March 21, 2009
Vasai, also known as Bassein situated on the northern bank of the Ulhas River as it merges with the Arabian Sea around 40 kilometers to the north of Mumbai has been a fine example of the confluence of history, tradition and modernity.
In the medieval period, Vasai along with the neighbouring Island of Salsette and the seven islands of Mumbai was under the rule of the Sultans of Gujarat till 1534. The Portuguese acquired these regions from Sultan Bahadur Shah through a treaty and later in 1661 gave away Mumbai to the British King Charles II as dowry when the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza was married to him. After nearly 200 years of Portuguese control, Vasai and Salsette were conquered by the Marathas in 1739 who in turn relinquished them to the English East India Company in 1818.
Among the political powers who controlled the region, it was the Portuguese who have left a lasting imprint on Vasai. The churches that were built during the Portuguese regime in different villages of Vasai, the East Indian Christians community with its composite customs and traditions and the magnificent Vasai Fort, though now in ruins, manifest the unique character of Vasai. However, since few decades the aggressive urbanization and immigration of multi-lingual and multi-cultural population from Mumbai and elsewhere tend to wipe out the ethnic identity of Vasai.
Recently, i joined a group of around 30 senior citizens from the Infant Jesus Parish, Dombivli, on a pilgrimage to the old Portuguese churches in Vasai. The pilgrimage was organized by Fr Peter D’Cunha, the Parish Priest and Brother Simon Rodriguez, both hailing from Vasai. For me the pilgrimage also became a journey of exploration of rural Vasai.
Our first stop was St Roque’s Church in Gokhivare village in Vasai East. St Roque’s Church has a curious history. It is believed that this church was built as a result of a promise made to St Roque by the people of Gokhivare in 1914 when the village was severely affected by an epidemic of cholera. The villagers prayed to St Roque to spare them from this scourge and took a vow to build a chapel in his honour.
This promise was fulfilled by around 200 villagers of Gokhivare who built a small structure measuring 40 feet by 18 feet in honour of St Roque. This chapel was under the jurisdiction of the Parish of St Michael the Archangel, Manickpur. St Roque’s Church was elevated to the status of a parish in 1943 when the Jesuit priest Fr Nubiola became its first resident missionary in charge. With an increasing Catholic population, especially due to migration from Mumbai, a new and larger church is presently under construction.
From Gokhivare we proceeded to Bishop’s House in Vasai West. After visiting two new churches in the neighbourhood we proceeded to the Church of Our Lady of Grace, Papdy, which has been designated as the Cathedral since the creation of the independent Diocese of Vasai a decade ago under the charge of Bishop Thomas Dabre.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Grace has a long and interesting history. This church was established in the year 1565 by the Portuguese. This was the second parish that was established in South Vasai outside the Fort, the first being the church of St Thomas the Apostle at Sandor. The land for the church was donated by a Portuguese lady and by some native Christians as well as by some Hindus and Muslims living in the area.
The parish of Our Lady of Grace remained under the charge of the Jesuits till the Maratha invasion of Vasai in 1739. It appears that the Marathas did not harm this church. Thereafter the parish was under the management of the secular clergy. The church was rebuilt in the year 1864.
As the historical Vasai Fort was quite close by, we decided to break our pilgrimage and explore this historical fort that was the seat of the Portuguese power from 1534 to 1739.
The coastal Fort of Vasai was surrounded by sea on three sides and to the landside it had a moat which was filled by sea-water. Its 4.5 kilometers long strong stone wall had 11 bastions. The visible remains of the past which are of interest to the tourists within the Vasai Fort include the administrative structures, churches, convents and columns. Three chapels inside the Fort are still recognizable. They have façades typical of the 17th century Portuguese churches. The southernmost of these chapels has a well preserved barrel vaulted ceiling.
Within the Fort we came across St Gonsalo Garcia Ashram School, where it is believed that the first canonized saint of India and a native of Vasai, Gonsalo Garcia was brought up and educated by the Franciscan priests. Later, he joined the priesthood and was sent as a missionary to the Far East where he was martyred along with twenty five of his companions at Nagasaki in Japan on February 5, 1597.
Next we visited the jetty of the old Vasai port that was used by the Portuguese and local businessmen for trade through the sea. From this point we could view the bridge across the Ulhas River connecting Bhayandar and Naigaon and the beautiful landscape beyond the opposite bank of the Vasai creek.
The Church of Our Lady of Remedy situated at Remedy between the Vasai Fort and Agashi village was the next stop on our pilgrimage itinerary. This church was established in 1577 by Dominican priests. The Church of Our Lady of Remedy probably got its name from the fact that it had a statue of Our Lady which was considered to confer favours and blessings upon those who venerated it. During the Portuguese period the fame of this statue spread far and wide so that both natives and foreigners visited the church to seek favours from Our Lady of Remedy.
Vasai was attacked by the Mughals, the Arabs and the Marathas during the Portuguese period. It is said that on almost all these occasions, the invaders did not dare to attack the church of Our Lady of Remedy. However, in 1690, a certain plunderer by name of Kakaji plundered Vasai and destroyed many churches including the church at Remedy.
During the Maratha invasion of Vasai in 1739, the Dominican priests were forced to leave Vasai and the care of the parish of Remedy passed to the secular clergy. The present Church of Our Lady of Remedy was rebuilt in 1939.
Our next destination was Church of Our Lady of Mercy at village Merces around three kilometers from the Vasai Fort situated between Sandor and Remedy. This church was built in 1584 by Fr Alexio de Menezes, who later became the Archbishop of Goa. It was constituted as an independent parish in 1606 and was under the care of the Augustinian priests. During the Maratha invasion of Vasai in 1739 the church was destroyed and the priests fled. The church was rebuilt in 1856 and in course of time was renovated and extended.
Our last stopover in Vasai was Gass Gaon, the village where St Gonsalo Garcia was born. The village also has a church dedicated to him. This parish was carved out of the Holy Cross Parish of Nirmal in 1942. The new church building was constructed between 1957 and 1962. Artisans from all religions-Hindus, Muslims and Christians pooled their money and skills in building this beautiful church.
There were still more churches in the surrounding villages of Vasai which we could not visit due to paucity of time. These include: St Thomas the Apostle, Sandor, originally established in 1566 and was rebuilt in 1838; Holy Cross Church, Nirmal (est.1580); Our Mother of God Church, Palle (est.1595); St James Church, Agashi (est.1568); Church of St Michael the Archangel, Manickpur (est.1606); St Peter’s Church, Arnala (est.1931); Holy Family Church, Bhuigaon (est.1946); St Mary Magdalene Church, Mulgaon (est.1945); and St Francis Xavier’s Church, Girij (est.1918).
As we passed through various villages, Vasai presented a picture quite different from the city located nearer the Vasai railway station. One can still experience the rural ambience of Vasai with paddy fields, though many of them are not cultivated, vegetable gardens and orchards, coconut and other types of trees.
Varieties of vegetables grown in Vasai have been much sought after by Mumbaikars for their hygienic quality and natural taste. Besides, the betel leaves (paan) of Vasai had been well-known throughout northern India. However, since few decades the Vasai farms have been gradually disappearing due to urbanization and development. With the collapse of farming, hardly ten percent of the Vasaikars depend on it for their livelihood.
Though the typical old colonial village houses have made way to modern bungalows and buildings, at few places i came across beautiful houses of old type reminding the bygone colonial era of the Portuguese. The residents in the vicinity of different churches in Vasai are predominantly Christians, some of them living in spacious bungalows. The people in Vasai villages are simple, unassuming, friendly and hospitable. The topography, flora and fauna and general atmosphere in rural Vasai remind one of being in typical Goan or Mangalorean villages.
The return journey from Vasai was quiet as many of the senior citizens were dozing off in the fast moving bus. As the cool breeze was blowing past and the sight of the passing landscape in the dusk was pleasing to the eye, i felt that the senior citizens’ day out in Vasai was really worth more than the amount of money and time that we had spent. Not only i could explore and appreciate, but capture in camera some of the beautiful churches, remains of the old Vasai Fort, colonial residences interspersed with modern bungalows and rural milieu of Vasai.