Friday, August 3, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Bandra’s Spiritual Side

This week’s guest, Jayanti Shukla, an occasional guest blogger here at Novel Adventurers, is the head of operations for both United Way of India as well as United Way of Mumbai, a premier global non-profit network. As a long-time resident of Mumbai, she takes us this week on a unusual tour of one of the city's most glamorous neighborhoods.

If you are a Mumbaikar, meaning a resident of the city of Mumbai, India, and if your postal address has Bandra in it, then you are considered to have arrived! Bandra is known as the “Queen of the Mumbai Suburbs.” It’s home to many film and theatre stars, politicians, and expats. It’s also a highly coveted location for restaurants, pubs, and high-end stores. Over the generations, the Portuguese, Persians, and the East India Company have all contributed to its rather unique past in Mumbai’s (then Bombay) history.

I was fortunate to have lived in Bandra for 25 years. Being an avid walker, I would roam the inner lanes of this beautiful suburb often. There is still a lot of living history in Bandra, such as the old-timers, some in their 90s, who carry with them so many memories of life in old-time Bandra, that I often feel a sense of urgency in documenting their memories!

In comparison to other suburbs in the city, Bandra is uniquely cosmopolitan and has been home for generations to Hindus communities—the Maharashtrians, Marwaris, and other linguistic groups—as well as to Muslims, Catholics, the Zoroastrians, and the East Indians (the local name for the Catholic ethnic community that speaks Marathi; many East Indian families have lived in Bandra for generations). Mount Mary Church looks down benignly over the homes of the relatively well-heeled residents of Bandra who live on the hill of the same name. There are also some very old and forgotten places of worship in the older parts of Bandra, where a few devout still work hard to keep the old traditions alive.

I recently strolled the old lanes to learn more about these old forgotten places of worship. I felt transported to another era, so different from the bustling vibrant suburb of today that people know Bandra to be.

The Bandra Jain Temple

Tucked away at the end of a crowded lane off Hill Road in Bandra is the Jain Mandir, a temple for more than 140 Marwari Jain families, a trading community originating from the Indian state of Rajasthan and who have made Bandra their home for generations. Many of these families base their home-cum-shop in the bylanes around this temple. It’s obvious that the temple is what keeps the community together.

The original temple is more than 150 years old and was built in honour of the eighth Jain Tirthankar (or saint), Shri Chandraprabhu Swamiji. (The Jains follow the teachings of a lineage of 24 Tirthankars.) Some 35 years ago, the temple was renovated and a beautifully carved marble idol of the third Jain Tirthankar, Shri Sambhavnath Swamiji, was placed in the sanctum, while the idol of the eight saint was elevated to the “Shikhar,” or top of the temple, where it now resides. The temple also has idols of many other Jain saints and beautifully carved marble pillars. The marble, from the famed Makrana marble of Rajasthan, had been specially brought to Bandra, where skilled artisans specially crafted them. Quite a journey!

I found that generations of one particular Jain family, the Marlecha family of Marwad in Rajasthan, had been bestowed with the honour of being caretakers of the temple. It is well cared for thanks to generous support from the community. The temple ceremonies are many—including regular anointing of the idols with milk, saffron, and sandalwood. The religion lays great stress on donating alms for the less fortunate, and the poor throng outside the temple for free meals.

The Jari Mari Temple

For years, I took the 9:21 a.m. Bandra local train to work and watched as some commuters pushed their way out of the rush-hour trains on Tuesday mornings to make a dash for the Jari Mari Mandir (or temple), a stone's throw away from the station on S.V. Road, which runs parallel to the station road. After a quick prayer, commuters would dash back to board the next local train to get to work. What was it that made office-goers give up their seats, a coveted possession on a crowded local train, to jump out midway to go to this place of worship?

Jari Mari is one of the avatars, or incarnations, of the Hindu Goddess Shakti, a divine female power. The Jari Mari temple has a “Swayambhu” and “Jagrut” deity, meaning it is a miraculous natural creation and therefore considered to be alive and powerful.  Such a deity is said to have the power to fulfill wishes, and the temple’s devotees have immense faith that their prayers will be answered. This explains the provocation for commuters to brave their way out of a crowded train then make their way back after a quick daily visit to the temple!

The temple was built on the spot where the idol was first discovered by local dhobis, or washer men, and  the panchayat, or local governing body, decided to make the dhobi community the custodians of the temple. A lake  used to be behind the present temple premises, but it has since been drained and the land reclaimed, but the temple, which is now more than 300 years old, is believed to be as powerful and sacred as it was when it was first established.

The idol of the goddess is said to have appeared at this spot on January 9, 1696, on the auspicious day of “Angarika Chaturthi”—a special Tuesday dedicated to the elephant God Ganesh—and celebrated 300 years on January 9, 1996, when Bandra organized large-scale celebrations in the temple’s honour. 

Satghare Ram Mandir

Bazar Road Bandra is a narrow winding lane, with shops and hawkers on both sides. I love the sights and smells of this bazaar, so quaint and old world, with many even more narrow lanes branching off deeper into the locality. Who would have realized that in one of those narrower lanes is the Satghare Ram Mandir, a temple that’s more than  200 years old. I had to ask an old man sitting outside his shop for directions, and he obligingly offered to walk with me to show me the temple.

The gentleman who met me at the temple door was delighted that someone was showing interest in the temple and eagerly welcomed me in. There was something peaceful and calm about the Satghare Ram Mandir. I was told how Purushotam Malhar Seth, a well-to-do businessman of the Daivadnya Brahmin community, built the temple. Satghare, of which sat means seven and ghare means homes, refers to the seven households originally from Thane, a district near Mumbai, for whom this was the family temple. (Incidentally, Mumbai  is a city built on seven islands). Seth had acquired land in Bandra and built a bungalow here with a temple in it. Bandra was quite cut off from the mainland in those days, and this bungalow was more like a holiday retreat. As Seth was a staunch devotee of Lord Rama, he’d noted that there was no Ram temple in the suburbs. It is said that he also built the temple to bring together the people of the faith, who were in those days under pressure by the Portuguese to convert to Christianity. Looking at Seth’s  importance in the community, the British government bestowed on him the title of Mahajan, or very important person, in the community.

Dargah of Hazrat Pir Maulana Sufi Sultan Naqshbandi

Seeing my interest in wanting to document old places of worship in Bandra, my guide for the Satghare temple offered to take me to another such place, and he was sure even followers of the faith may not know of the existence of the dargah of Hazrat Pir Maulana Sufi Sultan Naqshbandi.

Tucked away in a narrow lane called Maulana Baba Lane, which runs alongside the big mosque, the Bandra Jama Masjid, on the arterial S.V. Road in Bandra, is a small dargah, which is the tomb or shrine of a Muslim saint. It looks quite nondescript from the outside, but step inside, and you are dazzled by the exquisitely intricate mirror inlay work on the ceiling of the dargah. This is the tomb of Hazrat Pir Maulana Sufi Sultan Naqshbandi, also known as Maulana Baba, a Sufi saint who settled in Bandra more than 100 years ago. Along one wall of the room sits a row of Sufis, devotees of the saint who recite the Ayate Karima, 7,000 verses from the Holy Quran, in a trance-like state. The recitation is performed by the Sufis on behalf of followers who come to pray at the dargah, since the Sufi saint is said to have the power to grant wishes.

Interestingly, it is said that Parsis (of the Zoroastrian faith) were among the early followers of the saint, and many of them used to visit the shrine to pray for his blessings.

It may be the queen of the suburbs, but for me, Bandra assumes a completely different meaning—a place where so many  communities and their places of worship coexist in complete harmony. It is no wonder that there is so much positive energy here, part of what makes it the energetic vibrant and unique place it is. 


  1. One of my favorite neighborhoods in Mumbai, yet I didn't know a thing about all these hidden gems, Jayanti. Thanks for sharing them! I look forward to taking your walking tour on my next visit.

  2. Lots of research has made this writing, a delightful read !

  3. Fascinating Jayanti...Thanks for opening our eyes to the historical gems in our own backyard. Brilliant effort.
    Awaiting more such discoveries from you.

  4. Save a spot for me on that walking tour, Jayanti. :) This is such a vivid, fascinating account. It's impressive how many different religions exist in just one neighborhood. And I love the fact that the Parsis followed the Sufi saint. A nice example of interfaith practice. We could use more of that in the world.