Go to the Jogeshwari caves complex in the suburb of Jogeshwari - named after the main deity Yogeshwari in this cave temple complex, and it will be hard for you to fathom how this, an important slice of the region’s history, can be in the state it is in. Considered to be the oldest Hindu cave complexes in the region, this 1,500 year old site marks a critical turning point for Mumbai - These were the first Shaivite rock-cut temples, to be built in the region and they were also a precursor to the famous Elephanta caves, further south. According to archaeologist and Chancellor of the Deccan College of Archaeology, Dr AP Jamkhedkar, these caves were
‘The prototype where the artists formulated the ideas of expression, that got perfected at Elephanta’.
Trapped within a grungy and fast growing urban colony of Pratap Nagar, near a flyover, which is part of the busy Western Express Highway, the Jogeshwari caves are a mess. Walk down the narrow entrance flanked on both sides with houses and shops and the first thing you see at the cave complex entrance is a putrid, smelly puddle, formed by water seeping from the slums above. This appears like a dirty doormat in front of the exquisitely carved main entrance of the caves. The board put up by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is easily missed, but its very existence, indicates how important this site is.
While the exact date of when the Jogeshwari caves were excavated is still debated, there is a general consensus that the cave complex consisting of 10 caves was built around the 6th century CE. If this date is accurate, this would be among the oldest Hindu cave complex’s in the region. Historians believe that soon after the death of the Vakataka King Harisena, in 500 CE who commissioned a lot of the building work in Ajanta caves, around 420 Kms away, many of the artisans from Ajanta traveled west to begin work on these Jogeshwari caves. The central cave in Jogeshwari houses the idol of ‘Yogeshwari’ the patron deity of the region, along with reliefs of Shiva and Parvati on the lintels of the doors.
These caves are popular. Go there and you will see a wide array of visitors. Saffron-robed priests performing pujas for the devout, students with books looking for a private place to study, and some wide-eyed heritage enthusiasts, clicking pictures. But there are hardly any tourists. In desperate need of preservation and cleaning, the damp floors and walls, water puddles and open sewers in an around the cave complex, tell a tale of neglect. While a monument like this would have been restored and developed, in any other country, the question you can’t help but ask is, why is a monument like this, in this state, in India’s commercial capital?
The answer lies within the question. Though these caves have been declared a site of national importance by the Archaeological Survey of India, the paucity of land and its high value has meant that there is massive encroachment here. Slums, houses and shops have choked the cave complex. ASI’s stringent rules that prohibit the construction 100 meters around a protected monument and limited construction in the 200 meters beyond that is being openly flouted and there is no check.
The fact that there is active worship in the temples within the caves also means that there has been little done to protect and restore the complex.
Experts point out that the major challenge the site faces today is over a larger issue. Prioritizing heritage in the land crunch of Mumbai. Given the daily tussle to meet basic necessities and the paucity in housing, large pieces of land dedicated to age-old structures are seen as a constraint and irritant by communities living around.
The Jogeshwari cave complex which falls under the ownership of ASI has been declared a monument of national importance. But that is just a tag. On the ground there is no effort in nurturing this ‘National Monument’. The filth is a reflection of the lack of accountability on the side of not only the ASI but also the local communities and devotees who are the prime stakeholders of the site.
Adding to the problem is the ‘weight’ of encroachment around the site, both literally and figuratively. Small houses and shops not only surround the cave complex from all sides but they are also built on top of it. In the competition for space, the 1500 year old Jogeshwari complex is fighting a losing battle.
While it is tempting to look out, to see how other countries have tackled the issue of managing heritage monuments within urban centres (Rome, the Eternal city is a great example of how 3000 years of history and modernity can co-exist), this exercise is pointless here. Heritage structures need to be viewed in the context of the people or stakeholders most closely associated with the area where the monument is situated.
Samir S Patel, an archaeologist, who has studied this issue and written a paper titled, ’The Slum and the Sacred Cave’ where he talks of how neglect has overtaken one of Mumbai’s most important Hindu sites, makes an important point. Based on his analysis and discussions with other scholars in the field, he concludes that any changes suggested by ASI in the complex, are bound to be met with resistance from all those who live in the illegal structures, on encroached land. The fact that there is a whole complex of active temples within will also mean that there will be resistance from worshipers.
What’s more, there is no definite individual or body to blame in a problem as complex as managing heritage monuments in areas with high density of people. The only solution seems to be bringing communities on board through dialogue and discussions. It will help to create a sense of pride about heritage, among local communities. With this will come a sense of responsibility.
The condition of the Jogeshwari caves is in stark contrast to the Elephanta caves which is a World Heritage monument. The tag has brought more funds which allows better infrastructure and maintenance. The geographical isolation of Elephanta which is on an island and even the famous Kanheri caves, close to Jogeshwari caves, is deep within the Sanjay Gandhi National park which has helped these heritage sites. The Jogeshwari caves complex sadly has had no luck on either count.
If issues are not addressed, one only can wonder how long the Jogeshwari cave complex will survive. It has withstood the onslaught of time, over the last 1500 years. Will it survive the onslaught of man, over even the next few years?
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