Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Seven Islands: A History Lesson

Bombay - now Mumbai - that great city that, in one way or the other, ties the entire nation together. But the city itself started off rather dispersed - in fact, it was actually an archipelago of seven islands. These were, in anglicized form, Mahim, Parel, Worli, Mazagaon, Bombay Islands, Colaba and Little Colaba.

Bombay might be a modern megapolis, but in its origins, it was a pretty quiet place. Since the stone-age, this island was continuously occupied. By 1000 BCE, the entire region in the Indian Ocean already supported a booming trade with Persia and Egypt. By this time, the Kolis, a dravidian community of fisherman, had made these islands their home. Today, Bombay is named Mumbai after the Goddess that the Kolis worshipped: Mumba Devi ('aai' meaning 'mother', hence 'Mumba-ai').

It was only in the Third Century BCE that winds of change began to blow here. The seven islands came under the rule of Emperor Ashoka and Hinduism and Buddhism spread. During this and its preceding period, communities designed ornate caves based on their culture. The Mahakali Caves, the Jogeswari caves, the Elephenta Caves and others can be dated back to this period. Today, a short boat ride from the Gateway of India will take you to some of these islands. Their original occupants have long deserted them: they are the territory of hawkers and tourists today. Other rulers such as the Satvahanas came and went, leaving their impressions on the islands.

The Gujarat Sultanate
It was in the fourteenth century CE that the islands came under Islamic Rule with the capture by the Sultan of Gujarat. Eventually, the power centre of the Sultanate in the Konkan moved to Mahim. During this period, several mosques were built, the most prominent of them being Haji Ali, a popular spot in Mumbai today.

However, all was not well. The Bahamani Kingdom had emerged and was trying to expand at the cost of the Gujarat Sultanate. The fifteenth century saw battles between the groups over control of the islands. Trade was also disrupted due to piracy from the Bahamanis. At the same time, the Mughal Empire had been established in North India and they too were looking at expansion.

It was in the midst of this multilateral feud over these seven islands that the Portuguese finally came to the islands. And thus began the tale of how seven little islands became one of the greatest cities in the world.

Next: European conquest

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