By Aiden Lillywhite, Akul and Sheldon
In Bandra where we stay, there’s a small area with many old houses with tiled roofs. This is Runwar Village. Some of these houses are more than a century old. That is why this area has been declared a ‘heritage precinct’.
One thing that strikes anyone who comes here is the large number of crosses.
We counted – on just two very small lanes, there were 23 crosses.
Some right next to each other. Some were on the road. Some in people’s verandahs. One turn on the road had six crosses.
We were curious. We set out to find out the reason behind the crosses. Some people said it was because the area was full of Catholics. Some said to help people pray on their way to work or back.
Then we met Mr John Gomes, a resident of Chapel Road. There are six crosses all a stone’s throw away from his house. He told us almost a century back, Bandra had been struck by a plague. Many people died. This place was overtaken by rats who spread the disease by biting people. “People were dying like flies, Mr Gomes told us. “We would bury someone, some back and see another person had died. The dead were sometimes carried away in cartloads. Many people packed their belongings and fled to the mountain.” Which mountain, we asked. Mt Mary, he replied. (Mt Mary is a church in Bandra situated on a little hill facing the sea). That is why people built the crosses, Mr Gomes said, to protect themselves from the plague. As a plea to Jesus to save them. Had anyone died in his family? No, he replied.
We later found out that the plague happened between 1896 to 1906. Lord Sandhurst, who was the Governor of Bombay at that time, appointed a committee headed to combat the plague. There are over 150 commemorative crosses in Bandra.
There were other reasons for building some of the crosses. In a very old book called ‘Bandra: Its Religious and Secular History’ (published in 1939), local historian Bras Fernandes writes this: “People believed that evil spirits haunted the junctions of three roads, burial grounds and even the ponds in the paddy fields that stretched beyond Hill Road. Many stone crosses were thus erected on “less frequented roads and along the seashore, chiefly to preserve the living from the fear of ghosts and the spirits of darkness”.
Nowadays the crosses are spots where people stop to pray. Or hang garlands. People gather in front of the big ones during religious festivals and sing and chant.