting these. Close to Dahanu, there’s a cave which was converted into a Parsi cave so, during the attacks, the holy fire was kept at the Dhanu caves.

Anuradha – This actually sits well with the cosmopolitan nature of the region.

Bharat – Exactly, It’s very fascinating to look at it. When we show the city, we show its strength in angles of the British established buildings and that’s it.

City Travel Company

Anuradha – There’s so much perspective into the city if we try to show that. There’s so much about the city that we can talk about but I’m going to wrap this edition with this. Let’s wrap up by telling people about how they can explore the city of Mumbai with you, with Khakhi tours.

Bharat – Ours is not a conventional travel company. We believe that there is so much history in the bylanes of Mumbai and we need to help people discover that. A lot of research goes into it. So our most famous offerings are the open jeep safaris, the urban safari. We are probably the only people in the world who do safaris in urban areas. We don’t show wild animals, we show old buildings. It’s the best way because then you don’t have to walk much and cover 17 km ranging different areas.

We also curate it as per who you are. So if you are an Irish doctor, the tour is curated very differently from if you are a Japanese artist. The whole thing is curated to your personality and interests. That’s what makes us very different. The tourist guides are also not the professional ones, they are with you because they are passionate about it and have done a lot of research.

Anuradha Goyal – If anybody is passionate about the city and wants to flaunt their knowledge of the city, can also contact Bharat.

Bharat Gothoskar – Absolutely, that is why they are called ambassadors of Mumbai and not tourist guides.

Transcribed by: Anusha Singh as part of IndiTales Internship Program

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