nala sopara: mumbai’s ancient buddhist stupa and mythical temples

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The historical and artistic magnificence of India never fails to amaze me. Take a step in any direction and one is flooded with the country’s inordinate rich past and culture. Which does not always work in its favour for it lends to the Indian populace a nonchalance towards their own heritage.

Medieval sculptures which audiences lust over in international museums lie covered with petals and incense soot in temple nooks here. Millennia old crumbling edifices stand forgotten, holding on to time in desperation in an attempt to evade being razed down. And because they are in the multitude, one more or one less, sadly become irrelevant.

No part of this country is immune to its own cultural excess. Not even an uber metro like Mumbai. In fact even less so, for I have discovered and experienced sights here across centuries and religions, coexisting in uncanny innate ease.

Take for instance the northern outskirts of the city where an hour’s train ride transports me to middle India. In other words, I reach a sleepy, veering between rural and urban neighbourhood.

And what do I find? A 2,500-year-old Buddhist stupa and the site of Ashoka’s 9th edict, a Hindu matha with sculptures which could pass off as part of the British Museum, and a relatively modern temple dedicated to an 8th Century religious leader. 🙂

– – –

The sky is a gorgeous blue, and as the train rattles its way north on the Western line, impenetrable high rises give way to fields which open up to rambling low structures. My destination is Nala Sopara in Vasai; last year I had explored the Portuguese part of Vasai which you can read here.

Nala Sopara was once upon a time called Shurparaka—‘shur’ meaning brave and ‘paraka’ for city. It got its name from the valiant act of being one of the main ports trading with the ancient world of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Arabia and Eastern Africa over the centuries.

It was also a prominent Buddhist region, affirmed by the presence of two edicts, the 8th and 9th, erected by Ashoka (304–232 BC) propagating his dhamma. Ashoka put up 14 major edicts throughout his empire in his lifetime.

The 9th edict was discovered at a 2,500-year-old Buddhist stupa built by Purna Maitrayaniputra, a wealthy local merchant and trader to mark his new-found faith. Decorated in sandalwood, the stupa, now a national protected monument was on the same lines as the one in Sanchi. Gautam Buddha himself did its inauguration.

At first glance the deserted stupa, 65 yards round the base and 17 feet high, appears no more than a pile of bricks in a clearing surrounded by towering palm trees. As I walk closer, I see marigold flowers scattered over the bricks. They seem to miraculously turn the mound into a place of faith. A stone Buddha in an altar with a rather odd expression blesses with his eyes closed.

In 1882 a large coffer was excavated from the stupa’s centre containing eight 8th Century bronze idols of Buddha along with relic caskets, gold flowers, a silver coin and pieces of a begging bowl. The 9th edict, a large octagonal block of stone covered with Mauryan brahmi writing, now lies in the sculpture gallery of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in South Mumbai.

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The 2,500-year-old Buddhist stupa at Nala Sopara inaugurated by Gautam Buddha
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Capital of a pillar which once held up the ceiling
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Buddha in the altar, Feet of an idol. The mere presence of prayer flowers transforms stones into the divine

From a 2,500-year-old stupa I take a rickshaw to a medieval matha (abode or residence of ascetics). Did I mention time travel? If not, let me do it now—it’s an intrinsic part of all things India.

The Chakreshwar Mahadev Temple is a 14th Century place of worship on the edge of the Chakreshwar Talao (lake). Though the main temple has been reconstructed, its Akkalkot Swami Matha with the samadhi of Swami Mayuranand stands in a state of antiquity with a tiled roof, and wooden beams and pillars.

The prized treasure of the matha is its sculptures. Part of the original temple, they were thrown into the nearby lake when the Portuguese took over the area from Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat following the 1534 Bassein Treaty.

There is Shiva and Parvati with their son Ganesh and Naga, Gajalaxmi–Lakshmi with elephants representing good luck and abundance, a hero stone depicting the death of a hero, herein a Shaivite, and Harihara, a combination of Shiva and Vishnu with a crown adorned with skulls.

The most impressive, however, is the life-size carving of the four-headed Brahma, each head representing one of the four Vedas (Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva). The finely carved features, replete with a moustache and beard are unique to this effigy.

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Akkalkot Swami Matha in its unreconstructed avatar
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Offerings
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Chakreshwar Mahadev Temple’s 14th Century sculptural treasures. Left: Brahma; Right: Mahishasuramardini
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Temple symbolism. Left: Kacchap or kurma—the holy turtle and second avatar of the god Vishnu; Right: Inner sanctum with lingam

Conversations with a couple of residents lead me to an unplanned, unexpected detour; the pastel, fairytale Shankaracharya Mandir (temple) perched atop a hillock in ‘pious’ Nirmal, a village few kilometres away.

According to legend, Nirmal was created by Parshurama, the sixth avatar of Vishnu. In 700 AD, Adi Shankaracharya, the supreme Acharya or religious leader of Hindus, arrived in Nala Sopara and set base, further amplifying the area’s claim to piety.

But that’s not all. In the 8th Century, the 5th Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya attained samadhi in Nirmal; the site was later turned into the Shankaracharya temple where I stand right now. A Shiva temple, it was restored in the 18th Century by the Subedar (a historical rank in the army) of Vasai and further added to in recent years.

The result is an eclectic expanse hung between past and present. Loud painted idols stand side by side with ancient lingams and sacred spaces in the temple. Disney ramparts enclose archaic doorways and kundli (birth chart) readers.

Would I like to know my future? Nope. I am happy to discover each day as it meets me, including visits to temples even Google does not know much about!

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Shankaracharya Mandir. Garuda, the eagle vehicle of Vishnu in human form in the outer modern courtyard
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The lingam in the inner atavistic shrine
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Site of the 5th Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya’s samadhi, 8th Century
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Past and present in perfect harmony

Travel tips

  • The Western Railway line goes straight to Nala Sopara.
  • Use an auto rickshaw to explore the vicinity.
  • The three sites are open to the public and do not have any entry charges.
  • The Archaeological Survey of India looks after the Buddhist stupa.
  • To know more about the history of Mumbai’s suburb Vasai (which includes Nala Sopara and Nirmal), click here.
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7 thoughts on “nala sopara: mumbai’s ancient buddhist stupa and mythical temples

  1. The 9th edict was discovered at a 2,500-year-old Buddhist stupa built by Purna Maitrayaniputra, a wealthy local merchant and trader to mark his new-found faith. Decorated in sandalwood, the stupa, now a national protected monument was on the same lines as the one in Sanchi. Gautam Buddha himself did its inauguration.Nice and informative post

    Like

  2. Very nice post! The mention of Nala sopara nowadays only evokes images of migrant colonies and congested housing. Little do people know about the lost glory of this ancient port town of Sopara. Thank you for bringing to light these ancient links. Bombay is older than we think 🙂

    Like

  3. Pingback: Buddha, Brahma & Shankaracharya: A visit to Nala Sopara | My Favourite Things

  4. Just want to say your article is as amazing. The clarity for your post is simply great and that i could suppose you’re an expert on this subject. Well along with your permission let me to take hold of your RSS feed to stay up to date with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please keep up the rewarding work.|

    Liked by 1 person

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