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Old Posted May 28, 2007, 11:48 PM
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Aditya Ghosh

27 May 07
HT Epaper

ON A ROCKY, brown-green patch of land in the distant suburb of Nalasopara, a group of archeologists, heads shielded from the blaz ing mid-day sun by hats, are bent over a large stone frieze, gently brushing away the accumulated dust of centuries. They are trying to turn the clock back 2000 years to uncover a slice of history that Mumbai is barely aware of.

The archeologists are excavating a stupa that was built circa 2 BC and was in its time, the most important in western India. So important that, they be lieve, the Emperor Ashoka himself came to see it during or after its construction. Proof: Ashoka's original edicts (inscribed stone plaques) were discovered during the excavation last week.

Archeologists believe all the evidence points to their contention that Nalasopara was one of the first Buddhist centres in western India.
Why Nalasopara? Because, says G S Narasimhan, superintending archaeologist Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) (Mumbai circle), "The port once buzzed with commerce and was a prominent trade point in Ashoka's kingdom."

He explains that Buddhists often built stupas along trade routes to serve as resting places and meeting points, where traders and travellers could exchange merchandise and information. "The Buddhists revered monks and ascetics and this stupa seems to have been built by the traders for the monks," Narasimhan adds.

In fact, Ashoka's son, Emperor Jalauk is also believed to have come here, and even built a temple in the Orissa style of architecture. Locals call it the Samadhi Mandir.

The Centre has sanctioned a complete excavation and repair of the site, in which the entire stupa will be uncovered and recreated as faithfully as possible to its original dimensions and beauty .

Next week, architects and artists from the capital will arrive in Nalasopara to work on the re-creation. They will work in consultation with the archeologists to reconstruct the missing portions and restore it to its original shape if not its former glory .

This site, rich in history and significance, was first noticed in 1882. While minor efforts at excavation were carried out from time to time, the current project, which started early this month, has been the most successful, revealing statues and inscriptions in addition to the precious edicts.

In fact, according to the ASI this will be one of the most elaborate Indian excavations in recent times. "This stupa is the first such construction by the Buddhists in western India and critical from a historical viewpoint," says Narasimhan, adding that "the history of this area will come to life."
However, before the grand plan is executed, the ASI has to address a religious problem - some locals have installed a statue of Buddha on the site, and have started worshipping it. "It is illegal but we are helpless in the absence of political or police support," says Narasimhan.

Worse still, the monsoon is due to arrive in Mumbai soon. To protect the stupa, Narasimhan says the site will be completely covered by a plastic sheet. "Otherwise, rainwater will damage the structure," he explains.

While the archeologists chip away at the stupa, trying to pack in as much work as possible before the rains arrive, local residents are largely unaware of the treasure in their backyard. Says Narsimhan wryly, "Not too many people in Mumbai are bothered about their heritage."

But there is one man in Nalasopara who is aware of the site's significance: Ashok Holkar, the security guard at the site. He says he is proud to stand on a spot where his namesake may have rested his royal limbs some 2000 years ago.

Jai's HONOLULU, Hawai'i photothread: ...showing off the Jewel of the Pacific!

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