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Outcast in Stone

mumbai Updated: Aug 19, 2012 01:03 IST
Aarefa Johari

Where would one typically expect to find 800-year-old stone carvings that provide perhaps the only proof of an ancient civilisation's naval prowess?

In a museum, you might say, or a heritage cave open to tourists. Certainly not in the corner of a dusty construction site, exposed to the elements and unrecognised by any heritage conservation bodies.

This, however, has been the fate of a set of at least five 12th-century hero stones in Eksar, a rapidly urbanising fishing village in Borivli (West).

The Eksar hero stones or war memorials are flat basalt tablets, between four and eight feet high, with intricately carved panels depicting ships and sailors – something rarely seen on hero stones, which usually depict land battles.

"The Eksar stones are the only ones in Mahara-shtra that indicate that the 12th-century Shilahara dynasty had a navy and fought a sea battle," says Arvind Jamkhedkar, former director of the state government's archaeology department.

Despite this, neither this department nor the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has listed them as heritage or protected antiquities. While the former refused to comment on the stones, the ASI says they have no information on them.

In the absence of official protection, the stones are caught in a tug of war between scholars, government officials and locals. They stand on the edge of what was once a pond, then a private clubhouse. Now, a real-estate developer is building two luxury residential towers on this plot.

To reach the stones, you now have to walk through the construction site, step over building material and make your way to a small enclosure built by the realtors.

What's worse, scholars and archaeologists who visited the site earlier this year believe one of the five stones may have gone missing in the past six months; there are just four hero stones visible at Eksar today.

"If one of the stones is indeed missing, the cluster must be declared protected and moved urgently to a safe place, ideally a city or state museum," says Suraj Pandit, an archaeologist from Sathaye College who has been independently researching the hero stones.

While the stones cannot be moved to a government museum before they are listed as heritage structures, some officials from the state's archaeology department had expressed an interest last year in shifting them to an archaeology museum in Ratnagiri.

"The stones ought to be in a local Mumbai museum so that they are not taken out of their context, but for now, Ratnagiri could be a safe, temporary shelter," says Bhalchandra Kulkarni, assistant director of the state archaeology department's Konkan division and curator of the Ratnagiri museum.

Kulkarni's proposal, however, was met with opposition from several Thane-based scholars and history groups and the local media, who believe the stones should be preserved in Thane district.

"Thane was the Shilahara capital," says Vijay Bedekar, director of Thane-based Prachya Vidya, a private institute for oriental studies that houses a library and a small museum. "We would like to keep the stones, though the government should clean them, install plaques and create a protected tourist spot."

Even as these debate rages on, the memorial stones face another threat, in the form of pious locals who believe that they house a powerful goddess.

"We have worshipped the Eksar stones all our lives because the goddess fulfills our wishes," says Kesari Mhatre, 63, a farmer and resident of Eksar village. "We will not let anyone move them, because it would be inauspicious."