Do you know what is common between the Rameshwar temple in Nashik, the Tuljabhawani temple in Osmanabad, the Bhimashankar temple in Pune and the Mahalaxmi temple of Kolhapur. All these temples in Maharashtra have bells which once adorned churches in the Vasai-Kalyan belt spread across the twin districts of Palghar and Thane. After the Marathas defeated the Portuguese, they were taken as “victory symbols” or “war trophies” and now are integral part of the temple complexes.
These temples have their own importance– the Naro Shankar (Rameshwar) temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is on the banks of the Godavari river in Nashik where Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years, the Bhimashankar temple in Pune is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas, the Shri Mahalaxmi temple at Kolhapur on the banks of Panchganga is known as Dakshin Kashi and is one of the 51 Shakti peethas, the Tuljabhawani temple is another Shakti peetha where Chhatrapati Shivaji, the great Maratha warrior, used to seek blessings.
The famous shrine of Jejuri in Pune, dedicated to Khandoba, also has church bells. Satara district’s Shri Shetra Mahabaleshwar temple dedicated to Lord Shiva has bells of a church and in fact, Shivaji had once visited this temple, but that was way before the Vasai campaign of Chimaji Appa.The hill ranges of Mahabaleshwar is the birthplace of five rivers– Krishna, Koyna, Venna, Gayatri and Savitri.
A study group, led by Fr Francis Correa of Vasai, has found at least 30 such bells now in different temples spread across Nashik and Ahmednagar (in North Maharashtra), Jalna and Osmanabad (in Marathwada), Pune, Satara and Kolhapur (in Western Maharashtra) and Raigad and Ratnagiri (in Konkan region).
Over the last three decades, Correa had travelled to every nook and cranny of the state and has come out with a report titled: “Old Ambassadors of The New Era–Church Bells in Hindu Temples: A Unique Heritage of Maharashtra.”
The first group comprised Bavtis Dabre (historian), Paul Rumao (expert on Modi script), Sharad Vichare (expert on social issues) and Rosa D’Silva, (heritage expert). The second group consisted of Joseph F Pereira (geographer), Prof Affigin Tuscano (historian), Augustine Tuscano (photographer), Pascal Lopes (numismatist and archaeologist) and Berina D’Silva (content researcher).
“I do admit that there are many more shrines to be visited and some more such bells are to be discovered,” says Correa.“It was an extensive study and a lot of footwork, research, travel, documentation, reference to historical sources, speaking to a cross section of people and experts has been done,” points out Pascal Roque Lopes, who has a masters in numismatics and archaeology and researches on Portuguese in Maratha era.
Explaining the study, Correa said that the church has two main denominations–the Catholics and the Protestants. The Catholics, who have a tradition of 2,000 years, “venerate” the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus. It is not so with the Protestantism which emerged in the XVI century. “One would never expect the symbol of Virgin Mary on a bell fashioned to be used in a Protestant church. Therefore, if we did come across a bell with the symbol of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we are absolutely sure that it came from the belfry of a Catholic church,” he said.
During the research and physical examination, the group looked at various aspects. As there are symbols connected with Jesus in the history of the Catholic Church, there are also symbolsconnected with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Letters such as IHS are connected with Jesus while AM are connected with Mother of Jesus.
These initials over the years, have been reveredby the Catholic traditions. AM stands for Latin words “Ave Maria”. IHS has interpretations like Iesus Humilis Societas (Humble Society of Jesus) or Iesus Hominum Salvator (Jesus, Saviour of men). “We analysed the bells with these parameters in mind,” the research group said.
But what started the study? “…writing the cultural history of Vasai, the topic of the missing bells of the Vasai Fort naturally caught my fascination. The mention of a couple of these bells in the book of Gerson D’Cunha, a brilliant and renownedhistorian of XIX century – ‘Notes on the History and Antiques of Chaul and Bassein’ published in 1876 triggered my imagination…it increased my anxiety…,” says Correa.
The main story of these bells is from March 28, 1737 to May 23 , 1739 — a matter of 26 months, during which Maratha forces led by Chimaji Appa, the younger brother of Bajirao Peshwa, captured several forts, including Arnala and Vasai. Around 1737-39, there were over 100 churches in the North Konkan spread across Chaul region, Vasai region, Dahanu-Palghar region, Daman region and Salsette/Mumbai region.
“After the successful campaign of the Marathas, these bells had been taken as victory symbols and came to be installed in temples,” said Lopes. “These are of various sizes, shapes and weight and most of them were cast in Europe,” he said. It was a “great experience” working in this project– which throws new light on this particular piece of history and heritage.
“We visited a lot of temples, spoke to locals, met trustees, scanned records, and, in fact, we got great cooperation from all concerned and that has made the project successful,” he said.