GREAT FIGURES OF THE MISSIONARY WORK – Bengal and the Kingdom of the Dragon (95)

– Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

Last week we left Hugli’s survivors in a frantic flight down the river, losing several barges in the process to the Mughal enemy; preserving so many others. They had even gone beyond the pontoon and the chain of iron rings.

However, when arriving next to the village of Betor (now Calcutta Botanical Garden), 25 miles south of Hugli, they faced one last obstacle: a narrow passage barred by a new chain of iron rings. Navigable, just a sliver of river along one of the banks. There, a Mughal battalion with heavy artillery awaited them. The next moment would be the most terrible of the long battle!

Nevertheless, the flotilla, or what was left of it, managed to pass and continue to descend the Hugli towards the mouth until it reached the island of Saugar, sixty miles ahead.

Several episodes of Hugli’s conquest in 1632 were immortalized, with text and images, in a series of stained glass in the sanctuary reserved for Senhora da Boa Viagem on the terrace of the Basilica of Nossa Senhora do Rosário, in Bandel. Thanks to them, I learned that “four friars” perished during the sacking of the Augustinian monastery, and one João da Cruz survived.

Another episode remembered there is that of Tiago, an ardent devotee of Senhora da Boa Viagem, who at the moment of his escape took with him an image of Her. Unfortunately, Tiago would be hit by an enemy arrow, and in a flash, embracing the statue, he submerged in the dark waters of the river.

According to this local version of events – probably a mix of real events with legendary exploits – Frei João da Cruz and “a few thousand” (?!) residents were sent to Agra Fort where Shah Jahan order the death penalty for all of them: crushed under the feet of elephants.

However, at the moment of truth, one of the pachyderms lifted the friar with his trunk and, instead of throwing him to the ground and trampling him, carefully led him to the presence of the Mogul monarch, kneeling reverently as if asking for mercy.

Impressed by “such a miracle” and encouraged by the crowd that attended the show, Shah Jahan decided to release all the prisoners. Not only did he spare their lives, but in 1633, he would authorize them to return to Bandel (the Hugli neighborhood where they lived) and to rebuild the houses where they had always lived.

Shah Jahan, in addition to financing the rebuilding of the church, also provided additional land that would allow a considerable extension of the religious complex.

In the course of the works, Frei João da Cruz would have heard, in the middle of the night, a familiar voice. It was the devout Tiago, calling him from the waters of the river and announcing that “Our Lady was back.”

The Dominican thought he was just dreaming. But Tiago insisted, stating that it was Our Lady that saved Hugli’s Christians from certain death.

The next morning, a group of local fishermen entered the city jubilantly displaying a statue of the Virgin claiming that the “Guru Maa” was back.