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Not as insignificant as you think

Marol and its surrounding areas are today only appendages of a great city. But the village, along with Kondivita, has a history of more than a thousand years and was at one time an important trading centre

Most people believe that Mumbai was a sparsely populated set of islands until first the Portuguese and then the British began developing it a few hundred years ago. This is far from the truth. Mumbai has been inhabited since ancient times, at least for three thousand years and perhaps much longer. More to the point of this article, Marol and the area surrounding it were not just an appendage of what today constitutes the "city". They and what are today known as the northern suburbs were what really made up the Mumbai of those days.

Look at the map on this page and it is clear that the heart of the city today is the area near the Gateway of India. This is obviously because of the deep harbour there. But south Mumbai was not always the heart of the region. From 1500 BC to perhaps as recently as 1300 AD it was the town of Nalasopara (a port not shown on the map) on the mainland which was regarded as the capital of the Konkan. A 2000-year-old Buddhist stupa still exists here. Other important ports included Versova and Mahim (then known as Mahikawati).

During those days, archaeologists say, Marol, Kondiviti (what is today known as Kondivita), Aarey and Prajapur (near Aarey) were important towns. One possibility is that there were land routes leading from Sopara, Mahim and other ports to these towns and that these were therefore important trading centres. This is not so strange as it may seem today. It is known that the Sopara-Kalyan-Mahad-Khed-Karad-Kolhapur trade route was an important one as long ago as 200 BC.

Another possibility is that the Mithi river which flows behind Lok Darshan (on Military Road), along Mittal Industrial Estate and on to Mahim served as a trading route with boats moving between Marol and Mahim. Today, the Mithi river is little more than a gutter except during the monsoon. But there are people who remember bathing in it in the early part of this century. So it is not impossible that in the distant past, when roads were not developed, the river was an important trading channel. Three other rivers too, the Oshiwara, the Dahisar and the Poisar are not far away. All three have one end not far from Tulsi lake which is walking distance from Marol (although, it must be said, a long walk).

There is considerable evidence to show that Marol and its surrounding areas were very important in those days. The biggest proof is the Mahakali caves which lie within walking distance of Kondivita. They were built between 200 BC and 600 AD and are older than the famous Ajanta and Ellora caves. Remember also that all the other ancient caves in Mumbai lie in the same region: at Jogeshwari and Kanheri in the National Park. (The Elephanta caves were built later, maybe between 800 AD and 1000 AD.) A civilisation that could afford to spend so much time and money in building these caves must obviously have been a wealthy one. The Satavahanas who built them are said to be the creators of Maharashtra. It is also possible that they spoke Telugu; the Kondi in Kondivita (perhaps Kondavalli in those days) probably came from Telugu. The idea of people from Andhra Pradesh ruling Mumbai is not outlandish; even Malabar Hill is said to be named after pirates from the Malabar coast who built a temple there.

Marol itself is reputed to have been built by the Yadavas of Devgiri, near present-day Aurangabad. They ruled between 1189 and 1310 AD and may have been the first rulers to make Marathi their court language. The evidence that the Yadavas built Marol has been found in the nearby Seepz complex, where ornamental stone bulls and a temple speak of the existence of an ancient Hindu civilisation.

Even after the Portuguese came to Mumbai, the northern parts of the city continued to be important. The Portuguese were the first to realise the strategic importance of the area around the Gateway. But they did not build more than a few rudimentary structures. They defended their holdings in Gujarat out of their port in Bassein (now called Vasai). They also built strongholds in Bandra, Mahim and the harbour of Versova.

How important was Marol at this time? A clue comes from the population of the village. In 1660 church records show a Catholic population of 1,380 in Marol. If the area from Powai to Chakala is included the population was a little more than 3,000. Other records show that in 1661, the entire population of Bombay was only 10,000 and that it was only 13,726 in 1780 (this presumably includes only the main island of Mumbai) though it was to shoot up to 650,000 by 1872 after the first large wave of migration into the city. So the population of the area around Marol in 1660 was a tenth of the population of Mumbai. Today it is probably only around one-fiftieth.

Why did the northern region including Marol diminish in importance? One important reason may be the defeat of the Portuguese by the Marathas under Peshwa Baji Rao. He defeated them in an important battle or battles at Bassein and pushed them out of the island in the 1730s. After that, the British moved in. They had received the island as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza who married Charles II. They decided to build their new fortifications at a safe distance from the Marathas, away from Bassein and near the harbour around what is now the Gateway of India. A second reason may be that the bigger iron ships which they brought in could no longer use the shallow ports at Mahim and Bassein, which had got silted, and needed deeper ports.

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