In houses and palaces now abandoned, what did the people see outside their windows?
In Rajasthan, the kings and the queens could see their subjects in the distance. In the immediate foreground, they saw manicured gardens and still waters of artificial lakes.
Here, the king wanted to recreate the same experience as felt while seated on a howdah (on an elephant)
The monks in Ajanta lived a sparse life as prescribed by their order. In the darkness of their caves, the world outside was, literally, a blinding light.
Gandhi, when he lived in Bombay, stayed at a house loaned to him by a prominent local business man. It was located in a quiet lane in the middle of one of the most crowded areas – Girgaum. Even today, this lane, called Laburnum Road because of the flower trees growing here, remains quiet and uncluttered giving the thinking man lots of moments of peace on his balcony
When sultans established their sultanates, they made sure that there were no competitors. This included rival buildings that occupied the skyline. The Adil Shah of Bijapur made sure there were no tall rivals to the Gol Gumbaz
Kasturba Gandhi had her own hut in the ashram. Gandhi’s hut with its verandah faced the river. Kasturba’s hut was placed the other way round with a window on the side looking out into the ashram’s open area. Gandhi could at least see the waters of the river flowing by.
At any given point in time, in Mumbai, there are multiple eras / generations / timelines existing simultaneously in the city, in a form that DD Kosambi called the “living prehistory”. Here are ten pictures from different parts of the city (and to be fair, one has to include a few areas outside the present day municipal limits).
1. The Mauryan era (Kanheri Caves, 2nd century BCE onwards)
Buddhism demanded detachment of all material pleasure. This meant settlements in natural environs like caves suitably modified to house thousands of monks. The infrastructural needs for monks were limited – a large prayer hall, various platforms for discourse, dormitories for sleeping, a common assembly area for meals and cisterns of water for all the usual ablutions. Having a river or any water body nearby was an added advantage.
Kanheri Caves has all of these. Over 120 caves are scattered over the entire hill in the middle of what is now the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Various inscriptions on the walls of the caves date the caves from 2nd Century BC right up to the 10th or 11th century CE. The caves are located on an ancient trade route heading towards the port town of Sopara, a prosperous centre during the Mauryan era.
2. The Rashtrakuta Era ( Elephanta Caves / Island , 6th – 8th century CE)
The Elephanta Caves as a tourist landmark is quite a cliche. It’s quite boring beyond a point. I have been there three times now in the last ten years and I think I have had enough. But that is because of overkill. The sculptures themselves are magnificent. They recall very vividly Cave 29 in Ellora, also built around the same time under the Rashtrakuta kings.
3. The Shilhara era (Banganga / Walkeshwar , 12th Century)
A tourist inscription at the Banganga tank retells a story from the Ramayana. Our three protagonists, having wandered here, were resting on the hill in Bombay island. Sea water is salty. So for looking for fresh water to drink, Lakshman did the old trick – he fired an arrow into the ground. And a spring erupted with fresh water. Since the only source of fresh water known to man at that time was the Ganga, it was believed that this spring was connected to the Himalayan river, thousands of miles away. Hence, the spring was named Banganga. The tank structure per se dates back to the 12th century during the reign of the Silhara kings. They were the ones who brought in settlers from the interiors and soon, apart from the fisherfolk, there were all kinds of people from all the four castes doing their respective duties. The descendants of those early settlers – the Pathare Prabhus, the GSBs, etc. – are still amongst the key influencers of the city.
Today, Banganga continues to house some of those ancient structures in the form of gates, pillars, the occasional memorials and inscriptions. There does not seem to be much change in the routines of the various temples. Of course, modernity has allowed for loud speakers and musical accompaniments made up of mobile phone ring tones.
In this picture, like in any archaeological excavation, one can see the layers of time in the different structures – from very ancient steps to the more modern high rises.
4. Sultanates of Gujarat & Deccan era (Mahim – Worli, 15th century)
The island of Mahim, along with the other islands, came under Islamic rule for about 200 years. In the 14th century, the Sultan of Gujarat defeated the Shilharas and took over the island of Mahim. All the islands that made up the Bombay archipelago were ideal for shipping and all those involved in the west coast maritime activities tried to gain a foothold in one or more of these islands. The Sultan of Gujarat was one contender. The Bahmani sultanate was another. There was the famous Ahmad Shah (Gujarat / Ahmadabad) versus Ahmad Shah (Bahmani / Ahmadnagar) battle over Mahim in the 15th century. The Gujarat side won. In joy, Ahmad Shah of Gujarat built a number of mosques on land and on sea.
5. Portuguese era (Bandra Fort, 17th century)
Castella de Aguada was built in the 17th century by the Portuguese as a watering hole for ships (there were a number of fresh water springs here) and later as a bastion against the British who, apart from territorial victories through local battles, had taken over the other islands of Bombay following the marriage of Charles II. The Portuguese had earlier, in 1517, taken over the Mahim fort from the Sultan of Gujarat. The St Michael’s Church in Mahim dates to this period. As the seven islands of Bombay were handed over to the British, the Portuguese retreated northwards to Bandra, Malad and Bassein (Vasai) where it continued to reign for another century or so.
From Dadar right up to Vasai, one can trace a whole line of extant churches built in the 16th and 17th centuries by the Portuguese. Of course, their legacy also lives in the ubiquitous vada-pav where both the potato and the bread were introduced by them.
6. British era (St Thomas Cathedral, 18th century)
When a power establishes themselves in any place, they show their supremacy by building a religious institution. The Hindu empires built all those temples in South India; the Mughals built all kinds of mosques at various places after victories in battles or the like. The British did the same in every city they took over. St Thomas Cathedral in 1716 was the first Anglican church in India and it capped the complete control of Bombay that British now secured for themselves.
The first church, a monumental one, obviously becomes a landmark. And so it lends itself to Churchgate, the railway station complex that stood outside the fort gate facing the church.
7. Gandhi & Freedom Struggle (Mani Bhavan, early 20th century)
The two storey house originally belonging to Revashankar Jhaveri is now part of a network of Gandhi memorials across the country which includes the Sabarmati Ashram and places outside India as well.
The room in which Gandhi stayed in, like all the other memorials, is arranged in the same way – mattress or rug on the floor, a writing table with paper, quills, blotting paper, etc, a spinning wheel on the side and other small stationery items. You will find this arrangement in Sabarmati, at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune, in fact anywhere and everywhere that Gandhi stayed in.
8. The Marathi Manoos era (Shivaji Park, 20th century)
Open spaces are rare in Mumbai. So the existing open spaces have high emotional value. Shivaji Park, like similar features in other major cities, has been the hub of both social and political movements in Mumbai. While the maidans of South Mumbai are associated with the British, Shivaji Park, even though it dates back to 1920s, was always associated with, first, the local nationalist movement and later, the Maharashtra movement. Back in the 1950s, this ground was the venue of meetings and demonstrations related to the creation of the Marathi speaking state. Because of that legacy, the May 1st (Maharashtra Day) parades and celebrations are held in Shivaji Park and not anywhere else.
9. The Bombay Talkies Era (Maratha Mandir, 20th century)
The cinema halls of south and central Mumbai reflect the many evolutions in the city – the movement of people to the northern suburbs leading to lesser patronage, the rising inflation leading the asynchronous economics where the extant pre-independence era monthly rentals from these old properties don’t even cover the cost of a single show, the flux of soft core regional language movies which keeps ever increasing migrant population made up of taxi drivers and restaurant waiters happy. Some of these cinema halls have, of course, made their sorry state into a tourist attraction.
10. Vertical Era (Mumbai Skyline, 21st Century)
The recent freeing up of FSI means builders can go higher and higher. Not just buildings, even roads and transportation services are going above ground.
I will update this post with new pictures from further explorations of Mumbai one year later
In the previous post, I had written of the seclusion of the cave monasteries in Ajanta. In this post, I write about the exact opposite – the open, easily found monasteries between the Arabian Sea in the west and Ajanta in the east. As a traveler with a bias towards history, if I plot the various Buddhist monasteries of Maharashtra that I have visited on a map, there is an interesting observation that I make which, after reading various literature and historical studies, seems to have a clear explanation.
Starting with Kanheri in Mumbai, there is Karla (8km from Lonavala), Panduleni (Nashik), Ellora (about 10 caves) and finally Ajanta. (There are many more like Junnar, Aurangabad, Bhaja, etc. but since I have not yet visited them I will not talk about as yet. )
These five spots, when plotted on the map, reveal that they are on two lines going east from the sea – one going North East, the other South East. They run in the same direction as two major highways which emanate from Mumbai – NH3 and NH4. The ASI informs us that this is not coincidence. In effect, there were ancient trade routes from the port town of Sopara (present day Nalla Sopara) which connected with the great cities inland include Pratishthana (modern day Paithan) which was the capital of the Satavahanas who reigned between the 3rd century BCE to 2nd century CE. The immediate conclusion is that, like the serais on the Silk Route, these monasteries were specially constructed on these trade routes and served as rest places for traders.
The Deccan Trap is comparatively soft. If the monks wanted retreats on the mountain-sides, the wealthy monks would not be wanting to build them. There were winding passes and traffic for the flow of internal trade and traffic. Places, not to distant from these routes yet a suitable remove to be secluded were naturally favoured.
Buddhism had its golden period once Ashoka embraced and spread the Dhamma through his numerous rock edicts. As it became the religion of the people, Buddhist cave monasteries became not just residences for the practicing monks but also places which offered a number of services to the public who were of diverse background – traders, noblemen, commoners. The inscriptions in the various monasteries suggest that apart from kings, wealthy traders and noblemen donated to their excavation and construction of the various viharas and chaityagrihas. In doing so, they thus sponsored the best craftsmen to conjure up all the classic sculptures and art that you can see in these monasteries.
So with this in mind, one can now look at the different embellishments done at these caves and try to imagine how they may have served both the monk looking for seclusion and the weary traveler looking for rest and recreation (and some mental happiness).
First of all, the size of the prayer hall (chaityagriha) at Kanheri and Karla are among the largest of all the cave monasteries that have been found. With a wide courtyard in front, this particular facility is well suited for large gatherings to assemble and mingle freely with ample space for everyone.
The chaityagriha of Kanheri
The great hall at Karla
For the seclusion of the inmates i.e. the residences of the monks, once you turn round the curve and go deep into the hill, you see a whole warren of caves. They are distinctly invisible from the road below and even from the main prayer hall, they require a little effort in climbing up. Thus both the needs are met. Similar concepts can be found in design of many modern day educational complexes where the main classrooms and office buildings are easily accessible from the road while the rooms for the faculty and the students hostels are hidden somewhere at the back.
The viharas (residences) of the monks at Kanheri
And what about the ornate artworks? Almost every cave has a recorded history (through inscriptions) of excavations and modifications ranging from 500 years to over 1000 years. During this period, Buddhism also saw a transformation from the more austere Hinayana to the more extravagant Mahayana where the likeness of the Buddha could now be carved out in various forms. Just like the Renaissance period in art came from the need to illustrate and bring to life stories from the holy book, the Mahayana period saw craftsmen bring out the different stories, themes and ideas of the Buddha and Buddhism in stone form (and mural work in the case of Ajanta).
Sculptures at Panduleni (Nashik)
Sculptures at Karla
Cave 1 in Ajanta – the iconic paintings flanking the Buddha
As a history buff, making this “trail” albeit serendipitously provides a nice sense of achievement for me. Instead of randomly visiting discrete places, there is a nice thread emerging out of these visits. There are some trails which I have been following quite consciously – like visiting various imperial capitals in the Deccan peninsula and so on. But this particular discovery for myself feels good.
Though it has been around from pre-historic times, the zenith of Badami’s existence was in the years bookended by the rise of the Chalukyans with Pulakesin I in the mid 6th century and the defeat of Keerthivarman in the 8th century to the Rashtrakutas.
It is one of the especially fascinating places in the South, unspoiled by tourism due to bad roads and poor accommodation.
This is true even today. Here’s picture of a typical street in Badami
And then Takeo writes about this typical scene which is best seen in the late afternoon.
Ancient stone temples blend with the northern and southern mountains they are built on. Bhutanatha Temple on the other side of the lake looks like it is floating on the water. The evening view is unforgettable. It looks like a painting of India in the Middle Ages.
This is a collection of different views of Mumbai. Unlike most photo essays of Mumbai, I am quite happy to go into the suburbs and take pictures.
This, for example, is a picture from one of the sets in the collection – Public Spaces.
The Powai lake and the area around it was, till a few years ago, part of the extended forests that are now fall under the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. That leopards and panthers still stray into these areas gives you clues about the loss of habitat of these biggish cats. So this promenade around the shore of the lake is, in a way, the edge between new age urbanisation and the legacy natural habitats of wild life.
The waterfronts of Mumbai, whether sea facing, lake facing or creek facing, are the most expensive chunks of real estate in the city (and possibly in the country). The creek side is still underdeveloped because of the mangroves and the general lack of interest of anyone to find an economic model to drain those swamps and put up high rises. However, as a public space, the swamps / mangroves do not fail the citizen nor other animals. The Sewri mudflats fall on the wintering migrations of the pink flamingoes.
But iconised in Hindi films and a part of every citizen’s life whichever part of the city he or she may be from is the sight of the Arabian Sea falling over the western promenades from the Gateway of India up to Versova during the monsoons. On a clear day, the tail end of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link can be discerned. In the midst of heavy rain and general lack of visibility, in the picture above, all one can see is a faint greyish smudge behind 5 foot high white surf.