The visit to Nala Sopara in March this year had its beginnings in a museum located 85 km away in Mumbai. On one of my many visits to the sculpture gallery of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, I came across an exhibit which, at first glance, looked like a random block of stone.
But museums don’t exhibit just about any random block of stone, do they? A closer look at the stone exhibit revealed inscriptions and when I read the accompanying information board, discovered that I was looking at the 9th Ashokan Edict. This edict, which dates the third century BCE, had been found at a stupa in Nala Sopara.
I was vaguely aware that Nala Sopara had a Buddhist past, but this was the first time I was hearing about the presence of a stupa there. An internet search revealed that the stupa at Nala Sopara still existed, that it was under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), and also that one could visit it. The same internet search also led me to this fabulous blog post that not only talked about the stupa, but also an ancient temple in Nala Sopara — the Chakreshwar Mahadev Temple.
Previously, Nala Sopara was known as Shuraparaka and in some accounts as Sunaparanta or Sopara. It used to be a major port town with trade links to Mesopotamia (Iraq), Greece, Rome, and Africa among others.
The Buddhist heritage of Nala Sopara is attributed to a merchant named Purna Maitrayaniputra, who became a Buddhist after listening to the Buddha’s sermon on a visit to Shravasti in Uttar Pradesh. On his return to Nala Sopara, Purna built a grand Buddha Vihara, which was inaugurated by Gautama Buddha himself. The stupa, which was “discovered” in 1956, was built later by Emperor Asoka. If accounts from those times are to be believed, then Sopara was a Buddhist hub and quite a happening place in the region.
None of that, however, is visible in today’s Nala Sopara. When the auto-rickshaw dropped us off at the stupa site, it was only the ASI signboard that reassured us that we were in the right place. There was no security, no other visitors, no activity — just a couple of sleepy stray dogs who came up to investigate and then went back to sleep. It was incredibly quiet and peaceful.
The stupa, or rather its collapsed remains, is located in a clearing surrounded by palm trees. I don’t mean to sound irreverent here, but the stupa looked like an ordinary pile of bricks. It didn’t help that there were actual piles of new bricks, probably kept by the ASI for repairs and renovation, lying all around. The main stupa, whose circular base is still intact, is surrounded by smaller, circular structures — probably votive shrines.
There are flowers — marigold, shevanti and rose petals — on the bricks and on the ground making me wonder if worship is permitted at the stupa. I get the answer when I come across a little shrine near the stupa. It is very obviously a later addition, put together from the ruins of earlier structures. The shrine has a small idol of the Buddha and perched to one side on a stone is an idol of a meditating monk.
I am charmed by the simplicity of the shrine and as I look on, noticing the little details and the flowers and the lamps and the remnants of incense, the sun rays shine directly on the Buddha for a few minutes before disappearing. It is an incredible beautiful sight (see the header of this post for a closer look) and I leave the stupa feeling very special and blessed to have witnessed something like this.
We head towards the Chakreshwar Mahadev Temple next, which is a short auto-rickshaw rode away. Located opposite the Chakreshwar Talav or pond, this is a Shiva temple. No one is sure of the exact date of the construction of the temple, but it is generally believed to be at least a 1,000-years old.
The original temple structure has long since been destroyed and in its place is a modern, ugly structure with vitrified tiles lining the temple’s interior walls and floors. There are other temples/shrines adjoining the Chakreshwar temple — a Hanuman shrine and a beautiful wooden temple dedicated to Rama. All these temples/shrines share a common compound.
The temple compound is full of sculptures lined up against a wall. One man comes up to us and introduces himself as the caretaker of the Chakreshwar Mahadev Temple. He is thrilled with our interest in the sculptures and takes us around the temple, opening the grilled and locked enclosures to enable us to have a closer look at the idols, and photograph them as well.
These are idols and other temple reliefs that were thrown into the Chakreshwar Talav for protection from repeated invasions and fear of destruction. These idols were recovered from the talav in the last decade or so with the bigger ones placed in the temple compound and the smaller ones inside the temple.
Even though I had seen photographs of the sculptures at the Chakreshwar Mahadev Temple in the blogpost I mentioned earlier on, I was unprepared for the magnificence of the most important find from the talav — a large idol of Brahma.
It is not often that one gets to see a Brahma sculpture (till date I have seen only 5 of them) and this one was stunning. With the 3 visible faces, one of them clearly bearded; the hands holding the lamp, the Vedas and the kamandalam — the idol has all the attributes of Brahma. The only thing missing is the rudraksh beads in the lower left hand, which had probably broken off at some time. The Brahma idol is in samabhang or equipoise, state, which seems to suggest that it would have been the main deity in a temple.
I am quite overwhelmed with the awe and reverence I feel for the Brahma idol; it is something that I cannot put down in words here.
As we were getting ready to leave, a local visitor to the Temple came up to us and told us about a temple located 7-8 km away. It was situated on a hilltop, was an old temple, and considered very holy by the locals. Would we like to visit it? Of course we would like to visit it. 🙂
We got directions to the temple — which was simply known as Nirmal after the area in was located in — and set off in an auto-rickshaw. The ride took us through narrow winding roads, past quaint cottages and shops with wooden shutters, past open fields and many small ponds with temples next to them, a large church with a distinctly Portuguese style facade…before a short climb that brought us to our destination.
The freshly painted and decidedly new construction looked nothing like the old temple we were told about. We checked with the rickshaw driver, who assured us that this was the correct site, and the temple was only a reconstruction.I am not convinced, but since we were already there we decide to enter and see the temple for ourselves.
It is past noon and there is no one around apart from us. The marble flooring is hot to the bare feet and we skirt around the edges to explore the various parts of the temple, which more like a complex of shrines of varying ages.
The most interesting shrine is one that is dedicated to Krishna/Vishnu, which also has a host of other idols not normally seen in temples. For example, his wives Rukmini and Satyabhama; the sage Narada; his brother Balarama; and his friend/cousin Uddhava. At the entrance to the shrine is Garuda, painted in a rather violent shade of purple.
The idols have none of the classical aesthetics of the sculptures I have just seen at the Chakreshwar Mahadev Temple. In fact, they are quite crude, but with a charm of their own. I found the depiction of Krishna’s wives — usually shown as benign and adoring consorts — extremely fascinating. They were shown here brandishing weapons ! As for their clothes, instead of the usual lehenga choli I had seen, they clothes here were quite similar to how tribals in Maharashtra dress.
There are also shrines to Dattatreya, Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita, but I don’t linger there beyond a cursory glance. I’m more intrigued by shrines I have never seen before — for example, the warrior sage Parashurama (and the 6th avatar of Vishnu) and his parents Jamadagni and Renuka. I’m sure there is some significance for the shrines being here, but it is not something that I’m able to fathom or find information there.
While we are exploring the various shrines in the Nirmal Temple Complex, we are joined by a priest from the temple He asks us to follow him so that he can show us the most important part of the temple — the samadhi of Shankaracharya. To say that I am surprised by this bit of information is a bit of an understatement. Granted that I am no expert on Shankaracharya, it still came as a surprise to hear about him in the context of Nala Sopara. I’m so surprised that I forget to take photographs of the samadhi.
When we finally leave Nirmal to make our way back to Mumbai, it is with a mental note to research more about the area and its connection with Shankaracharya at the earliest. An internet search not only revealed answers to the Nala Sopara-Shankaracharya connection, it also gave me an insight into the legends, myths and history that surrounds Nirmal. Here is what I discovered:
According to legend, Nirmal was created by Parashurama. He built many temples, including ones dedicated to the 64 yoginis, and holy ponds (all 108 of them) in the region making it a place of pilgrimage. The influence of Hinduism waned with the rise of Buddhisim in the area. There was a resurgence in Hinduism when Adi Shankaracharya visited Nirmal in the 8th century, and the Swami Vidyaranya, the 5th Shankaracharya of Puri shifted to Nala Sopara. Swami Vidyaranya Samadhi at Nirmal and it was his samadhi we saw that day.
Depending on one’s point of view, myths and legends can be enlightening or exasperating. The way myths and legends get mixed up with history is, perhaps, unique to our country. Take the Yogini temples, for instance. The cult of the Yogini can be traced back to the 8th-10th century CE; and the Yogini sculpture displayed at the Chakreshwar Mahadev temple fits into that time frame. Both are attributed to Parashurama, who is a mythical figure.
I did not have a chance to explore the many ponds and shrines that I saw that day on my way to Nirmal. I’m pretty sure that some of them are the ponds and temples that Parashurama is supposed to have built. The way we see and attribute sacredness to everything is also unique to us.
When I set out that morning for Nala Sopara, it was supposed to be a nice, fun trip to see a stupa and a temple. It was all that and more in the nicest possible, unexpected way, especially since Nala Sopara doesn’t give any hint of its heritage.
Not when you disembark from the local train at the railway station. Not when you walk out of the station to see the usual chaos of people, vehicles and hawkers. Not when you see that it is like any badly planned outlier to a megapolis exhibiting unchecked growth. And yet, behind all this is a Nala Sopara where mythology, legend and history have intersected and created many stories to share.
Nala Sopara is a place that I stumbled across accidentally, and it is a place that I hope to uncover story by story. 🙂
- Nala Sopara is on the Western Suburban line. Any Virar-bound local train will halt at this station.
- Auto-rickshaws are the best way to travel within Nala Sopara. Do remember to negotiate the fare before hiring one.
- The Government of Maharashtra is planning to introduce a Buddhist Circuit beginning with Nala Sopara. You can read more about it here.