This new book chronicles Thane's 700-year-old connect with Christianity
A new book chronicles Thane's tiny community that developed around a church after surviving bloody wars and over 400 monsoons
To a child from the neighbouring, sleepy suburb of Mulund, Thane, and not SoBo, was the big city. From its cinema halls and markets to its khau gallis and lakes, it was the family's go-to destination. This included the "bada" church, as some autowallahs would refer to it. And St John the Baptist church was truly "bada". Growing up in a god-fearing Catholic household meant regular visits to St John's for Sunday mass. During service, the high ceiling, murals and life-like statues would grab our attention even during the most interesting of sermons. And, each time the choir would sing a hymn, its lilting notes would waft through the walls of the Baroque church. With time, Mulund got its own church, and as it metamorphosed into a lively suburb; our trips to Thane ceased to be.
"Members of the editorial and research team - (from left) Fleur D'Souza,âÂÂBishop Allwyn D'Silva, Roshni D'Souza, Sanjay Dighe, Francis Fernandes, Ian D'Almeida and Bernadette Mascarenhas (not in pic). While discussing titles for the book, Etienne Coutinho suggested 'witness' since Thane was witness to incredible histories. Five months later, the team discovered that the word did have a coincidental connect - 'witness' is derived from the Greek word 'martyr' (martus)
Decades later, as we leaf through the pages of Witness - a richly-illustrated, exhaustive celebration of Thane's Christian community that grew around this church - those memories rush back. Its editor and contributor, Dr Fleur D'Souza, former HOD-history department and retired vice principal (Arts), St Xavier's College, is happy to give us a personalised tour of this chronicle in her Cherai home. Thane's history seeps out from the sepia-tinted frames and books around us, and flows right into this book. The historian has been burning the midnight oil with several parishioners, to ensure that this title is ready for its 8,000-strong community today, on the feast of St John the Baptist. It will be released at the hands of His Eminence Rev Cardinal Oswald Gracias (Archbishop of Bombay) and Bishop Allwyn D'Silva (Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Bombay, zonal Bishop of Thane, Navi Mumbai and Raigad District Deaneries and Bishop-in-charge of the Social Apostolate in the Archdiocese).
"Your parish, along with several others that spread from Bhiwandi to Bassein, Airoli and Kalwa, were historically under the umbrella of this church," she shares, while giving us a rough idea of its massive reach. "But this book's highlight is proof that Christianity arrived in Thane 700 years ago. From its earliest recorded name, Sri Stanaka, to others references like Tana and Thannah, it was a busy port city filled with people of different religions and nationalities and where vessels brought in traders, travellers, merchants and missionaries," D'Souza reveals, painting a vivid scene from 14th century Thane.
In 1321, four Franciscan monks arrived in Thane unexpectedly, and spotted a group of 15 Eastern Christian (also called Nestorian) families. This incident pre-dates the arrival of the Portuguese on Kerala's coast. These four Franciscans were eventually martyred in Kalwa. The record validates Thane's historic tryst with Christianity, reveals D'Souza.
The next few chapters take us through Thane's fall, rise and fall, as the Portuguese (1534), the Marathas (1737), and finally, the English (1774) took turns as rulers. However, it was during the Portuguese reign that the origins of this church emerge. Six churches and two hermitages belonging to the Jesuit, Dominican, Augustinian and parish church of the Portuguese, as well as the Franciscan church of St Anthony's (rechristened as the parish of St John the Baptist) date to this period. "The foundation stone (for St John's) was laid on the banks of the Masunda Lake in 1581," she shares.
Did Thane see a change in fortunes, we ask. "Bombay's rise as the urbs primus led to another dip. Luckily, Asia's first railway line (1853) put us back on the map as an industrial belt."
Closer to that historic railway station, at the church office, Bishop Allwyn and a few parishioners are planning for the big day. "The book was thought about after the church was restored in 2015. Sometimes, we don't document historic information and it gets lost for future generations. We wanted it to be not just about the structure, but also about a living community," explains the visionary head, in between a busy schedule.
And it is an ode to this community that signs off the book on a warm note. Anecdotes, reminisces, black-and-white frames of weddings and first holy communions are sure to bring countless smiles on parishioners' faces and turn the spotlight on silent hands that run the well-knit parish.
History lesson soaked in, we must return to the now. D'Souza asks for our honest opinion, "Will the book resonate in today's day and age?" We remind her, "Of course. After all, it's about the 'bada' church."
* Thana cloth, Thana silks, blackwood ivory inlaid desks and leather were key, prized exports from the port city. Other products from the region like salt, arrack, coconuts and oil, were also shipped to other parts of the world.
An undated black and white photograph, offering a view of St John the Baptist Church from across Masunda lake
* In the jungles of Pokhran the tiny Jesuit hermitage of Nossa Senhora das Merces served a community of farmers and recorded that tigers roamed in these parts.
(Courtesy: Witness, Fleur D'Souza)
A 20th century photograph of Thane city
From the designer's desk
"We kept the communication such that it linked the past, present and future, and yet ensured that the church's rich history and tradition was respected. There was diverse material that included photographs and archives. We had to bring all of it together to tell a powerful story. Today's readers are intimidated by large chunks of text and so this book had to be created in an accessible format. Fleur is the ultimate raconteur who made it relevant for the 'now' while telling us that story."
Restoring a 435-year-old landmark in Thane
In 2015, the church's restoration wrote a new chapter in its history, and that is why it occupies an important section in the book. Conservation architect Vikas Dilawari who oversaw it, says, "As the church underwent repairs, a lot was revealed in the fabric. I am glad that it is being recorded as a book for future generations. Hopefully, this book will create awareness of its heritage and ensure rightful maintenance. Hats off to Bishop Allwyn for having steered this project with vision, care and grace."
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