Thursday, February 3, 2011

Discovering Mumbai through the bylanes of Bandra

“This is an ode to Mumbai. My muse, my whore, my wife”.
These are extremely profound lines mouthed by Aamir Kahn in the recent movie ‘Dhobi Ghat’ and I felt they sum up this city to its lovers so aptly. It is truly the exploiter and exploited in every sense of the word. It is many things to many people and the more you discover it, the more mysterious it gets. I came to Mumbai as an outsider 8 years back and the city enveloped me as if I always belonged. I remember in my first week here, I was sitting in an auto outside Andheri station and felt mankind walk past me in a hurry to be places and do things. I still see the wonder and awe of people who have newly moved to the city in the initial few weeks while they are still coming to terms with its frenetic pace and trying to get rid of the pangs of homesickness they suffer in an alien city. It is these people who come and join it from various walks of life and distinct cultures that make Mumbai a truly cosmopolitan melting pot of people, cultures, cuisines, architectures and ways of life. No other part of Mumbai bears testimony to this fact as strongly as Bandra, a small hilly suburb in Central Mumbai which historically was a marsh land inhabited only by rice farmers. But, today this is an up and coming neighbourhood where heritage bungalows fight for space with new developments and swanky pubs and is considered to be the ‘it’ place for all young people to hang out in.
I have been as mesmerized by Bandra and its eating joints as I have been of Mumbai and jumped at the chance of discovering more about this neighbourhood and its roots when I saw the invitation for a heritage walk around the by lanes of Bandra that would trace its churches and villages.  This was a walk conducted by an organization called ‘Beyond Mumbai’ run by Mumbai enthusiasts who make a living out of discovering the ‘off the beaten’ track details about this city. Our starting point was the Mount Mary Church, one of the most well-known churches in Mumbai that attracts people from all faiths and religions since time immemorial. I myself have been to Mount Mary innumerable times to pray and to find some peace and quiet in an otherwise chaotic city. But it is through the walk that I discovered some very fantastic details about the church and its history.  I found out that the statue of Mother Mary that adorns the church was first sculpted in the early 15th century by Portuguese merchants who considered Bandra to be only a lookout point to see if their merchandise was reaching South Mumbai docks safely. Apparently, the statue was stolen and thrown into the sea three times but miraculously recovered each time by the sea faring fishermen or ‘kolis’ of the Bandra village. This repeated rescue by the locals made the natives believe in its miraculous healing powers and it is they who constructed a small make shift church using wood and mud for Mother Mary which in 1904 was turned into the magnificent structure that we see today. The locals felt a part of the legend of Mother Mary and hence, visited her shrine often to pay their respects, hence starting the tradition of people from other religions visiting the Mount Mary Church
Mount Mary Church, Bandra
I also learnt that the road leading up to the Mount Mary church which also houses the Mount Mary fair every year is one of the oldest roads of Mumbai. On that cool January afternoon, there were only a few stall selling candles for worship open. But these were not normal candles. I saw several candles shaped like eyes, legs, ears, heart and even cars and houses. On speaking to a shopkeeper, I found out that the locals believed immensely in the healing power of Mother Mary and believed that if they lit a candle in the shape of  the body part that needed healing, their wish would be granted. Of course in modern times this belief had extended to other areas like career, property etc. So today, there are also candles shaped like aircrafts being sold for people who want to make a career in the airline industry and hotels for people who want to enter the hospitality industry. Well, I must say as our wishes and aspirations have grown, we have learnt to be very specific in what we pray for to God and leave nothing to chanceJ. Do visit these stalls and buy a candle of your choice if you visit Mount Mary church the next time.

Wishing candles outside Mount Mary
As we meandered down the lane, we came across another church called the St Stephen’s church built at the end of the road. While I crossed this church many times in the past, I never stopped to take a look at this little building which seemed almost obscure in front of the grandeur of Mount Mary. But I learnt that as the East India Company started making Mumbai and Bandra its strong hold, it started posting more and more officers in the Bandra region as it considered this to be of tactical importance in its trade in India. These British officers did not feel comfortable worshipping in the Mount Mary Church along with several locals who thronged the building and hence built the smaller St Stephen’s church for themselves. St Stephens is also a protestant church while Mount Mary a catholic church. I wish I could have gone inside to see how the churches of these two faiths are different but unfortunately the church was closed, though we did get the chance to rest for a bit in the garden outside and spoke to Father Benedict who ran the church. Funnily enough, he said he was good friends with the Fathers who ran the Mount Mary Church and was an active participant in the Mount Mary festival. It was heart-warming to see these men of cloth overcome their differences and co-exist together proving that though methods of worship are different, God is one.

The smaller and more obscure St Stephens Church
As we walked away contemplating the spiritual oneness of the churches, Shriti our guide told us about the Bandra of the past. Bandra or Vandre as it is known in Marathi was a small collection of villages whose main occupation was fishing and rice cultivation. It is the Portuguese who first saw the potential to make Bandra an important docking point for merchandise and as more Portuguese merchant presence was seen here, traders from nearby parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan and the Konkan areas also started coming to Bandra and made it their home. It was with the influx of so many Portuguese officers that the need was felt for a place of worship and several churches including the Mount Mary and St Andrews came into existence. Slowly, Bandra became such a bustling neighbourhood that the Portuguese were forced to appoint a Mayor for this village who would be responsible for its governance and upkeep. Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy, an eminent Parsi merchant was given the charge to be the first mayor of Bandra in the early 19th century. In fact, the credit to make Mount Mary and Bandra more accessible to the general public from the villages and the mainland goes to the Jeejeebhoy family. Legend has it that when Jeejeebhoy saw the throngs of worshippers coming to Mount Mary increase on a daily basis, he had the famous staircases constructed on either sides of the road of the Church. Also, that was the time when Bandra was connected to the mainland only by ferry and not by road. When Jeejebhoy’s little son fell critically ill, his wife Avabai used to visit the Mount Mary church almost every day for an year by ferry. When their son recovered, Avabai had the ‘Mahim’ causeway constructed so that worshippers from the mainland could access the church more easily.  It is touching to see a family of foreign faith; in a public office do something voluntarily to make the life of common man easier. One wishes that we had more people like them in the public office today. Indeed the Jeejebhoy’s contribution in making Mumbai and Bandra what they are today is immeasurable and not easily forgotten.

Steps leading to Mount Mary constructed by Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy in the early 19th century (One wishes that the roads constructed today are as sturdy as these steps that have stood the test of time for over a century)
Holden Caulfield in the ‘Catcher in the Rye’ said that he liked the education he got from detours rather than sticking to the beaten path. I too discovered the thrill of a detour when the group I was with decided to go and see the Anish Kapoor art exhibition that was on at Mehboob studios. While I had heard about Anish Kapoor, I am not a big art lover or follower and find modern art a tad too esoteric for my taste. But, the New Year was supposed to be about trying new things and I tagged along with the group for this crash course into Anish Kapoor’s art. At the beginning, when I entered the hall, I was thoroughly underwhelmed when I saw that the exhibition was just a large hall with mirrors of different shapes and sizes hung at interesting angles on the walls. I couldn’t wait for the group to finish their ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ so that we could re-commence our tour that had taken such an abrupt detour. It was only when the guide pulled me to see a live exhibit of Kapoor’s interpretation of the blood and gore of war that I sat up and took notice of what he was trying to say. The live exhibit consisted of a cannon that fired a blood ball onto a wall opposite it and the wall depicted the carnage that is left in the aftermath of war. I was sorry I could not take a picture of it but it was the hardest hitting piece of art (if that was what I can call it) that I had seen and it was only then that I tried to understand what Kapoor was trying to say through his various exhibits. The mirrors were cut and hung in a way that one got a different image from different angles. I realized it truly reflected the human perception because we saw reflected on it only what was reality to us and the only truth that exists is our interpretation of it. Of course, I would not have got this profound insight if I had not cheated and read the literature on each of his sculpturesJ. But it was a once in a life time experience for me and I am glad we took the detour.

Altar at St Andrews
We proceeded to the St Andrews church from there, one of the shining examples of Portuguese workmanship and art situated bang in the middle of Bandra.  St Andrews gave us an insight into the people and families that had accepted the faith in Bandra and chose to live generation after generation tied to the church and its philosophy. The compound around the church was full of gravestones where generations of a family were buried and it was all I could do to not step on any gravestone and have someone’s soul turn over in their graveJ. It is here that I learnt about the genealogies of several Christian families in Bandra and the difference that existed in the Portuguese conversions and the British conversions of the locals into Christianity. The guide told us that when the British aimed to convert people, they started with the high classed Brahmins and explained the gospel and the rituals to them such that they converted not just in terms of faith but also in terms of way of life. But, the Portuguese targeted the poor farmers and families from the lower class where conversion was the only chance for the farmers to keep their land in the family. So the conversion was more about change in faith but not so much the way of life. This fact is seen in the interesting cuisine that is served in the houses of the Portuguese Christians which still retains its local flavour and in their way of life which is an interesting mix of Christian and Konkan living.

A traditional family gravestone at St Andrews. Some gravestones can have as many as 25 family members buried under them across generations
The last stop on this culturally enriching sojourn was the Ranwara village. I learnt that Bandra was a collection of 24 traditional rice producing villages and Ranwara was one such village that had maintained its old world charm. The village consisted of houses built in the traditional rice farmer mould with a cluster of houses congregated around a square. The square was used as a community meeting place where ladies watched over their children play in the evenings and where social events and parties took place in which everyone from the community participated. Certain squares also had small oratories built in them where religious feasts took place.

An oratory situated in a square at Ranwara village

A 1000 year old house in the Ranwara village still maintained in pristine condition
Legend has it that a wedding in the Ranwara village lasted for all of 7 days in which the ladies from the community cooked all the meals. Th
is tradition still persists though the wedding celebrations have been cut down to 3 days now. The architecture of the houses was also unique with an emphasis on space conservation, so much so that even staircases were built outside the house instead of inside to save on space. I found the square concept fascinating, as it ensured a strong sense of community and that one never felt isolated living in such a village. It was sad to see that most of the squares today were being used as parking spaces for vehicles but some squares were still functioning and in good shape.

The villages were also cleverly constructed such that each of them would lead into the bazaar that served as an integration point to all the communities, where they could sell their wares. These bazaars would in turn lead to the docks from where the merchants could ship their merchandise. I wondered that in the past, even rice farmers seemed to have given a deep thought to town planning and built their houses and places of trade in a cohesive manner. Then why can’t we with all the technology that is available to us today be so organized about urban planning. The trip into the village did make me wish that I lived in a place where the sense of community was so strong and where the biting isolation of living in a big, bad city like Mumbai fades away amidst the sounds of community cooking for feasts and lusty songs sung at weddings where one forgot who the host was and who the guest was. We rounded off the walk with a drink and some music at one of the well known pubs in the vicinty, thus rounding off the Bandra adventure in the truest of spirits :-)


  1. Much of whatever history you have written is not correct. Kindly contact the Rector of Mount Mary Basilica for a copy of the Sovenir of St. Andrew Church which will give you the correct fact of Bandra. Alternatively contact me for xerox copies of the