Looking closely at the colossal Sopara Stupa, set in a small garden lined with Archaeological Survey of India palm trees, it’s hard not to be amazed. Its bricks were of such superior quality that this structure has survived for millennia on the outskirts of Mumbai, just a few miles from the Nalasopara commuter rail station. According to estimates, the stupa could be an astonishing 2,200 years old.
Once containing a piece of the Buddha’s begging bowl and other religious treasures, and currently surrounded by curious ruins that may have been part of a monastery, the stupa is the best evidence we have of the ancient city’s worldwide prestige. from Sopara (and even from Mumbai). Sopara is believed to be synonymous with the legendary port of Ophir, from where biblical kings purchased sandalwood, ivory and peacocks in the 8th century BCE. It is also the Suraparaka mentioned in the Mahabharata as well as the Supparaka of the Buddhist Jataka tales.
In the time of the Buddha, it would have been the largest city on the west coast – the arrival point of the caravan routes from Ujjain, converging with the sea routes of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Ships capable of carrying more than 500 merchants dock in this bustling port. It was also from Sopara that Vijaya, who would become Sri Lanka’s first king, set out with some 700 settlers to colonize and revive Lankan history in the 3rd century BCE.
Ironically, today the Sopara Stupa may well be considered India’s least visited tourist site, despite its proximity to Mumbai. I don’t see anyone else the day I go there and the rickshaw driver seems a bit puzzled as to why I spend so much time looking at bricks, although he follows me around the garden to seek oneself. The area immediately around the stupa is bucolic with fishing villages, temples and churches, and a few basic resorts on nearby Arnala Beach.
So it can be a bit difficult to imagine the lost grandeur of this place. But the fact is that two rock edicts of Ashokan (one of the most important) have been discovered here, suggesting that this port was also flourishing in Maurya times.
Buddhist monasteries were often close to important trade routes and trading centers, since running safe guesthouses for travelers was a charitable Buddhist activity. In return, the monks received patronage from merchants, as evidenced by a few miles on the commuter train line. Descend to Borivli and hike through Sanjay Gandhi National Park where you will find the Kanheri Caves, once a thriving international academy where monks held philosophical debates. This center flourished almost until the arrival of the Portuguese colonizers in the region.
As you ascend the ravine from cave to cave, there are dining halls, meditation chambers, water cisterns and art – there is even a painted ceiling in a cave. The views are magnificent. It must have been a phenomenal place to live and study.
Discover in particular cave number 3, the one with the giant Buddhas between which carved panels immortalize some of the main donors: glorious ladies and wealthy businessmen who made their fortunes thanks to the trade of Sopara. Studying their noble features, adornments and clothing, it is interesting to learn that they would have been foreigners, possibly Parthians (from present-day Iran), who settled here.
Another important foreigner in Ashokan times was the Buddhist leader of the Sopara region, whose name has been recorded as Yavana Dharmaraksita – or “Dharmaraksita the Greek”. He was delegated by the Buddhist Council of Pataliputra (Patna) to travel south and spread the religion along the coast, having been chosen for this task precisely because he was a foreigner. He integrated well into the cosmopolitan city of Sopara and was able to preach to the Arabs, the Parthians, the Greeks of Alexandria, and perhaps even a pinch of Romans, in their own language. The Sopara stupa is believed to have been built during his stay here, around 250 BCE.