Sunday, February 22, 2015


Squaring the circle

http://lite.epaper.timesofindia.com/Repository/TOIM/2010/09/25/8/Img/Pc0081500.jpg
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Gol Deval as it stands today

Image result for Gol DevalImage result for Gol Deval



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Gol Deval as it stands today
By Shekhar Krishnan

The city's oldest shrine dedicated to Shiva withstood sustained pressure from the British to remain round.

Legions of faithful marked Maha Shivratri last Tuesday in Mumbai's oldest temple dedicated to Shiva, the Nageshwar Mandir at Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (SVP) Marg. And yet, few among their number are likely to have fathomed why the swayambhu (selfmanifested) ling they circled is located in a 'Gol Deval (round temple), perched in the middle of a humming thoroughfare.

Known before 1955 as Sandhurst Road, this avenue was named after the governor who tackled bubonic plague in western India in 1896. Lord Sandhurst created the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) in 1898 to immunise the city in the wake of the epidemic, arming it with draconian powers of acquisition, demolition and redevelopment, to unclog the city's arteries and increase its circulation.

Sandhurst Road was an early showcase scheme of the BIT. For the poor, worst hit by the plague, it was a way in — for fresh air and natural light in their crowded lanes and cramped chawls. For upwardlymobile merchants it was a way out — quickening the commute between inner-city shops and godowns and upmarket Gamdevi, Cumballa and Malabar Hills.

However, immediate measures taken by the British to combat the epidemic sparked widespread resistance from Indians subjected to inspection, segregation and quarantine. At the peak of the epidemic raging across the Empire in 1897, Bal Gangadhar Tilak was tried for incitement to the Chapekar brothers' murder of a medical officer and his army escort on plague duty in Poona.

Basheshwar Lakde, current trustee of the Nageshwar Temple, says that in 1902, as the BIT notified its street scheme for Sandhurst Road, rumours that their temple would be demolished spread amongst the city's Veershaiva Lingayats. Tilak advised the community's pancham - including his grandfather Rambhau Annaji Lakde - to prevent entry by British officials.

In August 1904, led by "Sri Guru Maharaj Parbu Ling Swami Guru Gangadhar Swami", the pancham and temple trustees rejected the BIT Special Collector's offer of Rs 5,575-12-0 for the 145 square yards on which the temple stood. The BIT offered further amounts for "re-instatement of the idols" payable "for expenses attendant on a change of residence or place of business" under the 1894 Land Acquisition Act. But a temple was neither commercial nor residential property, and its value was incalculable at a market rate.

Moreover, the trustees appealed, the ling in the temple was swayambhu. The Lingayats approached Frank Oliveira, High Court pleader, to argue their case before the acquisition appeal tribunal, who maintained that this was the sole Shiv temple in Bombay, and while a ling was not "immoveable property" in the legal sense, "the Hindu Shastras do not allow them to remove this to a new place".

The BIT had diverged once from the otherwise straight line of Sandhurst Road to loop around the Khoja cemeteries on Dongri Hill. Determined against further costly realignments, they called on S M Edwardes - author of the Gazetteer of Bombay - for his opinion on the portability of idols. Of swayambhu lings, he claimed, there were only 12 known throughout India. There were few Lingayats in Bombay before 1815, so the Nageshwar Temple was probably not even a century old. Edwardes cited the Lingayat scripture Basava Purana to prove that a "temple itself is nothing, without the ling which is the stone house of the Deity and without the Jangam" (the priest), who "is possessed of greater divinity than in the stone image".

Confident in this expert advice that nothing prevented its re-consecration, the BIT notified acquisition of the temple in February 1905. By November, the trustees demanded its denotification, but the BIT retorted that "the demolition of the temple is an absolute necessity". Through 1906 it remained open to the public as the road was constructed - though the land beneath it was now legally owned by the BIT. Their engineers now sought help from Police Commissioner H G Gell, "to arrange with these people the sum to be paid for removal, as he can exercise a little pressure to prevent extortion". BIT Chairman G O W Dunn commented this was "no doubt expensive, but it would be much more expensive to excite religious animosity and cause widespread discontent".

In early 1907, word spread that the Lingayats' Guru had accepted the BIT's cash award and agreed to shift the shrine under police pressure. On this undertaking, the BIT sought ejectment of the other temple managers in the Small Causes Court, deeming them "tenants for the purposes of worship on payment of a nominal rent". Anyone refusing this deal was deemed a trespasser.

What happens next is not recorded in the municipal archives. A pamphlet of the Nageshwar Trust states that hundreds of agitated Lingayats chanting Shiva's name barricaded the temple against the police and BIT demolition squads. As the British attempted to enter, a cobra miraculously appeared from beneath the ling, raising his hood and hissing. The story goes that the British fled from this ominous portent, and quickly backtracked on their demands to shift the temple.

What is clear is that later that year, the BIT conveyed to the temple trustees a new plot north at Bhandari Street. But through 1908, as Sandhurst Road neared completion, the temple had still not been re-consecrated at this alternate site. By now the British conceded that the sacred ling "will be left in situ in the centre of the road which is to be widened so as to allow ample space, with a raised stone footpath... A fine open space will be created which should bring in somewhat increased return from the improved frontages".

In early 1909 the trustees agreed with the BIT's architects to pull down parts of the temple in the path of the road, enclose the round platform with a plinth and railings, and crown the temple dome. More than a year later this remained undone, forcing the BIT to do the work at their own expense, so Sandhurst Road could open to traffic before the 1911 royal visit of King George V and Queen Mary.

In 1954, Sandhurst Road was renamed SVP Marg, and one of the last of the old pancham, Laxman Dhondiba Sathbhai, registered the Nageshwar Temple Trust, which has managed the Gol Deval ever since. The plot reserved by the BIT for reinstating the Swayambhu ling, now called Nageshwar Wadi, is today an auditorium and dharamshala for priests and devotees.

The author is an anthropologist with the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai.