It's not just the name ‘Mumbai’, but even some of the most famous areas of India’s commercial capital are named after the Devis or goddesses, who in many ways have helped shape the city. Take a trip from Gamdevi to Mahalakshmi, to Prabhadevi and then Jogeshwari and you will be taking a pilgrimage and travelling through time.
In the ancient times, it was the port of Sopara (present day Nala Sopara) and the Buddhist complex at Kanheri, that was the commercial and religious hub of the region. However, Hinduism began to thrive in the region, from the 5th century onwards, under the rule of the Mauryas of Konkan, who in turn were feudatories of Kalachuris of Maheshmati. They were followed by the rule of Vakatakas, under whose rule the Jogeshwari caves in the Jogeshwari area of Mumbai were excavated.
Incredibly, these are the oldest known Hindu cave temples in western India, dating to around 500 CE. Historians like Walter Spink and Dr Arvind Jamkhedkar believe that it was built by the same artisans and sculptors, who built the famous Ajanta caves near Aurangabad. Originally, it was a shrine of the Pashupata sect, one of the oldest Shaivite sects in Hinduism. On one of the walls, was a panel of Sapta-matrikas or the seven mother goddesses associated with Lord Shiva. Goddess Yogeshwari was one of them. However, over centuries, for reasons still not known, it was she who emerged as the main deity of the cave temple and soon the caves and the locality bore her name. Even today, you can see the idol and the footprints of Goddess Yogeshwari, at the cave temple.
Sadly, we know little of the later history of the Mumbai region or the temples here, until the 13th century. That is thanks to a text named ‘Bimbakhyan’ or ‘Mahikavatichi Bakhar’ , a compilation of poems written in the early 14th century. Through that we know that a King named Raja Bimbadev, left Patan in Gujarat around 1294 CE, and settled down with his followers in the Mumbai region. It is said that he brought the idol of Goddess Prabhavati with him from Patan and installed it near the palace, in what is today known as the ‘Prabhadevi’ area of Mumbai, near Dadar. However, the present day Prabhadevi temple, located in a quiet bylane of the Prabhadevi area, was only built in 1715 CE. Legend goes that to protect the deity from invaders, the pujaris hid the idol in the neighbouring well, where it remained for around 300 years. Until one day she appeared in a dream of a local man named Shyam Nayak and revealed her location. That is when the present temple was built, in 1715 CE.
The Goddess Prabhadevi is the Kuldevi or clan goddess of the Pathare Prabhu community, who consider themselves to be the descendants of those followers, who accompanied Raja Bimbadev from Patan.
The Pathare Prabhu community is also closely connected with the story of Mumbai’s famous Mahalaxmi temple. When in the 18th century, the British were reclaiming the sea and connecting the seven islands of Mumbai, it is the members of the community who acted as builders and contractors, carrying out the works. The story goes that the work to connect the Bombay island with Worli island was entrusted to a Govt. Engineer named Shri Ramji Shivji Prabhu. But despite his best efforts, the work failed because of the sea waves that kept destroying the embankments.
One day, Goddess Mahalaxmi appeared in Ramji’s dream and asked him to take her out of the sea and place her on a nearby hillock. The next day, he found three idols of Mahalaxmi, Mahakali and Mahasaraswati washed ashore from the Arabian sea. On the successful completion of his work, Ramji built a temple to the Goddess at a cost of Rs 80,000, at that time. The temple records show that it was constructed between 1761 and 1771 CE. Today, the entire area is known as Mahalaxmi. It also gives its name to Mumbai’s race course.
The Mumbai city itself owes its name to the Mumbadevi temple, located in the Zaveri Bazar area. It is believed that it was a small shrine of the Koli community. Its original name may have been ‘Munga devi’, a common female name among the Kolis, which later got corrupted to ‘Mumba devi’. The original temple stood where the CST railway station stands today and was relocated to the present location in 1737. Today, the temple is completely lost in the busy bazaars that surround it.
The Sitladevi temple in Mahim has its origins shrouded in mystery. It is speculated that the Goddess might have been brought to Mahim by Raja Bimbadev in the 13th century when he shifted his capital here from Kelwe in Thane district, which was the first capital after moving from Patan. What is most interesting is that there is a very ancient Sitladevi temple in Kelwe as well, and Kelwe is also known as ‘Kelwe-Mahim’. However, in the absence of hard historical evidence, it is very difficult to corroborate it.
Mumbai also has other ‘devis’. The Mumbai metropolitan region was once a collection of villages, each with their own patron goddesses. As a result of which several ‘Gaodevi’ or ‘Gamdevi’ temples can be found here. Equally interesting are the ‘Jari Mari Mata’ temples founded in places like Bandra and Andheri, which date back to the time when the local villagers prayed to pacify the ‘smallpox causing goddess’ to cure them of diseases.
The ‘Wagh Devi’ temples, now found in ‘urban forests’ like Parel, Thane and Nala Sopara were once located in thick tiger infested forests and local prayed to her for protection. While the ‘Naag Devi’ in Powai protected her devotees from snakebites.
Today, the tigers and snakes have disappeared from Mumbai, as have the villages and the smallpox. But the temples of Goddesses of Mumbai, still draw fervent devotees just as they did centuries ago.
India’s modern commercial capital is truly blessed with the many goddesses who also call it home.