Historical town of Sopara
Nalasopara, lies towards north of Mumbai in Palghar district of Maharashtra. It is portrayed as the next big thing for the booming real estate projects that has packed this place with buildings and towers. Due to the easy availability of local trains from downtown South Mumbai, Nalasopara has become an ideal place for anyone interested in long term investment. But amidst these tall buildings and new projects, lies a place resilient to any development, narrating a story about a pious soul that once walked on this Earth- Gautama Buddha. The ruins of once a magnificent stupa built around 2500 years ago, still stands in this town.
The historical reverence of this town doesn’t end with the stupa. This town was anciently known as Sopara, one of the most prominent ports of Western India bustling with trade and commerce. The names Sopara or Shurparaka even finds a mention in the ancient texts of Mahabharata as a holy place where the Pandavas rested, enroute from Gokarn to Kathiawad. The fact that 2 major rock edits of Ashoka were excavated from this town, signifies its importance as a major center of Buddhist activities. The rock edicts were messages from Emperor Ashoka to his subjects and these were always placed at strategic centers bustling with people and traders and at the commercial hubs. Thus ratifying the fact that this place was indeed a thriving port once upon a time.
The stupa is just 3km bus ride from west side of Nalasopara station. The hustle bustle of the city suddenly calms down as the bus rides from the cement jungles into the tranquility of open green lands. The tall buildings are replaced by fields, small huts and bungalows as the bus navigates through the villages. The journey from the city to the tranquility is an experience in itself.
After the short joyous ride, the bus drops you right in front of the site. You could easily miss this site but the hoardings put up by Archaeological Survey of India guides you to its entrance. As you enter the place, you would see a small trail between the tall grasses directing you to the mound. The placement of the mound between tall coconut trees and grass guarding it from all sides is most attractive. It’s a beautiful view of a hill with a circular base of bricks holding it together and coconut trees lining up on either sides like a welcoming party on a reception.
The mound found on this site is locally known as Burud Rajacha Kot (fort of basket making king) and not much was known about it. In 1882, Pandit Indraji, a noted archeologist excavated it and uncovered the ruins of this ancient Buddhist stupa. Thirteen feet below the center of the stupa, a stone treasure chest was discovered which contained eight bronze idols of seated Buddha belonging to 8th – 9th century AD. Also Inside the treasure chest were four other caskets of stone, crystal, gold and silver containing many gold flowers and fragments of a begging bowl. These relics found during excavation are well preserved at the Asiatic Society of Mumbai museum.
On the other side of this mound unseen from the entrance, lies a small statue of Buddha on the base of the mound. Dated to 4th century AD, this statue is carved in stone and enclosed within a rectangular stone structure making it look like a shrine. Fresh flower offerings on it indicates that the villagers treat it as a temple and takes care of it dearly. A series of broken steps leading to the top of the mound could be seen just behind this statue. Also a few stone sculptures could be seen lying around. There is also a more recent Buddha statue probably placed by locals just beside this shrine.
The present state of the site might make it very difficult for anyone to comprehend the grandeur of the ancient monument. But the bits and pieces lying around, if weaved together by an imaginative mind can reconstruct it to its state of opulence to a good extent.
The fading board displaying the historical facts about this site at the entrance reads “Sopara historically known as Shurparaka served as a capital of ancient Aparanta. Around 2500 years ago, a merchant named Purna, constructed this stupa as a symbol of remembrance to the begging bowl of Gautama Buddha. It was adorned with carvings made of sandalwood. This stupa is a replica of the one in Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh. The stupa was inaugurated by Gautama Buddha. On 1st April 1882, archeologist Pandit Bhagwanlal Indrji, excavated this site and uncovered a stone treasure chest containing a begging bowl, 8 idols of Buddha in a sitting posture, gold flowers, gold, silver, crystal spoon etc.. Emporer Ashoka’s kingdom had 14 rock edits distributed in 4 directions of his empire. The 8th and 9th rock edit were found in Sopara at a nearby village. Ashoka’s son Rajkumar Mahendra and daughter Sangamitra, to spread Buddhism, carried Bhod tree branches from Bhodgaya to Srilanka via Sopara. Bharat Ratna Baba Ambedkar also visited this stupa many a times. The stupa which is currently in a dilapidated state, stills stands as an evidence of history even today. Indian Government has declared this stupa as a national protected monument. – Information Courtesy Corporater Ayu Nitin Shelar , head of Sopara Buddhist Stupa Protection Committee.“
If history doesn’t fascinate you, then just a small stroll around this town might interest you. The 15th century Portuguese influence can still be felt around and might remind you of a small village in Goa. The old bungalows lined up one after another with coconut trees surrounding them, the presence of Christianity to a very good extent, and the overall laid back slow pace of the town itself, is worth experiencing.
One can enhance the experience further by taking a short bus ride to nearby Rajodi beach. Tucked away silently from the crowds, this beach is a beautiful destination for enjoying a quiet walk or for witnessing sunset peacefully. We spotted some jelly fishes washed away to the shores by the waves.
From historical places filled with stories of treasures & kings to the simple yet beautiful villages, landscapes and beaches, Nalasopara has an aura of mysticism surrounding it. But it has never gained the importance or attention it truly deserves. The government plans to bring about measures to promote tourism but its effects are yet to be seen. Till then one can truly hope that history buffs and explorers keep finding their way into this ancient town of Sopara!