Of Kings, Coconuts & Juhu’s ‘First Family’



Famous for its beach, bhel puri and bungalows owned by the rich and famous, the upscale suburb of Juhu in Mumbai is also a magnet for foodies and a hangout for celebrities. But scattered alongside the hotels, pubs and boutiques that dot this suburb that hugs the city’s coast are some very interesting remnants of Juhu’s medieval past. They tell us about a very different time in Mumbai’s history.

It is hard to imagine that till as recently as 1908, Juhu was an island separated from Parle village of Mumbai’s Salsette region by a marshy land and salt-producing area known as ‘Khajan’ in Marathi. Look at an old map of Bombay and you will see a sliver of land between Bandra and Versova, which was Juhu island. The villagers of Juhu would travel by boat to Andheri in the north and to Vandre or Bandra in the south. Till 1947, Juhu residents who wished to reach neighbouring Parle had to walk through knee-high water during low tide and take a boat during high tide. And this was just 75 years ago!

The island of Juhu marked in a circle
The island of Juhu marked in a circle

The inhabitants of Juhu island were engaged mainly in agriculture, fishing and coconut production. The water in the wells in the northern part of the island was sweet, whereas the water in the southern part of the island was salty. As a result, the people in the southern parts were dependent on Bandra for freshwater.

Having set the stage in the modern era, let me rewind a few centuries. We get glimpses of the early history of Juhu in a text known as Bimbakhyana (The Tale of the Bimba Dynasty), also known as the Mahikavatichi Bakhar (The Chronicle of Mahim), complied between the 15th and 17th centuries C. E. The Bakhar throws light on the ‘forgotten’ centuries in Mumbai’s history, that is, between the 11th and 15th centuries. Here, we find the earliest reference to Juhu, which dates to the 12th century C. E.

According to the Bakhar, in the year 1138 CE, King Pratap Bimb of Champaner conquered Mahikavati or Kelve-Mahim (in Palghar district) and ordered his Prime Minister Balkrishna Somavanshi to go to Walkeshwar (on Mumbai’s Malabar Hill), to conduct a survey of this new province. The Bakhar states that Balkrishna Somavanshi travelled from Mahikavati-Papdy (Vasai), to Thane, Kalwa, Madh, Vesave (modern Versova), Juhu, Vahinale, Rajanfar and finally reached Walkeshwar in a boat. This indicates that Juhu village existed at the time.

Early Evidence

Interestingly, the Bakhar has another connection with Juhu. The manuscript of the Bimbakhyana was first published as a book by Raghunath Putalaji Rane in 1877. Rane, a head surveyor with the Bombay Port Trust, was an eminent resident of Juhu whose family had settled here for hundreds of years. To the Bimbakhyana, he added a chapter of 19 pages, chronicling his own family history called Ek Vansh.

 Raghunath Rane
Raghunath Rane|Author

According to Rane, his ancestor was a man named Murarraj of Sorath, Gujarat, who was defeated by Allauddin Khilji in the year 1242 CE. After this defeat, Murarraj took refuge under the protection of Yadava King Ramdevrao. Murarraj's son Balarao went to Paithan with King Bimbadeva, believed to be the same man who conquered the Mumbai region and established the Bimba dynasty. In the early 1300s, Balarao's son Haibatrao Rane migrated and settled in a village called ‘Vahinale’s Ranuva Pakhadi’, which is probably Bandra’s Ranwar village. Here, he is said to have built a temple dedicated to his family Goddess Maheshvari. Interestingly, this is one of the earliest references to Bandra’s Ranwar village.

 Temple ceiling fragment from Rane Museum Collection
Temple ceiling fragment from Rane Museum Collection

Around 1325 CE, Haibatrao’s descendant Lakshman Rane left Bandra and settled in Juhu. By 1334 C.E., the Mumbai region came under the rule of the Delhi Sultanate, which appointed Lakshman Rane as the ‘Patil’ or headman of Juhu village, with an annual salary of Rs 50. The family chronicle goes on to state that after the advent of the Portuguese in the 16th century, a part of the Rane family that was still living in Bandra converted to Christianity, while those living in Juhu wanted to flee. Earlier, another Rane family (Now Anjurkar Naik, Bhiwandi) of Rajan Pakhadi of Vandre from the same community of the Pathare Kshatriyas had secretly fled and had met the Angre and Peshwas to help them free the land from the religious intolerant Portuguese. Afraid that this family would again try to enlist the help of the Marathas, the local Portuguese commandant assured their protection and ensured that the family stayed on in Juhu.

Chauri bearer female sculpture from Rane Museum Collection
Chauri bearer female sculpture from Rane Museum Collection

In 1737, war broke out between the Portuguese and the Maratha Empire. Following the defeat of the Portuguese by Maratha General Chimaji Appa in 1739, the Salsette region along with the island of Juhu came into the possession of the Peshwas of Pune. The Rane family received Juhu as a sanad (land grant) from the local Maratha representative as well as permission to grow coconuts commercially.

In 1775, the first Anglo-Maratha war broke out between the British East India Company and the Marathas, and the British captured Juhu and the Salsette island from the Marathas. While the Marathas were victorious in the war, Salsette island and its surrounding islands like Juhu were granted to the British, according to the Treaty of Salbai signed in 1782. The British confirmed the earlier grants of the Rane family.

It is not just literary evidence, there is also archaeological evidence of Juhu’s medieval history. Raghunath Rane rebuilt the old Mukteshwar Mahadev temple, located opposite Iskcon temple on Mukteshwar Devalaya Marg, in 1868, by extending its sabhamandapa or hall.

Brahmakunda, Juhu
Brahmakunda, Juhu|Author

In 1895, he built a water tank with internal steps called ‘Brahmakunda’, which is located behind the Mukteshwar temple. While excavating the land to construct the Brahmakunda, he found the sculpture of Gajalakshmi, which is now worshipped as Shitaladevi, near the site of the tank. He also found another image of a goddess at Juhu beach, which he installed in a temple and started worshipping it as Tungari Pathari Jakhamata or Gaondevi (Village Goddess) of Juhu. This village goddess is also worshipped by the fisherman community from Tara village, which gives its name to ‘Juhu-Tara’. Both temples are located in the Brahmakunda premises and are still in the custody of the Rane family.

Apart from these archaeological sources, there is also a reference to an inscription from Juhu, which is unavailable today. Rane also documents an incident from Juhu from the colonial period in Bimbakhyan. He talks about the accidental discovery of human skeletons when a native resident Waman Narayanji Jukar's plot was being excavated.

In the mouth of one of the skulls was a coin with Devanagari letter 'Ra' written on one side. The writing on the other side could not be deciphered. According to Ashok Jukar, trustee of the Mukteshwar temple and great-grandson of Waman Narayanji, this plot was later called ‘Nair Wadi’, on which the Iskcon temple was built. Juhu also has a squarish well with steps in Chaudhari Wadi, located on Gangadhar Pilaji Chaudhari Road. It is similar to the Portuguese wells found in the Vasai Fort.

‘Venice’ In Juhu

During the British period, between 1899 and 1904, Juhu was at the centre of one of Jamsetji Tata’s most interesting plans, which never materialised. It was a plan to recreate ‘Venice’ at Juhu by crisscrossing the islands and mudflats with canals.

Noted business historian R M Lala writes about this ambitious project in his book For The Love of India: The Life and Times of Jamsetji Tata, based on documents in the Tata Central Archives. The idea was to acquire 1,200 acres and slice it up with canals into one-acre plots. During high tide, the sea would bring water into these canals, which would be retained during low tide with sluice gates. The villas and bungalows built on this land would have access only through these canals.

Juhu Bandh
Juhu Bandh|Author

Due to the novelty of this idea, it was known as the ‘Venice Scheme’. However, much of the area under the project was ‘inam’ land belonging to the Wadia family of shipbuilders. The zamindar (landowner) of the area, Ardeshir Hormusji Wadia (AH Wadia), refused to cooperate and the project had to be shelved. It’s one of those ‘what-ifs’ of history!

The Juhu municipality was established in 1919, the second municipality in Mumbai’s suburban region after Bandra. By this time, a number of Mumbai’s wealthy residents began building beach-side homes in Juhu. A road connecting Santacruz with Juhu was built in 1922, and with this, Juhu began to be closely integrated with the rest of Mumbai.

One of the most important events in Juhu’s history was the registration of the 'Flying Club’ on 9th May 1928, which became the Juhu aerodrome on 100 acres of marshy land. This put Juhu firmly on India’s aviation map, for it was here that JRD Tata made aviation history when he landed with mail from Karachi on 15th October 1932. Till the construction of the airport at nearby Santacruz in 1948, Juhu aerodrome was Mumbai’s main airport.

Salt Satyagraha on the Beach

The sleepy suburb of Juhu was not untouched by political changes sweeping across India. On 6th April 1931, when Gandhiji performed the Salt Satyagraha at Dandi in Gujarat, a Salt Satyagraha was simultaneously performed at Juhu beach. Gandhiji had also stayed in Juhu at various points in time, in the years 1924, 1937, 1942 and 1944. He used to stroll along the beach early in the morning and say his prayers here at sunset, while he stayed in Janki Kutir and other bungalows in the village. A statue of the Mahatma was inaugurated in Juhu on 30th January 1949, by BG Kher, then Chief Minister of Bombay State.

Mahatma Gandhi at Juhu, 1944
Mahatma Gandhi at Juhu, 1944|Wikimedia Commons

After Independence, Juhu remained a fashionable seaside suburb, where a number of prominent business magnates like the Birlas and Godrejs, and royal families like those of Baroda and Morvi owned beach bungalows. Actor Prithviraj Kapoor founded a travelling theatre company here, called 'Prithvi Theatre' in 1944. His son Shashi Kapoor took his father's dream forward and inaugurated a building of the same theatre company on 5th November 1978.

This contributed to a series of events that accelerated the development of Juhu, making it one of the best places to live in the city. In the 1960s, schemes like Juhu-Vile Parle Development Scheme (JVPD) and Gulmohar were introduced and the Island of Juhu completely merged with the main island of Salsette.

 Krishnarao Rane
Krishnarao Rane |Author

Since then, Juhu has changed beyond belief and become an urban jungle. But opposite Juhu’s Iskcon temple, you can see some sculptures from a bygone era. These are remnants from the ‘Rane Museum’ established by noted painter Krishnarao Rane (and son of Raghunath Rane). Krishnarao Rane, also known as Leonardo Da Vinci of Juhu, was a pre-eminent painter of the Bombay School and counted Jawaharlal Nehru among his admirers. Sadly, the museum and its valuable collection were extensively damaged in the cyclone of 1955-56.

While the museum has been shut down, you can still see a few sculptures, of a Nandi, Gajalakshmi, a female chauri (fly whisk) bearer sculptural panel, a broken Vishnu image, a temple ceiling and hero stones (stone steles erected in memory of brave warriors) in the Rane bungalow premises opposite the Iskcon temple.

From a coconut-producing island to a traffic-jammed yet desirable Mumbai address, Juhu has transformed in so many ways.


ABOUT AUTHOR

Sandeep Dahisarkar is a Mumbai based Indologist and art historian, who has published several research papers on the pre-British history on Mumbai.

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