Goddesses of Mumbai - A Cycling Exploration - Madh, Ambu Island

temple Nov 30, 2019

This is the second part of the exploration of the Godesses of Mumbai. The following map shows the various temples of Goddesses in the Mumbai area. The locations marked in red are yet to be visited and covered by me. The other colors are already covered in this series.

  • In this first part, I cover six shrines in Andheri,Powai, Goregaon and Jogeshwari
  • In this second part, I cover two shrines on Madh and Ambu Island
  • In part three, I cover shrines located in Bandra, Mahin, Prabhadevi and Worli

Part Two - Madh and Ambu Island

This weekend, I decided to go to Madh Island to visit the shrines of Goddesses located there. Here are the main highlights:

  • Harbadevi Temple - located on Madh Island, at the junction of the road coming from the Madh Jetty and the road leading to Madh Fort
  • A Close look at the Kolis - While waiting to get a boat ride to Ambu Island, I got a close look at the Koli community
  • Ambu Island - The fishing island and the spots of attraction on it that include shrines of three different faiths and a Portuguese Bastion!
    • Ambadevi Temple - located on Ambu Island, a much smaller island that is located off the west coast of Madh Island
    • Our Lady of Health Grotto - also located on Ambu Island is the grotto built and used by the Christian fishing community
    • Hazrat Sayed Nizamuddin Hussaini Shah Baghdadi Dargah - also located on Ambu Island, the most well developed shrine on the island that provides some stunning views of the ocean and the shoreline of Madh!
    • Portuguese Bastion - a lone bastion located behind the dargah along with a small light house that provides a view of the Arabian Sea.

Harbadevi Temple - Madh Island

Harbadevi temple is located on a small hillock in the Madh village. If you come towards the village from the Madh jetty and turn left on the road that leads to Madh fort, the temple entrance is on the right immediately after the junction.

There is a large courtyard at the base of the temple, where there are several different community activities going on. There were kids attending classes for learning Karate, skating and other games. As I let my bicycle rest against a tree, the goat tied to the same tree looked at me curiously and then continued chomping through the leaves that someone had left for her.

The temple is quite old and is mentioned in the manuscript Mahikavatichi Bakhar. Indologist, Art Historian and Heritage Consultant Sandeep Dahisarkar has written in his paper "EXPLORATIONS IN MAHARASHTRA" dated 6th JULY 2014 as follows:

The old name of Madh i.e., Mahad and names of monuments (Harbai temple, Mukteshvara temple and Brahmakunda) are mentioned in the second and fifth prakarana of Mahikavatichi Bakhar respectively. The prakarana second dates back to 1448 A. D. whereas the fifth prakarana dates back to 1538 A. D. The text also records names of various communities. Goddess Harbai is family goddess of some families of native communities like Kolis, Palshikar Brahmins, Pachkalshis, Pathare Prabhus and Sheshavanshi Bhandaris

The temple has a big hall with three sanctum sanctorum elevated by four steps. The central one is dedicated to Goddess Harbadevi, while the one on the right is dedicated to Lord Rama with Laxmana and Sita by his side - and the one on the left is dedicated to Lord Hanuman, the monkey God.

On entering the main sancta sanctorium, I saw two large idols on two sides with a smaller idol in the middle. I initially thought that these were the same three sisters - Golfa Devi, Harba Devi and Sakba Devi that are worshipped at the temple in Worli. However, I noticed that the central idol had "Shitla Devi" written above. I could not verify the names of the Goddesses accurately.

Behind the temple, there are steps leading down to Madh village. There is an annual fair at the temple. This fair also seems to be an old practice.

A paper titled "The Witness of Ages - Archaeology of the Madh Island and Versova, Mumbai Suburban District" by archeologist Mayur Thakare mentions:

The temple of Harbadevi and the Fair of the Goddess is mentioned in Mahikavatichi Bakhar and is a central place for Bhagadchuri incident

Bhagadchuri is referred to earlier in this paper as a egoistic, adamant and corrupt king of the region.

Due to his philandering character, this time he forcefully tries
to get the hold of a woman from a big Landlord family of Somaladesala (Desai) from Malad (present Malad, Taluka - Borivali, District - Mumbai Sub-Urban). When the lady resists the overtures of Bhagadchuri, out of rage, he puts her entire family in a prison and kills her husband. Fortunately, the lady dares to escape to Bhiwandi and there she gives birth to a baby boy. The boy grows up with the feeling of revenge for Bhagadchuri. Bhagadchuri being unaware of these developments is happy in living power blinded way of life. When the boy grows up and attains maturity, he with his few relatives make a plan to eliminate Bhagadchuri in the Harbadevi (Harba Goddess) Fair at Madh Island and even manages to get the permission from the King for his daredevil act

Across from the temple on the opposite side of the road leading to Madh fort is the temple reservoir called Bramhakund, or just the Harbadevi Lake.

Near the Water Tank, there is a Memorial (136 CM × 120 CM) (Fig. 13) built in dressed stones that according to the locals belongs to a priest of the Temple. It is of square shape with Nandi, Shivling, foot prints, Sun and Moon carved on the top. No inscription or date is present on the Memorial and it appears to have belonged to the later Maratha period, most probably to 18th or 19th century (ref)

A Close Look at the Kolis

My next destination, Ambadevi temple is located on a small island called Ambu Island that is off the west coast of Madh Island. There is a small fishing jetty located on Madh that is accessible from a small road leading to it from the Madh village. I reached the jetty and asked some of the fishermen if they would take me across to the island. They were all very busy, and said they could not help.

But I did not give up. The jetty was very busy. There were several boats arriving and leaving the jetty. I asked every boat that was arriving or going, and finally found a couple who just arrived from the island. They said that they would be going back in about an hour, and would be happy to take me along if I could wait for them.

I agreed to wait, and found a small shop selling chai and snacks near the jetty with a bench to sit on. I ordered chai and bhurji-pav (scrambled eggs with local bread - the translation does not do justice!) and sat watching the busy action of the fishing community or the Kolis around me.

I noticed that all the hard work was being done by really young boys who seemed to be in their teens or at most twenties. The older men were mostly directing the others or some just sat and watched.

The women sat and sorted the fish, cleaned it and kept the fish out to dry. These three women seemed to be enjoying a joke together while chatting in the shade of a moored fishing boat. As per a marine fisheries census conducted in 2010, women outweighted men in fishing related activities accounting about 69%. Among the major fishing related activities, women dominated in curing / processing (95%), peeling (93%) and marketing (84%) (ref)

The shop had a steady stream of customers. Most had chai and vada-pav, with fresh vadas being fried continuously. One such customer who drove a scooter with his little daughter came by and while he was busy chatting with others, the daughter got a packet of biscuits and seemed to be enjoying it by slowly picking pieces of the biscuits, almost as if she wanted to make it last for as long as possible.

This boy on his bicycle came riding and stopped to admire my Brompton. He repeated a question I often get asked by kids - why are you riding a kids bike? To which I replied with my standard answer - because I'm still a kid!

He soon came back with a friend and they both explored my bicycle, asking questions about everything - the gears, how it folds, and of course how much it costs!

Spending time watching the fishing community or the Kolis was truly a very insightful part of this adventure.

In Maharashtra, fishing is mostly done by a large ethnic group known as kolis. The term 'koli' generally refers to fisherfolk but this group comprises other subcastes engaged in agriculture, labour, salt-pan work and other activities and are typically named after their occupation.
The kolis are one of the original inhabitants of what is now called Mumbai. They are also often referred to as ’kings of Mumbai‘ (Mumbaiche Raje) or ’sons of the soil‘ (Bhumiputra). Records indicate that, in 1138 C.E, when Pratap Bimba, king of Champaner, conquered the region, the kolis were already well-settled in the islands (Ranade S., 2008).
(Ref: "Women Fish Vendors in Mumbai: Study Report")

To read more about the Koli community and their integration, here are some links:

  • Son Kolis - the aboriginal inhabitants of Bombay (now Mumbai) in transition - a detailed account of the Son Koli community's challenges during the course of Mumbai's rapid development and globalization
  • Women fish vendors in Mumbai - a study report - Anyone who consumes fish in Mumbai may have interacted with the quintessential Kolin - the fishrwoman who sells fish in fish markets, dressed in nine yards sarees, with a sharp tongue and loud voice that beckons you to buy her fish. This paper outlines the lives and challenges that these women face. Extremely informative!
  • The original East Indians - a significant section of the fishing community are Christians, converted during the Portuguese occupation of the region. This article outlines their origin, contemporary life and also talks about the museum in Gorai that showcases the 500 year history of the community
  • Marine Fisheries Census 2010 Maharashtra - a census report that highlights some important data about the fishing communities in Maharashtra. The following key data point was insightful:
    • Among 81,492 fishermen families 91% belonged to traditional fishermen
    • Women outweighted men in fishing allied activities accounting about 69%. Among the major fishing allied activities, women dominated in curing / processing (95%), peeling (93%) and marketing (84%)
    • Hindus constituted 85% of the fishermen families, Muslims (8%) and Christians (7%)
    • Among the five coastal districts, the largest proportion of fishermen
      families below poverty line was found in Sindhudurg (37%), Raigad (24%) and Thane (16%)

Ambu Island - integration of three faiths!

It was almost two hours before the fishermen couple came back and took me in their boat. It was a small fishing boat that the man rowed, and the lady sat shielding herself against the sun. I chatted with them about their routine. They made several trips up and down to cart fish that they dried on the island. The man would go out with the boat early morning to catch fresh fish, while the lady started attending to the fish left to dry on the island. The new catch is offloaded on Madh, and stored in ice. They then take a small batch at a time to Ambu island to dry it, and bring back a dried lot on each trip up and down. They make about 3-4 trips a day!

The island is used largely for drying fish. There are areas allotted to specific families such as my hosts for the boat ride. They all live in Madh but travel up and down several times in a day.

We docked the boat at the jetty and walked up the path that led to the temples. This Google Earth image shows the island with all the important places on it. The island is small enough to walk and cover all these points within an hour. But it is worth staying around for several hours - a great picnic spot!

The interesting thing to note is that the island has shrines of three faiths that are followed by the Kolis:

The integration between the communities of these three faiths in Madh is impeccable! They all work together collaboratively, are governed by the same work ethics and have extremely coridal relationships. All the three shrines are used by all communities, and all festivals are celebrated together. Every Thursday, the communities visit the dargah, Sunday mass is in the grotto and pooja in the temple every morning and special pooja on Hindu festivals.

Ambadevi Temple

As you walk from the jetty on the island along the concretized path, the first place on the island you come across is the Ambadevi Temple. Though it is the oldest structure on the island, it is the smallest. The idol is ensconsed a six feet by six feet structure with an asbestos roof extending in front of it.

The idol of Amba Devi (also fondly called as Ambava Devi) inside is brightly painted, similar to the idols in the Harbadevi temple. Amba is a short form of Ambika, an avatar of Durga. In part 1, I had visited the Kallol Kali Temple in Goregaon, where I studied the significance of Durga as a form of Shakti or strength. The fishing community called Kolis are know to be worshippers of this Goddess

Our Lady of Health Grotto

Our Lady of Good Health, also known as Our Lady of Vailankanni, is the title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This well designed grotto is located very close to the Amba Devi temple, to it's north. Local devotees flock to the grotto on Sundays and festivals.

The origin of the miraculous powers of Our Lady of Good Health are some instances of Her apparitions to residents of a town called Vailankanni in Tamil Nadu. In addition, there is a tale of a miraculous saving of a Portuguese ship that goes like this:

The Portuguese were devout Catholics with a special devotion to Our Blessed Mother Mary, the ‘Star of the Sea’. In the 17th century a Portuguese merchant vessel was sailing to Colombo. While it was cruising towards the west to reach the Bay of Bengal, it was caught in a violent storm. The gale grew furious and the waves rose high and lashed violently at the ship and the fate of the vessel, with everyone on board was all but sealed. The helpless sailors instinctively fell on their knees and with all the fervour, their sinking souls could muster, besought Mary’s help. They vowed to build a church in her honour wherever she helped them land safely. Their earnest petition was instantly heard, for all on a sudden, there was a miraculous lull in the winds; the waves subsided and the sea became calm. Soon the battered ship was pushed to safety to the shores of Vailankanni. On landing, the first thing the sailors did was to fall on their knees and thank God and the Blessed Virgin Mary for having saved their lives. They set about immediately to remodel the thatched chapel.

Remarkably, all these extraordinary events took place on September 8, the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (ref)

Hazrat Sayed Nizamuddin Hussaini Shah Baghdadi Dargah

The small concretized road ends at the Dargah that is located at the north most tip of the island.

The dargah has a wide courtyard around it that is clean and well maintained. It provides a perfect spot to sit and admire the sea and the busy shore on the other side

I parked my bicycle at the far corner of the courtyard and sat watching the sea. The peace and quiet of the place is mesmerizing!

Inside the dargah is a beautifully decorated shrine. The roof is covered with a collage of mirrors that reflect small images of the shrine a thousand times! When I exited from the side door, I noticed two men squatted in the shade. They saw me and beckoned me to join them. Their names were Wasim and Padmakar. Wasim is a caretaker for the dargah, while Padmakar is a fisherman who was mending his fishing nets in the shade. Wasim had cooked a meal of chicken and rice, and invited us both to join him. I initially declined, not wanting to impose myself on their hospitality. However, Wasim insisted, saying that anyone who comes to the dargah at lunch time never goes away hungry! I was touched by their empathy and squatted down beside them to enjoy a yummy meal! Their simple lives are so much more meaningful than a life full of empty luxuries!

Portuguese Bastion

Though the concrete road ends at the dargah, there is small path that leads from behind the mosque to the fourth attraction on the island. This is a single bastion that is a lonely defense structure with a parapet wall and is provided with gun slits on all sides. A small lighthouse stands guard next to it. I climbed up the metal hoops on the lighthouse, but did not dare taking a photo in that akward position.

Here is a 360 degree view of the island shot from a small mound next to the bastion. The crows you hear cawing in the video are all nesting inside the bastion.

While I would have continued to enjoy the beauty of the island, I got a shout from the fishremen couple as they were ready to head back. But when we reached the jetty, there was another boat with a motor, and the lady requested them to take us onboard, so that the husband would save some effort rowing back.

I rested my folded bike on a sack full of fish and settled at one end of the boat. As we rode back, the two boatsmen said that they would be landing a short distance away from the jetty on Madh. The lady would have none of it! She bullied the men to drop her as close to the jetty as possible. They complied without complaint, and dropped us off at the beach, a short distance from the jetty

We had to get off in the water and wade to the shore. I carried the bike on my shoulder and followed the lady to the jetty. I gave my thanks to her and then made my way back to the main jetty to go back to Versova

It was around midday, and the jetty had very few people around. I waited for the ferry to arrive and rode back home.

I really enjoyed this adventure!!! The temple in Madh was itself worth a visit on its own. But visiting Ambu island was surely the highlight! Do try and visit the island if you can!

In you're interested, please see the other explorations in this series:

  • In the first part, I cover six shrines in Andheri,Powai, Goregaon and Jogeshwari
  • In this second part, I cover two shrines on Madh and Ambu Island
  • In part three, I cover shrines located in Bandra, Mahin, Prabhadevi and Worli


Ashutosh Bijoor

Adventurer, mathematician, software architect, cyclist, musician, aspiring wood worker