BANDRA FEAST MEMORIES
Praying, Eating and Loving at Bandra Feast
Eat… Pray… Love. It’s a well-known book by Elizabeth Gilbert….But it’s also a catchphrase that pretty much sums up what people in Bandra-— a suburb in the megacity of Mumbai — do during the month of September. The reason being that the suburb celebrates the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary with great fervour. At the centre of the devotions is the Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount. The 8th of September is observed by Catholics all over the world as the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. So that is the “proper day” day of the feast. But for Bandraites, if the 8th of September occurs on a weekday (Monday to Saturday), then the feast begins on the Sunday immediately after the 8th and extends till the next Sunday.
So Bandra wears a festive air that makes it seem like a mini Christmas. The annual week-long Bandra Fair (with street food stalls, amusement rides on merry go rounds, tumbling boxes and ferris wheels, daredevil stunt acts, handicraft stalls, toy stalls) which is held in the vicinity of the basilica brings a surge of people from all over Mumbai into the suburb. If you are a Catholic born and bred in Bandra it's also a time when you're expected to host visiting relatives and friends from other parts of Mumbai. A traditional Bandra Feast day meal would include foogias, chityaps, fragrant rice pulao, pork vindaloo and/or sorpotel, roast chicken, thali sweet /bol de coc, khimad, homemade wine and a variety of cocktails and mocktails. Also, relatives who have emigrated to foreign shores (and are unable to visit at Christmas time ) try to visit at this time, never mind the noise and the dust and the CROWDS!!! So yes, a lot of eating drinking and merrymaking happens. But does that mean that there’s a lot of love in the air…. aha… aha…now….whether your relatives come out of genuine love or just to keep up appearances or just to enjoy one heck of a good free party….well, that’s a matter of conjecture.
But one thing is for sure. Though primarily a Christian feast, “Bandra feast” as it is colloquially called certainly witnesses more prayers than at Christmas and Easter. Not only the local Catholics of Mumbai, but people of all different faiths from all over Mumbai and its peripheral semi-urban areas, and yes even other states of India throng to “Mount Mary Church” as it is affectionately known, to pray to their Divine Mother Mary to take away all their troubles in life. And for countless devotees, She has done just that.
Devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary on this hillock at the Southwestern end of the suburb of Bandra, began about four centuries ago. In 1570 the Jesuit fathers built a simple mud thatched oratory for their private devotion on this hill. A wooden statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary brought from Portugal was placed on the altar. This simple shrine began to attract devotees. In 1640, this was enlarged into a chapel for the use of the Portuguese garrison which was stationed at the fort built in the same year at the southern tip of Bandra called Land’s End. In 1700 the shrine was ransacked by pirates in search of treasure, and the right arm of statue was chopped off. They were stopped from doing further damage because they were stung by an army of angry bees. People believed this to be a miraculous intervention of Our Lady. In the ensuing years of political instability between the British, the Portuguese and the Marathas, and of further damage to the chapel, the original statue went missing and was believed to have been thrown in the sea. Legend has it that local fishermen found it and hid it for some time in a fissure of rock and later gave it to a nearby church. In 1761 the damaged chapel was rebuilt. At this time also the damaged statue was found repaired and reinstated in the newly built Mount Mary chapel. The finding and re-statement of the original statue, gave a fillip to the religious devotions of people, from all faiths. The building of the present semi Gothic structure began in 1902 and was completed in 1904. The church was raised to the status of a minor basilica in 1954.
The modes of transport bringing devotees from other parts of Bombay (as Mumbai was called then) to Bandra also changed over time. Difficult journeys by ferry boats and recklas (fancily decorated bullock carts) were made much easier because of the construction of the Mahim Causeway. The causeway was built by a Parsi philanthropist Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and his wife Lady Avabai in 1845. It was built to improve the travel route from the island of Bombay to Bandra after a boat capsizing tragedy that happened in between Mahim and Bandra in1841. It was also built in personal thanksgiving as a few years before this Lady Avabai’s prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mary had been answered and they were now blessed with a girl child!
As a little girl, however, I did not know all these historical facts. And it was not the semi-Gothic grandeur of the Basilica that impressed me then, but it was the rounded river-pebble surface of the ground and the crunchy sound that my shoes made against it that intrigued me! And to be honest, the Bandra Fair was the more fun-filled attraction for me.
Somewhere along with the transition from childhood to adolescence, my family stopped attending the feast Mass on the 8th or on the first Sunday of that week at the Basilica. Because of the increasing crowds and traffic problems, we chose instead to hear Mass either at St Andrew’s or St Peter’s church, both of which was closer to my home than the Basilica. But we continued to make a special annual visit to the shrine, in the middle of the feast week when the crowds were less. Like almost all Catholics families, we recited traditional Marian prayers to our Blessed Virgin Mother for our health, safety and well being and in gratitude for any favours and blessings bestowed on us.
But after getting married it was my husband who was always keen on hearing Mass at the Basilica on the first Sunday of the feast week. And it was me who always said, “Why do we need to go to Mount Mary’s, with all that crowd and pushing and jostling when it's so much more peaceful here at our St. Anne’s parish church?” St. Anne’s Church sits atop the other hill in Bandra — Pali Hill, on the northwestern side of Bandra.
Like Mount Marys Basilica, St Anne’s Church is also built in a cruciform style with the altar in the east, facing towards the sea. It’s dedicated to St. Anne, the grandmother of Jesus and the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and has a statue depicting St Anne with little daughter Mary near its altar. During the nine days of the novena preceding the 8th of September and through Bandra Feast week there even is a statue of a baby Mary in a cradle bedecked with flowers and swathes of blue satin fabric artistically draped around the cradle. So to my adult mind, our parish church seemed to be the more apt church to pray in on the Nativity of Mary. For a few years, my husband went along with my sentiments. Besides, it also made practical sense to avoid the Sunday feast day rush, when our daughter was under 5 years of age.
However, we would visit the Basilica in the middle of the week, say a short prayer and offer votive candles. One of our more material needs was granted you could say because of simple childlike faith. At that time we needed a new vehicle to commute weekly between Bandra and our farm in a village outside of Mumbai, where we grow sustainably nurtured fruits, vegetables and poultry. So my daughter who was then in pre-primary school decided to offer a car shaped wax candle instead of the regular candles that we offered every year. We did NOT pray aloud together as a family for this need to be granted. But yes, shortly after that, the loan we had applied for materialised. We acquired our much needed new vehicle. And in that vehicle, we made several joyful work journeys, between Bandra and our farmhouse and neighbouring villages.
And then one year, it was the turn of our parish choir to sing at the main feast Mass at Mount Mary’s on the feast Sunday. Some of the choir members who knew we had a large vehicle, politely asked if my husband would drive them to the shrine. He willingly agreed! Even though we now had 2 small children, my daughter about 7 years old and my son almost 2 years old!! Despite coming in early we could not get in together as a group. The crowd entering for the service was moving in the right direction to enter, but the crowd exiting from the previous service was not following the arrow signs. In the ensuing chaos, I got separated from my family. From the slightly elevated position of the choir stand which I had somehow scrambled to reach, I could not see my family in the throng of people. How would my husband manage to hold firmly on to my daughter's hand and at the same time carry my son?. What if my daughter had got separated from my husband and was lost in the crowd?! So the entrance hymn went by in a blur of anxiety for me. It was only when the congregation sat down to listen to the liturgical readings that I spotted the 3 of them standing in one of the side aisles.! I heaved a sigh of relief. That's when I noticed that there were so many young mothers like me, some of them with babies who looked just a few months old. Many of them were from other faiths, the women recognisably so, because they had a dupatta covering their heads. Of course, I knew that this beautiful shrine had always attracted people of all faiths. Every year there are photographs in the newspapers showing this multi-religious group of worshippers. But for the first time in my adult life, I witnessed it for real. What’s more, there were accident victims, paralysed persons in wheelchairs and people in the last stages of terminal illnesses, with medical contraptions attached to them. They had probably come by a combination of train, bus and car. They had even braved the heavy but short burst of rain as well, to get here. I realised just how very blessed my life had been so far. And how much faith and hope people placed in the power of divine intercession, to ease their burdens in life.
After this, I started to visit the shrine, at different times in the year, though still sporadically, just to have a few moments of peaceful alone time.
Before long my daughter was in college and my son in his final year of school. On the first day of his grade 10 exam, a group of us anxious moms having settled our children into the examination centre decided spontaneously, “let's go to Mount Mary’s to pray”. We kept this up through the whole fortnight of exams praying the rosary together at the shrine, while our children were in the examination hall answering exam papers. Our collective prayers were answered because all of our children did reasonably well in the exams and got into the colleges that they had hoped to. Around this time I also went through a lot of difficult emotional upheavals with family members, as also financial difficulties. So once again I started going more frequently to Mount Mary’s and praying more fervently. My difficulties have not gone away completely but I began to experience in small ways that oftentimes a happy ‘coincidence’ is just God working small miracles in your life.
I also began to appreciate more deeply the syncretic nature of this beautiful church.
Meanwhile, our little prayer sorority continued to meet at Mount Mary”s, (sometimes most of us, sometimes a few of us, once or twice in a month depending on work schedules) and pray and support each other through good and bad times in our lives, even after our children had graduated from college. And the good part was that even though we were quite a close-knit group, it did not matter if we did not disclose the full details of our troubles to all members of the group. We still prayed together to Mother Mary for healing or lessening of our problems. And once in a blue moon, we treated ourselves to a meal at a restaurant, to celebrate this fact.
The COVID 19 pandemic however radically changed all of that for us. But we were persuaded to adapt to the change and start praying online, by the only non-catholic lady in our group. She took the initiative to form our little nine-member online group which prayed together every afternoon (through the whole duration of the India wide lockdown). So via video meetings, we prayed, for protection from the dreaded coronavirus and for the safety of some of our family members and children who are now abroad on work or further studies. During the lockdown, these video meetings were our spiritual support group and our social lifeline. Our Whatsapp group also became a forum to exchange recipes since all of us were dealing with hungry and bored family members 24/7!! And it also became a forum for exchanging practical tips to cope with inexplicable anxieties and the exhausting, nerve-wracking challenge of frequent sanitisation of personal belongings and spaces. Now that the lockdown, has been partially lifted, and life has gone back to a new normal, we still strive to video meet as often as we can.
What could the new normal have been for Bandra of the early 1900's? For ‘the queen of suburbs’ (as Bandra was known) had a faced a similar health crisis in the late 1800s. From about 1895 onwards for several years the Bubonic Plague that raged over other parts of the world also affected Bombay. People moved out from crowded areas of South- central Bombay into the verdant suburbs of Bandra, to escape exposure to the dreaded disease. Some of the many crosses that dot the landscape of Bandra were possibly built to invoke protection from the scourge of the ‘Black Death’. The planning to build the present magnificent structure of the Basilica began in 1900 when this epidemic was still claiming many lives. When the present shrine was opened for worship, the epidemic had not yet receded completely.
Then around World War I in 1918–1919 there was the Spanish Flu epidemic which spread over many parts of the world. It devastated Bombay and was dubbed the Bombay Fever, in India.
For many people suffering from any common tragedy man made or natural, praying together in a small community, in a public place of worship or in a community space, does offer much-needed solace. But in any pandemic, congregating together for any purpose would result in accelerating its spread.
We cannot even begin to imagine how families of those pandemic times would have coped, with physical isolation that would have been inevitable when a loved one contracted the dreaded disease. That too in the days when electricity was not commonly available to people in their homes, And when telephone connections were a rare privilege. And the internet was absolutely unheard of!
The COVID 19 pandemic has forced all places of worship to be closed in India. It's probably the first time that Mount Mary’s church has been closed for worship at Bandra Feast time. And so the extremely popular 9-day novena services prior to the feast and all the Eucharistic services connected with the feast are being conducted virtually. People in olden times did not have this option, therefore social and physical isolation was a much harsher and absolute reality. So definitely the technological marvel of being able to stay connected virtually, across continents, at any time of any night and day, through this pandemic of unprecedented magnitude has been the hidden blessing in all of our lives.