Mumbai has a history that people usually date only as far back as to its colonial invasion and the Koli and Koliwadi community as its original settlers, but what largely remains unknown, even among Mumbaikars, are the ancient cave structures that the city harbours right in its womb.
Situated at the heart of the Jogeshwari suburb of Mumbai are the Jogeshwari caves that are known to be among the earliest cave temples in India. Around 1,500 years old, this rock-cut cave is said to have been excavated between the excavation of Ajanta and Elephanta caves. It is a major site considered as a shrine to lord Shiva and houses sculptures and pillars belonging to the Mahayana Buddhist architecture.
Though declared as a protected monument by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI), Jogeshwari caves lie underneath the filth and debris of the slums of Pratap Nagar surrounding the monument. The dumping of garbage and the leakage of sewage from the chawls above down the walls of the caves have led to problems of seepage and water stagnation inside the monument, damaging its architectural carvings.
The pitiable condition of Jogeshwari caves came to light when NGO Janhit Manch filed a PIL in April 2005, urging that the caves be preserved. A High Court order to clear the protected zone of illegal construction and encroachment soon followed, wherein about 13,000 sqm area around the monument was reserved for a garden, clearing the way for the eviction and resettlement of 750 slumdwellers in the area.
As a national monument, Jogeshwari caves have 100 metres of prohibited and 300 metres of regulated area from the outer boundary of the monument. However, the neighboring buildings illegally constructed over the years still stand tall marring the beauty of the heritage. And the debris from the demolition of the slums carried out by the civic body every now and then has left the area in a shambles.
While the BMC said the construction of tenements for rehabilitation of the Project Affected Persons (PAPs) is nearing completion three years ago, more than half the slumdwellers are still waiting for their rehabilitation and compensation.
“The civic body declared us encroachers, but we have all ownership documents that prove we have paid taxes to live on this private land. We accept the government’s decision to acquire and preserve the heritage land, but they have to ensure our compensatory rehabilitation,” said Ghanshyam Mishra, owner of KP Mishra chawl around the cave and an intervener in the legal matter since 2009.
Some slumdwellers have given their original documents to the authorities. Prafulla Gohil, a 60-year-old resident, said, “What if the BMC office catches fire and all our documents get burnt? We will then not have anything to prove our legal existence on this property and will not be able to avail of rehabilitation facilities either. We will be left in the middle of nowhere.”
She pointed out that the rehabilitation and the consequent demolition of chawls under the garden reserve plan have been haphazard. “Shift us together as a chawl. Don’t break our houses indiscriminately, leaving the walls and structure of the adjacent houses crumbling and dilapidated,” she said. “People from whose houses sewage water drains down and damages the walls of the monument have still not been shifted and the ones whose houses do not affect the caves have been evicted.”
Residents who have temporarily been transferred from their chawls to be rehabilitated in a building in the vicinity are far from being settled, too. “The 18-floor building being constructed by Avant Builders under the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) violates norms and falls in the prohibited area. If noticed by the court, its construction might be stayed,” alleged Sandeep Prabhulkar, who filed a notice of motion with the High Court in August last year for a lawful rehabilitation.
Though lakhs of people throng the Jogeshwari caves for Mahashivratri celebration, locals fear the temple may close down. While the mythical stories about the Jogeshwari caves range from it being a Hindu temple where lord Shiva danced the wild ‘Tandava’ to it being made by the Pandavas during their 12 years of exile, there is also a belief among the locals that these caves were connected to other neighbouring caves of Mahakali and Ramgarh from underground, but did not survive the ravages of time.
The slumdwellers, believers in Jogeshwari and Jagdamba devi, feel it is the strong presence of their community, that has grown around the caves over the years, that has secured the caves and kept a check on such activities as illegal construction and use of the caves for drinking, drugs and criminal activities.
*Response of Avant Builders: That they have procured all requisite permissions and sanctions and there are no violations or breach of development rules