Mandapeshwar Caves is cut out of a hill in the quiet suburb of Borivali, hidden in a nook behind an open plot of ground just behind the “Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church”. It was built around 550 AD, around the same time as the nearby Jogeshwari Caves and the Kondivite / Mahakali Caves. But the history of these caves is filled with strife, and the cave has gone through several iterations of being converted back and forth between a Hindu temple and a Chapel.
Originally built on the banks of the Dahisar river which flows nearby, it is now separated from the river due to a change in the river’s course over the years.
An article in The Hindu describes the history of the caves:
The Mandapeshwar caves perhaps have the most tumultuous history of all the Mumbai caves, or so it would seem from the scars the walls still bear. A Hindu temple, it was targeted by the Portuguese, who asserted their religious beliefs over it by literally building a monastery and a church dedicated to Our Lady of Immaculate Conception on top of the cave temple. Fr. Porto founded the monastery and church in 1544.
A visitor in 1804 noted: “The good priests had covered [the carved Hindu figurines in the cave] with a smooth coat of plaster and had converted the whole into a chapel.”
In the 18th century the church was desecrated after the Battle of Bassein in which the Marathas defeated the Portuguese. They uncovered and worshipped the rock-cut sculptures again, but towards the end of the 18th century the British defeated the Marathas and the caves once again functioned as a place of Christian worship. After the end of colonial rule the church fell into disrepair and the caves gradually reverted to the worship of Siva. The church, including its roof, has been destroyed, but older local residents recall playing among the aisles and the nave of the church when they were children.
As an activity of the Mumbai Historical Sites Cycling Association (MuHiSiCA), three cyclists – myself, Lalit Vashista and Mahesh Madgavkar set off with our cycles early one Saturday morning to explore Mandapeshwar Caves. Though the total distance from Andheri is not much, it was Mahesh’s first cycle ride longer than 10 km so it was a nice first ride for him.
We located the cave after asking around. It was hidden in a cove behind the church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception
There is one main cave with a courtyard in front and one smaller cave on the left. There are pillars at the entrance of the main cave which seem to be precariously bearing the weight of the hill above
In the center are a set of three steps that lead up into the cave, with two figures of what could have been lions, but are now disfigured beyond recognition. A close up of the feet clearly show the claws that indicate the likelihood of the figures being lions
On the walls on either sides of the pillars are carved panels. On the left there is a cross, evidence of the Portuguese takeover of the caves and its conversion into a chapel. On the right, the panel has a figure that does not indicate its origin
As you enter through the pillared entrance to the main cave, there is a large hall with another row of square pillars to the back, with the sanctum sanctorium in the center, with the image of a Nandi – the bull that is the guardian of Lord Shiva. There is also another damaged set of rocks that could be an older idol of a Nandi
Next to the Nandi idols is an old shapely stone lamp with exquisite carvings on it and shining due to oil covering it
When you enter the sanctum sanctorium, you see a neatly decorated Shiva Linga and a Ganapati idol carved on the back wall
The yellow and orange marigold flowers contrast beautifully with the black stone of the Linga, and the lone lamp next to it shines brightly in an otherwise dark room
Back in the main hall, in a cell to the right is a wall with a carved mural of Shiva in the Nataraja position
To the right of the main hall there is a cell separated by two elaborately carved pillars. A close up view of the pillars shows the carvings clearly
From inside the cell to the right, the main hall is quite clearly visible
Another small cell lies the level of the sanctum sanctorium with a door leading from the main hall through which one can see the pillars of the right side cell
There is a second smaller cave on the right of the main cave, with an entrance from the courtyard, with a small pillared verandah at the entrance. Only one of the two pillars remains.
There are two doors, one on the right leading to the inside of the cave, and one on the left leading to the front of the cave
The secondary cave is quite bare, and the pillars are also un-carved and simple, indicating that this may have been either incomplete, or could have been used for some supporting activity such as residential quarters
The water tank just outside the second cave has a lot of fish and some turtles
Having explored the caves, we decided to climb up on the hill above to see the remains of the chapel that was built by the Portuguese
The chapel is now completely destroyed. Just a few of the walls remain as mute evidence of the tumultuous history of the caves
Behind the ruins of the old chapel is a wall that marks the boundary of the present day church, and one can see the tombstones of the graveyard across the wall
We also saw this squirrel bounding around looking for food, and a snail with its bright shell climbing slowly up the wall
One last photo of the three bald cyclists before we head back home. This was truly an unexpectedly interesting place, with a very unique history