In the courtyard of a police training campus in Thane city’s Police Lines area is a small temple, one among hundreds of local Hindu temples scattered in the nooks and crannies of the Mumbai metropolitan region. Behind the temple, at the base of a large tree, lies an assortment of broken stone sculptures: two plump figurines carved on thick stone slabs, a Shiva Linga, an eight-inch disfigured head of a deity, a small Nandi bull and an intricately-carved slab of white stone depicting a meditating Mahavir.

Most devotees who visit the temple and sit in the shade of the tree barely give these discarded stone fragments a second glance.

Since 2016, however, three archaeology students from the city have taken particular interest in these forgotten stone artefacts. Over numerous visits, the students have cleaned, measured and photographed the pieces, and with the help of their professors, determined the approximate age of each object. While the Nandi bull and the Shiva Linga are perhaps more recent additions, the other stone slabs and figurines are from at least 700 or 800 years ago, dating back to the time when Mumbai and its environs were ruled by the Shilahara dynasty.

“We found this particular site by fluke, but ended up discovering such a rich store of local historical objects,” said Anuja Patwardhan, one of the three students who spent all of last year combing the streets of Thane city in search of the region’s undocumented archaeological heritage.

Patwardhan is among 40 archaeology students in Greater Mumbai who have participated in the Salsette Exploration Project, an ambitious academic research study that aims to discover and document whatever still remains of the pre-colonial archaeology of the Salsette region. Salsette refers to the larger island immediately north of the original seven islands of Bombay, extending from present-day Bandra, Kurla and Chembur to Thane in the north.

A Jain temple fragment, around 800 years old, lies discarded at the base of a tree behind a temple in Thane. Photo: Aarefa Johari

“History tends to focus on kings and dynasties, but our objective is to understand the cultural heritage of the local people of Salsette before the arrival of the Portuguese colonisers [in 1534],” said Suraj Pandit, the director of the project and the Head of Department of Archaeology and Ancient Indian Culture at Mumbai’s Sathaye College. “This is the first such systematic urban archaeology project in India. We have already found artefacts dating right from the middle-Paleolithic period around 30,000 years ago to the Shilahara period around 1,000 years ago.”

‘Surprised to see how much is still available’

The Salsette Project was started in early 2016 by three institutions: Mumbai University’s Centre for Extra-Mural Studies, the Archaeology department of Sathaye College and the India Study Centre Trust, an independent organisation dedicated to research on Indian history and culture.

Since then, two batches of archaeology students from these institutes have conducted ground surveys of the Salsette region, under the guidance of five faculty members heading the project. The researchers have sub-divided Salsette into five sectors, each under the charge of one faculty member and their team of students. The first batch of students completed their share of field work this April, and the project is now being carried forward through its second batch of students.

Since this is not an excavation-based project – the field researchers have undertaken surface exploration surveys by scouring every street of Salsette and mapping the areas covered. Avoiding well-known historical sites like the Kanheri or Mahakali Buddhist caves, they look for archaeological remnants of pre-colonial Mumbai in sites where they are more likely to be found: near local ponds and lakes, in and around old temples and around the premises of other public spaces.

“Even though it is still piecemeal work, students have been surprised to see how much material is still available,” said Kurush Dalal, joint-director of the Salsette Project and an archaeology professor at Mumbai University’s Centre for Extra-Mural Studies.

Ass-curse stones or deities?

Initially, researchers were not sure what to expect but kept their eyes open for certain archaeological objects unique to the Shilahara period that had been found in parts of Mumbai before. These included hero stones (vertical stone panels depicting stories of war heroes and valour), stupa and temple pillar fragments, and inscribed stones declaring feudal land grants.

They found scores of such Shilahara objects scattered across Salsette , most often incorporated into small local temples or lying under trees near them.

In a tiny roadside temple in Andheri, they found a stone carving of a bearded male deity that is now painted red and worshipped as “Kamala Mata”. Near Mahakali caves, a stupa fragment has been turned into a Shiva linga.

A male deity from the Shilahara period is now being worshipped as Kamala Mata at a small temple in Andheri. Image courtesy: Salsette Project

Many of the Shilahara artefacts have survived the centuries precisely because recent generations of Hindus have been worshipping them as deities without any knowledge of what they really were.

In Chandivali’s Vagheswar temple, for instance, two of the idols being worshipped are engravings of four-legged animals on small stone panels. Students from the Salsette Project immediately recognised the panels as half-buried gadhegals or “ass-curse stones”, that Dalal and his fellow archaeologists from Mumbai and Pune have been researching in recent years. During the Shilahara period, gadhegals served as land grant stones with an explicit visual warning that if anyone violated the grant, their mother would be defiled by a donkey.

Sure enough, when the students dug out the lower halves of the two stone panels in the Chandivali temple, they unearthed the engravings of donkeys with erect phalluses seemingly having intercourse with women. “The temple priests were completely scandalised when they saw this,” said Dalal.

One of the two gadhegals in Chandivali's Vagheshwar Mandir. The unpainted portion was buried in the soil before archaeology students unearthed it.

An array of fragments

In several locations, researchers also found broken sections of kichakas or bhaarvahakas, load-bearing corners of temple pillars that were intricately engraved with figurines. A number of these were found at Marol Police Camp, indicating that there probably was a large Shilahara temple in the area.

One of the bhaarvahakas found in Marol Police Camp (left); A bhaarvahaka fragment on Aarey Road has propped up vertically in a local temple and is worshipped as a deity.

Behind a local temple in Thane’s Mahagiri Koliwada area, Anuja Patwardhan and her teammates found several bharvahakas, a two-feet-tall sculpture of Bhairav, as well as a half-broken hero stone depicting someone fighting an animal. “It could be a scene from the Ramayana,” said Patwardhan.

At Police Lines in Thane, Patwardhan and other students found a white fragment of a doorway beam of a Jain temple that they estimate is at least 800 years old. “Local Jains believe they have been around for just 100 or 120 years in the area, so this is proof that there were Jains living there for much longer,” said Dalal.

They also found stone panels depicting a gai-vasru (cow and calf) symbol. “These were land grant stones in which the cow symbolised the grant, the calf symbolised the receiver of the grant and the milk would then be the benefit gained from the grant,” said Dalal.

A gai-vasru land grant stone from the Shilahara period has been incorporated into a temple in Adarsh Nagar, Andheri.

Despite finding such a large number of artefacts, the Salsette Project researchers have been careful not to remove any of the objects from the places where they were found. “It is important to retain archaeological objects in their own contexts,” said Dalal.

The researchers plan to continue exploration and documentation for another one or two years before they draw conclusions and make broad observations about their findings.