Historians believe that in 1537 an Admiral Sampayo entered the river Hooghly with nine Portuguese ships to support Muhammad Shah who was then the Pathan Nawab of Gaur. The Nawabwasunder pressure put on by Sher Khan and had asked the Portuguese representative in Goa for help. As a reward for their help, the Nawab allowed the Portuguese to set up a factory at a spot close to the present Hooghly jail.
Around the middle of the 16th century, the Portuguese began using Bandel as a port. Around 1571, they were given permission by Akbar, the Mughal emperor, to build a town in Hooghly. This town was named Bandel (the name probably came from the Bengali word “bandar” which means “port”)
It was a Saturday morning and armed with two full and a half ticket (half ticket for Ankur), we boarded the Bandel local from Howrah station. There is a fleet of local EMU trains trains from Howrah which will take you to Bandel with frequency of approximately one train every 10 to 15 minute. It takes around 45 minutes to reach Bandel station.
Once you walk across the over-bridge and come out of the station, there is an “auto-rickshaw stand” right next to the station gate. Plan was to first go to Bandel Church (closest), then to Imambara (which is close to the church) and then go to Hangsheshwari temple (it is around 20-25 minutes in car).
The auto-rickshaw drivers will try to convince you to go for “reserve” saying they would cover all three sites and will not pick up anyone. Don’t fall in that trap. Bargain for a shared ride which will cost you somewhere from Rs 20/- to Rs 50/- per seat. Auto-rickshaws and Totos are readily available outside all these tourist spots and there is no need to reserve and shelve out a large sum of money.
Bandel Church is one of the oldest Christian churches in West Bengal and probably one of the oldest in India. This church stands as a memorial to the Portuguese settlement in Bengal. It was founded in 1599 and is dedicated to Nossa Senhora do Rosário, Our Lady of the Rosary. This first church was burnt down and a newer church was built over the ruin in 1660.
You enter the church through an arched gate and inside there is a huge open field. All around the field, there are statues of Jesus, Mother Mary and statues of several other saints and statues depicting events from life of Jesus. You have to enter a Church through the entrance gate and land in an open courtyard. In this courtyard, there are statues of Jesus and Mother Mary and one can light candles and incense sticks as offerings.
(A) The Statue of our lady of Happy Voyage
The center of attraction at Bandel Church is the statue of Our Lady of Happy Voyage. This statue is high up on balcony or rooftopand on the topmost part of the façade. A flight of stairs would take one to the top.
Originally this statue was on the altar of the military chapel attached to the Portuguese factory which was destroyed in 1632. One merchant Tiago tried to take the statue to safety to the other side of the river but he disappeared with the statue in the water. It is said that after a stormy night, early next morning, some villagers found the lost statue of the virgin a few yards away from the gate of the church. The statue was placed on the main altar of the church and in 1910, the statue was moved to the balcony of the church.
(B) The mast
The story goes that once a ship had encountered a terrific storm in the Bay of Bengal. The captain of the ship was a deeply religious man and had made a vow that if he is saved from the shipwreck he would offer the mast of the ship to the first church he sees when he reaches the shore.The Bandel church was the first he saw and he had one mast of the vessel removed and presented to the church. This mast was fixed in the ground infront of the Church where it still stands.
(C) Prayer room
The main large prayer hall is in the ground floor. Photography is strictly not allowed in this hall. There is a beautiful status of Mother Mary. All around the prayer room, you have beautiful paintings, writings, sculptures of Jesus and depictions of his life.
The Hoogly Imambara
Hoogly Imambara is located on the banks of river Hoogly and it takes around 5 minutes in an auto-rickshaw to reach this place from Bandel Church. At the gate, you have to buy a ticket which costs Rs 10/- per adult (children below 10 years is free).
Hooghly Imambara was originally set up by an eminent Persian merchantMuhammad Aga Motahar who arrived in Hoogly in first decade of 18th Century with salt business. Despite being a rich person, Aga Motahar established a simple one-storied building with the aim of residing with his family for the rest of his life. Sometime in 1717, Muhammad Aga Motahar dedicated his entire property to almighty Allah. His son-in-law added an additional building and that is how current day Imambara came into existence.
Imambara means “the angel’s abode” (Imam – angel, bara – building to live in). There is a lofty doorway which leads you to a vast concrete courtyard. A rectangular tank is there in the middle of the courtyard. This tank is beautifully beautified with a decorative fountain and surrounded by decorative potted plants that complement the beauty of the entire construction.
At the east end of the courtyard lies Zaridalan (the main prayer hall of Imambara). The floor is check patterned in black and white. The walls of this room are covered with maxims of Prophet Muhammad. The room is beautifully decorated with lanterns and chandeliers hanging from the roof with flawless Belgian glasses. Inside the prayer hall there is a seven stared throne of the Imam. There is sitting arrangement for the ladies in side balconies. There are Tazias at the innermost side of the prayer hall.
Spectacular wonder of this Imambara is its Clock which is placed at the middle of the twin towers erected upon the doorway of the main entrance. Each tower is approximately 150 ft. high and you have to take 152 steps to reach its top. There are separate stairways for ladies and gents on either side of the entrance gate. This clock was manufactured by M/s Black & Hurray Co., Big Ben, London with a cost of Rs. 11, 721 in the year of 1852. It is said that This huge clock was brought by Syed Keramat Ali and has two dials, one facing the outer side and the other the inner. It has three bells with 30 mds, 40 mds and 80 mds of weight. The smaller bells rings at every 15 minutes’ interval whereas the bigger one rings at one-hour interval. It is also said that the clock possesses a 20kg winding key which takes two young men to wind the clock for half an hour every week.
Sadly, the clock was under maintenance and bamboo stilts covered the twin towers blocking view. However, you are allowed to go up the staircase. Ankita decided it was too much of an effort and decided to sit by the fountain. Ankur was adamant and I warned him that he would have to walk all the way up and down. Under no circumstances will I carry him. To my surprise, he climbed up the stairs (all 152 of them) just like that while I followed him panting like a dog. On the way up, you could see the nuts and bolts of the massive clock and the bells through closed wooden gates.
This magnificent shrine is profusely Mohamedan with the design, architecture, the chandeliers and lanterns and wall shades. Sadly, the structure is not well maintained. There are many places where the plasters are wearing out and many beautiful glasses are broken. Many parts are not allowed to see for their miserable condition and lack of maintenance. I read that there was a sundial and Turkish bath (or Hammam) which was exquisitely decorated with colorful glasses but on asking around, no one seemed to know about it! The throne of Imam is also said to have been once decorated with gold and silver but all is gone now.
Next stop is Banshberia which is around 7.5 Kms from Hoogly Imambara and it takes a toto-rickshaw around 25 minutes navigating through narrow lanes and by-lanes. The industrial town of Banshberiais positioned in between Bandel and Tribeni.
Story goes that in 1673, Zamindar Rameshwar Ray left Patuli and settled in Bansberia. Zamindar Rameshwar Ray was gifted this village of around 400 Bigha of Land and its Zamindari by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb who also gifted him the prestigious title of King. From this time onward many of his kith and kin settled in Bansberia
The Hanseswari temple was built in the beginning of the 19th century. The main deity is the blue neem-wood idol of goddess Hanseswari who is a manifestation of Goddess Kali. The temple is 21 meter high and is built according to Tantric principles. The temple complex has another temple— Ananta Basudeba temple — besides the main temple. This temple too holds a very special position as a terracotta temple with exquisite terracotta works on it.
The architecture of Hanseswari temple is unique and unusual. The temple is built with 13 minars or ratnas, each built as a blooming lotus bud. From what I have heard, the inner structure of the building resembles human anatomy. This temple was said to have been started by Raja Nrishinghadeb Roy and later completed by his wife Rani Shankari.
It is said that the temple consists of six floors and a total of 13 lotus bud-shaped minars having the height of 27.5 meters or 90 ft. Inner precincts of these minars follow the design of the human anatomy. Metallic idol of rising Sun God with his thousand bright rays has been inscribed on the top of the central minar. Even the deity has been designed and installed following the concept of Yoga and Pranayam.
Sadly, you are not allowed to go inside the temple or to the upper floors. Not sure why such a restriction is imposed as this is something which is unique in terms of architecture and definitely something which should be open to commoners.
The temple is well maintained. There are shops outside the temple selling “Puja Daali”. You have to leave your shoes outside the temple and can pick up.
This trip has been a refreshing experience. It encompassed three significant monuments for three different religions – Hindu, Muslim and Christian. The journey is an experience in sights, smells, architecture, religion, history and culture. If you are in and around Kolkata, this is a day trip you would not want to miss.