Mumbai is the financial capital of India. According to popular belief, the metropolitan city’s glorious history starts along with the colonial period. But in reality that is only the present-day modern Bombay as set up by the British. However, the history stretches far back. Historically, the oldest testament of present-day Mumbai comes from Sopara (modern-day Nallasopara), which is considered as one of the menial suburbs of Mumbai. The oldest historical evidence of Mumbai is from this place. It is in the form of 9th Ashokan edict, which lies at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, in the city.
Sopara or Surparaka, as it was known in the past, had a glorious run. Not only as an important port on the western coast of India. But also as a major trade center. It had trade links with the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and the Middle East. So much so that it finds mention in a 2000-year-old book Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Also believed to be the capital of Apranta (old name for Konkan). It also finds mention amongst important works of literature of all the major 3 indigenous religions – Brahmanical, Buddhism, and Jainism.
Sopara according to religious texts, epics, and myths
It is believed that Surparaka was established by the 6th avatar of Vishnu – Parshurama. Parshurama also brought various Sanskrit Vedics to teach people. He also shielded the place with his Parshu (Axe). Sopara is hence referred to as Parshuramteertha. Parshurama is also believed to have created 2 large lakes, Nirmal and Vimal. Nirmal is the place which has a Samadhi, believed to be that of the 5th Shankaracharya Vidyaranya Swami. However, some scholars also believe that it belonged to a later Shankaracharya, who had come from Dwarka. Nirmal is so important that there is also a Sthalapurana – Nirmal Mahatmya. Padma Purana mentions the names of 108 Teertha’s and also mentions that it is one of the holiest places.
This place holds a very important place in the Buddhist tradition. In a previous birth, Gautama Buddha was born as a Bodhisattva Supparaka. Apart from this, the story of Bodhisattva Punna/Purna also states that Buddha visited Supparaka on Punna’s request when Punna went to Sravasti. Buddha came here and converted to Buddhism a Brahmanical sage Vakkali and 500 widows. To whom he gave his nails and some hair as relics, over which they built a Stupa, called Widow’s Stupa.
The 8th and 9th Asokan edicts found here point to the importance of this place during the 3rd century BCE. Asoka sent one of his missionaries, Yavana Dhammarakhita/Dhammarakshita to Aparanta (Konkan) as one of his missionaries. This missionary is said to have preached the Buddhist faith to 70,000 hearers. Scholars also believe that Dhammarakhita made this place as the base. And then spread Buddhism across western India from here.
Jain literary texts also honor Sopara an important status. This place is regarded as the ancient Taleti (foothill) of the sacred Shatrunjaya hill by the followers of the Jaina faith. Shatrunjaya, or Palitana as it is commonly referred to as is the most important Teertha for the Shwetamber Jains. Acharya Jinaprabhasuri (14th century CE) mentions, in his work Vividh Tirth Kalpa, that Sopara was one of the 84 most important Teertha’s for Jains. He also mentions that this place had an image of Adinath which people worshipped. Jains believed that it was a Jivitswami (made when Tirthankara was alive) image of Adinath. Pethad Shah (1223-1283CE), a wealthy merchant, constructed 84 temples all across India. Out of which 51st temple he constructed was a Parsvanath temple here.
The Jain population in the region has dwindled due to the rapid migration of the population to wealthy parts of Mumbai city due to work. However, before the railway lines shaped our modern understanding of transport, various Jain traders and merchants had settled down here and were involved from inland to maritime trade. A proof of the same is almost a 200-year-old Jain temple at Chalpeth (Agashi). Which was commissioned by one Motisha Seth, who was involved in maritime trade amongst his other business ventures?
The Mahabharata mentions that while visiting various places on the western coast, Arjuna came to the very holy Surparaka. Paumacariyam, which is the Jain version of Ramayana mentions that this place was one of the regions that Luv-Kush conquered.
Ancient travelers mentions
Travel has always intrigued mankind and humans have always had the quest of finding answers to the curiosity that arises in their minds. Travel can be a religious Yatra or for seeking pleasure or as a hobby or to kill the boredom from mundane life. We have already seen how this place has lured religious devotees across religions and sects. Now let’s look at travelers who visited the place back in the day.
Travelers have been writing about Sopara since the 1st century CE. The 1st-century book, by an unknown author, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, finds mention of this place multiple times. It is followed by the Greek Geographer, Ptolemy, who describes this place as Ariake makes mention of the rivers around. However, the placements of the locations are a bit off according to scholars. Both these works touch upon the fact that Sopara/Ouppara/Ariake was an important seaport. Also, they touch upon it as a link between Kalyan and Bharuch.
In the 6th century CE, Greek Merchant and monk Kosmas Indikopleustes has referred to Sibor near Kalyan. During the 10th century, Arab traveler Al Masudi mentions Subara along with Thana. Persian travelers Ibn Haukal and Al Istakhu and Arab Geographer Al Biruni mention Surbarah, Surabaya, and Subara respectively. In the 12th century, African geographer Al Idrisi describes Subara as one of the emporiums of India with great trade. In 1322 a Christian missionary Jordanus mentions strife with Musalmans of Thana. He also points towards the presence of Christians at that time in Sopara. He also traveled from Thana to Broach via Supera.
Various names as mentioned in the literature
To highlight the importance, here are various names of this place mentioned in the literature:- Sopara, Surpur, Shurparaka, Soparak, Sopar, Surpakka, Surpaparak, Surparak, Suripakka, Sumhala, Sahuala, Suhalak, Sumhalaka, Sumhalaaka, Soparpur, Soparpur Pattan, Sophir, Ophir, Soparag, Sahupara, Sorparak, Suparik, Surpur, Soparpur.
Sopara for the modern-day travelers
Whether you’re someone who has been bitten by wanderlust or someone who has a knack for art or an interest in knowing the glorious historical past or someone who wants to satiate the spiritual hunger – this place has something for everyone.
These are some of the places to visit at Sopara:
- Buddha Stupa
- Chakreshwar Talao and Sculptures next to it
- Nirmal Shankaracharya Samadhi
- Chalpeth Jain Temple
- Agashi Hanuman Mandir and Pushkarni
- Jivdani Temple
- Vasai Fort
- Nandakhal Church and other old churches of Vasai
- Many options of beaches to end the day
The Buddha stupa site locally known as Buruda Rajacha Kot was excavated by Bhagwanlal Indraji in 1882. That yielded a large stone coffer within a brick-built chamber. They had 8 metal images of Buddha. Including Maitreya Buddha, a copper casket with stones, gold flowers and scented powder, jewelry, relics such as begging bowl, and a silver coin of Gautamiputra Satkarni (1st century CE). The stupa dates back to the 3rd century BCE. Also, a fragment of the 8th rock edict of Asoka was found from the nearby Bhatela pond. The rock edict is perhaps not only Sopara’s but also Mumbai’s earliest historical evidence.
Chakreshwar Talao is important for various reasons. Hindu followers believe that the Chakreshwar Talao came into existence because it was dug by Krishna’s chakra. The Jains associate it with the Yakshini of 1st Jain Tirthankara Adinath. Modern-day Chakreshwar Talao has been converted into something very aesthetic with a jogging track circumambulating the Talao. But the main reason Chakreshwar Talao is important for a traveler today is because of the adjoining Chakreshwar Mahadev Mandir.
Chakreshwar Mahadev Mandir
The actual origins of this temple are not clear. There are some differences between people regarding their origin. But it is regarded as the Chakreshwar Mahadev Mandir today. However, the majority of historians/archaeologists believe that it belongs to the 19th century. It is not an extravagant temple as one would imagine a major place of worship to be. But is believed to be the place where Swami Samarth stayed. It is adjacent to the Akkalkot Swami Math which has a Samadhi of Swami Mayurananda.
The main attraction of this temple is a large amount of antiquity lying in its vicinity. There are sculptures installed inside the temple as well as lying outside on its premises.
We will have a detailed look at the sculptures, some of which stylistically date back to the 10th-11th century CE.
Locals believe that most of the sculptures were revived from the Chakreshwar Talao. They were thrown there by the Portuguese when they destroyed the earlier temple.
Another belief, amongst the locals, on the same lines is that people purposely hid the sculptures to save it from the Portuguese.
In either case, the Portuguese have a place in the local memory as a scar.
Nirmal Shankaracharya Mandir
Nirmal is a quaint village regarded as a pious land by the followers. According to the myth, Nirmal was created by Parshurama. It is believed that Parshurama shot an arrow into the sea upon which the sea subsided giving birth to a fresh new piece of land for the Brahmins and this is the land of Nirmal. The entire legend is recorded in a late Sthalapurana by the name of Nirmal Mahatmya. This Purana covers various descriptions of Parshurama and his conquests around Nirmal or Sopara. It also describes how Parshurama created 2 Teertha’s here – Nirmal and Vimal.
The testament to this belief of Nirmal is the Jagadguru Shankaracharya temple atop the Nirmal hillock. The opinions of the appropriation of this temple to Shankaracharya vary. Some believing it to be the samadhi of 5th Shankaracharya Vidyaranya Swami. While some opine that it actually is a later samadhi of Shankaracharya who came from modern-day Gujarat and settled down here. In either case, it has an association with Shankaracharya. The temple today is, however, a modern reconstruction.
Chalpeth Jain Temple
This is a temple dedicated to the 20th Jain Tirthankara Munisuvrat Swami. It was constructed in the early 19th century by Seth Moti Chand (some also refer to Seth Moti Shah, who was Moti Chand’s father) who was a wealthy merchant from Mumbai. The temple is almost 190 odd years old. It has an interesting story about how it came into being.
According to the legend, tentatively 250 years ago an image of a Tirthankara occurred in the Chakreshwara Talao area. All the big Jaina sanghas residing in the area came to take the image to their respective areas and create a temple. While this argument was going on, “a bullock-less bullock cart” arrived at the said site. Everyone was surprised but they kept the image on the cart and the cart started moving. The audience was shocked to see the cart moving without any animal drawing it. But they started following the cart. The cart halted at a place tentatively 5-7 KM’s away from where it was found at a village called Chalpeth, Agashi. People unanimously agreed to keep the image there and installed it in a small room. That is how the image was installed.
The temple underwent a Jirnodhhar in 2019 and is today in a very new form.
Agashi Hanuman Mandir and Pushkarani
Hardly a kilometer away from the Jain temple is a Peshwa period Shiv temple. It is now being worshipped as a Hanuman temple, post its Jirnodhhar around 2012-13, at Agashi. The temple has a very beautiful Pushkarni adjoining it. That used to be an important spot for a gathering at most of the major festivals. The Pushkarni was also adorned with beautiful sculptures, most of which is inexistent today. Sadly, the temple also underwent a Jirnodhhar. Sadly the old temple is now replaced by tiles and oil paint. No matter how much it aches a heritage lover and a traveler, it is a must-visit. There is also a Bhavani Shanka temple adjoining the Agashi Talao. Coincidentally, like all the temples discussed above, this temple also has an interesting legend associated with it.
The legend is: a person from the Royal Patwardhan family from Sangli contracted an incurable disease and was upset with it. One night, a Devi appeared in his dreams and told him that if he wants to get cured, he’ll have to go to a village called Agashi in this region. Construct a pond there, at his own expense. Stay there and bathe on those waters for 6 months. Already upset by the disease he tried as he was instructed. After continuously bathing there for 6 months, his disease was cured.
You would have figured out by now that this is a land of Talaos and water bodies. There are also references that associate the place as the land of 108 Kunda’s!
The Jivdani temple is located atop the hill which is referred to by the locals as Jivdani. This is a very modern-day temple. But is revered not only the locals but also people from far away. The temple has Jivdani Mata as the main deity. Hoards of worshippers flock the mini trek to get a glimpse of Mata. The temple is housed in a cave that was originally a part of the set of Buddhist caves. The caves adjoining the current main cave are now encroached by the people and is used as a commercial shop selling eateries and other things to pilgrims. A part of the dilapidated cave is sadly used even to stack shoes of the devotees before they enter the temple.
Moving away from the religious monuments, let us go towards one of the most iconic monuments that every traveler would love. Vasai Fort is an iconic fort that has witnessed the change of hands and history for almost 600 years. Though the fort is in Vasai, we are considering the region between the Vaitarna and Ulhas rivers as Sopara. This fort marks the southernmost boundary for us.
The fort was built by Natharao Sindha Bhandari Bhogle in the 14th century. It was later conquered by the Gujarat Sultan Bahadur Shah. When the Portuguese conquered it from Bahadur Shah, they actually expanded the fort to a great extent. And it was a base for the Portuguese for almost 200 years. The Portuguese were eventually defeated by Maratha Peshwa Chimaji Appa. Eventually, it landed in the hands of the British. This varied history of the Fort is a treat for history buffs as well as travelers.
The fort housed 7 churches at a time. Out of which only 5 survive and only 1 is still in use. There is also a Vajreshwari temple inside the fort which was built by Chimaji Appa.
Because of the reign of the Portuguese in the region for 2 centuries, there are a lot of beautiful old churches all across the region. Out of these, Nandakhal church and Our Lady of Remedy (also known as Ramedi Mata Church) are one of the oldest and magnificent churches.
Holy Spirit Church, Nandakhal, and Our Lady of Remedy Church, South Vasai were both built in the 2nd half of the 16th century. Again, like other religious legends, Christians regard that Vasai was blessed by the Lord with 53 freshwater springs. The continuation of the importance of water bodies across faiths is very interesting.
The perfect way to end the travel experience here is to spend an evening watching the setting Sun. Due to the vast coastal line, there are multiple beaches options like Arnala, Bhuigaon, Rajodi, Kalamb, Navapur, and Rangaon. All these beaches have a beautiful view of the sunset. Depending on the site you end up last, you can select your beach accordingly; these are close by from their corresponding sites mentioned above.
This is a guest post by Monish Deepak Shah. All the photographs unless credited are his.
Monish Deepak Shah has graduated as an engineer from the University of Mumbai in Electronics and Telecommunication. His interest in the field of Archaeology and History made him pursue his masters in Indology from TMV, Pune, and diplomas in Archaeology as well as Jainology and Mythology from the University of Mumbai. Professionally, he has worked in the field of Robotics and Embedded Systems and is currently working in the construction industry. Monish grabs every opportunity to work in the field of his passion – Archaeology, History, and Jainism. He has presented papers in National conferences including at Indica Yatra Conference. He is currently working on Sopara and some other archaeological works in the field of Jainism. Follow BawArchaeology on Instagram.