Within the serpentine lanes, a few steps behind the Wageshwari Devi mandir and a few steps after the Chandika Devi temple, deep in the womb of Parel, stands a deity who gets more European visitors than Indian. A small 15 foot by 10 foot room encases the Parel Shiva Heptad, known locally as Baradevi.
You have to approach this 6th Century sculpture through the Manohar decorator lane in Rashtriya Kamgaar lane.
The unfinished monolithic relief sculpture was found during road construction — a few metres from where it is enshrined now — in 1931.
It has a central figure with matted hair, assumed to be Lord Shiva, with two figures erupting from his shoulders and two more from his head.
Two unfinished figurines are kneeling at the base with the beginnings of two heads above them. The eleven figures, passing through the Chinese Whispers tract of years, went to Bara (12 in Marathi) Deva to the Baradevi of today.
Owing to the size of the sculpture (11.5 foot by 6.5 foot), art historians doubt if it was meant to be installed in a temple and suspect it to be the remnants of a cave shrine or intended for open air installation.
The locals refused to let it be entered into the then Prince of Wales museum, and so it was installed in a hastily built room. The museum got a replica.
The sculpting style dates back 500 years, indicating that that part of Mumbai had civilisation dating back that far.
We tend to look at Mumbai’s history starting only from the Raj and what the British built.
Due to its unfinished nature and lack of ritual setting, there is only educated deduction and interpretation on what the sculpture represents.
Art historians are pretty sure it is Lord Shiva, given the matted hair, crescent moon and the ascetic’s waterports the figures hold in their hands. None of the figures wear a crown and the hair is intricately arranged differently for each figure.
The tiger skin identified with Shiva is replaced by the flowing dhoti most identified with Vishnu, yet it is assumed that the upper most figure is the main Maheshwara, from whom the others descend.
The Shaivite sect interpret these to be the many forms of Shiva — as the maker, protector and destroyer of the world — and the kneeling figures are his ganas, playing a Burmese harp or veena, a flute and an absent drum.
The sculpture as a whole is the Maheshamurthy, the full manifestation of Shiva.
Activities around this shrine are restricted in term of decibel levels and adoration to protect the ancient sculpture from damage.
Worshippers have to be satisfied with darshan through the grill, but on Mahashivratri, it becomes the centre of festivities.