Drive an hour and a half, north of Mumbai and you will reach a grubby suburb of the fast spreading Mumbai Metropolitan area - Nala Sopara. It is hard to believe that this area was an ancient urban centre, that grew around the port of Shurparaka or Sopara, 2300 years ago. Legend has it that Buddha himself visited Sopara, though it is not historically true.
Legend has it that Buddha himself visited Sopara, though it is not historically true
An ancient Buddhist text called Divyavadana - an anthology of Buddhist tales compiled at the beginning of the Common Era narrates a story of this fabled visit of Buddha here. This text also offers a vivid description of the life and times during which the work was compiled. References to houses, marketplaces, palaces and a monastery give us a glimpse of Sopara which is described as a city with a fortification, a moat and 17 gates. ‘Aparanta' was the ancient name of North Konkan and the text referred to this region as ‘the region which is not habituated by civilised people’, a telling sign of its pre-Buddhist past.
Divyavadana is the story of a man named Purna, the son of a rich merchant and a maid from a low caste. Throughout his early life Purna struggles to stake a claim in his father’s business and property, which is denied to him. Purna meets Buddha at Sharavasti, the capital of Kosala one of the largest cities of the 5th century BCE and invites him to visit Sopara. Purna then asks for permission from Buddha to visit this region and preach Buddhism. Legend says Buddha visited the Sopara city with 500 of his disciples.
The text also goes on to provide a complete biography of Purna who preached Buddhism, and laid the foundation of the Buddhist monasteries in and around Sopara.
Sopara is described as a city with a fortification, a moat and 17 gates
This story marks the rise of Sopara as a sacred place and as a centre of pilgrimage in the region and the emergence of Bodhisattva Purna as one of the significant Bodhisattva’s with a cult following. The historicity of the tale that the text narrates is questionable, but it is symbolic! The story marks the transformation of a bustling port town, to a religious centre.
Commerce, trade and faith came together and helped create an aura around the Great Port of Sopara.
The Sopara Port
Commerce, trade and faith came together and helped create an aura around the Great Port of Sopara
While the first reference to the importance of Sopara comes from an Ashokan edict dating back to the 3rd century BCE that was found here and is currently housed at the CSMVS Museum in Mumbai, there are frequent references to Sopara as an important commercial and religious centre. It was one of the important ports on the western coast in the ancient period. The port city witnessed a golden age, thanks to the lucrative trade with the Roman and Arab world and over this period it was known to us by various names like Shurparaka and Surpur. This was not only a port city, but also a commercial centre and administrative headquarters of North Konkan.
Now part of the Vasai-Virar Municipal Corporation, the landscape of the region is unrecognizable today. The modern day urban sprawl has left no traces of Sopara’s ancient glory. There are no traces of the ancient port and all you find there are a few protected archaeological mounds.
The modern day urban sprawl has left no traces of Sopara’s ancient glory
What we do know is that Shurparaka was located on one of the large islands with the River Vaitarana marking the northern boundary and the Vasai creek of River Ulhas the southern. There is evidence of a small channel connecting these two rivers, flowing parallel to the coast and the ancient port of Sopara was probably located on this channel. This was in contrast to our understanding of modern day ports, which open into the vast seas. In the ancient world, Sopara provided a natural port cocooned and well protected by islands in the West and the mainland in the East. The entry to the port from both the creeks was also protected. Ships were guided in by small local boats in the creek to help them navigate to the port.
Sopara provided a natural port cocooned by islands in the West and the mainland in the East
One of the earliest references to the bustling port of Sopara comes from a guide written by a trader in the 1st century CE. In this work, well known as the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, Sopara has been described as one of the important ports in the south of Brugukaccha i.e. Bharoch. But there is also reference to strife. The guide warns that though the port is safe, it suffered because of political instability in the region. Probably a reference to the tussle between the Western Kshatrapas and Satavahanas, rival kingdoms of the time, for control of the port.
Sopara through the Ages
The land around Sopara itself is truly ancient. The earliest known archaeological remains from the region date back to the prehistoric period. But the first major reference to the region comes from the Edict of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, found in the vicinity of the present site of the Stupa. Like most of the famous Ashokan edicts, this one too, talks of the ethical code of conduct and the importance of pilgrimage.
A Buddhist Centre
Sopara saw a steady stream of Buddhist monks from all over the subcontinent and beyond.
Apart from the story of the early spread of Buddhism in the region in the Divyavadana, there are also references to other monks who helped propagate the Buddhist faith here. It is believed that a monk, Yavana Dhammarakkhita came to this region to spread teachings of the Buddha, after the third Buddhist council at Pataliputra in the 3rd century BCE. This reference comes from the Pali vamsa; the Buddhist literary texts dating from the 5th to15th century CE, preserved in Sri Lanka. This Ceylonese tradition gives us an interesting reference of his visit to the region. The monk Yavana Dhammarakkhita, who was most probably of foreign origin (given the prefix Yavana) confirms, that Sopara was already known to foreign traders and so was a very popular port.
The famous Sopara Stupa, now just a mound in Sopara, played a crucial role in the emergence of Sopara as a famous urban centre. First built during the Mauryan period, the Stupa was expanded in the Rashtrakuta period between the 7th and 8th century CE and formed the Buddhist heart of the region, here.
The Sopara Stupa, played a crucial role in the emergence of Sopara as a famous urban centre
The famous Indian archaeologist, Pt. Bhagwanlal Indraji was the first to conduct a major archaeological excavation at Sopara in 1882. Within a few days of his work here, he and his team made some significant discoveries. Apart from the Edict of Ashoka, the archaeologists also found numerous relics and bronzes, which pointed to the fact that the famed Sopara Stupa was originally constructed in the Mauryan period, but enlarged in the period from the 1st century BCE to 3rd century CE. Indraji’s finds included the coins of Satavahana King Shri Yajnashri Satakarni (2nd century CE) in the excavation. That apart, the famous Sopara hoard that the team found included eight bronzes, six were of previous Buddha’s namely, Vipasyi, Shikhi, Vishvabhu, Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni and Kashyapa and one was of Shakyamuni i.e. of Gautama, the Buddha. The last one was of Maitreya, the future Buddha. There bronzes, stylistically, can be dated to the 7th and 8th century CE.
One of the main sources for our understanding of the history of Sopara and the Stupa here comes from grants made by local traders in the early Shilahara period. In 854 CE, for instance, there is a mention of a donor at Kanheri from the Gauda region, modern day West Bengal, whose name was Gomin Avighnakar. He must have stayed at Kanheri for more than 20 years as there are few other inscriptions of the later date where his name appears as a witness to the donation.
Yavana Dhammarakkhita came to Sopara to spread the teachings of the Buddha, after the third Buddhist council at Pataliputra
From this and other evidence, I believe that the clear influence of Mahayana Buddhism must have come from Eastern India as Buddhism was flourishing there under the royal patronage of the local rulers- the Palas in the 9th century CE. In fact this period was the ‘Golden Age’ of Esoteric or tantric Buddhism, that you see in Tibet today. As far as material evidence of this is concerned, there was a wooden image of Tara, stylistically dated to the 10th century CE reported from Kanheri. This image displays the style of the dominant Pala sculptural art of the period. Such pieces of evidence suggest that these monasteries in the western coast had deep contacts with Eastern Indian Monasteries.
This spread of Buddhism from East to West also helps us understand how Sopara was a commercial hub with multiple inland trade routes bringing in merchants and monks. In literature, there are numerous references to it and even the Epics - Ramayana and Mahabharata tell us that Sopara or Shurparaka was one of the significant ports and commercial centres of the time.
There is also an interesting depiction of Sopara in the Ajanta painting of Purnavadana, the story of Purna from Divyavadana in Cave 2 from the 5th century CE.
In many of the inscription, the region of Sopara is frequently referred as Shurparaka Satshashti, which literary means the administrative unit of 66 villages with the headquarter at Sopara. Huen Tsang, the Chinese monk and traveler who visited Sopara in the 7th century CE paints a vivid picture of what he saw at Sopara.
“Of Buddhist monasteries there were about 100 and the brethren, who were adherents of both the vehicles, were more than 5000 in number. Within and outside the capital were five Ashoka topes where the four past Buddha(s) had sat and walked for exercise; and there were innumerable other topes of stone or brick. Not far from the south of the capital was an old monastery in which was a stone image of ‘Kuan-tsu-tsai-puza’ of marvelous efficacy. In the east of this country was a mountain range, ridges one above another in succession, tiers of peaks and sheer summits.”
The influence of eastern schools of Buddhism in Sopara helps us understand how this was a commercial hub connected to the rest of the subcontinent through many inland routes.
Sopara remained an administrative headquarter even in the 9th and 10th century CE. Arab travelers refer to this place as Sobara. In fact given the close trade ties with the Arab world, Sopara or Sobara, as it was called finds frequent mention in the works of travelers like Masudi (10th century CE), Al Birunu (11th century CE.), Al Idrisi (12th century CE). They however don’t mention Sopara as a port but as a market place and administrative headquarters. Interestingly by this time Sopara is mentioned as being a mile and a half away from the sea.
Traders coming to Sopara were coming from different parts of the world and trading in luxury goods such as ivory, shells, silk and even elephants and horses. A Jain text Kuwalayamala gives us an interesting story of a merchant from Taxila, who had brought horses for sale at Sopara. The text also says Sopara had a large population and pearl fisheries.
Sopara was also a centre of industry. It had a large population and pearl fisheries
The numerous sculptural fragments scattered in the region of Sopara, also suggests that the site of Sopara was not just restricted to the present village of Sopara but was a real urban centre comprising numerous smaller localities. Today, this region has moved back in time, to the pre-urbanisation phase more than 2000 years ago. The urban centre is now back to being a cluster of independent villages. The core of the old Shilahara period Sopara around the 8th to 13th century CE was the area encompassing the present day villages of Sopara, Bolinj, Nirmal and Gaas.
The decline of Sopara started after the coming of the Portuguese in the 16th century CE. The Treaty of Bassein signed on the 23rd of December 1534, between the Sultans of Gujarat who controlled the region and the Kingdom of Portugal, wrote off the seven islands of Bombay and the nearby strategic town of Bassein ( Vasai) and its dependencies to the Portuguese.
Soon after the arrival of Portuguese the centre of activities shifted to Vasai and it became the administrative headquarters of the Portuguese.
Interestingly the name Vasai was probably given to this place because of the Jain settlements here (Vasti in Gujarati and Marathi means a settlement). Many of the Jain migrants had settled here between the 11th to 15th century CE. In fact Sopara is perceived by numerous Jain traditions and schools as a sacred place and a place for pilgrimage. There are even remains of a Jain temple seen around Gaas Village, close to present day Sopara. Vasai also had a close link with Sopara. It was a shipbuilding centre, in the backyard of the Sopara port and hence a commercial centre and marketplace in its own right.
The coming of the proselytising Portuguese also had a telling impact on religion. Numerous religious centres were destroyed and the patronage to the ancient Buddhist centres in the region, for example, the Kanheri monastery, declined.
As the axis of control - political and economic, shifted to the colonial powers starting the 16th century CE, first the Portuguese and then the British the centre of Mumbai as we know it also shifted, moving south to ultimately be centred around the Fort Area, at the southern tip of present day Mumbai.
Nonetheless that is still a small chapter in the story of the Mumbai region. For over a 1000 years Sopara was the epicentre of trade, commerce and religion.
There is little to remind you of it, if you go there today.