Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

Mandapeshwar (Manapacer, Mount Poinsur), Mumbai Metropolitan Area (Bombay), India

Religious Architecture

The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, located several metres to the south, must have been founded soon after 1552. The convent and college complex stretched from the church to various patios and cloisters, probably three, with buildings around them. They were built on a rocky platform above the old temple. The buildings’ ruins still exist on the platform. The structures of the college located next to the church were enlarged or rebuilt between 1630 and 1660. The Mandapeshwar college comprised nearly a hundred boys around 1630, who were taught to read, write and sing, besides studying the organ and grammar. The missioners also provided for the village’s widows and the poor. The Mandapeshwar parish or rectory encompassed five villages: Mandapeshwar (Manapacer), Dainça, Simpol (or Simpor), Caneri and Casi (or Cassor), according to Friar Paulo da Trindade. In 1680 the Franciscan college of Mandapeshwar provided an annual contribution to help pay for the cost of work on Holy Spirit Church in Goa, which seems to indicate that its own construction work was finished. The Indian converts’ village developed on the foot of the heights immediately east or south of the church. According to Gerson da Cunha, its ruins were still visible at the end of the 19th century. The convent, college and church were sacked by Maratha forces in 1737 and later abandoned. We cannot precisely ascertain how the temple was appropriated by Friar António do Porto and his companions, because the site must have been altered a number of times between the 16th century and the first description in our hands, by the Frenchman Anquetil du Perron, who visited Mandapeshwar in 1760, after the Maratha conquest and the cave’s return to Hindu worship. Anquetil published the first plan of the site (the second was drawn up in the scope of the project BBB, Bombay before the British... in 2007). In 1882 the Bombay Presidency’s Gazette reported that the Catholics had returned to Mandapeshwar: “the cave was adapted to a Portuguese church with a very simple altar and a wooden image of the seated Virgin Mary, located at the southern end, and a pulpit halfway along the western wall”. Indeed, a 1908 photo and another taken 60 years later, with the church already abandoned, show us the portico of the closed house of worship, an altar to the south and a pulpit to the west. Other photos, from both 1908 and 1968, show an image of Our Lady of Pity placed on the altar. Behind the altar, blocking the chamber in back and closing the portico, the walls seem made of light materials, probably brick or rammed earth. Inside, the back wall blocks a space once used as the chancel of the old church (the 1882 Gazette actually reports this, also mentioning a screen like in any church). The location of the former chancel in the chamber on the south side is close to a large rectangular space opened in the rock which has a stone bench around it; this may have been the friars’ chapter or choir room. The Church of Our Lady of the Conception is singlenaved with a steeply sloping roof. It has a transept, very rare in Província do Norte architecture. Both the chancel and the transept are covered with coffered barrel vaults. The images seen upon entering the church were destroyed, though traces of an unrecognisable sculpture are still visible on the north side of the entrance. All this information confirms observations by Anquetil du Perron more than a century beforehand. In 1806 a British traveller named Henry Salt, who later became a famous Egyptologist, mentioned “a recess to the left when we entered where a painting of a saint is still quite visible on the wall”. He continued, writing that he could not leave Mandapeshwar without “taking note that there is no spot in the world where Catholic and pagan images are in such close contact as here – where a Portuguese convent has a temple of Hindus for its foundation, where the feats of their terrible God are sculpted on one side and the form of a meek Christian saint on the other”. Some early 19th century travellers and the 1882 Gazette mention walls built to block the view of the major Hindu sculptures, especially the large group of Shiva cult figures found in the chamber used as the church’s chancel. These sources also describe images covered with whitewash in the two niches flanking the axial chamber. The author of the Gazette text suspected that the images sculpted in the portico’s pillars were smoothed down to leave only the capitals over thin shafts. Indeed, when we compare Mandapeshwar’s pillars with those from Elephanta (by far the Mumbai area’s most wellknown temple), which have the same kind of capitals, we can imagine what Mandapeshwar’s original portico must have been. The buildings situated on the rocky platform were destroyed before the church and cloister. In 1839 a British observer wrote: “The Manpesir ruins consist of a large church and tower and a quadrangular patio, of which the stone arches are still preserved”. This description still applies to what we see today at the site, except for the church tower beside the chancel and the cloister arches. All this is gone but was recorded in a photograph dated 1908. The church was restored in 1888 by a committee of Catholics from Bandra led by the vicar of Thana, João Braz Fernandes, as indicated by a Portuguese plaque inside. The roof was repaired and it was given a new floor, Gothic altar, Gothic pinnacles on the main façade and a high choir. In 1968 the site was visited and documented by the photographer Walter Spink, soon before the cave was completely reconverted to Hinduism and the last traces of the Catholic period removed. Indeed, after various interventions by the Indian state’s administrative bodies and the recent re-establishment of a Hindu temple in the cave’s central chamber and portico, the only remaining sign of the former church is a cross in a niche, probably sculpted from a Shiva cult motif.

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