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A SHORT HISTORY OF BANDEL BASILICA
The story of Bandel begins with the first Portuguese settlements in Bengal. Most historians agree that in 1537 an Admiral Sampayo entered the river Hooghly with nine Portuguese vessels to support Muhammad Shah, the Pathan Nawab of Gaur who being hard pressed by the famous Sher Khan, had asked the Portuguese representative in Goa for assistance. As a reward for their efforts the Nawab allowed the Portuguese to set up a factory at a spot close to the present Hooghly jail.
In 1579 the Portuguese constructed a port on the bank of the river Hooghly. It became a centre of trade and commerce. To protect their interest they built a fort. They soon secured the religious services of a small band of Augustinian friars from Goa. About the year 1580, a certain Captain Pedro Tavares, a great favourite of the Moghul emperor Akbar, obtained from him full liberty to preach the Christian faith publicly and to erect churches. In 1599 monastery and church were established at Bandel, a village about a mile from the factory.
THE DESTRUCTION OF THE PORTUGUESE SETTLEMENT
About the year 1622, Prince Harun, afterwards Emperor Shah Jahan, revolted against his father Jahangir and asked the Portuguese governor at Hooghly, Michael Rodrigues, to help him with men and artillery which he refused. Shah Jahan who ascended the throne in 1628, ordered the Mughal Subedar of Bengal to exterminate the Portuguese. In the year 1632, the Subedar laid siege to the fort. The Portuguese were betrayed by one of their own soldiers. The enemy was given secret entrance to the fort; their set on fire the arsenal, took possession of all the arms and blew up the fortifications. The panic stricken people were massacred without mercy. The governor was captured and burnt alive and over four thousand men, women and children were made prisoners and carried off to Agra, the then capital of the Mughal Empire. All the churches and other public buildings were raised to the ground. The only place which escaped with slight damage was the monastery at Bandel. It must be borne in mind that the Portuguese had mingled with the local population and at the time of the siege they fought together with the Portuguese against the invaders.
RETURN FROM AGRA
At a grand Durbar in Agra, four savage, famished, wild elephants made a dash at the prisoners. But their fury vanished and they grew calm. The biggest elephant approached Fr. Da Cruz an aged priest, caught him by its trunk and set him on its back. It approached the Emperor, knelt down before him and bowing its head, saluted him with its trunk. The crowd considered this a divine intervention. They shouted that Christians were friends of Allah and should be set free. Shah Jahan sent the Christians back to Bandel commissioning them to rebuild the mission. The emperor presented Fr. Da Cruz and the Christians with money and 777 bighas of land in the village of Bandel around the monastery by a Firman. On returning to Bandel they began immediately to rebuild the church from the ruins of the old one. The work of reconstruction was over in the year 1640.
THE STATUE OF OUR LADY OF HAPPY VOYAGE
The centre of attraction at Bandel Church is the statue of Our Lady of Happy Voyage high up in the niche on the topmost part of the façade. Originally this statue was on the altar of the military chapel attached to the Portuguese factory which was destroyed in 1632 during the siege of Hooghly. One merchant Tiago tried to take the statue to safety to the other side of the river. But struck by arrows he disappeared with the statue in the water. During one stormy night after the return of the Christians from the Agra, Fr. Da Cruz saw a strange light on the river bank and heard a voice like that of his old merchant friend Tiago calling him. “Hail, hail, hail to Our Lady of Happy Voyage who has given us victory. Arise, arise, O father and pray for us all”. Early next morning some villagers were seen near the church shouting. “Guru Ma” (the Blessed Mother) has come back. To his surprise Fr. Da Cruz found the lost statue of the virgin a few yards away from the gate of the church. He placed the statue on the main altar of the church. In 1910, the statue was moved to the balcony of the church.
THE MAST, A CAPTAIN’S OFFERING
While the celebrations for the blessing of the rebuilt of the church were in progress a large Portuguese ship appeared on the riverbank. The ship had encountered a terrific storm in the Bay of Bengal. The captain, a deeply religious man, had made a vow to the Blessed Virgin in thanksgiving for being saved from the shipwreck : he had one mast of the vessel removed and presented to the church. He had fixed in the ground infront of the Church where it still stands.