Before the Marathas

Updated: Jun 09, 2019, 09:08 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

It's been 280 years since the Portuguese lost to the Marathas in the Battle of Bassein, and packed up from the city's islands. Here's a trail of a few remnants of this lost glory

Until 1737, the Portuguese were the kings of the Western coastal region. With lands stretching from the Salsette Island (present-day Bhayander to Bandra) to Vasai, Thane, Kalyan, Chaul and Revdanda, these colonisers, were, if anything, richer than the English.

Things changed when the Marathas led by Chimaji Appa, waged a two-year-long battle, forcing them to abandon occupation of these territories. The end of their rule meant that the glorious architecture that came in the form of their grand churches suffered neglect. What's left of that era are both few and far between.

Debasish Chakraverty
Debasish Chakraverty

The ruined fort of Vasai
Bassein, now Vasai, was the centre of administration for the Portuguese. It remained their iron throne for nearly two centuries. "The reason why they decided to build a fort at Vasai was because, from a defence and strategic perspective, they felt they could control movement from here," says Vasai resident and historian Pascal Lopes.

The fort, says Lopes, comprises seven ruined churches, each built at different points in time and occupied by different missionaries. Each of these churches were tasked with the upkeep of the college, hospital and granaries inside. The fort fell into ruin after the Marathas conquered Bassein in the war.

St Andrew's Church, Bandra
Previously known as Santo Andre dos Colles, this 403-year-old church is the oldest surviving Portuguese structure in Bandra. "It's older than the Taj Mahal," historian Debasish Chakraverty says. While a plaque on the front wall of the structure dates the church back to 1575, it's likely to have been replaced by the existing one.

The earlier entrance of the church faced the sea
The earlier entrance of the church faced the sea

"Its original entrance was from the sea; as the word Colles implies, the church was meant for the converted Kolis, who lived across at Chimbai beach," he says. This parish extended all the way to Santa Cruz, and the Chapel of Holy Cross, was also once part of it. St Andrew's Church has been modified on different occasions. The main altar, as mentioned in a special 400th anniversary issue of the church, was built in 1906 after the previous one was destroyed by termites.

This was the fate of most Portuguese-era churches, says Dr Fleur D'Souza, historian and former HOD of history at St Xavier's College. "For instance, the retables [structure placed either on or behind the altar] of churches given their antiquity and [wooden] make were either destroyed after the war between the Marathas and Portuguese, or just couldn't survive the wear and tear over time."

Cross of the Church & College of Santa Anna, Bandra
Nearly 500 years ago, the BEST depot outside Bandra West station was a sprawling estate, which was home to the Church & College of Santa Anna. Chakraverty says it was the first church to be built in Bandra in the mid-1500s. "Like Vasai Fort, and though not as vast, it was known to be a self-sufficient Catholic citadel, which included a chapel, college and monastery. It is said that one could see the Church of São Miguel (St Michael's Church) in Mahim, from Santa Anna." When the Marathas won the war, the Portuguese in Bandra appealed to the British forces stationed in Mahim for help.

Cross of the Church & College of Santa Anna, Bandra

"The British were worried that if the Marathas took over Santa Anna, they would have direct access to Mahim, part of the region given to them as dowry by the Portuguese in the 17th century and which was on the other side of the waterway," he says. British forces promised assistance, but dynamited the complex to prevent it from getting into Maratha hands. Consequentially, the church and college were lost. But, a reproduction of the drawing of the complex, shows a large cross in the foreground, which remained untouched, and in 1871, was re-erected at St Andrew's Church, Bandra. "For centuries, it was thought to be a monolithic cross. But it is, in fact, a two-piece stone cross," says Chakraverty. Both, the east and the west face of the cross have Biblical iconography sculpted on it. A local legend surrounding the cross is that each time a disaster was about to occur, a pink glow would be visible around this cross.

Cross of the Chapel of the Holy Cross, Santa Cruz
A five minute-walk from Santa Cruz West station is the nondescript Chapel Lane, which opens into a street lined by tailors running their businesses out of makeshift stalls. A bend in the road will lead you to Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity: Home for the Destitute and Dying, built in 1962, but originally home to the 17th-century Chapel of the Holy Cross.

Pics/Shadab Khan
Pics/Shadab Khan

"It was the last remaining chapel from the Portuguese era in Santa Cruz," says Chakraverty. But the burgeoning Catholic population in this area meant that the structure could no longer accommodate them. D'Souza explains this as being one of the reasons why many old churches from that period were torn down. This chapel, too, eventually made way for the Sacred Heart Church, located a stone's throw away from here. But what remains from that time, and possibly even older, is a Holy Cross, which in Portuguese means Santa Cruz, giving this suburb its name.

An early photograph of the Chapel of the Holy Cross
An early photograph of the Chapel of the Holy Cross

Restored in 2015, this cross is now encased in a glass box at the home. Legend has it that back in the 1600s, locals would pray in front of this wooden cross. When leaves started sprouting from its stump, it was seen as a miraculous phenomenon. A chapel was built at the same site to mark the event. It fell into disrepair post the Maratha invasion in 1739, and was reopened nearly a century later.

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