The warmth, of winter-sun and enthusiasm, was running high through our veins as we were approaching our next destination. Bandel Church is what we call it generally. But it has a more aesthetically pleasing name — ‘The Basilica of the Holy Rosary’. It is dedicated to ‘Our Lady of the Rosary’, Mother Mary.
You can board a Bandel Local or a Bardhaman Local (main) from Howrah Station. Get down at Bandel Station. From there you will have more than one option for transportation. There are cycle rickshaws, totos and autos, whatever you prefer.
As the oldest Christian Church of West Bengal, Bandel Church has an interesting backstory. It was built by the Portuguese colonisers of Bandel. From the middle of the sixteenth century, they started using Bandel as a port. In fact, the word ‘Bandel’ itself was derived from a Portuguese phrase meaning ‘mast of a ship’.
In 1571, they received consent from Mughal emperor Akbar to build a city in Hooghly. Portuguese people started flocking here more and more. Eventually, the pastors started converting local people. In 1579, they built another port and a fortress on the banks of Hooghly river to turn the place into a Portuguese stronghold. By 1598, there were about five thousand Catholics in Hooghly. In 1599, they initiated the construction of Bandel Church.
In 1632, however, the Moors attacked Hooghly. The Church was burnt to the ground. Long after that, in 1660, Gomes de Soto built a new Church. In the eastern courtyard of the monastery, you will still find the keystone of the old Church even today.
On the day of the inauguration of the new Church, a statue of Mother Mary was found floating near the banks of Hooghly river. The statue was brought to the Church. Eventually, it came to be known as ‘Our Lady of Happy Voyage’.
There’s a little lore about a Portuguese ship. It is said that the ship was hit by a severe storm in the Bay of Bengal. But, miraculously, all the people on board were safe and unhurt. It anchored safely at Bandel port. The captain of the ship was overwhelmed by the incident. He donated the mast of the ship to the Church. He believed Mother Mary protected them. This mast is kept inside a glass case till date for the visitors to take a look. There is also an ornate pipe organ inside the Church.
We entered the main Church through an arched entrance with a statue of Mother Mary and baby Jesus riding on a boat upon a pink lotus. The main altar houses the statue of ‘Our Lady of the Holy Rosary’. Jesus and St. John Bosco accompany her. So, it makes three altars in total. Prayers were in progress inside the halls. The pews were full.
We went roaming inside the grand corridors decorated with beautiful paintings depicting various scenes from Christ’s life. The backyard of the Church houses a cemetery for the priests. The prevailing silence, despite of the fair amount of visitors and the ongoing litany, astounded us. At a pavilion, we found a wishing well. This pavilion leads to a staircase.
We took the stairs to the balcony. This is where the statue of ‘Our Lady of Happy Voyage’ was re-established. People were lighting candles here. The place was crowded but the atmosphere seemed nice.
We chanced upon the spectacular view of the Jubilee bridge spanning across Hooghly river from the balcony. It was built in 1887 which was the Golden Jubilee year of Queen Victoria’s reign. This is one of the oldest working rail bridges in the world.
It felt amazing enjoying the scenery from the top. The clock tower beside the main building was huge. Meanwhile, it chimed at 2:30 p.m. and we knew we should start our journey towards the next stop. Bandel Church had a lasting impression on us. It is a traveller’s treat to anyone who enters the premise irrespective of what their religion is.