Located near Mount Poinsur in the Borivali suburb of Mumbai, Mandapeshwar Caves is an 6th – 8th century rock cut shrine dedicated to Shiva.
The caves today stand behind an open clearing in front of a main road. It’s believed that at one time the Dahisar river ran in front of it, but over the passage of time the river has changed its course. What is left of that river is now about 300m away from the caves.
Shanty dwellings also use to crowd around the caves, with the excavations used as gambling dens, until local NGOs cleared the area some time back. Clearly these caves have seen a lot over the centuries, and the more recent events is just the tip of the iceberg.
The main cave consists of a pillared forecourt with three side chambers. Stylistically the cave is almost identical to Cave 21 at Ellora in its plan and sculptural decoration. The central sanctum has a small Shiva linga and is still worshipped today, a small nandi in front of the sanctum entrance also reminds us that this is a Shiva temple.
There are some relief panels that have survived the cave’s turbulent history. One depicts the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, another with Shiva as Nataraja. Considering all that this cave has endured, it’s surprising that anything has survived at all.
There’s a second smaller cave next to the main cave, undecorated and with crudely shaped pillars. It almost suggests that this cave was never fully completed, or had some sort of peripheral use that did not warrant any specific carvings.
A walk around this small site yields much evidence of a troubled past. As a Hindu temple, it was specifically targeted by the Portuguese, who asserted their religious beliefs over it by literally building a monastery and church right on top of it.
The ruined remains of that structure, dedicated to Our Lady of Immaculate Conception and consecrated in 1544, can still be seen today above the cave.
Two centuries later, in 1739, the monastery and church was desecrated after the Battle of Bassein in which the Marathas lead by Bajirao Peshwa I defeated the Portuguese. The caves were subsequently reinstated as a Hindu temple, but it wasn’t long before the caves were once again a victim of history.
Towards the end of the 18th century the British defeated the Marathas, and the caves were once again used as a place of Christian worship. A three foot high symbol of the cross, carved out of a stone panel that once depicted mythical Hindu figures, stands at the entrance to the cave.
A visitor to the caves in 1804 recorded:
“The good priests had covered the carved Hindu figurines in the cave with a smooth coat of plaster and had converted the whole into a chapel.”
A statue of the Mother Mary, a cross and a pulpit was also installed in the main cave by Fr. Antonio Do Porto, and it remained a place of Christian worship until 1888.
With the end of colonial rule, the church fell into disrepair and the caves gradually reverted back to the worship of Siva.
There are five rock-cut caves in Mumbai; Elephanta, Kanheri, Jogeshwari, Mahakali, and Mandapeshwar. The Mandapeshwar Caves are possibly the least visited of the group, but do come here to pay your respects to a monument that has seen more than its fair share of tumultuous history.
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