There are advantages to being an insatiable traveller, even when amidst the obvious and familiar. One is always searching for the road less travelled, the site less seen, the experience less had. And rarely have I been disappointed. This day was no different. 🙂
Perched atop a 45 metre high knoll in Mandapeshwar, Borivali is Mumbai’s least known and most delightful slice of eclectic heritage—Mount Poinsur, an ode to the St. Francis of Assisi order in India and Marian devotion, the veneration of Mary in Roman Catholicism.
The site has been long mistaken for a Jesuit observatory by the British, a watchtower by the Portuguese, and a “Sir-Padri’s Bungalow” (the priest’s residence). It is none of these and never was. The circular chapel with a classical dome topped by an effigy of Christ is a Marian Sacromonte (Sacred Mount dedicated to Mary).
There are various Marian Sacromontes in Europe and Latin America, but the Sacromonte in Borivali is particularly unusual. Nothing similar exists elsewhere in the world. Its uniqueness lies in the seven small circular vaults dug into the knoll, reminiscent of the caves on Mumbai’s Salsette Island. These caves were once used by Hindu ascetics and later occupied and reused by the Franciscan monks.
Built between the 1630s and the end of the 17th Century, Mount Poinsur’s history goes back to 1544 and Fr Antonio do Porto, the founder of the Congregation of the Missionary Brothers of St. Francis of Assisi in India. He and his companions, the Portuguese pioneer evangelisers of Bombay, Salsette, and Bassein Islands built the Church of Our Lady of the Conception, a Franciscan monastery, and a college for the indigenous people in Borivali. Fr Antonio do Porto lies buried in Mount Poinsur.
In 1739, Mount Poinsur was captured by the Marathas. The Friars dispersed; the church, monastery and college were plundered and burnt.
A century and a half after the Maratha invasion, the site’s Franciscan heritage attracted Bros Paulus Moritz and Nicholas Hohn to bring the Order back to India and make Mount Poinsur the centre for all its national congregation activities. They put up a school, orphanage and rectory south of the Church in 1908, in so doing both hiding and protecting the hermitage and chapel in the decades that followed.
It’s the early hours of Sunday morning and an exquisite air of serenity and calm veils the place. Edwin Alex Fernandes, the caretaker, with one paralysed leg, patiently accompanies me to the chapel on the hillock, unlocking gates as we walk up the path.
“How long have you been working here, Edwin?”
“25 years. It’s a long time.” Smiles.
“It’s beautiful. So quiet.”
“That’s why it is beautiful.” Smiles again.
On the feast day at Mount Poinsur, 8 December, hundreds of thousands of people from all over Mumbai come and pay homage following a centuries’ old tradition which considers the Church of Our Lady of the Conception a centre for pilgrimage. Some spill over and visit the 400 year old Marian Sacromonte. After which the veil falls over the hillock once again.
Mumbai’s Marian Sacromonte at Mount Poinsur built by the Portuguese Franciscans in the 17th Century
Mary in the Chapel inside the Marian Sacromonte
Graves of the Reverends surround the circular chapel
Left: The Indianized Marian; Right: “While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.”
Saint Clare of Assisi, St. Francis Monastery
Church of Saint Francis on Mount Poinsur and the many stories in its folds
The Marian Sacromonte, Mount Poinsur is behind St. Francis D’Assisi High School, Borivali West, Mumbai
Recommended reading: Uncovering Portuguese Histories Within Mumbai’s Urban History