A dedicated fest for an iconic church
Shivajinagar is where thousands of people belonging to different faiths, converge on September 8 every year. They all congregate to celebrate with all veneration, devotion and jubilation, the Birthday of mother Mary, the mother of Jesus. The statue of Mary is located in a shrine outside the main church. Devotees light thousands of candles every day and place their offerings, which go towards the charitable work of the church. Like the Infant Jesus church in Viveknagar, it is truly secular, as a large number of people of various communities and religious beliefs are ardent devotees of this church.
According to prevailing belief, the great plague of Bangalore that struck this city around 1898 spread in the lanes and bylanes of the area, resulting in hundreds of deaths. To get rid off the havoc created by the deadly disease, some prominent people of this region decided to celebrate mother Mary’s feast. Since then, it has been the most important celebration of the church. The festival goes on for 10 days, culminating in a grand procession with a colourful chariot on September 8, the last day of the feast.
The history of the origin and the development of this place of worship is equally interesting. A few centuries ago, the entire area was deserted. But people from nearby Ginji soon came to occupy the place. They called their village Biliakkipalli because the rice they grew was white and also a number of white birds were found in the rice fields. However, over the years, the place came to be known as Blackpalli. After some time, a Hanuman temple, and a little away, a Shiva temple were built. In between, Christians lived here, built a small chapel with a thatched roof and called it Kannikamatha kovil. Perhaps the only spot where one can read the name of Blackpally even today is on the name board of the Corporation Tamil School on hospital road.
After about a century, the famous French missionary Abbe Dubois came to Bangalore. He is believed to have built a chapel at Blackpally in 1811 and it was called St Mary’s Church.
Abbe Dubois of the Carnatic Mission of Pondicherry worked in the princely state of Mysore for 22 years from 1799, after the Death of Tipu Sultan. He is also remembered for a treatise, ‘The Customs, Institutions and Ceremonies of the People of India’. He is also credited for introducing vaccination in India.
After Dubois, an Indian priest named Fr. Andreas took charge and built a bigger chapel in the shape of a cross with the nave towards the east to seat the depressed classes, the right wing for Europeans and left wing for others. The chapel was destroyed in a communal riot in 1832 but the British troops protected the place of worship.
In 1875 during the period of Fr. E.L. Kleiner’s time, the church in the present form was built. It was consecrated on September 8, 1882, in the presence of 35 priests and about 4,000 Roman Catholics. According to records, a sum of Rs. 30,000 was spent for construction. In 1928, the church was whitewashed for the first time and the following two years, the altars of St Philomena and St. Aloysius were added.
In January 1974, Pope Paul VI elevated St Mary’s church to the status of a Basilica – a title assigned to certain churches because of their antiquity, dignity, and historical significance. There were only five basilicas in India, and this became the sixth and the only one in our state.
The Basilica has been built in Gothic style with arches, ornamental motifs and stained windows. Multiple columns with rich Corinthian Capital support the stately arches of the church. The columns and the tall spire of the Basilica can be seen from far away. The stained windows were removed during World War II and were subsequently restored in 1947.
Today, this magnificent iconic structure co-exists with buildings, markets, a shopping street, traffic and pollution. But in a black-and-white picture present in SOAS, London, the church stands alone majestically in the open field. We cannot even imagine such a scene at present in Shivajinagar.
(This appeared in Bangaloremirror on Sept The author is a historian)