It was almost 1 PM when I reached Bandel, a district town located just at a distance of 72 kilometres from Kolkata. It was probably my third visit to this architecturally enriched town. Personally, I like to travel to the western bank of the river Hooghly. The culture of the place and architectural relics attract me a lot.
I took a toto (motor pulled three-wheeler) and started towards Bandel Church. The church is a Portuguese Church and the first Christian prayer house of Bengal. The architecture has an interesting history.
With the decline of Tamralipti, Saptagram became the major port of Bengal in the mediaeval period. As a result, Hooghly flourished as a significant trading hub. Gradually, in the late mediaeval and early modern days, traders from Europe started coming in Hooghly with an ambition to form colonies. Portuguese were the first among them and formed a colony in Bandel that was later demolished by Shah Jahan and re-established. Gradually Dutch, French and Danish traders arrived in Chuchura, Chandannagar and Serampore respectively.
Bandel was the first European colony in Bengal. After establishing settlement in the West Coast of India, Portuguese traders focused on the eastern part of India. The first team arrived in Bengal in 1535 and started their trade from the port Saptagram. Portuguese traders paid the tax to the Imperial Treasury of the Mughals. The permission for their settlement was granted by the Mughal King Akbar The Great in 1580. In 1599 they founded the first church, the oldest Christian Church in West Bengal. They built a small fort too.
As Portuguese trade at Hooghly grew, the city flourished, attracting wealthy merchants and their families, less prosperous traders, and Catholic priests. The Bengali Traders and Zamindars (landlords) also built their houses in nearby neighbourhoods. Gradually, poor people from Bihar and Western side of Bengal gathered in Bandel and Saptagram to work as cheap labour. Portuguese traders convinced them to work in Europe and started human trafficking.
Knowing this fact, Shah Jahan, the great Mughal Emperor, attacked the Portuguese settlement in 1632. He destroyed the fort and reduced the church to ruins. Father Joan De Cruz, the priest of the church was prisoned and taken to Agra. The Mughal Emperor threw him in front of the wild elephant. But instead of killing the priest, the elephant lifted him by the trunk and placed in his back.
Shah Jahan was surprised by this incident. He released the father and other Portuguese prisoners, gave back the land in Bandel and sponsored a considerable amount of money to re-establish the church.
But there were more miracles to happen. When Shah Jahan invaded the church, a Portuguese man, Tiago, saved the statue of Mother Mary and jumped into the river Hooghly. None saw Tiago after that. On the inauguration day of the rebuilt church, the statue of Mother Mary strangely appeared on the bank of the river Hooghly. This made the Portuguese community very happy. They re-established the church and named as “Our Lady of the Happy Voyage.”
But the miracle continues. During the inauguration ceremony, a ship with tattered sail appeared. The ship encountered a terrible storm. Somehow the captain and crews managed to survive. The captain prayed to God and promised to offer the main mast to the first church he saw. The captain kept his promise and gave the mast to the church. In Portuguese, Bandel is the synonymous word of Mast. Thus, the town was named Bandel.
I reached Bandel within 10 minutes and went inside the Bandel Church. There are two gates of the compound one of them is towards the northern side and another one on the eastern side. I stepped into the church by the eastern gate. The church is rectangular in shape where the vestry, porch and lady chapel are geometrically and systematically placed.
I went inside the church and further by a staircase, I went up the terrace where devotees’ light candles in front of the “Our Lady of the Happy Voyage.”
The view of the town from the terrace was spectacular. Since the terrace was crowded with lots of human cacophony, the guard requested everybody not to wait for long.
I went down. The garden of the church is decorated with many sculptures but they are newly established.
I came out of the church and headed towards the Imambara. While walking, I noticed a few old houses of Indian traders. Since Bandel was a hub of trading, Bengali businessmen and zamindars (landlords) established their houses in this town. Even after Bandel was occupied by the British, most of the Portuguese family evacuated their houses. Bengali rich people bought them at a very cheap price.
One of the houses belonged to the Boral Family. The house was established by Shri Kartick Chandra Boral who was a trader of Gold and Silver.
The adjacent lane is named ‘Boral Lane’. We went inside the lane. Remarkably great buildings are standing on both sides of the lane.
Walking along the road, I reached in front of the house of Gouri Sen. His name is quite well known in Bengali Society. There is a proverb, “Lage taka debe Gouri Sen” (If you need money, Gouri Sen will provide).
Actually, Gouri Shankar Sen was a trader of Hooghly in the 17th Century. After purchasing an old ship at a cheap rate, he found tons of silver inside the ship. This made him rich. He built a house in Bandel. Apart from his trading, he donated and begged a lot of money if somebody asked for his help. Gradually the stories of his kind and charity became popular in Bengal.
From Boral Lane we started walking to the Hooghly Imambara. The Imambara was founded by Haji Muhammad Mohsin, a great Bengali philanthropist. He belonged to a rich Shia Muslim family and after performing Hajj, he achieved the title Haji. After coming back, he built the Imambara and played a significant role in the independence movement of India.
From the arched way, I entered inside the Imambara. The building, designed by Keramatullah Khan, is a two storied structure where a pool and fountains are placed in the centre of the courtyard. The interior of the Imambara is decorated with marbles, candles and hanging lanterns. The prayer hall has intricate designs and texts from the Quran engraved on the eastern wall.
I went towards the east where a sun clock is set.
The prime attraction of the Imambara is the clock towers. Two 85 feet high towers are respectively reserved for men and women and each of them contains a set of 152 stairs. I climbed the tower and got a breath-taking view of the Hooghly including the Jubilee Bridge.
We waited there till the Sunset. Meanwhile, I went to the mausoleum of Haji Muhammad Mohsin which is located at a distance of a few years towards the South of Imambara. The main tomb consists of four columns topped by a dome.
I came back to the Imambara and waited till the dusk set in. When the guards blew the closing whistle, I came out and got a train from the Hooghly Ghat Station for Sealdah.
Trains from Howrah or Sealdah are the quickest, cheapest and most comfortable options. Alternatively, Train from Sealdah to Naihati, followed by Naihat-Bandel local can also be availed. Another option is to avail ferry service from Naihati to Bandel, followed by toto to Imambara or Bandel Church.