Mumbai’s Hidden History

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    The history of Mumbai, we are told, starts with a gift. More specifically, that the seven islands of Bombay were famously gifted as dowry by the Portuguese to the British, when England’s Charles II married Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662 CE.

    Across Mumbai, fragments of the city’s medieval past are being discovered

    But this is only a much later history. Across Mumbai, fragments of the city’s medieval past are being discovered, in temples, building complexes, police stations and parks, forcing us to look further back to discover what India’s commercial capital really looked like.

    Centuries before the arrival of the Europeans, what we know as Mumbai today was part of thriving kingdom, and we have some pretty solid clues to what life was like in those times. Some of these clues are tangible artefacts while most of the others are culled from a fascinating text called Bimbakhyan (The Tale of the Bimba Dynasty), also known as Mahikavatichi Bakhar (The Chronicle of Mahim), a compilation of local ballads composed over a period of 200 years that recap the history of the region between the 11th and 16th centuries.

    A bakhar is a form of historical narrative written in Marathi prose and the Mahikavatichi Bakhar is the oldest known of its kind. It is said that 66 copies were made of the Bakhar and these were handed over to different communities.

    In the ancient times, the North Konkan was known as ‘Aparanta’

    Before we pick up the story of the Bakhar, let’s go back to ancient times, when the North Konkan was known as ‘Aparanta’. This region was famous for the great port of Sopara that was closely connected with the Roman empire. It had a famous stupa and also boasted one of the largest Buddhist monastic settlements, nearby, in Kanheri.

    However, with the decline of Sopara in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (coinciding with the collapse of trade in the Roman empire), this region almost disappears from the pages of history. That is, till the appearance of the Portuguese in 1534 CE. Few historians were able to understand the interim period, until someone decided to look at local folk lore.

    Earlier dismissed as just local ballads or folktales, noted historian V K Rajwade published his translation of the Mahikavatichi Bakhar in 1924. The text, originally composed in 1448 CE and extended by various authors till 1578 CE, covers historical events in the Mumbai region across 400 years. It tells us about the various dynasties that ruled the region, the administration, and the communities that lived in Mumbai and the North Konkan at the time.

    Why and when the Bakhar was written has also been explained in it – although it seems more like fantasy. The story goes that, one night, in 1448 CE, the Goddess Jogeshwari appeared in a dream to Naikorao, the administrator or the desai of Malad (in Mumbai), and asked him to chronicle the story of the region and the communities living in it so that it could be preserved for posterity.

    Naikorao thus gathered 3,655 people from various communities in Mumbai, and in a pandal outside the temple of Goddess Jogeshwari (the Jogeshwari Caves), a scholar named Keshavacharya was invited to record their stories. This was compiled into a text known as Bimbakhyan.

    The Bakhar tells us the story of the rise and fall of the kingdom of Mahikavati or Mahim. According to the chronicle, in 1138 CE, Raja Pratap Bimba from the ruling house of Ahilavada-Patan in Gujarat came here from Champaner, conquering the region from Daman to Mumbai. It is said that his son Mahi Bimba established his first capital at Kelwe-Mahim (in Thane district) and settled people from as far as Patan, Champaner and Paithan to make it prosperous. The name ‘Mahim’ comes from Raja Mahi Bimba.

    The name ‘Mahim’ comes from Raja Mahi Bimba

    After a few years, Kelwe-Mahim faced attacks from enemies, and the capital was shifted to an island in the south, which was also named ‘Mahim’ (present-day Mahim in Mumbai) or Mahikavati. During this time, present-day Mumbai and adjoining areas came to be known as ‘Bimbasthana’ (the realm of the Bimba dynasty).

    The Bimba kings built a temple to their patron goddess, Goddess Prabhavati or Prabhadevi, next to which was their palace. Interestingly, the temple of Goddess Prabhavati, although rebuilt several times, still stands in the bylanes of the Prabhadevi area of Mumbai, near the Siddhivinayak Temple.

    Raja Bimba’s law courts were situated in Naigaum in Dadar. It is from here, the present-day Mahim-Prabhadevi-Dadar region, that the dynasty ruled the North Konkan. The Bakhar also tells us about the fall of the kingdom, at the hands of the armies of the Delhi Sultanate in 1348 CE. The account doesn't stop there. It goes all the way to the arrival of the Portuguese in Vasai in the 16th century.

    The ballad tells of the great temples of Walukeshwar, Prabhavati and Mukteshwara

    What makes the Bakhar such an interesting read is that the people and places seem so familiar and yet so unfamiliar. For instance, it provides a list of villages with very familiar names like Juhu, Khar, Mulund, Bhandup and Chembur. Even present-day Aarey makes an appearance as a tiny village. The ballad also tells of the great temples of Walukeshwar (Walkeshwar), Prabhavati (Prabhadevi) and Mukteshwara (on Madh Island).

    From the names of these places, we can also gauge how the people lived. We know that salt was produced in Khar (literally translated, it refers to saline land), while Vandre (modern day Bandra) makes its appearance as a neighbour of Mahim.

    The Bakhar tells us about thriving international trade at the port of Mahim, the production of salt, toddy tappers, and the great horse-trading centre of Ghodbandar (in Thane). We also learn that while Mahim was the capital, Malad and Marol were important provinces, ruled by governors known as ‘Desais’ or ‘Desala’.

    Minister Bhriguchuri was notorious for kidnapping and assaulting women

    While there are a number of stories relating to personalities and kings who lived in those times, one of the most interesting is the story of the tyrannical minister of the Raja of Mahim, Bhagadchuri, who administered the region with an iron hand. Apparently, he was notorious for kidnapping and assaulting women.

    Once, his roving eye fell on a beautiful married woman from the family of the Governor (Desai) of Malad. He plotted to kidnap her, but the lady, who was pregnant, managed to escape to Bhiwandi, where she gave birth to a son. Years later, this son, now a strapping young man, returned to avenge his mother and killed the evil minister. A story straight out of a Bollywood blockbuster!

    For decades, the Bakhar was dismissed as simple, unverified folklore by formal historians but recent discoveries are changing this perception. Fragments of temples dating back to the 10th century were found around 2016, in the Mahim fort, which stands in what was once the Bimba dynasty’s famed Mahikavati.

    In 2016, students from the University of Mumbai discovered an inscription in the BARC campus at Deonar, dating back to 1368 CE. It refers to King Hambirrao, a vassal of Firuz Shah Tughlaq, and to places like Marol and Deonar. Most importantly, there is a reference to the region as ‘Mahim Bimbasthan’ or ‘Mahim, the land of Bimba’, which corroborates what the Bakhar says.

    Sadly, there has been very little academic research done on the Bakhar, nor has it been translated into English. Indologist and art historian Sandeep Dahisarkar is one of the few researchers who have studied the original Bakhar as well as looked for archaeological evidence to corroborate it, in the regions of Goregaon and Madh.

    Speaking to LHI, Dahisarkar says,

    ‘The Bakhar is extremely important in understanding the administrative and socio-cultural setup of the region before the arrival of the Europeans. It cannot be dismissed as folklore. The fact that King Hambirrao from the Bakhar is mentioned in the BARC inscription gives us an indication that the events in the Bakhar have some truth to them.

    It’s hard to believe that Mumbai and its suburbs were anything but a wilderness dotted by sporadic settlements of farmers, toddy tappers and fisher folk, as we have been led to believe. Recent discoveries are finally telling Mumbaikars that they may have a lot more to be proud of, even as this chronicle of the city’s past begins to come alive.

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