Mumbai’s glorious past pre-dates Portuguese-era: Expert

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By Quaid Najmi

Mumbai– Fresh archaeological evidence found in Mumbai has provided some missing historical links from 100 BC to the 12th century AD, indicating that development of the area started long before the 15th century advent of the Portuguese, a top expert said.

Under the Mumbai-Salsette Archaeological Exploration Project, 2015-2016, funded by India Study Centre Trust (INSTUCEN Trust) a team of researchers from Mumbai University’s Centre for Extra-Mural Studies (CEMS) and PTVA-Sathaye College students explored ancient temples, historical sites and old communities in what is now Greater Mumbai.

They discovered, among other things, pre-historic tools, inscriptions, relics, pillars, land grant stones, Gadhegals (engraved stones), and seven new caves inside the 2,000-year old Kanheri Caves complex of suburban Borivali.

“This and other evidence, ancient records and field research provide the historical links that appeared to have snapped from 100 BC to the 12th century,” said CEMS Director Mugdha D. Karnik.

Effectively, she said this pushes back history by three-four centuries, shattering the hitherto-held belief that the development of the region began from the Portuguese era, starting with the landing of Vasco da Gama in Calicut in May 1498.

Many of the new discoveries in the Mumbai metropolitan region, comprising Mumbai-Salsette, shed light on the little-known pre-Portuguese era and would require deeper research to connect them to a glorious past, Karnik added.

Salsette is bound to the north by the Bassein Creek, to the northeast by Ulhas River, to the east by Thane Creek and Mumbai Harbour, and to the south and the west by the Arabian Sea. They were gradually merged by massive land reclamation during the 19th-20th centuries to form Bombay, now called Mumbai.


Karnik stumbled upon this older history almost accidentally when she casually enquired of C.K. Salunkhe, head of horticulture at BARC, whether there were any archaeological remnants in the premises of the country’s first atomic plant which is situated in a part of the old Salsette.

Surprisingly, Salunkhe brought out an ancient inscription and a sandstone Shikhara, which was examined by the research team of Karnik, Kurush F. Dalal, Suraj Pandit and journalist-cum-archaeologist Vinayak Parab and others.

“The inscription bears clear references to the Sultan of Delhi, a local vassal of Bimba Dynasty, Hambir Rao; the place is stated as Konkan-Bimbasthana, with names of villages which exist even today like Marol, Nanale (BARC), Devnare (Deonar),” Parab explained.

The reference points to Salsette or Sashti in the word “Sansathi”, bearing a clear date “Kartika Shuddha Dwadashi, Saka Samvat 1290” (corresponding to November 3, 1368).

It is quite likely that the etymology of Mumbai-Bombay-Bombahem originated from Bimbasthana, according to the research paper.

Dalal said past studies showed the area’s urbanisation started only with the arrival of the Portuguese, but the new discoveries and archaeological artefacts prove it to be much older.

An exciting dimension to the project was the discovery of seven new caves in the Kanheri complex, located deep inside the 100 sq km Sanjay Gandhi National Park in northern Mumbai, by Parab, Pandit and others.

The Kanheri Caves, 109 in total, date from the 1st century BC to the 10th century, and became a Buddhist settlement of global importance by the 3rd century.

Usually accessible from the western side (Borivali), Parab and his team entered it from the eastern side (Mulund) and were rewarded with pre-historic microliths in the Tulsi Lake area and larger stone tools at Khindipada that are “believed to be over 30,000 years old”, Karnik said.

They also found a Gadhegal — also known as Ass-curse Stone as they depict donkeys in sexual union with human women — which was on the verge of being discarded in the Powai Lake, and some other artefacts were found in Aarey Milk Colony.

In fact, the team found sculptures, some dating to the Shilahara Dynasty (765-1029) in the Marol area which was its commercial capital and is today a bustling Mumbai CBD, besides ancient temple pillars (of the same era) located near the old Aarey Milk Colony toll-plaza.

The field work of Dalal’s team in the Thane-Ghodbunder area revealed centuries-old relics, old cannons and even remnants of an old and forgotten railway line.

These and other findings are on display in a four-day public expo at Mumbai University’s Kalina Campus from Thursday.

Incidentally, another researcher, Siddharth Kale, said that Sopara was an ancient port and administrative centre falling in Salsette, with mention in many ancient inscriptions and literature from the 1st century BC till the 14th century.

It is also the only site known till now in the entire coastal Konkan region where human habitation flourished uninterrupted for more than 23 centuries and is today a bustling suburb on the Western Railway’s suburban network, just before Virar.

Encouraged by the new discoveries, Karnik said her team plans to continue research and field studies over the next two-three years and hope to establish more missing links in Mumbai’s ancient history and origins.


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