Salvation for a Handful of Salt

City\'s oldest church is more than a place of worship. St Mary\'s Basilica has a fascinating past and melds effortlessly together different cultures and faiths

Published: 17th December 2015 05:46 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th December 2015 05:46 AM   |  A+A-


BENGALURU: St Mary’s Basilica, towering over the bustling Msgr F Noronha Road in Shivajinagar, is more than a church. Enshrining Arokiamarie, or Lady of Health, this place of worship which pre-dates the British Raj, began in a thatch-roofed structure set up by Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois.

He is also known to have penned a first-hand account titled Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies.

church1.JPGFather Dubois came to the city at the cusp of the 19th century, following the fall of Tipu Sultan in Srirangapatna, and built a chapel with accommodation for priests soon after. Back then, Mary here was known as Our Lady of Presentation, roots of which can be traced to a Christian settlement from Ginjee in what is now Tamil Nadu. They called their hamlet the Bili Akki Palli, possibly after the paddy they grew and the  white birds it brought there. To gather and pray, they are said to have built the hut and named it Chapel – or even koil, temple in Tamil, according to well-known Bengaluru historian Suresh Moona – of Kannikai Madha.

The title relating her to health probably comes from the time when Bengaluru was hit by a plague.

In the heart of what was once the pete or town area, people turned to this deity to cure of the deadly disease that had turned into an epidemic. She began to go by the name Plague Mariamma. Even now, people offer candles and flowers to a tiny golden statue, the only one that has seen the church’s earliest days, says Nijavanth Raj, pursuing theology and who handles communication at the church office. Some kneeling, some with hands stretched upwards or folded – like in a temple – pray, while children run around carefree and families often sit along the side of the halls, only to be chased away by security guards.

Offerings are an integral part of the customs here -- after all she is Kannikai Madha. The bigger statue of Mary, brought from Italy, Nijavanth tells us, is draped with a silk saree. “Devotees offer two sarees a day,” says Tejaswini Gopalaswamy, a history enthusiast who plans and guides trails around heritage sites. “And they are given away to the poor.” In this spirit, someone -- a volunteer, perhaps? -- stands jingling an improvised collection box, seeking donations for the underprivileged.

While sarees are offered to Mother Mary, frocks are offered to Infant Jesus when a prayers are fulfilled. Often, the clothing has to be handed over as much as a year in ad vance, we hear.

So she has been indigenised, and both Tejaswini and Nijavanth say, Hindu traditions have been adopted. “She is like Devi,” says Tejaswini. “On the last day of St Mary’s Feast, a jathre – procession – goes around the surrounding lanes and bylanes, complete with a chariot, like in temples.” The church came up in parts, between 1799 and 1811, to go by Nijavanth. The chapel, with a vertical cross-like front elevation, was built by Dubois’ successor Rev Fr Andreas, an Indian priest hailing from Puducherry. Rather ironically, what has symbolised the confluence of various religions was vandalised in 1832, during communal riots, which the priest is supposed to have narrowly escaped with his life. It was under army protection for several years after.

It was in 1993 that it was ‘elevated’ with the title Annai Arokiamarie Basilica by Pope Paul VI, Congregations for Evangelisation of Peoples at Rome. A celebration followed the official announcement the next year. In 2007, which the church’s 125th year, it was renovated.

Statues and glass paintings abound the Gothic-styled structure, lending it a vibrancy. The stained-glass windows in the chapel were removed during the World War II, fearing damage, says Moona.

“You see a greater French influence than British in the architecture,” says Tejaswini. “Though Gothic architecture has German and Scandinavian roots, originating from the period right after the Roman Catholics fell from power.”

Devotees here are from across religions – Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Parsis alike, we hear -- putting their faith in practices they have heard have healed others. In front of the hall, where Mass is held, stands a white statue of Mother Mary holding across her knee resurrected Christ – a version of Pieta – with unprocessed salt sprinkled at its foot. “This symbolises gratitude. Even during the procession, people used to throw salt,” says Nijavanth. “It’s a practice common to temples.” But as whole packets were thrown, causing damage to the ratha and littering the environment, it was discouraged by the church, he adds.


How to get there

The hustle-bustle of Shivajinagar roads don’t make this an ideal destination to drive to. Scarcity of parking space and the many one-ways make it hard even for two-wheeler riders. With the Shivajinagar Bus Terminus at a mere stones’ throw, people who use public transport might be at a greater advantage. Nevertheless, you will have to pick your way to the church with care with both the roads and sidewalks leaving little space for those going on foot.



  •  1799 - Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois built a thatched hut
  •  1875 - Construction of the present church began, under EL Kleiner
  •  8 Sept, 1882- Consecration
  •  Gothic architecture
  • Built in the shape of a cross


Church trail

  • St Andrew’s Church: This Presbyterian church, also built in the Gothic architectural style and stained glass embellishments, was constructed by the Scotts who came in with the East India Company. It dates back to the 1860s, when construction began.
  • St Mark’s Cathedral:  Its architecture is inspired by St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The church, located on MG Road, opened in 1812.
  • Unventured, a travel start-up, offers a cycle trail around the churches in the Cantonment area in the city. Watch its website or Facebook page for dates of the next church trail.


Other interesting sites

Though it came up much after the British took over Bengaluru, Russel Market, opposite St Mary’s on one side, is another erstwhile structure in its proximity. It’s also known to have been the most market, says Tejaswini. Movie hall-turned-photo studio Picture House, an open well Chowk Bowdi and an old paan shop Haji Baba Pan Beeda are also spots in the church’s surroundings of historical value.


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