By Vidya Kamat
The story behind roadside shrines is of the fringe people struggling to go beyond social limitations and to integrate themselves into the fabric of the city
As my local suburban train in mumbai thundered through the tracks, my gaze fell upon a small settlement of shanties constructed of tin and plastic sheets. A few adults loitered purposely, women washed kitchen wares outside their homes and children defecated by the side lanes, gaping at the train passengers. My attention was caught by a strange looking shrine perched in front of the shanties. I strained for a better view, and I got a glimpse of a cluster of black stones gathered together. What a strange looking god, I said to myself, unable to identify the deity.
I began sitting on that specific ‘window seat’ to get a closer view of the shrine during my daily trips to the city, but every time I thought I was about to catch a better view of the shrine, the train would pick up momentum. The next few months I made it a point to watch the shanties regularly. Since the deity was elusive, I began to notice the people who lived in these shanties, who had been faceless shadows all this while.
But now a different mosaic began to emerge; people became individuals with faces, colour, body texture, history and life.
Eventually, I picked up the courage to visit the slum area and walked by the railway track till I could locate the shrine. Seeing a stranger, people of the basti immediately gathered around me. To begin with they were suspicious, bewildered and apprehensive of my presence among them.
But when I assured them that all I wanted was to know about their god, they transformed into a friendly and hospitable gathering. Offering me a chair and thanda, they began to narrate tales of their god. “Moopanar, we call him Moopanar,” one of the faces whispered from the crowd. I had never heard of a (Hindu/local) god with such a name before. “Which one is Moopanar?” I asked as I looked at the gathering of black stones with strange implements and artefacts planted next to them. “That one,” someone pointed out to the stone in the centre. “No,” a gruff voice interjected. “All these stones are called Moopanar. He is our King and this cluster of stones is his council and we are his subjects. He looks after us. We are safe here in this jungle because of him.” The source of the voice, a mustachioed middle-aged male, made this declaration and waited as though challenging everyone else. I could sense an apparent disagreement among the motley gathering; nevertheless they all seemed to accept his tone of authority. The explanation of the god had not helped me much. King, council, jungle, all these were strange concepts to be associated with a god located in a metropolitan city. What was a jungle god doing in a city like Mumbai? When I put this questions to the crowd, one of the more articulate fellows stepped forward and said: “We need our jungle god to protect us because only he can understand us. Your god protects only Brahmins. And as far as jungle goes, this city is exactly like a jungle to us.”
His candid interpretation set me thinking about the people who live and survive on the fringes of the teeming metropolis. Indeed, the city is a dangerous and hostile space for the people who are forced to live on the periphery. Uncertainty is amplified through their struggle for everyday survival. Threatened on a regular basis by various government agencies, local authorities, railway administrators, dadas and slum lords for their ‘illegal’ existence, these people try to survive and subsist with very little or no assurance of work, food or even the roof over their head. With no one to turn to in this hostile environment, they seek solace in their jungle god and ask for protection.
Every single day thousands of migrants pour into Mumbai with the dream and hope of making a decent living. Some adopt gods of the new locality. Some take to the worship of new and different gods to meet the demands of their new environment. And some bring their gods along. In Matunga Basti, the inhabitants revealed to me that they had to give up their traditional gods and adhere to Sai Baba because he alone was acceptable to all members of the community. This small basti is composed of a couple of thousand people originating from various parts of India.
UPites, Biharis, Muslims and Maharashtrians from Konkan and Malwan area, all create a picture of India in microcosm. The newly built Sai Baba temple here has a marble idol tucked in a niche and an oil lamp by the side. The whole structure is made up of white ceramic sanitary tiles with stainless steel grill barricade securing the deity from the outside world. A canopy of tin sheets covers the altar and a neon sign declares that the temple is under the aegis of Sai Mitra Mandal.
Such shrines are a common sight on Mumbai’s side streets. There is the general perception that all roadside shrines are erected with the explicit motive of land grabbing and is part and parcel of the various rackets that form the underbelly of the city. Though some of these shrines are vehicles for the land grabbing mafia, not all have such nefarious intentions behind them. Especially the shrine at Matunga railway station.
A small group of friends or ‘mitra mandal’ as they are locally known instituted the shrine. As they explained, the settlement was not only very dirty but known for its notoriety and illegal activities. Violence and murders in the basti became common and people lived in constant fear. One day a group of young boys decided to set up a shrine that would be acceptable to all the various faiths that made up the basti. So they chose to erect a Sai Baba shrine. The results were astounding.
The basti underwent a radical transformation as people became more friendly and amicable to each other. As a result the physical appearance of the basti itself improved as the place became more tidy and organised. Instances of murders and violence and other illegal activities reduced considerably. For the first time the community felt it had an identity of its own. As an organised body, the members now demand water and electricity connections from the municipal council.
They attribute all these positive developments to the presence of the Sai Baba shrine.
Every time I pass by a small shrine by the roadside, I try to comprehend the real story behind the god. Most often, it is an account of small groups of people and their ongoing struggle to go beyond social limitations and to integrate themselves into the fabric of the city.
Every little shrine has untold stories of the people behind it. As you learn more about these small shrines, you discover that it is not the mythical and the magical tales of divinity that is paramount. From behind the obvious image of every god, emerge the hopes, aspirations, dreams and struggle of a people. Is this the humane side of the otherwise soulless city?
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A small roadside Ganesh shrine at S.V Road, Vile Parle, Mumbai. It no longer exists as it was demolished by the municipal authorities for being an illegal construction
The author is a visiting faculty and research scholar for Comparative Mythology at University of Mumbai. She is currently engaged in a research fellowship funded by Majlis, on study and documentation of roadside shrines in Mumbai. Email: email@example.com