Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Railway Company Dropped the "O"

Kaumudi Marathe
with inputs from Sanjiv Bajaj and Sualeh Fatehi

Crooked, narrow lanes, cottages with red tiled roofs, white-washed crosses marking every corner, fishing nets hung up to mend, a view of palm trees, azure skies, and boats bobbing up and down gently on a glittering green ocean. A gentle breeze, an aroma of prawn balchao, ah the feeling of lazy summer. Ah Goa!

Oh, but no! This is not Goa. This is "a little town on the Thana coast... the most obscure place in the south west corner of Salsette... that bears a name famous in the annals of Catholic religion in the North Konkan - Bandra." The place about which traveller-writer-painter James Douglas wrote in 1892, "Bandara, Mahim, Thana are fishy, fishier, fishiest, a region of blue bottle flies where the land is manured, and the trees also with fish."

Today the smell of fish is hardly discernible, but pockets of this Bombay suburb still retain vestiges of its Portuguese, British and Koli ancestry. An area of gracious villas, Goan style villages, and churches, Bandra has come a long way since the Portuguese first arrived there in 1507.

One legend has it that the area got its name - it has been called Vandra, Bandor, Bandera, Bandura and Bandora over the ages - "when the Areans first arrived.... they observed the dark shapes of fishermen that they thought were monkeys." Hence Vandra and its distortions various.

Whatever the origin, the locality was commonly called Bandora till 1894 when, according to writer Braz Fernandes "the Railway Company dropped the 'o' and changed the station boards to Bandra."

A suburb, with much greenery, and pleasant residential neighbourhoods, Bandra was once sandy beaches, rolling hills and little villages "separated by rice fields and vegetable gardens. In 1695, it was divided into 25 such settlements. Believe it or not, many of them are still alive and thriving - Salgado is the modern-day Khar, Xelalim and Rajana have become the Sherly-Rajan village tourists flock to see; Cantawari is the Kantwadi area; Colario Grande is Koliwada, and Colario de lgreja is the modern Chimbai.

St Andrew's Church
This fishing village is just off busy Hill Road, on the seashore. At its entrance is St Andrew's Church, the oldest standing structure in Bandra. It was built in 1575 when the Portuguese missionary Father Manuel Gomes converted 2,000 fishermen to Christianity. St Andrew's, stucco-plastered and lightly embellished in the style of most Portuguese-Goan churches, is set in the middle of large burial grounds. Till 1853 it was the only place where Bandra residents could bury their dead. Old pictures of it show a large sloping roofed porch, added on in 1890. But now it's gone, and more and more graves have filled up the yard. "In May 1618... a general and diabolical storm occurred in the neighbourhood of Bombaim." Twenty-five churches were damaged; St Andrew's roof flew off. Other than that, it has remained in good shape, as can be seen 376 years later.

In the yard is a large cross moved there by one Father Francis d'Mello and set on a pedestal in 1870. It's the only tangible reminder of one of Bombay's oldest colleges and Jesuit missions - St Anne's, which was situated in extensive grounds stretching from "a point near Mahim causeway where now stands a mosque... to the slaughterhouse compounds." It was destroyed by the British when they look over the colony of Bandora from the Portuguese.

All around are graves - some are of families-Pimentas, Correas, Fernandes, Rodrigues - buried close together. One grave bears no name. It simply states that the person died in 1992 aged 97. What changes in Bandra those eyes must have seen, from the times when relatives came from Bombay to Bandra for the summer holidays to enjoy the breezes and the beaches, when travelling meant a day's expedition with a picnic lunch and a good supply of water, to a time when commuters could go the distance twice in a day and think nothing of it.

Opposite the church is an interesting building - Serpes Villa, a three-storey Mediterranean structure, set against clear skies, with views of lanes winding off from sight towards the sea. It resembles somehow a fragment of a bombed building. Inside a cool, dark room, surrounded by old photographs and picture of Mother Mary, a man sits reading his paper in the peace of the afternoon.

The site of the ancient village of Partharwar, now extinct, is occupied by St Joseph's Convent. On Hill Road, opposite St Peter's Church and St Stanislaus School, it is just one more calm and beautiful part of Bombay's architectural heritage. The day school, boarding and orphanage are run by the Order of the Daughters of the Cross, founded in 1855 in Liege, Belgium.

St Joseph's Convent
The carefully tended gardens and pathways of St Joseph's, ornamented with button roses and multicoloured bougainvillea, are a delightful walk. So is the chapel suffused by a green glow. From the stained glass? The glow is indeed from the glass but it's not stained. Opaque green glass with red trim is set into the windows. On the outside metal sheet there are cutouts in the shape of horses, cherubs and other motifs. Seen from within they give an effect almost as beautiful than their certainly more expensive and intricate cousin.

St Peter's Church is a relatively new structure, built in 1939. A large impressive building, it has come a long way from "a temporary chapel of bamboo, thatched with coconut leaves" of 1879. Its school, St Stanislaus was opened by the Jesuits in 1861, the first English boys' school in Bandra.

The church is in regular use - as parishioners indulge in a chat after Mass, obstreperous schoolboys bat vigorously away at a rubber ball, unconcerned about hitting sixers into the graveyard nearby. Most graves are marked by plaster crosses or statues of angels, decorated with doves, ivy leaves, and curlicues. One stone reads "In memory of Euphrosyne, relict of Joseph Coelho." Another, bordered by whitewashed bricks and covered with bright pink flowers is an everlasting tribute lo a loved one.

Further down Hill Road, which was built in 1854, the Mediterranean images continue, with occasional intrusions creeping in. The lovely Pearl Villa glows white. Another once-gracious mansion nearby is crumbling. Its ground floor has been given over lo a music store and a restaurant whose laminated interiors jar. A delightful cold drink place is discovered a few steps down. Dark and dingy, it nevertheless contains remnants of beautiful wooden furniture - an old cupboard and a column encased in wood and panelled with mirrors. A gilt sign on the glass reads, "Please do not sit longer."

Thus admonished, it's necessary to walk again. Around the corner is Waroda Road. Waroda was traditionally a settlement of well-to-do Christian cultivators. Its winding path leads to Rauna village and then to Vir Savarkar Marg. At Rauna is the municipal market, built with Rs 4,450 from the Local Fund in 1874, two years before Bandra became a municipality. The market buildings, still in use, form the hub of Rauna village life. Here, and all over Bandra, roamed the Bandra pigs. "Every day and all day they are patrolling the streets and highways...."

Veronica Road which demarcates the boundaries of Waroda and Rauna runs, twistingly, to Bandra Reclamation, lined by residences "straight" from Mapusa or Candolim. Hymns can be heard on a tape recorder, young men in shorts discuss football scores, and children run around half-naked in the heat. One never knows where the road will lead - more and more lovely villas appear and disappear with each turn.

Before all this building took place, when paddy fields stood where houses now do, the sea was visible from here. Just such a view must have inspired James Douglas to write in 1886:
To watch the morning ray
Purpling the Orient till it breaks away,
And burns and blazes into glorious day,
Thy towers, Bombay, Gleam bright, they say
Across the dark blue sea.

This article was published as part of a series - Best Foot Forward - in the Independent, on 28 April 1994.

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