Meerut, a prominent town in the western part of Uttar Pradesh, is very close to the national capital of Delhi, at less than 60 kilometers. It is a historical city which finds its mention in the epic period of Mahabharata and where the revolt of 1857 against the British rule was ignited by Mangal Pandey.
Sardhana is a non-descript, otherwise sleepy town of the Meerut district, about 22 kilometers from the city, which is regarded as a holy place of worship of Catholic Christians, a beautiful church, constructed by Begum Yohanna Sumru. It does not figure on the itinerary of most tourists except the pilgrims bound for its famous church.
I have vivid reminiscences of Sardhana, its Cchurch, Palace of begum Sumru, the market etc. when we used to visit the place in our childhood along with our circle of friends. I visited the place twice after my marriage too, accompanied by my wife more than two decades ago.
We had come for a few days at Meerut and we decided to utilize our Sunday holiday for an outing at Sardhana. We drove towards by-pass road on NH-58, Delhi-Dehradun bye-pass towards Muzaffarnagar, bypassing the city. The by-pass was about a decade old and a number of educational institutions, a renowned private university and a number of eating places, including a five-star property and Delhi’s famous Nathu restaurant have also come up in those years bang on the four lane by-pass.
We passed through the smooth lanes. The GPS of my navigation system was guiding me very accurately. It guided me throughout, from the point of my residence towards Sardhana road. When the signboards on road were not still visible, it announced that after 200 meters, we need to turn right. We passed through the signboard, after about 100 meters. We obeyed our navigator and followed the route. It was accurate and reliable. We passed through State Highway, which connects Meerut to Karnal in between. After crossing a canal, known as Ganga canal, on a side road, driving after eight kilometers metalled road we reached at the town of Sardhana..
Before we crossed the canal, we took a brief halt, and cross-checked the veracity of the Google map’s navigator with two boys crushing and selling sugar cane juice on roadside. They verified and suggested that we can go through the pavement of the canal itself, bypassing the main town. Though they confirmed the route was fine, free of pot-holes etc., we decided to venture out through the road which goes through the town. Before starting our further lap, we bought two glasses of juice at Rs.20 from them, which they extracted from the cane in front of our eyes. On our suggestion, they took out sealed packet of plastic glasses, and after properly washing them with water served us. Since the glasses were full of glucose, it gave instant energy for our next step of the journey. Some people along with their families were celebrating, bathing in the ghat of the canal. We crossed the bridge of canal, and the approach road was under construction, so a lot of dust and little stones were scattered all around, but till a few meters only. Later, it converted into a clean, metalled road, which lead us to Sardhana and according to Google map, the journey lasted for eight kilometers further.
After the brief but smooth drive, the signs of a town begin to emerge. With a few bullock cart, some movement of tractors and bikes, people on road, a freshly painted mosque on roadside, and an approaching temple which looks about 100 meters away, with bustling, yet indiscipline market—all the signs of a usual market were there.
We reached at a crossing, again we cross-checked the route to the Church and were told the straight route, which was the indication of Google. When we crossed the market, passed by a government office complex, the signs of activities begin to fade away. We stopped at a corner and asked the old and thin rickshaw puller who was having siesta, about the route to the church, who politely indicated towards the adjoining boundary and said that it was part of the church. We moved along with the boundary and about 150 meters away, the church was there, a huge, tall building complex, encircled by the high boundary and gardens of fruit bearing trees. We reached near the gate of the church. We parked our car near the boundary itself.
As we alighted from the car, the parking stand contractor came and requested us to park the car closer to the wall to avoid any scratch out of moving vehicles since at times, the road becomes congested. We saw no harm in his suggestion and obliged. He did not give us coupon or charge anything. He was custodian of two-wheeler stand only.
We moved towards the grand entry gate. As we looked through the gateway, we can see the beautiful, grandiose, yet dignified building of church at the end of a long shady avenue. A few visitors with their families were already waiting there. Two persons were manning the gate, one of them asked us “Are you a Catholic?.” Initially, I felt shocked since I was not prepared for such a type of query. I calmly replied in negative and he asked me to wait, like others, since it was Sunday, and the ritual of prayer which was open for Catholic Christians was being solemnized. The timings of prayer were scheduled till 12.00 O’clock. I stared at my wristwatch: it was only 11.35 AM, means we have to wait for half an hour. We tried once more with the gatekeeper; even suggested that he let us in, and we won’t go beyond the garden area. (The straight neat pathway to the main church is about 200 meters long, dotted and surrounded by row of trees, the sprawling garden and the statues on the life of Jesus). He did not buzz on his stand. My wife suggested to have a cup of tea outside in the meantime (tea is her weakness!). I agreed and moved out just opposite the gate across the road. Two middle-aged ladies were operating a cart of tea, snacks, soft drinks and other eatables. They made put a few benches and chairs too, in a make shift arrangement for the customers. She ordered a cup of tea. Meanwhile I was for a lookout of some interesting visuals. Hanging camera was evidently making me distinct in an otherwise sleepy town. A bearded man, in white attire, who was interestingly chatting with a barber, who had put his wares—scissors, mirror and a chair etc. nearby, requested me to have him photographed. I looked into him, and found no harm in obliging him. Though he was not old enough to become a good subject of photo-shoot, but I clicked a few of his pictures.
I clicked some more pictures of the gate, the people roaming around, the chai-wallas, the souvenirs shops, the vendors selling eatables etc. Meanwhile, my wife had finished her tea, the stall owner asked her if she needs something else too (means you are no more welcome). She asked me to take another chance with the gatemen because only few minutes were left in opening the gates. I approached the gatemen. One of them quickly obliged and let us in, though group of others follow too!
Our actual journey to the Basilica of Our Lady of Graces which prides itself with not only beauty but also being historically famous begins. Inside the Church Archeological Survey of India (ASI) has put a big board declaring that it is one of the protected monuments of India. You get the impression that you are entering something cut off from the rest of the world. We were told that this church was built by Begum Sumru in the year 1822.
We moved by looking intricately the beautiful marble statues dotted along the pathways which depict various important events of the life of Jesus. The sculpture in pure white marble with inscription beneath highlighted the journey of the Lord Jesus to eternity. These sculptures were added in the year 2000 or later, I was told.
We reached the main building of the church but the ticket window was still closed. On inquiry, we were told that it will open after the prayer is over. We had to wait again. We moved near the entry to the main church and sat on the podium steps. I tried my hands on my zoom of the camera. I zoomed it to capture a bird, but it fled from the place and settled on the head of the bust of Jesus, though I was sitting behind the imposing statue, it offered a good click; I shot a few clicks-- Jesus with bird!
Few minutes later, we again tried the trick, but told politely that the prayer is meant for Christians only. After a few minutes we again played the trick and told them that we will like to be the part of the prayer inside. The person agreed to let me in. I quietly entered and set the camera on no flash mode. I clicked beauty of the church—the huge sculpture, the design from inside, the chandeliers, the grandiose rooms and the halls of prayer. Everything was grand and lively. I clicked a number of photographs of the church which is dedicated to the memory of Mary—the mother of Jesus. The church is known today as a centre of devotion to Mariam. “It enshrines the Sacred image of Our Lady of Graces, which Pope John XX!!!, in his decree raising the church to a Basilica calls by far the most illustrious ornament in the church”, so says a book published by the shrine.
The available literature add details of the church as such, “Inside the church, the roof of the church is not all one level. The main aisle and the wings have a roof higher than the rest of the church. This gives the church a special beauty of its own, which is further enhanced by the railing that runs around both levels of the roof.”
“On either side of the Sanctuary, there are two long wings. In the one on the left, stands the famous monument over the tomb of the Begum. Though from the outside the church looks square, an impression created by the verandah that rounds round the church up to the wings, inside it is a perfect Latin cross. As we enter, the first thing that holds our attention was the main Altar, as every main alter should. Behind it, towers a huge marble tabernacle with a niche, on which is enshrined a statue of our Lady of Graces. This statue is not from the time of the Begum. Instead there was first a beautifully painted picture of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, which now adorns the Seminary chapel at St. John's. It was removed when a statue of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart was brought out from France especially for the church, in the middle of the last century, by the first nuns of Jesus and Mary. But this statue being too big for the niche never suited it. It was replaced early in this century by another statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, and then by the present statue about 30 years ago. The first statue is now the treasured possession of the Convent of Jesus and Mary, where it stands enshrined in a garden, at the back of the church.”
“The Altar is of white marble brought from Jaipur. It is tastefully inlaid with a floral design of semi-precious stones, such as cornelians, jaspers and malachites. When the light plays on them, they make an inspiring sight. In its floral design this work resembles very much the Florentine mosaic of the Taj Mahal at Agra. The white marble of the altar steps and platform is delicately inlaid with black and brown marble. The sanctuary floor, too, is of black and white marble, and the altar rails of a marble so white and pure, that they seem almost transparent. Above the niche that holds the statue of Our Lady of Graces, there are the letters MRA. They are the first, middle and last letters of the name of Maria, to whom the church has been dedicated. Above the sanctuary rests the large dome on an octagonal drum with eight windows. Through these windows the sanctuary is flooded with light.”
The whole centre aisle, from the door to the altar rails is marble. The vaulted ceiling and the main arches are covered with various designs of plaster work, in oriental and Roman styles.
Few people are aware that this church was once known as a Cathedral. The reason why was because there was a time when Sardhana had its own Bishop. In December 1961 Pope John XXIII deigned to raise it to the dignity of a Minor Basilica, a dignity that is bestowed rarely and only on churches that are both historically famous and beautiful.
I witnessed the prayer, the narration by the priest to the people, advising them to follow the path of humanity and well being. He was describing the acts of humanity and their relations with the Jesus and Christanity. After a few minutes, I went out and called my wife. She was amused to see the beautiful interior and sculptures of the church. The busts of Mary depicting the time are known to be the best ones.
It is said that Begum Sumru’s burial remains are present in the church and her tomb is blessed every year on 27th January, at her death anniversary. Thousands of devotees come on the day to offer mass prayers in her remembrance, who erected the magnificent monument to the glory of the God she served.
A number of devotees and tourists from nearby and Delhi, Mumbai people were queued up to the quiet and disciplined church. After seeing the church we headed towards souvenir shop which sells a few literatutre too. I bought three booklets priced at Rs. 35. These booklets were about Begum Sumru, the church and the stories and places of the Begum. My wife tried to find out some decorative pieces. She preferred one famous artifact depicting Jesus on a cross and enquired about it. Surprisingly, the lady manning the counter asked smilingly “Are you Christian?” She told her, “No”, and engrossed herself again in the lots of items, which were on sale there. Later, she queried me, “Why are they asking about our religion. God is everywhere. Is not it?”. I smiled and tried to take few clicks of the people still standing for an official opening of the church.
It is said that it was no idle boast the Begum made to Pope Gregory XVI, when she wrote, in her letter to him, in January 21, 1834. ``I am proud to say it (the Church) is acknowledged to be the finest, without exception, in India''. It cost four lakhs, a sum that is not so impressive today. But at that time it was a huge amount. The figure becomes really staggering when we realise that labour and material was about a hundred times cheaper than what it is today. Top masons were paid the equivalent of 25 p. a day, and the labourers in shells.
We moved out of the beautiful church, again had a cup of tea and inquisitively asked a vendor about the palace of Begum sumru. He directed us towards a nearby boundary, hardly 200 meters away. We reached the place and on our self opened the huge iron gates. An imposing single storeyed structure with Roman style verandh could be seen about 100 meters inside through the pathway. We walked to the palace—that was built by the Begum. An atmosphere of calm was prevailing there. The symmetry of the verandah is enough to catch the attention of a photography guy. I clicked few pictures, peeped in an unlocked room. It seems to be a reading place or an education type of institution. In the meantime, a priest appeared there. He told us that it is the Gurukul of priests. They train students to become priests here. Yes, it was a nice structure, we could not explore much since it has been bought by the missionary people. It is said that the Begum constructed the palace after completing the church and she lived less than a year in it, before her demise.
The story of Begum Sumru, a controversial little girl with humble background and little height, who rose to the highest seat of power, was efficient in warfare and diplomacy is a separate epic in itself. So, better explore it later.
We returned back after spending few fruitful and productive hours. I was feeling richer by hundreds of .jpeg files on my memory card of EOS 60D. We got new insight into the church, palace and Begum. We will visit sometime again but you will be pretty sure that there is no food available, tea is for namesake only. No coffee or other eatables. Better take your eatables along or have some before diverting to Sardhana road from NH-58.