The untold story of Bhimdev, the first king of Mumbai

Photograph: Srinivas JD/Unsplash

Long before the British, a little-known king established his rule on the island of Mahim. There remain no pictures of the man but the now-bustling neighbourhood of Mahim has a history that's waiting to be told.

For most of us, the history of Mumbai or Bombay begins only around 1661 when the seven islands landed in the hands of the British through a marriage treaty. When the Portuguese Catherine Braganza married Charles II of England and Catherine of Portugal on May 8 and the islands of Bombay were given as dowry to the British.

But the history of Mumbai goes back much further. While there are records of the mention of the islands and different parts of the city dating back to the Stone Age, it is safe to say that one of the earliest kingdoms to be established on one of the seven islands that form this city was by a king called Bhimdev.

Very little is known about Raja Bhimdev and because it was a common name among the royals, there is some amount of confusion among which Bhimdev arrived in Mumbai. It can however, be reliably surmised that the Bhimdev that did arrive in Mahim, one of the seven original islands of the city, was the son of Ravadeva of Devagiri.

According to a Persian firman that refers to Bhimdev as Bhimbashah, the king fled from Devagiri to the Konkan coast with his royal priest and 11 consorts after facing defeat at the hands of Alauddin Khalji. In Konkan he captured the coastal towns of Parnera, Shirgaon among others. Eventually, around 1290, he arrived on the island of Mahikavati or what we know today as modern-day Mahim.

Very little is known about Bhimdev but some believe that it was he who commissioned the construction of the Babulnath temple in South Mumbai. The temple itself gets its name from the babool trees that grew around it. He is also said to have built a court of justice and the temple of Prabhadevi (this is not to be confused with the current structure which is relatively modern when you compare it with a 13th century story.)

While there are no surviving portraits of Bhimdev, archaeological accounts point to him being a fair and a just king. The exact duration of Bhimdev’s reign also remains a matter of debate but several local and immigrant communities thrived during his time as king of Mahikavati. Among those who arrived here with Raja Bhimdev was the now-prominent community of Pathare Prabhu as well as others such as Palshis, Bhandaris, Pachkalshis, Bhois, Vadvals, Agris and Brahmins. Bhandaris were the toddy trappers whereas the Vadvals were cultivators and gardeners. It is believed that Bhimdev was the one to introduce fruit bearing trees to the region as well as coconut palms.

By mid 1300s – specifically in 1348 – the islands fell to the Muslim rulers of Gujarat and stayed with the Gujarat Sultanate till 1534. Following the Treaty of Bassein (present-day Vasai) between Bahadur Shah and the Portuguese governor, Nuno da Cunha, the islands passed into the hands of the Portuguese.

Towards the end of the 17th century, the islands suffered incursions from the Mughals and by the mid-18th century they were important trading outposts having maritime contacts with cities as far as Basra and Mecca. It would be in the 19th century that a version of the city we see today would come to be formed and Mahikavati would come to be known as Mahim.

Significantly, what we know today as the island city, ends at Mahim. All neighbourhoods to the north of the Mahim Causeway are the suburbs. A dilapidated fort (built several centuries after the reign of Bhimdev ended) stands in Mahim as a reminder of a glorious time.

Some historians suggest that the palace of Bhimdev (which could well have been nothing grander than a very large village house) may have stood where the Mahim Police Station currently stands. Of course, there is no way to prove this theory because the location of the palace, like most accounts about the reign of Bhimdev, have been lost in the annals of history.