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Impressions of an era

Ranjita Biswas Dec 16 2017, 21:55 IST

The New Market in Kolkata is arguably the oldest 'supermarket' in India, offering everything from food to clothes to sewing material. It was founded during the British colonial days with the name 'Hogg's Market'. Despite many dazzling malls in the city, the New Market remains a favourite shopping destination.

Old-timers, expats and food aficionados make a beeline for one of New Market's most popular food items with a touch of Europe, the Bandel cheese - plain or smoked, a Portuguese concoction.

The Portuguese are believed to be the first Europeans to settle down in Bengal. They also built the first Christian Church in Bengal.

Vasco da Gama arrived in Kerala in 1498. Within 100 years, Portuguese settlers were seen living on the banks of the Hooghly river. Their stay was rather brief, overwhelmed as they were by other European powers who made a beeline for the Bay of Bengal's hinterland because of its proximity to the lucrative market in the Far East.

But the Portuguese left behind a culinary tradition that changed the platter of Bengali cuisine and dessert-making. Bengal is famous for its sweets made of cottage cheese, chhena. The art of cheese-making was introduced by the Portuguese. Prior to that, food historians say, there were only fried sweets made of rice powder, refined flour, or other ingredients. The salted Bandel cheese is another legacy they left behind.

A bit of the Portuguese legacy can be discovered in Bandel, about 50 km from Kolkata, which is today known for the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. It was constructed in 1599, making it the oldest Christian Church in West Bengal. The Mughals had demolished it in 1632, but it was rebuilt soon.

A giant tale

In 1632, Emperor Shah Jahan's army attacked the Portuguese settlement, including a small fort. They could not stand up to the might of the Mughal army; their fort and the church were destroyed. Father Joan De Cruz was taken a prisoner to Agra. There, he was to face death by getting trampled under the feet of an elephant, a royal punishment common in those days. But, as the legend goes, the elephant stopped in front of the priest and instead of killing him, lifted him by its trunk and placed him on its back.

The miracle convinced the king that the priest was a holy man. He not only set him and his followers free but also provided tax-free land for the construction of the new church at the same spot.

There are other miracles associated with the church. During the siege by the Mughals, a local Christian named Taigo, desperate to save the statue, dived into the Hooghly river with it. He was never seen again. But on the day of the church's inauguration, the statue appeared on the Hooghly banks.

On the same day, a Portuguese storm-battered ship reached the banks. The crew, however, survived. When the storm engulfed them, the captain promised that he would offer the main mast of the ship to the first church he came across, and so he did. The Portuguese word for mast was 'bandel', so the church was called Bandel Church. The mast, somewhat in a diminished state, is in the church's compound. It has been declared a 'heritage item' by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Of what remains

When you visit the church today, it does not seem that old, because it has been reconstructed several times. The rather over-bright paint on the façade also mars its aura of antiquity.

Inside the church, the atmosphere is sombre, and the prayer hall, with its wooden pews, reminds you of the olden days. The church was declared a mini basilica by Pope John Paul II, dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, in 1988. Besides her altar, the other two on the side contain a statue of Jesus and St John Bosco. You can enter the prayer hall even if a Sunday mass is going on, but respect the devotees' privilege and maintain silence.

A spiralling staircase leads to the top balcony where devotees are seen lighting candles in front of the image of the statue depicting Mary with baby Jesus on a boat.

From the balcony, there's the view of the beautiful Jubilee Bridge spanning across the Hooghly. In 1887, it was built to mark the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria's reign; it's also one of the oldest-operating rail-bridges in the world.

Thousands of pilgrims and tourists visit the Bandel Church during Christmas.

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