Book Review Of Mumbai Beyond Bombay By Dr. Suraj A. Pandit

The most common popular images of Mumbai are those of a sprawling metropolis along the Arabian Sea, the financial capital of India, a city which never sleeps, a city where every dream can be realized and a city which is home to Bollywood, one of the largest film industries in the world. Mumbai is truly a melting pot of cultures with almost every community in India finding a representation here.

Mumbai embodies the very soul of urbanism- huge public buildings, railway networks, busy roads, shopping malls and complexes, eateries suiting every budget and much more. In spite of being proud denizens of this ever wakeful city, most Mumbaikars remain ignorant of its long and rich history.

Some of the more enlightened habitants are aware, to some extent about the history of Mumbai, but for them this history starts with the advent of the Portuguese in Mumbai in the 16th century CE. Many of them consider Mumbai to be a British bequest and an outcome of British colonialism.

It is generally projected that the history of Mumbai begins from the point in 1661 CE when the Portuguese gave her in dowry to the British king Charles II. Though one cannot reject the British contribution in making Mumbai a prime urban centre, it is just one part of the long chequered history of this metropolis. In such a scenario a great need was felt for a book which could address the lesser known or unknown aspects of Mumbai’s history, independent of its colonial linkages.

The book, ‘Mumbai Beyond Bombay’ authored by the renowned archaeologist, art historian and academician Dr. Suraj A. Pandit precisely deals with the hitherto unknown or lesser known facts about Mumbai’s past.

Dr. Pandit is currently the Head of the Departments of Ancient Indian Culture and Buddhist Studies at Sathaye College, Mumbai. He is a visiting faculty at and is closely associated with the Centre for Archaeology, Centre for Extra Mural Studies, University of Mumbai. The book is a compilation fifty-four articles originally written in Marathi by Dr. Pandit for the Marathi daily Lokmat.

The title of this column was ‘Vaarsa Mumbaicha’ which can be translated into English as ‘The Legacy of Mumbai’. These articles have been translated into English by Mr. Prashant Gharat who has completed his Masters in Archaeology from the Centre for Archaeology, Centre for Extra Mural Studies, University of Mumbai.

The book has a preface written by Dr. Tejas M. Garge, Director, Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Maharashtra. The book also has an introductory note by Prof. Dr. Meenal Katarnikar, Director I/C, Centre for Extra Mural Studies, University of Mumbai and the translator’s note by Mr. Prashant Gharat. More over the book has many photographs in black and white and is provided with a glossary and a list of books for additional reading at the end.

The articles in the book are not just restricted to the municipal limits of the city of Mumbai but cover the entire Mumbai Metropolitan Region (hereafter MMR). The purpose behind the writing of these articles was, as Dr. Pandit writes in his introductory remarks “to showcase the cultural heritage of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region”.

The articles cover the period starting with the geological birth of Mumbai up to the advent of the British in the 17th century CE. Dr. Pandit in his opening article itself makes it clear that the history of Mumbai goes far beyond the British period. Mumbai has a number of pre-historic sites, around 150 rock-cut caves of the historical period and a number of forts.

Though Mumbai was initially just a group of seven islands it had many rich ports like Sopara, Thane, Kalyan and Chaul in its close vicinity. Dr. Pandit, in the first article itself precisely specifies the constituents of the cultural heritage of MMR which comprise of forts, temples, rock-cut monasteries, heritage buildings, rituals, festivals, oral history as well as the faiths and beliefs of various communities living in Mumbai since several centuries.

Thus the articles not only cover the tangible and intangible aspects of the history of MMR but also include what are known as “community histories” of its residents. This is certainly one of the unique features of this book.

The most redeeming quality of these articles is that they are the product of decades’ of field work done by Dr. Pandit in the MMR and the resultant thought processes and intellectual churning. Actual field work, supported by a thorough study of primary literary sources and inscriptions give the articles an unquestionable authenticity and accuracy.

The story of Mumbai in the book starts around 65 million years ago when the region which today is known as Mumbai came into being due to tectonic activities. Dr. Pandit brings our attention to the Gilbert Hill made out of columnar basalt in Andheri which is a geological feature testifying to this primeval stage of Mumbai’s creation. He also highlights the inhabitation of Mumbai by stone-age man and that pre-historic stone tools were discovered in the suburb of Kandivali and its neighbourhood as well as near Vajreshwari in the basin of the Tansa River.

Coming to the historical period, Dr. Pandit recounts the story of one Patali from Chinchani (a town in the Palghar District of Maharashtra), the son of Putraka, who was the chief architect of Pataliputra, the new capital of the Magadhan Empire. This story appears the Kathasaritasagara and some historians believe that Patali lived in the 5th century BCE.

However, Dr. Pandit gives a reference of the excavations done by the team from Deccan College, Pune at Chinchani which indicated that the settlement at Chinchani went as far back as up to the 1st century BCE. Moving ahead, Dr. Pandit systematically brings out the antiquity of Sopara by informing the readers that fragments of two inscriptions of Emperor Ashoka as well as artefacts and remains of structures dating back to 2300 years before present have been discovered at Sopara.

Dr. Pandit has analysed the story of one monk called Purna from Sopara which is found in the Buddhist text Divyavadana. This Purna is said to have been initiated by the Buddha himself at Shravasti and moreover there is a legend which states that the Buddha personally visited Sopara on the request of Purna.

This story, which even made its way to the murals at Ajanta, in the opinion of Dr. Pandit, symbolises the arrival of the Buddha in his Dharmakaya i.e. in the form of his teachings. This seems to be a very logical understanding of the legend.

Through his deep research, Dr. Pandit has been to establish a fact that a Buddhist monastery existed at Sopara in the Mauryan period. Sopara was thus a centre for Buddhism in North Konkan, apart from being an administrative and trade centre.

Apart from Sopara, Gharapuri (Elephanta) and Kalyan were the other two important urban centres in the vicinity of Mumbai dating back to the Satavahana times. Most visitors coming to Elephanta only know about the Shaiva Caves but Dr. Pandit states that there are a number of historical sites including a Stupa site at Elephanta.

A number of artefacts have been procured from here including the fragments of a Roman amphora. In the view of Dr. Pandit, the rise of these urban centres is linked to the agricultural surplus produced by the neighbouring villages which is definitely a plausible reason behind the rise of these cities.

After providing a detailed background to the rise of urbanism in the MMR from the Mauryan period onward, Dr. Pandit directs the attention of the readers to the Buddhist caves at Kanheri. Kanheri, as Dr. Pandit writes, was the largest Buddhist establishment in North Konkan.

Dr. Pandit has brought forth many noteworthy and interesting points about the trade link of the North Konkan region to Central Asia which is revealed through the inscriptions and sculptures in Cave No. 3 i.e. the Chaityaghara (Buddhist Prayer Hall) Cave at Kanheri.

All these depictions clearly indicate the fact that the trade route passing from Kanheri was a part of the international silk routes. Dr. Pandit further discusses the major trade networks in the MMR. Among these was the route which connected the port of Chaul to the hinterland and another which linked the Kondane Caves near Karjat to the caves at Karla.

The most important was of course the trade route connecting Sopara and Kalyan to Naneghat (near Junnar). Dr. Pandit rightly opines that these trade routes plated a crucial role in making the Mumbai region prosperous.

Next in the series of articles, Dr. Pandit chronicles the rise of the monastery at Kanheri and how the monks from Sopara and Kalyan founded it. The laity donated agricultural lands at Saphale and Magathane to the monastery and their contributions were, as per the view of Dr. Pandit, reciprocated by the monks from the monastery by training the laity in better cultivation and iron smelting methods.

This view is very pertinent in understanding the mutual relations between the common people and the religious establishments.

In one of the articles, Dr. Pandit introduces us to a relatively lesser known dynasty called the Traikutakas who ruled the western part of Maharashtra in the 4th and 5th centuries CE and were thus contemporaries of the Guptas and Vakatakas.

Dr. Pandit has himself authored a book on the history of this dynasty. The Traikutakas were Vaishnavas and ruled from their capital city of Aniruddhapuri, named after Lord Krishna’s grandson Aniruddha.

Through this article, Dr. Pandit helps the readers in understanding the role played by the Traikutakas in the history of Mumbai.

The next few articles are dedicated to the history of the Pashupata Shaiva Caves in the MMR. Starting with the cave temple at Jogeshwari, Dr. Pandit presents the history and significance of the caves at Elephanta and Mandapeshwar (in Borivali West) which were excavated in the 6th century CE during the rule of the Kalachuri Dynasty.

Apart from its architectural and religious importance, the Shaiva Cave at Jogeshwari has the oldest image of Ganesha in Mumbai. While describing the Shaiva Caves on the island of Gharapuri or Elephanta, Dr. Pandit makes a very noteworthy observation that the sculptures here have a strong interrelation to the philosophy of the Pashupata Cult, a dominant Shaiva Cult in ancient and early medieval India.

The rise of these Shaiva monasteries in the MMR, as noted by Dr. Pandit brought about changes in the religious traditions and the cultural landscape.

Another article which underlines Dr. Pandit’s path breaking research is the one about the visit of the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuan Zang to Mumbai in the 7th century CE. Xuan Zang, as Dr. Pandit writes, visited many religious centres in the Mumbai region and the monk took note of the coexistence of the Theravada and Mahayana monks here. He also visited Kanheri and wrote down his observations about the Buddhist monastery in his travel account.

This article thus highlights a momentous but a much lesser known episode in the history of Mumbai. Dr. Pandit has also contributed an article about the impact of Eastern Indian Art on the Buddhist bronze sculptures dated to the 8th-9th centuries discovered in the Stupa at Sopara and an image of Avalokiteshvara in the campus of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre thus shedding light on the cultural links of MMR with the eastern part of the country.

The book then proceeds to articles about the Shilahara dynasty and its contribution to the history of the MMR. The stable rule of the Shilaharas gave rise to a number of urban centres and as Dr. Pandit observes many scholars, artists and craftsmen migrated to these new towns and cities. One prominent urban centre of the Shilahara period was their capital city Shristhanaka or modern Thane.

Dr. Pandit opines that Shristhanaka had a strategic location in terms of safety and control of trade routes. Dr. Pandit documents the patronage given by the Shilaharas to art and culture and makes a very important point that agriculture, trade and different kinds of industries prospered during the rule of the Shilaharas which prepared the strong base for Mumbai’s urban culture.

Another very interesting article is about the salt industry in Mumbai which was certainly one of the major industries at least since the 10th century CE. Dr. Pandit has also made some very attention-grabbing observations about the arrival of travelers from Persia, Iraq and China to the MMR and how gradually it was evolving as a cosmopolitan region.

The next few articles deal with a king called Bimba who appears frequently in the oral traditions of the residents of Mumbai. He uses the medieval text called the Bimbakhyana as well as inscriptional and archaeological sources to discuss the historicity of Bimba which certainly keep the reader engaged with the book.

The Buddhist site of the Mahakali Caves in Andheri and how a Buddhist site got the name Mahakali have been treated at length by Dr. Pandit in the book. Further, Dr. Pandit writes about the emergence of Sopara as a Hindu and Jaina Tirtha, a fact which most people are unaware about. Like the other articles, these articles are also based on original textual sources as well as archaeological data.

Aniruddhapuri, the capital of the Traikutakas is identified with Gharapuri or Elephanta. Dr. Pandit introduces us to a hitherto little known oral tradition which links this site to the episode concerning Banasura, his daughter Usha, Lord Krishna and his grandson Aniruddha.

In the opinion of Dr. Pandit this oral tradition may have been originally generated by the Traikutakas who were themselves Vaishnavas. The next two articles cover the evolution of the goddess Vajreshwari whose 18th century CE temple is located near Virar, towards the north of Mumbai.

Dr. Pandit traces the evolution of this deity from her esoteric Buddhist origins to her being identified as an incarnation of Parvati. In addition he also puts forth the connection of the Natha Sampradaya and the goddess Vajreshwari. He also presents some very interesting details about residence of Natha Siddhas in Mumbai.

The 14th century witnessed the advent of the Khiljis who were of Turkish origin in North Konkan as well as Devagiri. Mumbai came under the control of Mubarak Khan Khilji in 1318 CE and this greatly harmed the harmonious atmosphere of this region. Dr. Pandit explains the reference to Mubarak Khan in the oral traditions of Mumbai where he is portrayed in a negative light.

Dr. Pandit has also very rightly taken into account the rise of the local king Jayaba Mukne in Jawahar who was given the title of Nimshah by Mohammad bin Tughlaq. He introduces the readers to the history and heritage of Jawahar, an aspect which most books on Mumbai completely neglect.

Dr. Pandit writes about the migration of different tribes who were forest dwellers to the MMR during the Shilahara period and the role they played in the urbanisation of this region.

When the MMR was under the control of the Delhi Sultanate, there rose a local king in Mumbai called Hambirarao in the 14th century CE.

Dr. Pandit has discussed the role Hambirarao played in the history of the MMR in the light of Hambirarao’s inscriptions, thus adding some very valuable information and its interpretation to the existing knowledge on the medieval history of the MMR.

Another historical figure of the 14th century CE Mumbai was Alunaka Rana or Alu Nakhva, the local Koli king. He has also been discussed by Dr. Pandit in the light of his inscriptions and references from the Bimbakhyana. The power gained by Alunaka Rana signifies the political rise of the community of fishermen and boatmen in the region of Mumbai.

From the hands of the Delhi Sultanate, the MMR passed into the control of the Gujarat Sultanate and by the 16th century CE, the Portuguese had started making their presence felt in the MMR. Dr. Pandit documents the rise of the East Indian Catholic community which emerged as result of conversion of the local people to Christianity due to the proselytizing activities of the Portuguese.

However, the extremist policies followed by the Portuguese were met with opposition in the MMR. One of the very significant observations that Dr. Pandit makes in this book is about the writing and compilation of many sthala mahatmyas which elucidated the religious importance of many sites in the MMR.

These sthala mahatmyas were written with the purpose of unifying the local people of the MMR and help them retain their identity and culture in the eye of Turkish and Portuguese conquests. Apart from the contents discussed above there are many other equally interest- inspiring articles in the book which unravel various aspects of the history of the MMR.

‘Mumbai Beyond Bombay’ is thus a welcome and an extremely valuable addition to the works on Mumbai. The book has many unique features which marks it distinct from previous works. Most importantly this is a book which takes the history of the entire Mumbai Metropolitan Region into consideration and does not limit itself to the city of Mumbai alone.

The history of Mumbai cannot be seen in isolation from the history of the MMR. Moreover the history of MMR is presented in a holistic manner taking into account written documents, sthala mahatmyas, inscriptions, coins, architecture, sculptures, artefacts and the oral traditions.

The information contained in the articles is a product of new research and discoveries based on sound archaeological principles. The articles actually teach the reader how to analyse a particular historical document or an artefact and how to reconstruct the past from it.

There are several levels of interpretation which can come forth from such data. Complex cultural processes like trade networks, urbanisation and migrations have been explained by Dr. Pandit in a very clear and simple manner so that the general readers can understand them easily.

The articles exemplify how the objective study of the past has to be undertaken and the way it should be presented to the common people without diluting the contents and analysis. The articles vividly show how the process of urbanisation in the MMR actually commenced many centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese and the British and how in the ancient as well as the medieval period the MMR was teeming with prosperous urban centres with developed agriculture, trade, art and religious establishments.

The book, as the title itself suggests, looks into the history of MMR beyond its colonial past and the articles contained therein completely justify the title. In other words, the book impresses on the minds of the readers that Mumbai and the MMR has a rich history preceding the colonial rule and what Mumbai is today is a product of a heritage that is older than two millennia. The English translation done by Mr. Gharat is very lucid and clear.

Dr. Pandit in the original Marathi articles and the translator Mr. Gharat have avoided the use of any technical jargon. The book is highly recommended to know and understand the history of Mumbai and the MMR in a comprehensive manner.

‘Mumbai Beyond Bombay’ is a tribute to the long and fascinating saga of the dynamic city of Mumbai and the MMR and is a must read for every history enthusiast and the general reader!

Author: Dr. Suraj A. Pandit
Translator: Mr. Prashant Gharat
Publisher: Aprant and Centre for Extra Mural Studies, University of Mumbai


The author of the book review would like to express her gratitude to Prof. Dr. Meenal Katarnikar, Director I/C, Centre for Extra Mural Studies, University of Mumbai who readily gave the permission to review the book ‘Mumbai Beyond Bombay’.

Mumbai Beyond Bombay by Dr. Suraj A. Pandit is available at aprantbooks

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