Monday, 22 June 2015

Holy Rosary Church: India's Only Submerged Church

I found out about the Holy Rosary Church, in the Shettihalli village of Hassan District, in the Indian state of Karnataka, from a photograph posted by my friend Ananya,on Facebook. A rudimentary Google search revealed some surprising facts. Remarkably, the Holy Rosary Church in Shettihalli is India’s only submerged church. Submerged by what, you may ask? By the waters of a dam’s reservoir, of course! An opportunity to visit the church finally emerged this year. I was going to Mysore, and I decided to take a day out, and drive over to Hassan.

It was the last weekend of May, and roasting hot in Karnataka. The monsoons would arrive by the following week, and common sense suggested that water in any river or reservoir would now be at its lowest level. I set off with my friend Sreyashi in a rented car at 6 am. The drive from Mysore to Shettihalli was about 130 km and took exactly 3 hours. The roads were in good shape for the most part, and even when they got a little patchy, they were far from the worst roads I have been on. Some distance inside the village, the car turned off the metalled road into a dirt track, and after clearing some bushes, I got my first sight of the Holy Rosary Church. To my relief, my guess was completely correct. The reservoir was all but bone dry, and the church was completely visible. Our car almost ran right into it!

Shettihalli was first mentioned in the Jesuit records by the missionary Fr. Manuel De Almeyda in 1727, but it became a separate mission station only in 1740. There was an older church in Shettihalli, but it was probably destroyed somehow. The Holy Rosary Church of Shettihalli, referred to as Sathalli in colonial documents, was built around 1810 by the French missionary Abbe Jean Antoine Dubois. Dubois was born in 1765, and ordained in 1792 in the diocese of Viviers in southern France. That same year he escaped the post-revolution massacres in France, and travelled to India to work with the Missions Etrangeres, a Roman Catholic missionary organization. In India he was first attached to the Pondicherry mission, but after the British captured Seringapatam (Srirangapatnam), near Mysore in 1799, Dubois was invited to visit the town. He lived like a local, adopted their dress and customs, which he studied keenly. His book, 'Description of the Character, Manners and Customs of the People of India, and of their Institutions, Religious and Civil' (London, 1817) was for many years the most authoritative text on the subject. The Muslim ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, who had usurped the throne of Mysore from the Hindu Wadiyar kings, had forced many native Christians to convert to Islam. Dubois reconverted them to Christianity and subsequently, many of them came to settle in and around Shettihalli. These people were referred to as “Caste Christians”, meaning that, while they were indeed Christian in their beliefs, “they preserve their ancient social customs in everything which does not trench upon religion; and in respect to degrees of relationship in marriages and to succession to property have the same rules as their neighbours of the same caste who are not Christians”.

Dubois returned to France in 1823 with a pension from the East India Company, but his church continued to prosper. Lewin Benthan Bowring, in his book, ‘Eastern Experiences’ of 1871 says, “Sathalli church has been much enlarged and embellished, and is a fine building with a nave and aisles”. The last of these enlargements probably happened around 1860, which would explain why the vast majority of interested websites state that the church was built around this time. Attached to the main church building was a convent, where girls were educated, and a dispensary where the poor were treated, free of charge. The Holy Rosary Church served Shettihalli and some twelve surrounding villages, with a combined population of around one thousand.

In 1979, the Indian government decided to dam the waters of the Hemavati river, which were causing repeated flooding. The Gorur dam would create a reservoir, and tracts that included Shettihalli were chosen for this purpose. The villagers were relocated to Maria Nagar near Arkalgud, Alphonso Nagar near Channarayapatna, and Joseph Nagar in Hassan taluk. As the water eventually rose, and the picturesque village was inundated, three Hindu temples were also lost, along with the Holy Rosary Church. The church’s roof collapsed in 1982, but large parts of the structure still remain standing, periodically drowned by the rising waters, only to re-emerge in the dry season.

Remains of the altar
Based on my examination of the ruins, as well as a Google Maps image I tracked down, I’m quite certain that the Holy Rosary Church is cruciform in structure. The main entrance would have been from the south, which I found to be the largest gate. When possible, churches generally face east, with the principal access on the west, so this layout is unusual. All the walls connecting the southern gate to the rest of the church, and what would have been the nave, where the congregation is gathered during services, are now gone, and it stands alone. Inside the southern gate, on either side, are two alcoves. Could these have contained receptacles for holy water? Or could they have been intended for guards? Who can tell?

The inside of the Southern gate, with alcoves visible on both sides

The belfry or steeple
Most of the transept (the point where the two wings of the cruciform structure intersect, forming the left and right arms of the cross) with its pointed Gothic arches, is intact. So are some portions of the raised altar. Behind the apse, the church’s steeple or belfry is largely extant, as well. The roof of the steeple is gone, although the truss supports, here in the form of triangular projections, remain intact. On the truss supports, flowery stucco ornamentation may still be seen. Similar ornamentation, especially on the gateway arches, also survives. Inside the shell of the belfry, I found what looked like an arrangement by which a bell would have been suspended.

With a source of water close by, plenty of trees, and vast open spaces, Shettihalli is full of birds. Many of them may be seen around the church. I found an owl hiding in a crevice in one of the walls. Carry a telephoto lens, if you want some good shots.

One of the scalloped arches of the church
As we walked around the ruins of the Holy Rosary Church, my friend made a pertinent observation. “If this is a church, why do the arches look Islamic”? She was referring to what are called “scalloped arches”, which are seen above all the entrances of this specific church. Scalloped arches are a feature typical in Islamic architecture, and not commonly seen in churches. So what are they doing here? One possible explanation is that this is a small church, and since Shettihalli village in Hassan District is not a place of great importance, whoever the architect was would not have had much supervision. He therefore decided to have some fun, and improvised. Although classical church construction conventions are mostly followed, there are many little elements which are not what one would call “standard”. Also, in many areas where a Christian church was a relatively new arrival, elements of the religion it sought to replace (as well as local architectural conventions) could be added to a given church building, in order to introduce an air of familiarity and comfort. These particular scalloped arches could have been copied from one of many Muslim structures found in and around Hassan and Mysore. Another explanation might be that the design of the church was sent by an architect not present onsite, to be executed by local masons, who inadvertently changed the orientation, and added elements to the structure as they saw fit. Whatever the case may be, there is no doubt that The Holy Rosary Church was, and in many ways still is, quite an intriguing structure.

The view from the West
I was surprised that, in spite of the annual dunking it receives in the waters of Hemavati, so much of the church still remains standing. Locals tell me that a mixture of eggs and jaggery was used as mortar. While this may seem strange today, it was not unusual for the time. For Lucknow’sfamous Bada Imambara for example, “daal” and gum arabic were used as mortar. Whatever the formula used here, it certainly seems to be durable. I don’t think a modern concrete would survive being submerged annually for three decades or more. It seems a movie was being shot at the church a few weeks before I turned up, and unfortunately, the film crew thought fit to whitewash the ruins. I would have preferred the old grubby look but alas!

For anyone wishing to visit the Holy Rosary Church in Shettihalli, the closest place to stay would be Hassan town, where the district administration is headquartered. From Hassan you can also visit other sites of interest, such as Belur and Halebidu, with ornate temples built during the Hoysala period. I stayed in Mysore, and my 300 km round trip in an air conditioned hatch-back (with a pit stop in Hassan for lunch on the way back) cost me Rs. 2850, which I thought was reasonable.

The ideal time to visit The Holy Rosary Church would depend on what you want to see. I wanted to take in the entire site, and hence went when the water was lowest. If you visit in late July or August, you will be able to see the church submerged in the waters of the Hemavati. Locals arrange for boating trips around the ruins, in round-shaped boats, known as coracles. If you do happen to visit, send me an email with your experiences.

-          by Deepanjan Ghosh (Edited by Brian Paul Bach)


        Mysore Palace


        I am grateful to my friends Prasenjit Das and Sreyashi Chaudhury, who arranged for my stay and transport when in Mysore. They did most of the basic groundwork for me as well.
        Thanks also to Meghana, whose blog post provided much information about the Church. Meghana also patiently answered many of our questions on email. Check out her post on the Holy Rosary Church, here.
        I am also grateful to author Brian Paul Bach, whose inputs have been invaluable. Brian has written many books, among them a scholarly volume on Calcutta’s architecture called Calcutta’s Edifice, and one on his travels around India and Pakistan entitled The Grand Trunk Road from the Front Seat.


Dictionary of Indian Biography                    – Buckland, Charles Edward
Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies – Dubois, Jean Antoine
The Indian Encyclopaedia                             – Kapoor, Subodh
Mysore Gazetteer                                             – Rao, C. Hayavadana
Mysore & Coorg Gazetteer                            – Rice, Benjamin Lewis
Eastern Experiences                                        – Bowring, Lewin Benthan
‘A church from another era’                           – The Hindu, August 4, 2008
‘Standing tall in troubled waters’                 – The Hindu, Aug 11, 2005
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