Mandapeshwar Caves – Isolated Remains Of A Tumultuous Past

4 kms in an hour. My bike can go faster but not the rush hour traffic and crowd of Swami Vivekanand Road in Borivali. Does not matter if its a sunday today for in Mumbai every waking hour is a rush hour. Exhausted but finally in front of Mandapeshwar caves. How I wish I could go back in time when the Buddhist monks used the Dahisar river to travel between Kanheri- a 5th century Buddhist university and Mandapeshwar- a Hindu rock cut cave complex that the monks had made their home.

Centuries have gone by and a lot has changed, including the course of Dahisar river that now flows at least 300 meters away to the east of the caves and is reduced to a dirty nullah. A far cry from a navigable river that was a nodal point of a wider trade route.

facade of Mandapeshwar cave

Nevertheless, I was very happy to see the caves being preserved and protected well with a compound wall and a large open breathing space in front of the caves contrary to Jogeshwari, Magathane and other such rock cut caves that are choked by illegal urban settlements mushrooming all around them.

Mandapeshwar is rather small for a cave complex and has just two caves, one much smaller than the other. The bigger cave, as is apparent was meant to be the main shrine for Lord Shiva while the other one- which is largely unfinished, plain and devoid of any sculptural traces was meant to be the living quarters.

Front pillars cave 1

The caves start capturing your imagination from the entrance itself where four completely worn out frontal pillars of the Mandapa flanked by two pilaster in a fairly good state at the extreme ends, greet you.

claws of an animal appearing like lions at the entrance of cave number 1

There are evidences of claws of an animal- most probably lion on both the sides of the entrance steps. As one enters the mandapa, we see more refined and fairly intact pillars. This cave has a total of five cells of which two are at the extreme ends and facing each other while the middle three cells are along the rear wall. It has a large Mandapa spread across five cells, most likely the reason why this cave shrine came to be known as Mandapeshwar- hall (Mandapa) of the lord (eeshwar).

L to R (nataraja cell, Pashupata cell, Sanctum, another cell, and the cell from where i have clicked this picture- a total of 5 cells)

cave interior

Entrance to the sanctum cell in cave 1


The central of the five cells is the sanctum sanctorum of the cave- the abode of lord Shiva. The entrance to the sanctum is flanked on both the sides with pilasters. These pillasters are designed in almost the same way as the rest of the pillars in this cave are, with an Amalaka as a capital. A quintessential feature of many rock cut caves of this period that are dedicated to lord Shiva, be it Mandapeshwar, Elephanta or as far as Badami in Karnataka.

Newly installed lingas in sanctum


a sculpture in one of the niches in sanctum of cave 1

The interior of the central shrine is largely plain except for a couple of niches carved in the walls housing remains of withered sculptures. The sanctum is occupied by two Shiva lingas that are clearly a later addition to the cave.

Nandis in front of sanctum

Just outside the entrance of the sanctum, sits the original sculpture of Nandi bull- the vahana (vehicle) of lord Shiva, split into half with just the rear half still in place. Alongside the old and injured Nandi sits a younger Nandi with his ears in place to listen to the devotees. It is a general custom to whisper one’s wishes in the ear of the Nandi so that it reaches Lord Shiva and the same is granted. Look out for the inscription on the door jamb –  done during the Maratha rule as is evident from the devanagari script

Inscriptions on door jamb of sanctum

Moving to the extreme left cell, we see what can be termed as a treasure – a Nataraja panel carved with great details. A massive six armed figure of Nataraja takes the centre stage here surrounded by various other figures. On the right are the figures of Goddess Parvati along with two of her attendants. While on the other side is an artist beating a drum. The upper left corner is occupied by the three headed Brahma while the upper right corner has Vishnu. Just below Brahma’s sculpture is the sculpture of Lord Ganesh. Celestial beings are present on both the sides of the head of Nataraja.  The panel seems like some sort of a celebration, Henry Salt in his ‘Account of the caves in Salsette’ published in Transaction of literary society in Bombay Vol.1 1819 A.D, describes this panel as that of Shiva’s marriage with Parvati. However few historians are of the opinion that the figure thought to be Parvati is just another attendant and the panel depicts the dance of Nataraja to the beats of a drum!

Nataraja panel cave 1

The story of the creation of Mandapeshwar caves between 5th and 6th centuries and the ensuing events that took place is a tale of how structures bear a testimony of the struggles of the time and encapsulate it. 90 percent of the rock cut caves in Maharashtra are of Buddhist origin including the nearby caves of Mahakali & Kanheri, but what makes Mandapeshwar fascinating is that the construction of this Shaiva cave is also attributed to the Buddhist monks. What made the Buddhist ‘missionaries’ hewn a Hindu cave? Could it be that Buddhism- a comparatively new religion then considered itself to be a faction of Hinduism? Is it possible that the Buddha was still considered more of a saint than God while the Hindu Gods continued to be worshipped?

Lets compare the time periods of the construction of Kanheri and Mandapeshwar caves. Kanheri caves, cut as early as 3rd century BCE, attained the status of a Buddhist university between 4th and 5th centuries. At its zenith, Kanheri had a total of more than 125 different types of caves and structures including Stupas, cemeteries, Chaityas (prayer halls) and Viharas (residential chambers for monks) carved out of a single rock hill. There is a possibility that during those years Kanheri’s infrastructure could not handle the increasing population and they were forced to look for accommodation options for its visiting monks. Various historical texts confirm that Mandapeshwar was indeed used as a residential quarter by the Buddhist monks. Kanheri was situated very close to the mouth of Dahisar river and Mandapeshwar was along its banks making it very easy for the monks to access it by the riverine route. Dahisar river was a part of a bigger trade route that existed between Konkan and Sopara (today’s Nala Sopara which was an established Buddhist center back then).

Pashupata panel cave 1


Another sculptural link that connects the dots, is the cell between the sanctum and the Nataraja panel cell. This cell is apparently thought to have had a large sculpture of Lakulisha (a Shaiva sect reformist and often considered the last avatar of lord Shiva himself) in the centre sitting on a lotus flower, stem of which is held by two nagas, while the central nonexistent sculpture is surrounded by other divinities and celestial beings. The style in which the lotus is carved, anyone with even a little knowledge about Buddhist sculptural art would not miss the connection between this sculpture and sculptures of Buddha represented in rock-cut art of the same period. Although, much is lost in this panel and the central Lakulisha figure is destroyed beyond recognition, we can only guess (logically) that the Pashupata cult that Lakulisha is often associated with, was dominant during this period.

Plain interior of cell next to Sanctum (if Pashupata cell is on left then this is on sanctum's right side)

Looking out from Pashupata cell

The cell on the other side of the sanctum however is plain with no sculptures except for few on the pillars and so is the lateral cell next to it

Cell 5 (its not called cell 5 .. im calling it cell 5 so you know which one is in the picture)

Sculpture on a pillar in cave 1

As you step outside the main cave and walk towards the second cave, you notice a misplaced symbol on the southern facade- a rock-cut Christian cross. This seemingly small cross however is the only remnant of Mandapeshwar’s tumultuous past. The Portuguese chipped off what was thought to be an idol of lord Shiva and flattened it to carve a cross out of it.

Southern external facade of the cave (right side is the Portuguese cross, and left side is the entrance to Cave 2)

Every event that soon followed has two drastically opposite theories, one from the Hindus trying to portray the Portuguese and the Christians in bad light and the other claimed by the Portuguese blaming Marathas for destruction of sculptural art here due to the usage of heavy explosives to uncover the Hindu sculptures from the plaster used by Portuguese to hide them.

Clicked from cave 2

It all goes back to the time when the Portuguese were ruling Mumbai with their main base in today’s Thane on extreme northern end of Sashti- the Marathi name for Salsette island on which the caves are located. Hearing about these wonderful rock cut caves, the Portuguese arrived here in mid- 16th century and chased away the Hindu yogis to set up their base in Mandapeshwar thinking of a larger role for it to be played in future. The Christian account of the same story however claims that the Portuguese arrived at Mandapeshwar wanting to meet the Hindu yogis but hearing of the news of arrival of the Portuguese, the Yogis got scared and ran away. However, both these accounts agree that a yogi known as Ratemnar was converted by the Portuguese priests and was given the village of Mandapeshwar.

Cave 2 & cave 1 and monastery on top of it


The Caves were soon converted into a shrine for Mary named as Nossa Sra De Piedade (roughly translating to Our Lady of Pity) with all its Hindu sculptures buried under a thick layer of smooth plaster and the Shiva shrine was hidden by a brick wall in front of it. Mandapeshwar was ripped off its identity and it came to be known as ‘Monapazer’ or ‘Mont Pesier’ by the Portuguese. As a part of expansion of the complex, a church and a monastery was constructed on top of the cave and was used to impart religious education to the recent converts and other Indian Christians. Another shrine was erected on the opposite hill and a graveyard in between the two.


Mount Poinsur church Graveyard

After about 180 years of functioning as a Christian shrine, Mandapeshwar returned to its original ‘faith’ and again became a Shaiva shrine when Maratha prime minister Bajirao Peshwa 1 defeated the Portuguese in 1737 in the battle of Bassein (Vasai). But Mandapeshwar soon exchanged hands when the Sashti island went to the British in 1774 under the treaty of Salbai with the Marathas. The caves again became a Christian place of worship. The Portuguese church, however couldn’t survive and what remains today are beautiful ruins evocative of a distant past. 

Ruins of the Portuguese monastery Pic 2

Ruins of the portuguese monastery

The second cave at Mandapeshwar is very different than the main cave in many ways. There are no sculptures, no carved pillars, no idols, no niches but just a large plain hall. The only traces of carvings are found on the entrance pillars which form the southern facade of the main cave.

Narrow rock cut path to cave 2

Cave 2

Cave 2 interior shot

Mandapeshwar caves remained a Christian place of worship till 1920’s and was possibly abandoned later. Around 1960’s the caves were declared a protected monument by the Archeological Survey of India and continues to be a popular Shaiva shrine. Life seems to have truly come a full circle for Mandapeshwar!

a small devotee

A walk today in this area better known as ‘Mount Poinsur’ (a disambiguation of Mandapeshwar) of Borivali is a living reminder of its past. The residential area along the Laxman Mhatre Road and Swami Vivekananda Road are largely Hindu whereas to the rear side of the caves is IC colony; named after the Portuguese Immaculate Conception Church, a residential colony that has highest concentration of Christians in entire Mumbai. As a popular quote by journalist Edurado Galeano goes “History never really says good bye. History says, see you later”!

Author – Onkar Tendulkar 

He can be contacted at      

Kalpavriksha and Its Depiction in Art and Architecture – An Overview

Moolatho Brahma roopaya, madhyatho Vishnu roopine,
Agratha shiva roopaya Vruksha rajaya they Nama.

My salutations to the king of trees.
Whose root is the form of Brahma,
Middle is the form of Lord Vishnu,
And top is the form of Lord Shiva.

Aswatha sarva papani satha janma arjithanicha,
Nudhaswa mama vrakshendra, sarva aiswarya pradho bhava.

The holy fig tree pushes away, all sins earned,
In several hundred births, and Oh king of trees,
Please grant me all different types of wealth.

Rig yaju Sama manthrathma, sarva roopi, parathpara,
Aswatho Veda moolo asou rishibhi prochyathe sada.

Great sages go in search of Aswatha,
As it is the soul of Rig, Yajur and Sama Vedas
And takes all forms, greater than the greatest,
And is the root of all the three Vedas

Vyaktha avyaktha swaroopaya, srushti sthithyantha karine,
Adhi madhyanth soonyaya vishtarasravase Nama.

Salutations to the very stable one,
Who has clear and unclear forms,
Who creates, looks after and destroys,
And who does not have beginning, middle and end

– Ashvatta Vruksha Stotram

Ashwattha is synonymous with our country and its symbolism. The figs are the most commonly found trees in the country and also the ones that are worshipped the most. Ficus religiosa / Pipal / Ashwattha tree was considered sacred and worshipped from the times of Indus Valley Civilisation but it is the Ficus bengalensis / Banyan / Vata that gained more prominence later and ended up as our national tree. While the Buddhists reclaimed the Ashwattha as the Bodhi tree, the Hindus clung onto the Vata. Associated with Yama, the Banyan is considered the botanical equivalent of a hermit for it can provide shade but cannot support new life or provide food. It is timeless like the soul and so the great sages, even Shiva, chose its vast canopy to contemplate under. They are tree shrines as idols were consecrated below these trees and even today women go around these trees longing for eternity of their marriages in the memory of Savitri who lost Satyavan under a Banyan and later regained his soul from Yama. Incidentally, the British named the Banyan tree so, as they noticed members of the trading community (Banias) gather under its shade for many a meetings.  The figs were the first among trees to be considered the Kalpavriksha – the wish fulfilling tree of the ancient scriptures that provided fruit and nourished the first people on the planet and the giver of immortality.

The concept of Kalpavriksha emerged from nature worship that has been an integral part of all ancient cultures of the world including India. The strong belief that trees, like us, possess a soul of their own has led to such reverence that if we look around we can still find groves that are held sacred. They are believed to be the abodes of departed souls and divinities that bring us good luck in the form of rain, sunshine, good harvest, increasing herds, and fertility blessings for women. While most tree spirits are considered amiable, there are some that are also seen as malevolent, the “evil spirits,” or the “ap-devta.” Such spirits cause harm, hence people avoid going near the trees that harbour them. One good impact that these beliefs had was protecting many trees from being mindlessly cut down for their wood.

My discussion here will revolve around the concept of kalpavriksha spanning a timeline of a few hundreds of years. How it started from the notions of nature worship, influenced religions, and still continues to be an integral part of our social, religious, and cultural heritage.

sacred sycamore

Let’s begin with some of the oldest civilisations of the world. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Sycamore trees, which they thought were homes of the sacred spirits. The dense, lush trees are one among the oldest species of trees and are known for their longevity and hardiness.  Seen in the picture here is an Egyptian making a regular offering of food, such as, cucumbers, grapes, and figs, to the tree. Pic source


Image result for indus valley seals with trees  

Ficus religiosa on different Indus valley seals. The last seal shows a goddess standing inside a pipal tree and the priest is clearly wearing a headdress made from the branch of a peepal tree. These seals with their emphasis on the peepal tree and various animals show a distinct reverence for nature.   Source  Source  Source

In ancient Indian literature, Kalpavriksha is referred to as Ashwattha, or the seed of life that produces nectar (the water of life), which is our very own Pipal tree. The Vedas (Upanishad part) describes it as :

The roots upwards, the branches downwards, thus stands the eternal fig tree; The leaves of which are veda songs; Upwards and downward its branches are bending; Nobody on the earth is able to conceive of its form, either its end, or beginning, or duration.”

In India, the sacred kalpavriksha refers to both the ficus varieties  (religiosa and bengalensis) that is both the Pipal and the Banyan. So next time you see a Vata or an Ashwattha in your neighbourhood, take some moments off to remember that you are looking at a tree that has been venerated right from the beginning of our civilisation. A long journey that is still continuing in the form of little shrines that are still extant under the roadside ficus trees along the streets of our country.

The wish fulfilling tree or Kalpavriksha in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism

Kalpavriksha also known as kalpadruma or kalpataru is said to have appeared during samudramanthan along with Kamdhenu. The tree can bear all kinds of fruits, hence it is associated with different trees, varying according to  the local vegetation. Thus, mahua, champak, pipal, banyan, tulsi, shami, parijata, and even coconut trees are often said to be the earthly manifestation of the heavenly kalpadruma. Kalpavriksha (of five types)are said to be located in the gardens of Indraloka with the devas and asuras at perpetual war over the wish fulfilling trees. Kalidasa’s “Meghadutam” tells us that kalpatarus yielded garlands, clothes, and provided for all fineries for the women in Alaka, capital of Kubera’s Yaksha kingdom. Thus, while bestowing immortality, we find that kalpavriksha also provides for all our material desires.


Samudramanthan as depicted in a mural in Orchhha.  Notice the Kalpavriksha above the posse of animals. Picture courtesy: Jitu Mishra 


A 3rd century BCE pillar in the form of a banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) found in Besnagar, can be said to be the earliest representation of a kalpavriksha with the various symbolisms that we associate with it. The tree has a kalash or a pot full of coins, a sack tied with a string, a conch, and a lotus hanging from it, signifying the goddess of wealth or Lakshmi devi. Thus, we can say kalpavriksha is a giver that stands for growth, generosity, and prosperity.  It is therefore not surprising to find it as a common motif on the Gupta and Satavahana era coins. (Picture source).


The Bodhi tree is a sign of knowledge, as it is a well known fact that Buddha attained enlightenment under this tree. The above depiction of the Bodhi tree is seen in Sanchi. While we can say the Bodhi tree depicts knowledge, the kalpataru on the other hand denotes wealth and benevolence, along with spiritual guidance for those that seek it. Picture Courtesy: Jitu Mishra

In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism we find that the kalpavriksha is not a deity by itself, but rather a way to reach God. A giver, it grants wishes pertaining to both material and spiritual types. While providing us with shade, fruits, nuts, wood, and the life giving oxygen that purifies air, kalpavriksha also helps human minds to focus on attaining spiritual enlightenment. Thus, by glorifying kalpavriksha, we are in reality deifying an aspect of nature, and celebrating its immense contribution to our daily lives and existence.


Kalpavriksha in  Adalaj stepwell, Ahmedabad. Here we find  a kalasha bearing the kalpavriskha that forms a beautiful creeper like pattern (very reminiscent of the alpona that we draw during our pujas back home in Calcutta). Photos credit: Jitu Mishra

Ancient texts, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, frequently mention a term, chaitya-vriksha. Interestingly both chaitya-vriksha and kalpavriksha are similar in concept. Chaitya-vrikshas are tree shrines with dense leaves and fruits that provide shelter and food for all living beings. These are open air shrines with railing or fence like structures that cover the tree trunks, or sometimes the tree is placed on a pedestal. Various tree spirits known as yakshas and yakshis, and sometimes even the nagas, are believed to live in these trees. They are worshipped as protectors of both human beings and gods alike. It is interesting how our ancestors acknowledged the importance of trees in our lives and venerated them in various ways.


Worshipping the chaitya vriksha, a jack-fruit tree,  as we see at Sanchi. Picture credit: Jitu Mishra

According to mythology, kalpavriksha or kalpadruma, was gifted to Aranyani, a daughter Related imageof Shiva and Parvati. The chief aim was to protect the tree, so we often see it being guarded by kinnaras, apsaras, and animals, such as lions, peacocks, etc. Interestingly, from simple depiction of the Bodhi tree and Ashvatta, in the later part of Indian sculptures we see a more complex depiction of kalpavriksha that with their beautiful floral patterns make us wonder at their aesthetic beauty. On the other hand it has become increasingly difficult to rightly distinguish the tree it might be representing. In the picture – The deities Nara and Narayana sitting under a Badri tree, 5th c. CE Gupta period, Deogarh. Source

Thus we see Buddha meditating under a Bodhi tree, Shiva imparting knowledge under a Banyan tree, and Krishna standing under a Kadamba tree. Guru Adi Shankaracharya was also known to have meditated under a kalpavriksha, which is a mulberry tree located in Joshimath (Uttarakhand). Other trees that we find culturally significant are jackfruit, amalaka, haritaki, lemon, vilva or bel, neem, sandalwood, mango, and banana. All these trees are known to have medicinal properties, besides other uses in our daily lives. What better way to celebrate the benefits of nature, than to worship it.

In Jainism, we find the kalpavrikshas help in fulfilling wishes in the early stages of the cosmic cycle, and the 10 kalpavrikshas grant 10 different desires that include nourishing food, good music, ornaments, utensils, among others.

Artisitc representation of the Kalpavriksha in Jainism. A wall painting of a tree on red backdrop.

The wall painting of Kalpavriksha in Saavira Kambada Basadi, Moodbidri, Karnataka. A Jain kalpavriksha.(Photo from Wiki by Vaikoovery)


Interestingly  forms of Kalpavrisha are also depicted beautifully in the mosques of Gujarat. Left: Jama Masjid, Ahmedabad and Right: Ceiling of the Jami Masjid, Champaner. Pictures courtesy: Jitu Mishra


Kumbharia Jain Temple, Gujarat. Picture credit: Jitu Mishra. 

The Jain goddess of wealth, prosperity, and fertility is Ambika yakshi, who is always shown seated under a mango tree. Source  Source

The tree of life in Christianity and Islam

The concept of the Tree of life is a part of the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic versions of the creation of life, commonly termed as the Genesis.

Interestingly, the Islamic concept of tree of life that we see woven on silk carpets or sculpted on monuments, is likely to have been largely influenced and derived from the Sassanian and Assyrian art forms depicting the World Tree/ tree of life.


A mid 19th c. CE Islamic prayer rug from Iran/Persia showing the tree of life within a pointed niche, a mihrab (first on left). It appears distinctly inspired from the Assyrian Aserah (Mother Tree/God’s wife, a symbol of fertility) on the right  Source Source 


Various depictions of the tree of life on Islamic monuments of Gujarat. Pictures courtesy: Jitu Mishra


In Islamic literature, the tree of life is termed as the Sidra or Tuba which grows in Paradise (seventh heaven, placed at the right side of God’s throne). Being sacred, we find it depicted in mihrabs on rugs and otherwise. The tree marks the limits of heaven, and angels cannot cross this boundary. The Sidra has its earthly manifestation in a deciduous shrub that grows in Arabia and India, known as Zizyphus jujuba (bears edible fruits known as the red date or Indian date).  While the Quran refers to it as only ‘the tree’, and forbades Adam and Eve to taste the fruits of this tree, it was Satan who referred to it as the tree of immortality/life.


Beautiful curled foliage with floral patterns arising from a thick central stem representing the Tree of life in the Sidi Sayyid Mosque in Ahmedabad. Here we can see that a palm tree is depicted at the top. Pictures credit: Jitu Mishra. 


fathepur copy
Mughal version of the gardens of heaven as seen in Fatehpur Sikri. Pictures courtesy: Jitu Mishra


In Christianity, the Old Testament is likely to have drawn inspiration and derived frombanylonia the old Babylonian concept of the tree of life, known as the tree of Ea or Ukkanu that grew in Eridu, the Babylonian name for paradise.  A Babylonian seal which is now in the British museum (seen here on right: source) It shows two figures on two sides of the tree of life, stretching their hands ready to pluck the fruit, with the serpent (representing the cycle of life and death in Babylonian times) standing behind the woman. Another Babylonian cylinder, now kept in the Museum at the Hague, depicts a garden with a palm tree at the centre, surrounded by other trees and birds. There are two figures plucking the fruit, while a third figure is holding the fruit, looking as if speaking to the other two. It is quite likely that these symbols were later adopted in the Bible by the Christians and Jews, and later also in the Quran.


Left: Holy Mary with the Child on the tree of life by Nicholas Froment, 1476, (“the burning thorn bush”) in Aiz Cathedral, France. Here the bush is shown on a hilltop signifying the world mountain. Source Right: The tree of life in a Sweden church, 11th c. CE. Source    

Left: Tree of life on floor mosaic, 8th c. CE, Jericho. Right:Tree of life on an arched doorway. Both are likely Christian depictions.  Source Source

Sacred trees or the tree of life from different parts of the world


Left: A tree of life From a Mexican manuscript, (Goblet d’Alviella).  Right above: Sacred pine of Silvanus (Roman folklore). Right below: The Egyptian goddess Nu̔ît in her sacred sycamore bestowing the bread and water of the next world.  source


German Folk Art… details and color - stencil or screen print

Left: Yggdrasil—the Norse world-tree, 1847. Source Right: tree of life in a German folk art. Source

While we see that the tree of life is a universal symbol of worship and its depiction since time immemorial has changed form and figure, it is the most recognizable symbol in Indian art and architecture. Whether it is a temple, or a mosque, or a church or a chaitya or a jain derasar, the Kalpavrisha is somewhere there proclaiming how everything in the world is ultimately connected.

(The cover picture is the depiction of tree of life at Akbar’s Mausoleum in Sikandra. Picture courtesy: Self) 

Author – Monidipa Bose

She can be contacted at or at Monidipa

Charming Chandor : A Capital Long Forgotten


Ancient Chandrapur

The very name of Konkan conjures up scenes of lush greenery during the monsoons, seasonal waterfalls, low hills with ancient Buddhist and Hindu caves, and various forts built by the Portuguese and the Marathas. Recent excavations and archaeological findings have added further layers to this area already rich in ancient and medieval heritage. For the last few decades archaeologists have been working on various sites near the Konkan coast. Various pottery fragments, sculptures, and remnants of ancient structures provide valuable insights into the life of a common man. Dr. Kurush Dalal, an eminent archaeologist who has led many student excavations in and around this region, said in an interview “Now, we are discovering facets of ordinary early medieval life in the Konkan, and evidences of flourishing international trade and a vibrant economy all along the coast” .

Location of Chandor in Goa


Chandor, a sleepy village consisting of old rambling villas, is located in South Goa, on the banks of the river Kushavati, 13 km east of Margao and across the fertile rice fields  of Salcete. While walking down the shaded tree-lined lanes of this pretty hamlet, one gets a strange feeling that time is standing still and the Portuguese are very much around, still ruling the roost.

With facades of graceful Portuguese houses dotting the countryside, the historical timeline of Chandor, however, goes back much further, and this sleepy village played an important role in defining Goa’s ancient history, as evident from the various fragmented archaeological remains in the form of ancient inscriptions, sculptures, and other artefacts.


A beautiful sun dappled by-lane in Chandor that looks almost like a quiet Portuguese countryside road 

While Goa’s history goes long back to the 3rd BCE when Chandragupta Maurya reigned supreme, some excavated pottery found in Chandrapur belonging to the Satavahanas place the probable origin of this once important trade centre to 200 BCE.  After the Satavahanas, came the Bhojas who made Chandrapur or Chandor their capital, as evident from the various inscriptions found, dated between 3rd-4th CE. Next in the power race came the Chalukyas of Badami (580 CE to 750 CE), followed by the Shilaharas, and the Kadambas. The arrival of Kadambas saw the capital being shifted from Chandrapur to Goapuri or the modern Velha Goa around 1029. As maritime supremacy reached its zenith, the place known to the Arab cartographers as Zindabar, thrived as a central hub for various commercial activities. Both Hinduism and Jainism flourished under the Kadambas. This calm and prosperity was shattered with the appearance of Malik Kafur and his army in the horizon like black locusts in 1312 CE. Soon the entire Konkan region along with Goa faced massive destruction at the hands of this general of the Delhi Sultanate. In order to escape the wrath of Malik Kafur, the Kadamba king fled to its erstwhile capital of Chandor and built a fort there. Here it is interesting to note that despite the presence of the powerful southern dynasties, Malik Kafur could manage to defeat most of them. While effects of his devastating expeditions were temporary, his sweeping military success stemmed from unpreparedness of the local rulers, their failure to comprehend the shock technique used by the marauding Muslim army, and most importantly the rival jealousies among the different dynasties that were at constant war with each other which prevented them from forming a united front. When Kafur came in 1312, the Kadambas were already a spent force and their kingdom was limited to just Goa. Additionally  the dynasty was facing a lot of internal fights over control of power, as evident from a Ponda copper plate inscription which talks of a rebel Kadamba prince inviting Jamal ud din of Honavar for help after Tuglaq’s invasion. The thriving trade by this time had also dwindled considerably due to various factors, both external and internal.Whatever glory was left of the Kadambas was completely destroyed by Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s army in 1327 CE. After this, Goa (and Chandrapur) briefly went under the Vijaynagara empire,  followed by the Bahmani Sultans (1469 CE), and lastly the Adil Shahis of Bijapur (1488 CE). The power race of the Indian rulers finally ended here, and in came a new player from across the seas, the Portuguese!

While visiting Chandor in 2016, I was lucky enough to see some artefacts from the excavated site of an ancient temple displayed inside a villa called the Fernandes Heritage House. Sculptures of Vishnu, Ganesha, Shiva lingam, a piece of stone bearing inscriptions written in early Kannada script, among others,  speak of a rich cultural past of this ancient town. The owner said these pieces were randomly lying around in Chandor, and they being mostly temple parts were taken in by his forefathers. Despite the family being Christians they did not let the temple sculptures waste away in open fields.


 The only remaining evidence in this archaeological site is the large 7th CE Nandi. Vandalised and decapitated, it stands as a sole evidence and witness of the once glorious Chalukya empire 


The temple site in Chandor Cotta was first discovered by Rev. Fr. Heras in 1929. The ASI has made two excavations at this site, one in 1974, and the other in 1999-2000. The site now has a lone Nandi and a step-well, which is now covered with a wire mesh grill to avoid accidents (picture credit: Zehra Chhapiwala)


The history of the temple site by the ASI- Goa (picture credit: Zehra Chhapiwala)


Wooden fragmented parts, most likely from an ancient temple, as displayed in the Fernandes Heritage House in Chandor


Sculpture of a Ganesha (?)





(a) A stone bearing inscription from the 7the CE Chalukyan era in early Kannada

(b) History of the inscription


A Shiva lingam from some ancient or early medieval temple in Chandor


Various artefacts of daily use collected from different ancient and early medieval sites in Chandor

The Portuguese rule in Chandor

The Portuguese came to power in Goa in 1510, after defeating the then Bijapur Sultan, Yousuf Adil Shah. They set up their first capital in Velha Goa and thus began their four century long rule in the State. At this time they imposed their infamous ‘Inquisition’ on the people of Goa, with the objective of forcibly converting local Hindus to Roman Catholics. This Inquisition was primarily a method of social control against the Hindus and the converted Catholics, who they feared, practised their old faith behind closed doors.  Later, it was also imposed on the Jews from Portugal, along with some of the old Christians and new converts too.  Soon this turned into an easy way of taking away desirable properties by the Inquisitors (Benton, 2002, p. 122).

Chandor too faced the brunt of these Inquisitors and many families converted to Christianity to save their lives. Some of these early converts were richly rewarded. The first family in Chandor to embrace Christianity was the Braganza family. They were granted trade rights to various parts of the world, as a result of which the family became immensely wealthy within a short span and built a huge mansion that is one of the largest and the oldest surviving Portuguese villa in Goa. During my visit to Chandor, I visited two such palatial mansions owned by the converted Christian families. One of these mansions is more than 400 years old and owned by a branch of the Braganza family. The opulent interiors still reflect the long gone grandeur of these palatial homes, and while moving from one room to another one can only imagine the immense wealth and power that these families had once enjoyed.


 A palatial mansion/villa in Chandor


From roaring on the seal of the Kadambas to sitting and yawning outside a Portuguese Villa, the Lions best represent Chandor of today


Casa De sobrado, or the double storied house. This architectural pattern for houses was first brought in by the Portuguese. Modelled on country homes in Portugal, the lower level was kept for servants, services, and animals, while the upper level was reserved for the owners. The intricate decorative work was seen only on the first level (picture credit: Zehra Chhapiwala)


Another Portuguese style villa in Chandor


The most charming part of old Portuguese houses in Goa are their unique windows. Flattened and dressed conch shells of the oyster Placuna Placenta, locally known as Karepa, were fitted between grooved wooden battens carefully by local workers. These shells did not just mute the harsh sunlight filtering in but also bathed the interiors in a warm glow. Alternatively, nacre of the mother – of – pearl oyster was used by the well heeled for their stately villas


When inside a villa, one goes back in time (Fernandes Heritage House)


A splendid colonial style living room (Fernandes Heritage House)


A unique vintage bath tub that was used only for bathing new born babies  (Fernandes Heritage House)


Remnants of a rich past, artefacts collected from different parts of the word where the family went with their trading rights (Menezes Braganza House)


Preserved horns of a rhinoceros and a wild boar ( Menezes Braganza House)


The quiet glamour of an elegant ball room now echoing the footsteps of infrequent visitors ( Menezes Braganza House)

Chandor, now a quiet idyllic village, hides a great deal of history in its various layers. As one stands at the excavation site and sees the lone headless Nandi standing guard in the middle of a small enclosed field, one can only imagine the grandeur of the cruciform temple that once stood here as a dedication to Lord Shiva. The Portuguese styled mansions, as one sees while walking down the pretty country roads, fare better, and one can have a glimpse into the wealthy lives that the converted Christians once enjoyed under four centuries of Portuguese rule. Exploring Chandor gives one a feeling of nostalgia and of wonder at the immense historical importance that this small town once held and is now lost in the folds of time.


  1. ASi Goa archives

2. Nairne, K. Alexander. History of GoaVolume 1, Part 2, Book 1 of Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, Bombay (Presidency). Asian Educational Services, 1894.

3.”A History of the Inquistion of Spain (volume 3)” by Henry Charles Lea

4. Benton, L., (2002). Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400–1900, Cambridge University Press.

5. “Goa Inquistion for colonialdiscipline” by Souza


Author – Monidipa Bose

The author can be reached at or at Moni Gatha

Glimpses of Calcutta (Kolkata) heritage

Calcutta, once the city of palaces, so beloved of the British, has various  interesting theories regarding its name and origin. The name Kolikata first appeared in the 15th century writings of the Bengali poet, Bipradas Pipilai, and later in the 16th century, on the payroll list maintained by Akbar’s court. Some contend that it is this name Kolikata that later morphed itself into Calcutta/Kolkata. The other theories regarding how the city got its name are no less interesting. Some say the city  derived its name from the goddess Kali, and this place was once known as  Kalikshetra, or the land of Kali. While this remains the most popular theory of origin, another line of thought says this place was once known for production of shell-lime, wherein shell was colloquially known as ‘kali’ and lime was known as ‘kata.’ Another amusing theory tells us that one day Job Charnock, the architect of Calcutta, asked a farmer the name of the area around river Hoogly by gesticulating wildly with his hands, showing the area around. The farmer who didn’t understand, thought the white man was asking when he had harvested his crop, and answered ‘Kal Kata,’ or ‘I cut it yesterday.’ Charnock took the name of the place to be Calcutta. There is another remote possibility that the name Calcutta could have been derived from the term ‘kilkila,’ a word found in old Bengali literature, meaning flat land.


Hazra More in Calcutta, one of the famous chowmathar more or junctions in the city, named after the famous  freedom fighter Matangini Hazra, a woman of grit, who was shot dead by the police in 1942

Whatever the origin of the name was, one thing that is very clearly documented in history is that when Job Charnock landed here in 1690, on behalf of the East India Company with the objective of starting a trade settlement, carrying a firman (permission to settle and carry on with trade) from the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and his Bengal deputy Ibrahim Khan, there were three villages that flourished in this place. These were: Sutanuti, Kolikata, and Gobindopur. That same year Charnock hoisted the flag of Royal Standards of England in Sutanuti, on banks of the river Hoogly, thus signalling the start of British involvement in the Bengal Province. Without going into the details of how Bengal was  won by the British from the Mughals and their Bengal subedars, it can be safely said that in 1698 the East India Company  bought the three villages from a local zamindar, the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family.


Map of Calcutta showing the three villages ~ from the time when Job Charnok  landed here in 1690 until the Battle of Plassey in 1757 


In 1699, the East India Company started developing Calcutta as its Presidency City, and in 1727, a civil court was established in the city with a Mayor of its own, under the order of King George I, and in the same year the Calcutta Municipal Corporation was also formed.

Despite the long drawn war, negotiations, and extreme hardships faced by Charnock in establishing British trading supremacy in Bengal, and his acquiring the site that later became the city Calcutta and earned him the title of the Father of the City, in 2003 the Calcutta High Court stated that Job Charnock was not the founder of this city. In one stroke the city was rendered fatherless and was left without a date of birth. The Court further stated that Calcutta goes long back into history, and had its origins in the Mauryan era, a fact which has been recently proven with many archaeological findings.


Seen here is the Calcutta High Court premises, from where recently  Job Charnock was ruled out as the father of the city. The court started functioning formally on 1st July 1862 at the new Fort Williams, with Sir Barnes Peacock as the first Chief Justice.  The court building was built in 1872, and is neo-Gothic in structure.

This article, however, doesn’t travel that long way back into the Mauryan history. It simply satisfies itself by taking a peek into two old cemeteries in the city, where sleep some of the oldest colonial/firingee residents of the erstwhile British Empire.

St. John’s Church and the adjoining cemetery ground

St. John’s Church was among first public buildings that the East India Company constructed after establishing Calcutta as its Presidency city and capital. Originally an Anglican cathedral, it was constructed between the years 1784-1787, and is the third oldest church in Calcutta. The land was donated by Raja Naba Kishen Bahadur, founder of the Sovabazar raj family, and the first stone was laid in April 1784 by Warren Hastings, the then Governor General of India. At one time this church was the nucleus of colonial activities, and many important decisions were taken from a Vestry room situated inside the church that still holds some of the antiquities from Hastings’s era.


The St John’s church, as seen here, is a large rectangular structure with tall Doric columns, designed in the Neoclassical style, and  made of bricks and stones. The widespread use of stones in this church earned it the name ‘Pathure Girja’ or a church made of stones. The tall stone spire is 174 ft tall and holds a giant clock, which still works and is wound every day


The most distinctive feature of this church is the imposing stone spire, which instantly catches one’s eye, standing out from the brick body of the church. A little research and a study of the church minutes book revealed that the stones for building this church came from the ruins of the ancient city of Gaur,  via the river Hoogli. Gaur was once the proud capital of the Sena and Pala dynasties, later completely destroyed by the Islamic rulers and rebuilt to show their dominance over their Hindu subjects, only to be later plundered again by Sher Shah. The city fell into disuse once the capital was shifted, and until today the area remains a mass of ancient and medieval ruins, with the ASI slowly plodding its way towards unravelling the layers of history hiding amidst these ruins.


Some interesting plaques with a brilliant mix of Indian and European sculptures are seen inside the church, in memory of late 18th-19th century British officers stationed in Bengal. The church floor is of a rare blue grey marble brought from Gaur.


On the left side of the main alter there is a recently restored painting of  ‘The Last Supper’ by the British- German artist  Johann Zoffany.  This painting isn’t a copy of  the Leonardo’s famous artwork, but has some interesting Indian touches. The main figures in the painting are inspired from some real life characters of those times. (photograph of the “The last Supper”courtesy: Nandini dey)


Within the church complex there are various graves and memorials. One such memorial is the tall twelve Grecian pillared structure with a circular dome, designed to look like the Temple of Aeolus. This is known as the Rohilla War Memorial. The two Rohilla wars (1772 – 74) were fought between the Rohillas (Pashtun tribes from the modern Afghanistan and Pakistan) and the Nawab of Awadh, with the British favouring the later. This memorial has a list of the British officers killed in these two wars.


Here lies Jobus Charnock, the ‘founder’ of Calcutta (1630-1692/93). The administrator of East India Company, he brought together Sutanuti, Kolikata, and Gobindopur, to form the modern city of Calcutta. Built in Moorish style, this octagonal stone structure was built by Charnock’s son-in -law, with stones brought in from Pallavaram, near Madras (now Chennai). This mausoleum houses other graves, including that of his Hindu wife.


Located near Charnock’s tomb is this  pretty looking circular mausoleum that looks almost like a Greek temple. The lady lying underneath the gravestone interestingly is known as Begum Francis Johnson (1725-1812), who married four times, and  was known as the grand old lady of her times. Her tomb epitaph makes for an interesting read, giving details of her husbands and the children.


Mausoleum of Vice Admiral Charles Watson who died in 1757, during the retaking of Calcutta from the last Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud daulah. Charnock and Watson’s graves were the only two that were left undisturbed, during the construction of the church. All other old graves in this burial ground were dug up and the remains removed. The graves or mausoleums that we now see here are of a later period, built post 1784. The church complex has tombs of Lord Brabourne (d. 1939) and Lady Canning (d. 1861 ~ after whom the famous ladikeni sweet was named because of her fondness for it), amongst many more.

South Park Street Cemetery

This is considered as among  world’s earliest cemeteries that doesn’t have an adjoining church. It is also considered as the largest 19th century Christian cemetery outside the USA and Europe. It first started functioning in 1767 on a marshy land, and remained in use until around 1830, and is closely associated with the reconstruction of Calcutta after it was recaptured from the Nawab’s army. This area was once famously labelled as the ‘Bengal Burial Grounds,’ and the South Park Street cemetery was surrounded by the French cemetery (Tiretta’s burial grounds), North Park Street cemetery, Lower Circular Road cemetery, and the Scottish cemetery.


Cenotaphs in the South Park Cemetery. As one checks each tombstone and reads the epitaphs, one can’t help noticing the short lifespan of the Europeans residing in Calcutta in the 18th and early 19th century. Most, it seemed, died within 40 to 45 years of age, and there are so many tombs for the infants who were just few years or even few months old. Some interesting professions noted are translator, cattle breeder, jailer, surgeon, head tide-waiter, among the other regular ones.

The tombs in this burial ground are unique, in the sense that they pointedly lack signs that are typical of Christian burial structures, such as, weeping angels or profusion of crosses. Instead there  are obelisks, pyramids, pagodas, some panchayatana structures having rekha deul replicas on four sides, and a rich mixture of the Gothic with prominent Indo-Saracenic styles. During that period in history, the Age of Enlightenment was sweeping Europe, and had some of its roots in the 17th century England that defied all established religions and moved away from the Church. Thus, the medieval notions of a vengeful god disappeared, which allowed for other influences from various parts of the world to take hold. There was a sudden shift towards the ancient Greek, Roman,  and Egyptian cultures, and this is strongly visible in the tombs here. The domed chattris with their Doric columns remind one of the 18th century artist Piranesi’s imagined ‘Appian way’ in south Italy, while funerary urns on tombstones show the presence of ancient Greece, and pyramids and obelisks transport one to ancient Egypt. Though there are crosses seen on few  graves, they are most likely recent additions by descendants that have come down to visit their forefathers’ tombs and pay their respects.


The admixture of various styles seen here in the tombs, that include chattris with Doric columns, obelisks, pyramids, etc


Distinct Greek  influence in this tombstone with no signs of Christianity


The trees are a menace in this cemetery. Saw so many of these unique tombs marked in red as ‘endangered by roots,’ as is evident here in this picture. The three surrounding tombs have all been marked as endangered owing to the roots of this tree that is damaging their foundation causing cracks and chances of subsequent ruination.


One of the most famous residents of this cemetery, Henry Derozio, a much loved and revered educator, who inspired a strong sense of nationalism among the Bengal youth


A beautiful Greek influenced pillared mausoleum, and easily my favourite in the South Park Street cemetery

Calcutta with its colonial past has some of the most unique heritage structures. This article showcases some of the oldest structures of the colonial era in Calcutta, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the later years of the British rule, Calcutta developed a unique architectural style that mixed European and Indian style seamlessly, which is not replicated anywhere else. This is evident in some of the palatial homes of the wealthy people that still exist, and have somehow managed to save themselves from the brutal axe of the period of ‘heritage destruction’ that Bengal witnessed during the 1970s and lasted until the 90s, where old beautiful houses were broken down without any regard, to build high-rise apartments. Each of these houses were a marvel, and there are so many of them still standing. Come explore Calcutta, and slowly  lose yourself  in the sands of time, as you walk through the old gullies of this colonial era city.

Author – Monidipa Bose

The author can be contacted at or at MoniGatha