Unravelling The Mystery Behind Thane’s ‘Bada Church’

Unravelling The Mystery Behind Thane’s ‘Bada Church’
Dr Fleur D’souza

Nestled on the edges of Masunda Lake or Talao Pali, Thane’s ‘bada’ church (as some locals call it) is an exemplary feat of ancient architecture that seems to have been around forever. With its baroque interiors and Portuguese-styled altars, the St. John the Baptist church has an interesting story to it, one that has challenged the minds of many historians.

In 1837, the Marathas, having newly captured the city of Thane, decided to embark on a gruesome rampage. They destroyed all the churches in the area—all except one. The church of St. John the Baptist somehow survived this act of mass destruction and is, today, the oldest church in Thane and Mumbai. But how and why this happened is an archaeological mystery lost in time.

A new coffee table book, ‘Witness’, is an attempt to understand the past and present of Thane’s thriving Christian community and the church that has served generations of families living in the area. “A few years ago, the 400-year-old church was badly in need of repair and the project came under the supervision of renowned conservation architect, Vikas Dilawari. Team Dilawari also documented the restoration process and suggested that we come out with a publication”, editor Dr Fleur D’souza, who also led the research team behind the book, tells Homegrown.

Dr. Fleur D'souza and the team behind 'Witness'

Along with the restoration work, the book also chronicles the evolution of Thane city, the history of its church, and the relationship shared by the region’s residents vis-a-vis the institution. A stunning journey since the moment you’re introduced to an exhaustive list of priests who have served the church of St. John the Baptist since the 16th century, ‘Witness’ stays true to its name.

Retired HOD of Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College and a resident of Thane herself, Dr Fleur D’souza hails from an academic background and has several publications to her credit. Having previously researched Thane’s maritime past, she already had a general idea of how she’d go about this one. “We made announcements in the church, appealed for photographs and memorabilia, we also circulated a questionnaire and went from door-to-door collecting snippets and anecdotes related to the church. We also spoke to former students of St. John Baptist School, which has occupied a large part of the complex for over a century,” she says.

However, digging into the past for information was not an easy task. More often than not, Dr D’souza was met with rejection for reasons that were totally out of her control. “Thane has never been a very wealthy city so most people living here did not own cameras. Besides, the cameras in those days were not powerful enough to take good pictures of church interiors. We also came across a lot of damaged photos that could not be used in a book. However, we were fortunate to have the talented Arun Ferreira and Dylan Hendricks whose sketches and doodles lend a quirky dimension to the book,” she tells us matter-of-factly.

Restoration work at St. John the Baptist Church, Thane. Image Courtesy: Vikas Dilawari

As Dr D’souza flips through the book, pausing every now and then to share an anecdote from the past year and a half that she has spent working on ‘Witness’, it’s hard to miss the zeal in her eyes. This book is not just another feather in her cap, but an incredibly personal experience for her, built on the memories of her community members. When I compliment the sheer effort that must have gone into cataloguing the heritage and history of such a diverse area (Thane is also home to 40% of India’s total Jewish population), she surprises me with another interesting story:

It seems that Dr D’souza has been quite fortunate in her intellectual pursuits. While in the midst of her research, she was contacted by two Italians who were writing a book on a monk. Coincidentally, a lot of early records of Christianity in Thane are based on the accounts of the same monk who came to Thane in 1321, almost 700 years ago. “The Italians found out about me on the internet, somehow managed to get in touch and thereon, we corresponded via emails for the next one year. The emails would come to me in perfect English. It was only later when I met them in Venice that I became aware of the language barrier. They did not know English and I did not know Italian. We had been relying on ‘Google Translate’ for all our communication and I never even realised!” she laughs.

Today, Thane district comprises plenty of churches that came up as a response to the rapidly growing population. But none can keep up with the magnificence of the ‘bada’ church and the Christian community that evolved around it. With 435 years worth of history archived within the pages of a hardbound publication, ‘Witness’ is a tribute to India’s ever-growing cultural and regional diversity. One that refuses to fade with time.

The book is available in both hardbound (Rs. 1,000) and paperback (Rs 500) and can be bought at St. John the Baptist church office.

Feature image courtesy of Dr Fleur D’souza

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