On the Veer Nariman Street, marble sculptures of Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Justice MG Ranade stand testimony to the craftsmanship of one of the earliest inhabitants of the city.
The sculptor, Raobahadur GK Mhatre, is from the Panchkalshi community, which produced the first Indian sculptors, contractors and architects in the city. Several structures from the British era were designed by members of this community. The statue in Shivaji Park, Dadar, was built by another well-known scultpor from the community — NG Pansare. The Art Deco buildings behind Eros Cinema, the Chikitsak Samuha High School in Girgaun, Don Bosco High School in Matunga are examples of its contributions.
Also known as the Somvanshi Kshatriya Pathare (SKP), the close-knit Panchkalshi community is found along the coasts of Mumbai only, and can be found today in villages in Parel, Worli, Vasai and Chembur. The Panchkalshis, Rajput descendants, migrated to Mumbai in the 13th century CE with Raja Bhimdev from Champaner. Their name derives from a title awarded by the Raja, according to which five pots placed upon one another form an integral part of wedding rituals. The community had been responsible for the protection of docks and harbours. They were landowners who played an important role in retrieving the land confiscated by the Portugese, said archaeologist Sandip Dahisarkar, a Panchkalshi. During the British era, they took to carpentry, contract work and architecture.
The Worli Gopachara Sanstha, a housing complex in Worli, is an effort by members of the community to keep their heritage alive. Ownership of property within the complex is reserved only for Panchkalshis. At least 72 families live here, most related to each other.
Although situated at a prime location, the trust’s rule mandates that flats are sold among community members at prices that are 50 per cent lower than the market price, said Ujwal Mantri (35), a resident of the complex. Mantri said that most members have given up their ancestral occupation. “Most people have sold off properties and started their businesses,” said Mantri, who works in the Marathi film industry.
Like most Panchkalshi settlements, the community in Worli owns and maintains the 150-year-old Nilkantheshwar temple that has records of all its members born in the area. “We can trace our ancestry through the records,” said Ujwal.
Uday Mantri (72) is one of the trustees of the temple trust formed by his grandfather Ananda Dadubhai Mantri in 1931. The trust offers assistance to people of all creeds. “We haven’t restricted ourselves to a particular community,” he said.
Many members like Ujwal are working for the community through a centralised hub. “We spend a few hours every day for the club,” said Ujwal. Apart from community welfare, the Kshatriya Union Club in Dadar also holds cultural functions, competitions and social gatherings at the Kshatra Vanmali Hall.
Every year between August and September, the community celebrates a unique festival. On Pithori Amavasi, the women in the family pray to 64 yoginis for the well-being of the children. The women make offerings to the 64 deities made of Pith or flour. “The eldest woman in the family holds the Piths on her head and the children surround her. It signifies that the goddesses will keep a watch on the children,” said 58-year-old Jayashree, Ujwal’s mother.
The Panchkalshis have often been confused with Pathare Prabhus, said Sandip. “Since our way of life, dressing and rituals are similar to Pathare Prabhus, the Britishers recorded us as the same,” he said.
However, the communities have separate identities, said Sandip, who has been studying its history. “Very little research exists on the Panchkalshis,” said Ujwal. Original sources are not available as most of the community’s contributions were during the Maratha period, said Sandip.