Continuing with my Chinsurah series, this time, I will take you the famous Bandel Church. This is a must stop if you are on a day visit to Chinsurah, this famous church dates back centuries and is one of the most important landmarks in the town. Probably this is the only church that I have seen with my own eyes where non-Christians visit more than Christians. People flock to this church in lakhs every year seeking blessings and sometimes to give thanks for the blessings received.
This church has a long history in itself as well as with my family. Before going into the details of the church let me start off with my family connection. My grandfather used to be a clerk working at Ministry of Finance (Sales Dept), Government of India during the early 1950’s. In those days, government salaries were very meagre and often not enough for a family of six to have a comfortable life. One day my grandfather had prayed at Bandel church for divine blessings by which he would be able to manage his family life in a modest way.
His prayers were answered and within a month he became an office and when he retired he was the Deputy Director of his department and finally even promoted as the Director a couple of months before his retirement. He never forgot the blessings that he received and till his death contributed to the church every month.
So as a family tradition we have not forgotten the blessings received and continue to receive and keep visiting this church from time to time.
History – Chapter 1
Most of these can be seen posted around the church but unfortunately most do not find the time to read them, let me tell you the story of Bandel church one chapter at a time.
India was soon becoming a hub for European trade and Calcutta was becoming the de facto capital of India. From the British to Dutch to French everyone had come down to the banks of the Hoogly River and established a trading post. Seeing all these the Portuguese were also not far behind and they had a quite flourishing trading port on the banks of Hooghly in the year 1537.
It is to be noted that by this time the Portuguese had already established another base in Kerala / Goa thus this was more of an extension of their trading circle.
It is also a fact of history that wherever the Europeans went they took Christianity along with them. This was also applicable here in Hooghly. Monks from Goa came to this place and built a small monastery along with a church in the year 1599. These monks belonged to the Augustinians order of the Roman Catholic denomination. The church was known by the name Church of the Holy Rosary.
History – Chapter 2
In the year 1632, the armies of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan under the leadership of Qasim Khan Juvayni Nawab attacked the Hooghly port during this attack five of the Augustinians monks were killed however one survived. His name was Father Joan Da Cruz. During this siege a believer named Tiago tried to cross the Hooghly River along with the statue of Our Lady of Happy Voyage to take it to safety, however, he did not succeed and was killed during the crossing. The statue in the process sank into the Hooghly River and was lost.
Father Joan Da Cruz along with other followers was captured and taken to Agra to the courts of Shah Jahan. Here they were sentenced to death by trampling under the feet of ferocious elephants. A large crowd had gathered along with the emperor to watch the sentence being carried out. A miracle folded right in front of their eyes, the elephant instead of killing lifted Father Joan Da Cruz on its back bits its trunk and slowly proceeded towards the emperor and bent to ask for forgiveness.
Seeing this miracle the emperor Shah Jahan decided to free Father Joan Da Cruz along with other followers and sent them back to Hooghly. He also gave them money to reconstruct the church along with 777 bighas (311 Acres) of land.
History – Chapter 3
Father Joan Da Cruz in the meantime rebuilt the church and the only missing piece was the statue of Our Lady of Happy Voyage. One night Father Joan Da Cruz heard a mysterious call from the Hooghly River, this was the voice of Tiago the servant of God who tried to save the statue of Our Lady of Happy Voyage. Father Joan Da Cruz heard his friend tell him that “Our Lady” was coming back and that it was she who had saved the believers.
Next morning Father Joan Da Cruz found the statue of Our Lady of Happy Voyage in front of the doorstep of the church. The local fisherman had found it. This was the second miracle to happen in this church.
History – Chapter 3
The return of the status of Our Lady of Happy Voyage signified a big celebration to give thanks to the miracles that the statue had brought to this church. During the closing of the celebration, people saw a Portuguese ship approaching from the south. The captain disembarked near the church and joined the closing celebrations. Once it was over the captain of the ship donated the flag mast of his ship and installed it in front of the church. This was done as the captain had prayed during a dangerous storm which the ship had faced at the Bay of Bengal. He had prayed to keep the ship and his shipmates safe from the storm that threatened them.
This is a critical information that I had to research and cross check over several documents and finally come to this conclusion that the word “Bandel” from which we get “Bandel Church” actually came from the word “Mastro de Bandeira” In Portuguese this word means the Flag Post. As a ship’s captain it’s an honour to give the ships flag as it represents the kingdom or the king that the ship represents. The word “Bandeira” slowly got transformed in the word “Bandel” and it stuck.
History – Chapter 4
The church with the support of the emperor Shah Jahan had now enough money as well as land to flourish. Slowly down the years a number of schools and seminaries were added around the church. In 1988 during the visit of Pope John Paul II visit to Calcutta, he declared the church as a basilica. The church went through a major facelift in the 1990’s when the entire church was covered with marble and granite.
The church is not that big when compared with other major churches in Bengal like St. Pauls Cathedral. It’s rather small but it’s really impressive when you see the overall size of the campus. There is a huge open field in front of the church which used to have a direct access to the Hooghly River. I remember when we were you we used to often see guests and general public sometimes enjoying a picnic over there. Over the years, these have been restricted and a boundary wall has been constructed on the campus.
In the last one year, the church has made many significant changes to the place by adding some beautiful murals on the wall. Some new grottos have also been constructed making this place quite nice to spend some time contemplating.
The mast which was installed and remain erected in front of the church for centuries till a storm in the year 2010. A large tree got uprooted and fell on the mast causing it to crack and fall down. A major restoration work was taken and now again the visitors can see the mast in a glass enclosure.
It’s a tradition to light candles at the church and I always prefer to buy them from the shop inside the church compound which is run by the nuns. This way the money spent will go back as a contribution towards the church.
The main church is off limits to the general public during a mass but is free to visit and spend time inside in silence throughout the day. Photography inside the church is prohibited and one can spend hours looking at the beautiful paintings depicting the life of Christ. One can also see the statue of Our Lady of Happy Voyage at the altar which is beautifully decorated.
Another common place to spend time is in the courtyard in front of the grotto with a fountain. Some pray put here and light a candle while others drop a coin in the fountain with a wish in their heart.
The stairs around this central courtyard take you to the rooftop of the main church. Here you will see another shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Happy Voyage. Personally, this is my favourite spot and spend the maximum time here praying and then enjoying the beautiful 360-degree view that you get from here.
I keep imagining the captain of the ship carrying the large flag pole word “Mastro de Bandeira” along with his crew from the Hooghly River at the distance on the horizon.
This blog was part of my Chinsurah series. My next blog will be on Hanseswari Temple so keep watching this space.
Bandel Church – Hanseswari Temple – Zafar Khan Ghazi Mosque & Dargah