Why bells from Portuguese-era churches ring in temples across Maharashtra
Originally taken as trophies, many still bear emblems like a cross, or a pierced heart. They are part of our shared heritage, says priest and researcher Fr Francis Correa.
In rural Maharashtra, when the bells ring at some Hindu temples, they echo the sounds of the churches they once inhabited.
A research team has found that in 34 temples across nine districts of the state, stand 38 bells that once hung in churches in the Portuguese territory of Bassein (in and round present-day Vasai, just north of Mumbai).
Some are almost 400 years old, like the one at the Tulja Bhavani temple in Osmanabad, and are integral to the temple - mass weddings are conducted below it. Others, like the one in Shikhar Shignapur in Satara, enjoy a place of pride - a shrine has been built around it. And in Jejuri, near Pune, a former church bell installed at a temple would ring out so loud and clear that locals complained of the noise and eventually relegated it to the temple warehouse.
Church bells show up in temples as far apart as Nashik, Kolhapur, Ahmednagar, Ratnagiri and Mahabaleshwar. They honour Shiva, Lakshmi and Khandoba. How they all got there is a mystery that took one Catholic priest and his team three decades to uncover.
The Vasai-based priest Fr Francis Correa, now 78, says he’d been fascinated by the idea of Hindu temples holding on to Vasai’s church bells ever since he heard about it in the 1970s. Books on local history mentioned it, and there were local legends. “There’s a village called Ghatghar near Vajreshwari,” he says. “Ghat is the Konkani word for bell and the villagers believed that they had a massive bell that was taken from their church by the 18th century Maratha general Chimaji Appa.”
Correa started making a list of every such story he heard. By 1995, he had enough leads to make an exploratory trip to Aurangabad with a group of enthusiasts. Sure enough, the temple bells there showed evidence of having originally belonged to churches.
On some, there is a cross still etched in metal relief work. On others, a little Mary, or Jesus, or both. Many have been painted over in saffron, or covered in marigolds, but the signs are there if you know what to look for.
Correa has made several trips across the state, with amateur historian and Vasai-fort expert Pascal Lopes, and Vasai-based researchers Joseph Pereira, Berina D’Silva, Dr Afigin Toscano and husband Augustine, documenting and photographing as much as they could.
“What we’ve found is fascinating,” says Lopes. “The bells are actually war trophies. They were taken from the churches inside the Vasai fort when Chimaji Appa [Peshwa Bajirao’s younger brother and military commander] reclaimed the Konkan territories from the Portuguese between 1737 and 1739.” The bells - huge, beautiful, sturdy, made possibly in Macao or Lisbon, with a clear sound that carries across land - were ideal victory symbols to distribute among the army. And where better to display and deploy them than at the local temple?
In 2016, the team documented their findings in Correa’s book, Old Ambassadors of The New Era. But given that the Portuguese established as many as 80 churches in Maharashtra, with an average of two bells each, their work is far from done.
HEAR AND THERE
So how do you tell if a bell is of Portuguese-Catholic origin? Correa and his team relied on some simple clues. Church bells are larger, louder and heavier, designed to be suspended from a tower.
“We also look for at least one symbol of Christianity,” says Pereira. “Perhaps a Latin inscription, the cross, the initials IHS [Latin for Humble Society of Jesus or Jesus, Saviour of Men] or AM for Ave Maria. And of course, the year of casting, if inscribed, had to be before 1739.”
In the warehouse at Jejuri, two dusty bells were cleaned up to reveal an icon of swords piercing a heart, the same as those at a Portuguese church in Dahanu.
Of the trophies taken from Vasai, only one bell has been discovered to hang in a church. “At the St Francis Xavier Church in south Mumbai… it was given voluntarily to the British in gratitude for the gunpowder received to help fight the Marathas,” Correa says.
Correa says discovering the bells has broadened his view of India. “Seeing the bells for the first time, I initially felt like it was my community’s property and that I should work on restoring them to the church,” he says. “But over time I’ve realised that in Hindu temples, they’ve been given a new life, with new missions to perform. They are our shared heritage.”
Dr Toscano adds that on every one of their trips, the temple authorities and local people were friendly and cooperative. “There was a spirit of religiosity and it was peaceful,” she says.
The church bells, therefore, will continue to ring out hope to temple-goers. Correa says they “seem quite happy in their Hindu surroundings.”