Bandel Church is proof that Kolkata’s DNA is filled with colonial History, and Britisher was not the only colonizer who called Bengal their home. Therefore, today I am going to take you through my childhood memory trail to a legacy– along the Hooghly River, an arm of the Ganges. Here, the cemeteries, clock towers and the Bandel Church have been the silent spectator of the European presence for almost 400 years. It may leave you mesmerized. I usually visit this place every time I am on holiday at my grandmother’s house, one of my favourite weekends passes. Surprises and experience still excite me to this day.
t was a sun-drenched morning. Although it was a bit hot, there were no shower threats, a perfect day to get out. I typically use the local train to get to Bandel, but because of COVID-19, we had to try the roads. It is a 30 min drive, about 22Km, so we began our journey after a healthy breakfast. What’s so special about Bandel? Let me tell you its the old era feel since Portuguese settlers established it. This place has quite a history because, in the middle of the 16th century, the Portuguese started to use Bandel as a harbour. During or around 1571, they were authorized by Akbar, to construct a town in Hooghly. Thus, in 1579, the Portuguese built a port and a fort on the banks of the Hooghly river. Quite! Wise on their part, this helped trade to keep the city thriving. That’s Interesting!
Upon arriving, the name drew my attention The Basilica of the Holy Rosary, commonly referred to as Bandel Church. One of the oldest and first churches in West Bengal and stands in remembrance of the Portuguese colony in Bengal. Established in 1599, it is dedicated to Nostra Senhora di Rozario, commonly called Our Lady of the Rosary. An excellent architecture carried out by the Portuguese settlers.
As they began to settle in the region, their priests began to baptize the natives – and by 1598 the Catholics at Hooghly were about five thousand in number, including the natives and the mixed races. After the port was built the following year, Captain Pedro Tavares obtained the emperor’s permission to preach the Catholic faith and erect Bandel Church publicly. Thus the Portuguese memorial was built in 1599, after a century of Vasco Da Gama landed in India, in 1498.
When I entered the Church, I saw an image of Jesus greet us. And on the other side of the figure is a big field where people gather for Christmas. As I passed the corridor, I read beautifully decorated Bible inscriptions on the walls.
I eventually reached the hall of the Church; the serenity suddenly struck me. It was blissful to sit in front of the effigy of Jesus. I always love the tranquil atmosphere of the churches.
Although the first Church was set on fire when the Moors pillaged Hooghly in 1632. A more recent church, built by Gomez of Soto, over the ruin in 1660. The keystone of the ancient Church remains visible on the eastern door of the monastery, bearing the date 1599. And on the 25th of November 1988, Pope John Paul II declared the Bandel Minor Basilica Church. The Church has a legacy to cherish; that is why I began to explore the corridors and other halls where my eyes got stuck on a quote: “Feed your faith, and your fear will starve”. It’s accurate and precise.
I stepped into the room where the mast of the ship was still guarded inside a glass box. It is said that. In 1655, a Portuguese ship, deep in the Bay of Bengal, was confronted with the deadly storm. And the chance of surviving seemed impossible. The captain prayed to Mother Mary to save their poor souls and promised to sacrifice a mast to the Church, which he would first encounter. Thanks to Our Lady, lives and boats were rescued. One fine morning, a Portuguese ship appeared in the port of Hoogly (near the port of Bandel), and the captain disembarked the boat and gave the mast as he had promised to the Church of Bandel. Its truly legendary History.
Wandering around, I realized that rustic charm has lost in the growing tech world. But I was grateful, as due to COVID-19, only a few people could be seen, and I was comfortable reliving my childhood memory. I purchased a rosary, a sign of remembrance and drove to the Imambara.
Imambara literal meaning is the residence of the Imam, but in this case, it means Muslim Shi’a congregation hall to observe Muharram. It was 15min drive from Bandel Church, as I entered the Imambara, an old rustic scent from the time struck my senses, there was a unique charm. Built over 20 years (1841-1861) by Hazi Mohammad Mohsin, this imposing structure consists of a two-storey building with a central rectangular court. There is a rather large rectangular pool, dotted with fountains that no longer seem to work in the middle of the courtyard.
As I walk down the hallway of this magnificent religious complex, I was humbled at the same time by the twin towers 80 feet high on each side.
The one on the east houses a Zaridalan (main prayer room) with a black and white chequered marble floor. Here are the five Taziyas (translation) preserved inside the tower in memory of the prophet Muhamad. This magnificent religious complex is the legacy of a great Bengali philanthropist trader who played a vital role in assisting the victims of the horrible great Bengal Famine of 1776-1777.
When I stood at the main entrance, the part which drew my attention is the clock tower. It stands tall, reminding us of the glorious days of the Muslim raj and the nawabs in Bengal. The architecture is elegant with subtle motifs on the walls and texts from the Holy Koran engraved on them. However, I have not been allowed to mount the clock tower since it contains a bell and machinery.
But I went; further, there’s a room at the end of the courtyard with beautiful chandeliers and religious artefacts. The rear yard contains a sundial.
The immensity of the place amused me, so I wanted to investigate further. So I went up the 152 steps of one of the towers to meet the panoramic view of Hooghly, including the Jubilee Bridge. Time stopped for a few minutes, and the eyes could see hues – brown, green, blue and white. That was a beautiful canvas from nature. I wanted to sit for a while, but it’s hot.
But unfortunately, the state of the Imambara deteriorates with the passing day: the fountain stopped functioning long ago, and the crystal clear water became green. The site needs some refurbishment and restoration with parts of the wall damaged and requiring urgent repairs. History will be lost eventually. But, despite the state of decadence, the Imamabara is still standing, and his clock even hits every quarter of an hour. Marking the passing of time and recalling one of the glorious days of Bandel.
On my way home, I came across a Dutch cemetery. It is an 18th-century cemetery, which is now protected and maintained by the Archaeology of India. I didn’t realize there was a graveyard here. Amazing! I’m drawn to the quiet and serenity of this place. Although I know about Park Street one in Kolkata, this cemetery was a total surprise. I took a short walk through this old place before I hit the road.
Bandel always reminds me of a quote said by Hans-George Gadamer-” History doesn’t belong to us; we belong to it.” Quite! Fascinating Indeed.
How to Reach
The closest airport is Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport in Kolkata, around 40 km from Bandel. A taxi is available from the airport to Bandel.
Bandel is connected to many major Indian cities by rail. Numerous long and short distance trains have stopped here. Alternatively, you may choose the local train from Howrah or Naihati. From the railway station can take Auto.
Bandel has only minibus stand where people can take buses to places a short distance away. The central bus station is located in Kolkata where people can take buses over long distances. You can also book a taxi or make your way to Bandel.