This is a longer version of an article first published on the holiday of Mahashivratri in Mumbai as “Squaring the Circle”, Mumbai Mirror, Sunday Read, 22 February 2015.
“I need not dilate on the urgent necessity in the interest of our work of removing temples, where necessary, otherwise than by force. In laying out schemes I exclude every religious edifice that I can. But in the case of Hindoo temples it is not possible to exclude all, for they are sprinkled over the City like pepper out of a castor. And if our schemes are not to suffer, we must treat each case liberally”.
Proceedings of the Trustees for the Improvement of the City of Bombay, Special Meeting, 15 January 1907, T.R. 11
On this week’s festival of Maha Shivratri, devotees annually offer prayers in Mumbai’s oldest temple dedicated to Shiva, the Nageshwar Mandir at Sardar Vallabbhai Patel (SVP) Marg. Popularly known as the “Gol Deval”, few who circle around its swayambhu (self-manifested) ling are aware of how this “Round Temple” came to be in the middle of a busy main road. Known before 1955 as Sandhurst Road, this arterial avenue was named after the Governor who tackled the outbreak of 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 by redeveloping its slums, swamps and streets.
Sandhurst Road was an early showcase scheme of the BIT, spanning the breadth of the island from the eastern docks to the western seaboard. 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 upwardly-mobile 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. On his release from jail at the turn of the century, the Lokmanya was soon to gain celebrity as a militant nationalist.
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. The Lokmanya advised the community’s pancham – including his grandfather Rambhau Annaji Lakde – to fight with their lives 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 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, later Police then Municipal Commissioner – for his opinion on the portability of idols. Of Swayambhu lings, he claimed, there were only twelve known and sanctified in India.
Since there were few Lingayats in Bombay before 1815, theirs could not have been more than a century old. Edwardes cited the Basava Purana that, especially for Lingayats, a “temple itself is nothing, without the ling which is the stone house of the Deity and without the Jangam (the priest) who is the human abode of the Deity”. The priest “is possessed of greater divinity than in the stone image”, and there was nothing in the Shastras which proscribed re-consecration.
Confident in this expert advice that nothing prevented its re-consecration, the BIT notified acquisition of the temple for their Sandhurst Road (East) Scheme no.3 in February 1905. By November, the trustees demanded its denotification via solicitors Mirza and Mirza, 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 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 were deemed “not tenants but trespassers”.
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 Britishers 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 foot-path… 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.