Cross country Of Bandra's Topazes and forests

Walk and you shall find.
Listen and you shall know.

Armed with these two commandments for successful travel, we joined Shriti Tyagi, founder of Beyond Bombay Tours, on a walking trail, aptly called Bylanes of Bandra on a breezy winter afternoon.

Ours was a motley group of 13 from different walks of life — residents who had returned after decades of exile, a second generation Indian humouring her parents, and cheerful shutter-happy tourists — we had drifted together to explore the Bandra that lies beyond its glass-fronted shops, impenetrable traffic, stylish cafes and cheap knock-offs.

The Queen of Suburbs didn’t disappoint. The next three hours left us rich in legends, anecdotes and visual memories of the Bandra that lies confined to history books and crumbling homes, the one that reveals herself shyly to keen ears and watchful eyes of the curious traveller.

Stop 1>> Mount Mary’s Church
Our adventures begin on the crest of a quiet, windy hill, with the towering neo-Gothic facade of Mount Mary’s Church. Shriti Tyagi, our guide, traces the chequered history of the shrine: “In the late 1500s, a simple oratory of mud and thatch stood here, serving the Portuguese settlers. Jesuit priests had brought the statue of Mary from Portugal, and its popularity grew. In 1640, a wooden chapel replaced the rudimentary edifice, so Portuguese soldiers garrisoned at the fort in Land’s End could come here to pray.”

Soon, the shrine was sucked into the violent crosscurrents. In 1700, Arab pirates, who lopped off Mary’s right arm, pillaged the chapel. Marathas were next, desecrating the shrine in 1738 and tossing Mary’s statue into the sea. She continues, “Legend has it that decades later, a Koli fisherman dreamed he would find the statue in water. He found it on a fishing voyage; the statue was restored with great fanfare in 1761. The missing hand was disguised by placing a baby Jesus on Mary’s arm. The imposing stone structure of today was completed between 1902 and 1904.”

Tyagi’s narrative dwells on the fascinating cross-pollination of cultures. When the Jesuit priests from Portugal arrived, religious conversion was inevitable. Local upper classes were educated in the Roman script and religious texts, and the lower classes were wooed by incorporating existing Hindu rituals into Christian modes of worship. “So, you spot devotees who remove their shoes before entering the hall, and offer marigold garlands to the Mother — both practices originate from the Hindu faith,” she says.

Stop 2>> St Stephen’s Church
We descend the leaf-fringed hillock, pausing by the padlocked gates of another quaint, serene chapel nestled in a neatly hedged plot —
St Stephen’s Church, which bears the distinction of being Mumbai’s first Protestant church, built in 1845. By this time, Bandra was a stronghold of the British, who had brought a new strand of Christianity with them — Protestantism.

St Stephen’s Church is the oldest Protestant Church in Bandra, built in 1845 for British Protestants. PicS/Yashodhara Ghosh

“The church was built for British Protestants who didn't have a place to worship,” shares Tyagi. The simple appeal of the structure offers a sharp counterpoint to the imposing grandeur of the Catholic shrine left behind — perhaps, a reflection of the more austere forms of worship that the Anglican Church in England advocated.

Stop 3>> St Andrew’s Church
There is a solemn beauty in the silence of death, and our next stop bears testimony to this. We enter through the back gate of St Andrews Church, one of the oldest surviving in Bandra, built in 1575. From corner to corner of the sprawling enclosure, rows of tombstones tile the ground.

St Andrew’s Church cemetery has Mumbai’s oldest stone cross. The 17 ft cross was brought from the St Anne seminary nearby after it was destroyed in 1739 in the Maratha invasion. It has 39 emblems of the Passion of Christ.

As we step gingerly to avoid the gravestones, Tyagi points out to the names engraved on them, suggestive of the pervasive practice of intermarriage between the local Kolis and the Portuguese settlers. Juxtaposing the austere cemetery is the beautiful Portuguese style facade of the chapel, home to an opulent shrine. A wedding is in progress inside.

As the inexorable cycle of life and death continues to play itself out within the church compound, we walk on to our next destination. “…My favourite,” smiles Tyagi.

Stop 4>> Ranwar Village
As the shadows lengthen, we negotiate the swarming Hill Road, till Tyagi suddenly veers into a blink-and-you-miss lane — this is our portal into a world where time stands still: the 400-year-old Ranwar village.

The village squares, with crosses placed at their centre, were places of congregation and worship and community bonding, a practice that has survived till date.

Separated by a maze of zigzagging, narrow lanes that forces our sprawling group to fall into a single file, the antiquated cottages with their porches, tiled roofs, balustrades and wooden panels are the main props for our time travel, transporting us to an oasis that is spatially close, but temporally worlds away from maddening, urban Bandra.

“The architecture of the bungalows is a vernacular expression of the strong Portuguese influence,” shares Tyagi. “The threat of attacks from Arab pirates loomed always. Huddling together in a close community with narrow lanes to separate them gave villagers a sense of security. To this day, the community that lives here is extremely close-knit, with its own book clubs, sports teams, death benefit funds, chit funds and Christmas funds.

They celebrate the feast of the Holy Cross together, on the May date, and not the usual September date when it’s celebrated by most Christian communities,” Tyagi adds. Perhaps, this sense of community is why residents have held out to land sharks, breathing down with offers of crores for a prime suburban land.

Tyagi’s vignettes evoke a charming picture of village life — the week-long wedding celebrations, from Thursday to Thursday, with papad and liquor-making sessions, rituals which involved bringing water from nearby wells and cleansing the feet of the couple in exchange for money, and pig chases that culminated in a sumptuous feast of pork sausage and sorpotel. “In 1896, this life was disrupted, when a plague ravaged Bandra,” says Tyagi, as she points to hundreds of crosses that dot the village, built to ward off illness or in thanksgiving for divine protection.

Stop 5 >> Bazar Road
Leaving behind the somnolent Ranwar, our senses are shocked into alertness on Bazar Road, a synesthesia of sights and smells. Ramshackle bakeries that have survived the onslaught of Bandra’s fine dining culture vie for attention with newer shops.

The trail of picturesque cottages continues onto this stretch, many in the process of being demolished. “Markets give the pulse of a place,” signs off Tyagi, and sure enough, we pass a mosque, a chapel, and a jamatkhana, clustered in the same narrow lane.
Beyond Bombay conducts three tours: Worli in May, Lalbaug before Ganpati festival, and Bandra before Christmas.
Call 9867764409
Email to register.
Cost Rs 700 for each walk

The legend of veronica street
When Jesus carried the cross, a woman called Veronica wiped blood and sweat off his face. Legend has it that the cloth had an impression of Jesus’ face. Every year, a tableau would depict this story at St Andrew’s Church, and the woman chosen to play Veronica’s role would always be a resident of this village. She would be carried on a palanquin to the church down this lane; hence, the name.

Who were the Topazes?
History books often refer to Ranwar Village as an East Indian village. They were one of the many ethnic groups that owe their existence to the cross-pollination of cultures that the city witnessed. When the East India Company settled in India, Catholic descendants of Portuguese settlers, many being products of intermarriage between evangelised Kolis and Portuguese, began to sell their farmlands to the Company in exchange for government jobs and other benefits. To ingratiate themselves to the ruling class, they called themselves East Indians. Proud of their European lineage, they were a class apart in their Western attire, breaking bread while others ate chapatis and sipped on Keemadh, their spicy liquor. To most, they were Topazes, or hat wearers. 

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