Bandel, wrapped in antiquity


We have toured south of West Bengal state, India and taken our readers to the point where Hooghly river flows into the Bay of Bengal. Calcutta, or Kolkata have exceptional places, that dangle like pearls of history along the watery ribbon of river Ganges even to the north, between Kolkata and Varanasi.

Having drenched ourselves in the natural beauty of the places around the riverine delta, we thought of driving up north about 40 to 60 kilometers to see what are in store for any motorist who is hungry for history, and want to savor the natural or man made beauties that are sprinkled around this state.

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity 1/1 by Gautam Lahiri
Bandel on the banks of Hooghly river

I distinctly remember, years back when my father gave me history lessons from the school book, he mentioned about a place called Bandel. Ever since then I wanted to learn more about this place.

It was March, the weather was still comfortable and the heat was bearable. On a bright Saturday morning, we jumped into our most honorable travel companion, the Swift and started for Bandel, to feel the culture, read the history and share what we will learn.

We took the NH-2 highway and reached Dankuni after crossing the Vivekananda bridge at Dakhineshwar. Before reaching Durgapur Expressway, we took the old Delhi road or the GT Road and proceeded towards Bandel covering about 58 kilometers.

On our way, I picked up one of my friends who happened to have his uncle's house at Bandel. Who else can give an account as good as a resident of a place. He was our travel guide and we followed him to soak the fantastic history which rests at Bandel.

Here we go...

Bandel is just like any other town in Bengal. Narrow and crowded streets form the circulatory system of the old town. A motorist has to battle out through a maize of rickshaws, hand carts, buses and people who follow one standard philosophy in life - never look left or right when crossing a road.

It is the motorist; whose duty is to stop and let them cross and we patiently bowed to it and reached after 2,1/2 hours.

One of innumerable by lanes and roads of Bandel

Photo of Bandel, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri

The history of Bandel Church is mesmerizing. I am sure it will take your breath away.

I have to dip you into a bit of a history to give context to what we saw. In 1498, Vasco Da Gama, a Portuguese explorer came to India and anchored at Calicut or Kozikode in Kerela. Ever since then India had seen Portuguese settlements across the Indian subcontinent. Bandel church has its design from Portugal.

One of the oldest churches in India; dedicated to Nossa Senhora do Rosario, Our Lady of Rosary was presented to the visitors in the year 1650 by the Portuguese. It was founded, way back in 1599.

Every room, courtyard we visited, pages of history unfolded. It is said that a Portuguese ship met near disaster of getting sunk in the sea. The ship's captain, prayed for safety for his ship and men. He promised to bequeath a mast of his ship to the first church he sees and it was this church which he caught up with. Till today, the mast of that stricken ship can be seen in the church.

However, unfortunately we could not see it as the mast was blown away in a local cyclone in 2010.

Fables also say that the word "Bandel"possibly, meant "a mast of a ship" in Portuguese. So, this was the background behind the church's name and the name of the place.

The best way to explain, perhaps, is to give you a pictorial trip through the church.

The Bandel church entrance, where you can see Jesus with Mary on board a boat welcomes millions of visitors across the years

Photo of Bandel Church, Sahaganj, Hooghly, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri

Corridors with various images, beautifully created that depict, life of Jesus Christ

Photo of Bandel Church, Sahaganj, Hooghly, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri

My friend had kept only one place for us to drive to and that was visiting Bandel's famous Imambara.

As we approached the Imambara from its left, it looked extremely long and huge in dimensions

Photo of Imambara, Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri

We stopped to ask for directions, and the shop where we parked was straight from a history book. Nothing had changed much, the shop was about 70 to 80 years old, long and lanky sitting stools adorned the front, a red postal metal container hung beside the shop which was the local letter box.

50 years on, the same process continues. A cyclist, an official would make his morning or noon round, pick the letters in a sack and ride to the nearest postal office for dispatch.

A bygone age postal system found still existing in these areas, fully functional and doing its on-time delivery for years without fail

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

After driving through a labyrinth of wide, and very narrow roads, we closed in on our first place of interest, the Bandel Church. Having parked, we entered the church compound.

Closing on the Bandel church through ever crowded streets

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

Arched openings from within the church took us out to well manicured gardens with images and idols of biblical origin.

Neatly done, colored glasses along with wrought iron chandeliers embellish the tall ceilings and wide arches.

Metal trays are kept at places that are used for visitors to light candles

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

Flower laden walkways that fan out into the church courtyard

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

Along with hundreds of visitors, we walked corridor after corridor and came across magnificent stories and paintings that made this church so famous and unique.

Nossa Senhora do Rosario, Our Lady of Rosary, resplendent within a glassed enclosure

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

The history of the church has been wonderfully described with paintings and images. Presenting you a quick capture as I had panned my camera.

The Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan in 1632, attacked the Portuguese settlement at Bandel. In the ensuing battle, the Portuguese were defeated and both their fort & Church were destroyed

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

This painting shows the aftermath of the battle, Mughals took Father Joan De Cruz from the church, as prisoner and took him to Agra. An interesting event took place as the fables go; father Joan had to face a savage elephant. Everyone thought the priest's end was near. Amidst the cheer, and in front of the Mughal emperor, the elephant instead of attacking the priest, lifted him with its trunk and placed him on his back

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

Next, we saw, Shah Jahan in the inset, seen awfully impressed at the elephant's exceptional behavior. The king set Father Joan and his men free. Shah Jahan also provided land at Bandel without attracting any taxes for the rebuilding of the church.

Shah Jahan helping to reconstruct the Bandel church

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

When the Mughals attacked Bandel, it is believed that a local Christian known as, Taigo, wanted to save the statue of Mary, jumped into the Hooghly river along with the statue.

Tiago with the statue

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

Interestingly enough, on the inauguration day of the church, the statue was seen mysteriously, on the banks of the Hooghly. Ever since, then, the statue has come to be known as "Our Lady of the Happy Voyage"

The gift of a ship's mast to Bandel church by a Portuguese ship captain was so touching and the painting captures it all

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

The complete history of Bandel church can be seen etched on a stone placard

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

We climbed the steps which led to the roof of the church where the clock tower stood gallantly on one side. We saw altar for the visitors where we saw people praying.

Bandel church clock tower

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

Visitors lighting candles and murmuring prayers on the other end of the church top

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

From the roof top, we were able to see the river Hooghly silently flowing past. It was getting hot now as the sun was at the pinnacle and we also felt, the need to take a short break before we could drive down to one of many historical edifices that festooned this little town.

Glimpses of the Hooghly river from the Bandel church roof

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

We gave ourselves a short lunch break. Our afternoon meal consisted of Bengal's standard afternoon meal, terribly tasty - white rice, pappad, soup of lentils, spicy egg curry and tomato chutney. We surely needed the strength to see more of Bandel and needed every bit of the grain on offer.

Imambara too, resided along the Hooghly river and is an engineer's delight.

It was created in the memory of a great humanitarian, known as Hazi Muhammad Mohsin. We learned from a local visitor who was gracious to take us around and explained the remarkable building complex. The stately structure was crafted by Keramtulla Khan, an architect by profession around 1860. The complex comprised of a two storied very long halls, or corridors probably.

At the center, there existed a fountain, not operational now, within a rectangular pond. A huge courtyard housed all of these. What I found most impressive were the twin long towers that stood tall above everything.

Each tower had spiral stair cases and both served the same purpose of providing a visitor of the most panoramic view of the river and you can see miles into the horizon.

Tall twin towers over a flat structure looked very different than the surrounding building structures, exuded excellent design

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

As I moved the camera from one side to the other, the famous Jubilee bridge over the river was caught in frame.

The rectangular courtyard had construction all around with stepped structures that took visitors into the building. Artistic minarets could be seen on the roof edges and they looked beautiful

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

The view from the tower top was simply fabulous

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

The rectangular pond with a lone fountain added a distinctive flavor to the building complex

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

Far away, we were able to see the famous Jubilee bridge that connects the two banks of the river Hooghly and provided critical railway connection between Bandel and other places far and wide

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

We came down and visited the rear part of the complex which opened into the river and here I saw the most spectacular piece of engineering, - the sun dial.

The local guide taught us how to read the sun dial and trust me, this alone was the best part of our Bandel visit.

Well, here's the sun dial and how do you read it ? Look at the shadow line of that white angular structure falling on the dial. The shadow has crossed the roman III which meant it is past 3 pm and then if you see more closely, where the shadow ends...over two small black lines from the roman III and each small black line is approx. 5 mins, so this sun dial is showing 3.10 pm.

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

My digital camera when I took the above picture showed the recorded time.

Imagine the level of accuracy brought by the engineers who built the Imambara. Difference of 5 minutes. Made about 153 years ago, the mathematics applied was truly astonishing

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

We had a great historic visit of Bandel. We saw the famous church, the calm and slow moving Hooghly which has seen all the pages of history with her passage.

We saw the brilliant engineering of Hooghly Imambara and needed much awaited tranquility to absorb the enormous data which we were exposed to... we drove to the nearest tea stall and had two earthen pots filled with hot steaming tea.

Facing the western sun, our Swift started eating kilometers as we headed back. Ages back this same road was used by horses with cavalry speeding away. Today she feels the tires of fast moving mechanical machines does the road feel ? Perhaps smiles at us.

Photo of Bandel, wrapped in antiquity by Gautam Lahiri

We looked back at the magnificent structures behind us and climbed back on another historic highway, the GT road and gunned the engine towards Kolkata.

Trip first published on The Voyager

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