How Mumbai’s new coastal road poses a threat not only to the environment and fishing communities but also to sites of historical, religious and cultural importance. 

The Haji Ali dargah as work proceeds on the Coastal Road project. | Photo credit: Aaran Patel.

Every city, every place on earth is defined by characteristics, landmarks, or certain quirks of nature which make it what it is. One can hardly think of Mumbai without its scenic coastline coming to mind, characterised by a variety of of ‘seafaces’ – rocky promontories, mangroves, sandy, rocky and shingle beaches, creeks, tidal pools, mudflats, salt pans and even coral beds. Humans have lived on these coastal islands for at least two millennia and there were a number of thriving fishing villages under the loose control of regional potentates when the Portuguese arrived at the beginning of the 16th century and wrested nominal control of the area from the Sultan of Gujarat, only to cede it a century later to the English crown as a royal dowry. It was then leased to the East India Company for a very nominal rent and so began the modern history of modern Bombay, now Mumbai. Parts of it also came under Maratha occupation during the ascendancy of their power.

During its long period of habitation, numerous structures were built by the inhabitants and their rulers. Many of these were fortresses built to protect the land from various invaders arriving by land or sea. Notably, along the western coast are  several forts, the oldest of which is the Mahim Fort believed to have been built in the 13th century by a chieftain named Bhimdev. The rest were built in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries by Portuguese and the British at locations in Madh, Bandra, Dharavi, Mahim and Worli along the West coast, apart from those in the east.

In addition to these forts, a number of places and buildings considered holy by adherents of different religious sects are also located along the western shoreline of south Mumbai. Today, this very stretch, peppered with the landmarks which define ‘home’ for Mumbai’s residents are being threatened by the coastal road.

Moving south along the coast we come to the Ma Hajani ki Dargah at the northern end of Haji Ali Bay. This mausoleum with its unique blue oval dome was built in 1908 by shipping entrepreneur Haji Ismail Hasham in honour of his mother Saint Ma Hajani. It is believed that the saint’s blessings help women who are hoping to find a husband or have a child and many of the visitors to the dargah are women seeking such a benediction.

Across the bay is the much better known Haji Ali Dargah which dates back to the 15th century. It is the mausoleum of the sufi saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari from Uzbekistan, wealthy merchant who renounced all his riches in the service of Islam and has many miracles associated with his name. After his death, it is said that his body was buried at sea in accordance with his wishes not to injure the earth. However his body came ashore at the islet that now bears his name and his followers interred him there. His tomb and the adjacent mosque built in Indo-Islamic style are visited by large numbers of pilgrims to pray and listen to the Qawwali music performances are also held there frequently. It is also a popular tourist attraction accessed on foot via a causeway.

Much of Haji Ali Bay, between these two Dargahs, is being reclaimed as part of the Coastal Road Project and a large flyover to be built over it. This will be the end of the skyline visible from the promenade along the bay. Both the dargahs with their significant location at the water’s edge will now be separated from the sea by walls, an eight lane highway, and possibly other ‘amenities’ – a development against which environmentalists have been fighting the state machinery for several years without much success.

Further down its trail, the new highway skirts the Shree Mahalakshmi Mandir complex which also contains a Tryambakeshwar shrine and the Mahadev Dhakleshwar temple. The presiding deity of the temple is the supreme Goddess portrayed in the Hindu scripture Devi Mahatmyam, in her three forms – Mahakali (Durga), Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati.  Its construction in the 1760s is attributed to  Shri Ramji Shivji Prabhu, a civil engineer in the service of the colonial government who was entrusted with constructing a road linking Worli Island to Malabar Hill but was thwarted by high waves. Legend has it that in a dream he was shown the location of idols of the Devi which had been immersed in the sea. He recovered these and had them installed at the site of the mandir and was able to complete his task.

In the immediate vicinity of the Mahalakshmi Mandir is the Dhakleshwar Temple. Here too, the Devi is present, in the form of Parvati, together with her husband, Lord Shiva and their two sons, Ganapati and Kartikeya enshrined in four separate sanctums. This temple overlooks the Arabian Sea and affords a view of the sunset. This will soon be just a memory as the Coastal road blocks the view and access to the sea from the Temple complex.

A short distance south of the Mahalakshmi Temple is the Shri Swami Samarth Mutt. Built in the 1890s by  Agaskar, secretary to the Governor and a devotee of Swami Samarth of the Dattatreya sect, whose abode had been at Akkalkott near Solapur. Agaskar built the Mutt so that the Swami could visit him and stay there long enough  to bless his local devotees of the sect who could not visit Akkalkot. The Swami is said to have coughed up small objects called Atma Linga Padukas which have feet like impressions in crystal. Which are displayed in a glass case in the temple. The walls of this shrine abutt the sea and its devotees believe that the temple is sanctified whenever the waves touch its walls. This will not be for much longer, thanks to the Coastal Road which will keep the sea away.

The road then turns inland and burrows under Malabar Hill, atop which sits the Banganga temple complex and the Sagarmata and Babulnath temples alone. It finally emerges on Marine Drive where it threatens one last monument, the Parsi Gate.

Built over a century ago, this pair of pillars of rock from Malad in the northern suburbs were carved with Zoroastrian motifs from ancient Persia. The steps between them provided access to the sand where Parsis and Iranis could offer their prayers.

Hindus and others also use this spot to immerse the ashes of loved ones cremated at the nearby Chandanwadi crematorium. The pillars are to be shifted about a kilometre south to a new location near Nariman Point.

The narrow stretch of sand below the Parsi Gate is called Chhoti Chowpatti. This stretch was used by people for jogging and exercising, particularly in the morning. This stretch will likely disappear or at least become inaccessible to users as Marine Drive is widened to absorb the additional lanes surfacing from the tunnels, apart from a cantilevered promenade overlooking the sea, presumably overlooking a giant statue of Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj, which is also slated to come in the middle of the Back Bay.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the Coastal Road project is proceeding at break-neck Speed. But nature may have the last laugh. If the predictions that sea levels off Mumbai could rise by up to a metre by 2100, the sea would take back much of what we proudly believe we are reclaiming.

Chandran Gopalakrishan lived in Mumbai for over 21 years, before relocating to Chennai. He is a writer interested in environmental, social, cultural and political issues.

Originally published in Scroll


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