By Dennard D’Souza, Research Associate, Maritime History Society
Ports were where maritime trade blossomed, people from far and wide brought their ware to an assigned place which would often be near a port and would exchange it for other commodities. This was pretty much the role of all ancient port towns like Alexandria and Rhodes. Today however I shall introduce one such port town that is very close to our city–Mumbai and was at one time a major maritime hub on the western coast of India this city is the ancient port town of Sopara.
Although Sopara today is a satellite township to the north of Mumbai, in ancient times it was a bustling metropolis even as Mumbai was just an insignificant cluster of islands surrounded by marsh and swaying palm trees. Sopara in comparison was a large town with peering temple towers and noisome streets.
Being close to the coast, Sopara was an active maritime hub for more than two millennia. The earliest literary evidence for Sopara is furnished in the Samyutta Nikaya of Pali Buddhist canon. Here the city is referred to with the name Sunaparantaka and was said to be home to the merchant brothers Punna and Chula Punna, the former was a disciple of the Buddha.
Therefore Sopara would have predated the Buddha at least a few centuries earlier since the Sutta Pitaka, of which the Samyutta Nikaya is an integral part, forms the older core of the Buddhist canon. Besides having been mentioned in the Buddhist canon, Sopara is also mentioned in the Mahabharata. It is said that Bhima, one of the protagonists of the Mahabharata, left for Saurashtra from the shores of Sopara. The Jainas also have their own cherished connection with this town. It is said that one of the eighty four Gacchas was established in Sopara and was named Soparaka Gaccha in honour of the city. Even the extinct sect of the Charakas are said to have had a monastic complex near the Ramatirtha, but several
centuries later all that survives is the Rama tirtha reservoir.
Sopara and its vicinity today has some very interesting monuments and artefacts of historical significance. The erstwhile port site is one such heritage site. The port of Sopara was an inland port quite unlike modern ports that are built on the seafront. However today it is at risk of rampant urbanisation, a fate that stares all adjacent localities of Mumbai. The famous Sopara stupa, which gave the city a sacred veneer was built by Ashoka and subsequently renovated by many other Kings. Another very interesting monument is the Chakreshwar temple. The temple is a modern structure but it houses some very exquisite sculptures like the Brahma, Surya and Nandi among many other early medieval artefacts.
The city of Sopara although built on the proceeds of maritime trade soon became a haven for various religious sects. With the demise of the trans-oceanic trade Sopara got relegated to the back burners of history thus allowing it’s not so glamorous neighbour Mumbai to supersede it materially while relegating itself to the frontiers of the metropolis.