The Serendipitous Shiva of Parel
This is a continuation of my earlier blog ‘The medical mecca of Parel’.
I had mentioned that I had read about an ancient Shiva stele or bas relief in Parel and had set out on my cycle to check it out, (I had started this project of exploring Mumbai by cycle every Sunday morning and check out various interesting spots) but had gotten a bit side-tracked in admiring the many great hospitals in Parel which make it such a medical mecca, and the amazing generosity of the various people behind them.
‘Focus, dude - focus!’ I said to myself. ‘Shiva Shiva!’ I had come in search of Shiva and I had shall find that out. Google is an amazing tool for the city explorer - you use Google to search for various interesting things to see, and then use Google Maps to find your way there. I love Google.
G Maps delivered as promised, and brought me to... a really non-descript looking temple in the middle of a most nondescript road!
‘Eh?’ I looked around in puzzlement. Where was I? What was this? Had Google finally stuffed up and brought me to the wrong place? But no - ‘You have arrived’ - the tinny voice said in my ears. So I parked my cycle and went off to see where I had arrived.
I was in search of this -
This was the amazing 11 foot high 7-form Shiva relief - or 8-form, if you count the linga-shape which is the outline of the entire carving. This is estimated to be dating to the late Gupta period - which means that it was made in the 5th or 6th century! Which means that it was 1500 years old!
1500 frikkin’ years old!
It is supposed to be in the same style - and the same age as - the rock-cut cave temples of Gharapuri island, or Elephanta caves as they are better known.
And it was discovered here in the most serendipitous or lucky manner possible! They were building a road from Sewri to Parel, and were digging up the ground in 1931 to lay the base of the road - and they found this relief buried out there! How amazing is that!
Just imagine the shock of the worker who must have swung his pickaxe into the ground and had his spine jarred by the shock of the pick-axe slamming into the solid granite of the relief! It is a mercy that they didn't think that it was just a slab of rock and break it into pieces. The entire huge bas-relief was then carefully dug out of the ground - and that discovery must have seemed like a miracle to all the simple villagers around.
It is even more amazing if you stop and think about it for a bit.
While it is all very well to say that the image is in the ‘Gupta style’ - the area of Bombay was never under Gupta rule - the Gupta empire boundaries were in far-away Gujarat.
But obviously, someone here was sponsoring an awful lot of artwork and carvings - there are an astonishing number of rock-cut caves in Bombay - Elephanta, Kanheri, Jogeshwari, Borivali, Mahakali.
And these are really large structures - you would need a number of people to dig out the caves, and artisans to carve the statues ( and presumably painters who painted the walls and carpenters who carved doors and furnishings and cloth makers and tailors and goldsmiths and farmers to feed everyone etc. I know that no paintings or furnishings or anything else survives - but it is unlikely that the moneybags people who paid so much for such huge caves and idols to be carved would let them remain bare and unadorned. Looters must have stripped the temples when the civilisation which nurtured them collapsed and time would have rotted the rest. But the granite stone carvings would be indestructible)
So who were these people - why did they spend so much effort - and where did they go?
And secondly - the Elephanta caves are really far away from Parel, and on very different islands!
How on earth did this giant relief end up here? There is no cave or ancient temple in Parel at all. How did they manage to get this heavy thing here - did they put it on boats and stuff?
Also - why is there only 1 relief? Temples are adorned with many such reliefs - they cover all the walls after all. So - where are the rest of them?
And why was it buried here? Were they running from attacks of Muslim or Christian or Buddhist - or even Vaishnavite - iconoclasts? Or had they started to build a new temple here in Parel? Or was there a carving factory here which supplied this stuff to temples around? Or was it a school of carving - as the relief is unfinished?
But why? It’s not like Parel was an important place. The big cities in ancient times were Thane, Kalyan and Nala Sopara. The Portuguese settled on the other islands - Bombay, Mahim, Bandra, Vasai etc. There wasn’t even a fort on Parel - the forts of Mumbai were in Mahim, Bandra, Worli, Sewri, Mazgaon, Sion, Dharavi and Colaba. Then there were forts in Vasai, Arnala, Madh, Thane and Ghodbunder, Chaul, Palghar etc.
Parel seemed to have been a quiet and rustic place, far away from the flurries of history.
This relief seems to be quite a mystery! How fascinating!
After this thing was discovered, the locals must have looked at it as a miracle and refused to let it go to a museum. So, rather than anger the locals - the British arranged for an exact copy to be made, and that copy was kept in the Prince of Wales Museum - which is now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum. I had seen this copy myself - I had no idea that it was a copy! - and had admired it there.
The locals carted the original relief to the nearby Baradevi temple and installed it there. (Not sure why it is called ‘Baradevi; - does it literally mean ‘Twelve goddesses’ or is there some other derivation?)
After all this build-up, I was expecting some grand edifice here - suitable for such a magical and serendipitous find. But all I could see was a rather shabby and nondescript temple!
I went inside the temple - and was foxed to see that this famous stele was not there at all! There was only a small statue of a goddess
And the temple was totally deserted - not a soul in sight. I poked around and saw a few interesting things - an old ‘veergal’ or ‘Hero stone’ which told some action-packed story in three panels, some ancient mossy lions guarding an old statue - all of which had been cemented and butchered! There was a room which was supposed to be a ‘dharamshala’ or free resting room for pilgrims - but which now looked as inviting as a prison cell in some ghastly gulag...but no Shiva.
Puzzled, I went out again - and saw it!
They had put Serendipitous Shiva in a cage!
They had made an ugly concrete cabin with even more ugly collapsible shutters and had installed that stele within it. It was not even part of the temple - it was outside, in a separate structure. There was an information board outside which told me that this was ‘Monolithic bas relief depicting Shiva, Parel’ and gave some interesting information about the carving. I saw that this sign was dated 2012, so this ugly structure presumably dates from then. The ASI had put up their usual warning sign telling everyone that this was a protected structure and so on.
I felt quite sad as I looked at it.
He deserves better.
But hey - I suppose it must be better than being buried face-down in mud for a thousand years. Now at least people can see him and admire and worship him.
And hopefully, someday they will do a better job of displaying him and try to solve that most fascinating mystery of how he came to be buried here.
I saluted Serendipitous Shiva and mounted my cycle and went off.
This had been another amazing Sunday morning ride.
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I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!