If we went around telling townies that the unfashionable suburb of Nala Sopara was the coolest township with a port, ships, thriving trade and tourists about two thousand years before humans stepped foot on Malabar Hill, they would most likely recommend a trip to the nearest shrink. But we’re not far off the mark when we make that claim.
After learning about the historical site in Nala Sopara a few days ago, dna got in touch with Dr K Sankarnarayan, director at KJ Somaiya Centre for Buddhist Studies and Dr Devangana Desai, art historian and vice president of the Asiatic Society of Bombay. The duo provided a detailed insight about the ancient town, eliciting a drive to Sopara village in Thane district.
The drive to Sopara is about two hours from the centre of Mumbai. The stupa may have attracted academicians, historians and archaeologists in the past few decades but a few locals in Sopara and even other parts of the state and the country are aware of the existence of the site in the ignored village that provides a peek into the most fascinating chapters of Indian history.
The narrow roads of Sopara village are inundated with small ponds, tiny independent houses, palm trees and in some places laidback locals are seen walking about, tending to the fields and cattle. The entrance to the stupa is inglorious, to say the least. A peeling small flex banner by the pond, opposite the closed iron gates, acts as an ST bus stop board that is usually ignored by the bus drivers who seldom have passengers visiting the stupa. A short walk ahead and one can see the historic stupa shabbily covered with multiple tearing tarpaulin sheets to prevent erosion in the rains.
A couple of locals cutting grass seemed very surprised at seeing a visitor and promptly assumed that the writer was an academician or a student as no one else other than “these people” bother to visit the place. A few quiet minutes spent near the stupa, noticing the old eroding bricks and stones, a couple of old figurines and old red mud ground littered with palm fruit can be a very spiritual experience and also provide another reality check on how little we care about our history and how badly we preserve it.
Not too long ago there was news that the government had plans to develop this site as a tourist hub, but we could see no signs of the plan being executed in the immediate future. This is still the best time to visit the stupa, while you still have the place just to yourself for hours.
Perhaps today’s Nala Sopara won’t find mention in property colums of papers and magazines, but it has secured an eternal place in ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Jain literature and in travelogues of Greek, Arab and Chinese travellers written hundreds of years ago.
Stupa at Sopara
In 1882, epigrapher, numismatist and archaeologist Pandit Bhagwanlal Indraji unearthed a stupa at Sopara, the ancient port-town of Surparaka, about 48 kilometres north of Mumbai.
In a relic stone coffer found in the stupa he found a rare group of eight bronzes. Pandit Indraji after his discovery wrote, “the most important discovery that has been made at Sopara is a broken block of basalt bearing a fragment of one of Asoka’s edicts.”
“The find of the Asokan Edicts at Sopara indicates that the earliest historical evidence of activity in Sopara dates back to at least 3rd century BC,” says Dr Devangana Desai.
The brick stupa at Sopara, from which the bronzes were found, resemble the Sanchi stupa. Even the jade casket that was excavated from the Sopara stupa resembles the one from the Sanchi stupa.
According to Dr Desai, the ancient Surparaka or Soparaka has been mentioned in the Mahabharata, Mahavamsa, Divyavadana, Sripalacharita and other Buddhist, Brahmanical and Jaina texts, and in the inscriptions of Nasik, Junnar, Nanaghat, Karle and Kanheri.
The ancient port town
Sopara flourished as an important city and trade centre, playing an important role in the commerce of western India for more than two thousand years.
The town was known to Ptolemy and the author of the Periplus of the Erythraen Sea, and later also to a large number of Arab and Persian travellers, such as Ibn Haukal Al Beruni and Al Idrisi.
In the beginning of the 10th century, Arab traveller Machudi, in one of his texts, mentioned Subara along with Thana as coast towns. In the mid-12th century, Konkana delegate Tejakantha from Sopara attended a literary congress held in Kashmir.