On a hot afternoon, a crowd walks up an uphill road dotted with small stalls, selling candles of all shapes and sizes. Belonging to various religious communities, they are walking to the Mount Mary Church to take part in the festivities held once every year on the occasion of the Mount Mary Fair.
There is a beeline to enter the church which is over a hundred years old and situated atop a hillock near Lands End Bandra, overlooking the Arabian Sea.
The shops are selling wax articles, shaped like houses or body parts, and other items to be offered in the Basilica as a special prayer for a new house or an ailing body part.
Mount Mary is not only central to the Christian community based in Bandra but is also known as a church where ‘miracles are performed’. For one week in September, it becomes a pilgrim for people of all faiths. The Feast of Mount Mary takes place on the first Sunday of September, also celebrated as the birthday of the Virgin Mary. The feast is followed by the Bandra Fair, which is held for a week.
There are several churches dotting the Bandra area but this one draws the largest crowd. The present edifice is the fourth structure constructed at this site.
“This is an ancient site. At least 400 years ago, there was a small chapel here. It became a special place over the years as the statue here came to be known for its miracles. The chapel has Gothic architecture and was built by people from different faiths who came together and paid for its foundation. However, the paintings on the canvas along the walls of the church were getting damaged. Originally, these paintings were canvases stacked on the wall and later they were copied on the walls,” said David Cardozo, an architect who is a regular at the church.
“The Jesuits brought a beautiful, wooden statue from Portugal during the sixteenth century which was then placed atop the main altar of a tiny oratory on a hill at Lands End in Bandora (Bandra). Over the centuries, devotion to this statue grew tremendously as numerous favours were granted,” says the official website of the Basillica.
“Families from Bandra and other parts of Mumbai visit the church on a regular basis. The candles seen have been offered to Mother Mary, requesting her to intercede with God. They are symbols of individual desires as people go to her not with formal words but with symbolic offerings which express what is in their heart,” said Bishop John Rodrigues.
Noting its growing importance over the years, the bishop points to the huge crowd around the church. To mark the special occasion of the canonisation of Mother Teresa recently, her photos and quotes have been put up all across the entrance.
A special prayer is offered every year during the feast for the sick and the elderly. “Many of them made it to the church with the help of volunteers,” said Bishop Rodrigues.
The interior of the church, which is a a mixture of the blue of the sea and the sky, has floral decorations. The paintings along the walls were recently restored and are a depiction of Mother Mary’s life. “This is the fourth structure to come up here. It was an oratory, then a chapel, then a church, before it became a Basilica, owing to the special significance associated with the shrine,” said the Bishop.
The fair has been linked to the shrine almost from its inception. This year, the fair commenced on September 11, and will go on till September 18.
A Jesuit document of 1669 speaks of a popular festival at Bandra. According to the church website, the shrine started attracting devotees from all the surrounding areas who came in bullock carts and ferryboats across the Mahim creek. After a tiring journey from their respective villages to Bandra, it was not possible for the bullocks to pull the cart all the way to the hilltop. Therefore, the devotees would park their carts and the bullocks at the foot of the hill under the shady mango groves where drinking water was readily available. After attending to the needs of their bullocks and refreshing themselves, the devotees would be ready in their festive best to walk up the slope of the hill to partake in the liturgical celebrations of the birthday of the Mother, says the website.
The highlight of the fair are small stalls which spring up during this time of the year, selling sweets from Goa, Kerala and Kolkata, besides various savoury snacks like banana and tapioca chips. Shops selling toys and other items can also be found in a separate row. On the way down the stairs and towards the exit, more street food greets families walking towards the swings or the church.