For four months of the year, the Hemavati River in Hassan District of Karnataka is home to a haunting apparition. Just across from the riverbank at Shettihalli village is a wreath of pointed arches, scalloped arches, parapets and a belfry that skim the water. Spread across quite a large area, these astonishing remains gaze back at the shore with stoic patience, the visible ruins of India’s only ‘floating church’.
Submerged when the Gorur Dam was built in the late ’70s, they are the ruins of the Holy Rosary Church, which was abandoned when ‘development’ came a-calling to Hassan District. Now, every year, when the river swells during the monsoon, the church goes under and rises again when the water ebbs.
Hassan District was once the seat of the Hoysala Empire, which at its peak ruled large parts of South India from Belur as its early capital and Halebidu as its later capital, from 1000 – 1334 CE. During the 14th century, invasions by the Delhi Sultanate weakened the Hoysala state, and the district became part of the Vijayanagara Empire.
In the colonial period, Hassan was one of the districts where the British built coffee plantations, many of which survive to this day. The little village of Shettihalli lies in this district, 200 km to the west of the state capital of Bengaluru.
Shettihalli was first mentioned in Jesuit records by the missionary priest, Father Manuel De Almeyda, in 1727 CE, but it became a separate mission station only in 1740 CE. There was an older church in Shettihalli, which was probably destroyed.
The Holy Rosary Church of Shettihalli, referred to as ‘Sathalli’ in colonial documents, was built by French missionary Abbe Jean Antoine Dubois in 1810. Dubois travelled to India to work with the Missions Etrangeres, a Roman Catholic missionary organisation, around 1792. In India, he was first attached to the Pondicherry mission, but after the British captured Seringapatam (Srirangapatnam) near Mysore in 1799 CE, Dubois was invited to visit the town.
He lived like a local, and 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, had forced many native Christians to convert to Islam. Dubois reconverted them to Christianity and, subsequently, many of them settled in and around Shettihalli about 116 kilometers to the northwest of Mysore. These people were referred to as ‘Caste Christians’, who while Christian in their beliefs preserved the customs of the communities to which they originally belonged before converting to Christianity. Dubois built the Holy Rosary Church here in 1810, to serve the spiritual needs of the Christians who settled here and later the British population.
Dubois returned to France in 1823 with a pension from the East India Company, but his church continued to prosper. Over time, it was enlarged, the last of these renovations probably taking place around 1860. 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 12 surrounding villages, with a combined population of around 1,000.
In 1979, the Indian government decided to dam the waters of the Hemavati River, which was 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 Taluka. 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 are still standing, periodically drowned by the rising waters, only to re-emerge in the dry season.
The Holy Rosary Church seems to have been cruciform (in the shape of a cross) in structure. The main entrance would have been from the south, where there is now a large gate. When possible, churches generally face east, with principal access on the west, so the layout of this church 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. So the gate now stands alone. Inside the southern gate, on either side, are two alcoves. These may have contained receptacles for holy water.
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 is still visible. Similar ornamentation, especially on the gateway arches, also survives. Inside the shell of the belfry, there appears to be what looks like an arrangement by which a bell would have been suspended.
To a visitor today, the scalloped arches of the church may make it look more like a mosque than a church. Scalloped arches are a feature typical of 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, the architect was probably given a free hand and allowed to improvise.
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 church building, to introduce an air of familiarity and comfort. These particular scalloped arches could have been copied from one of many Islamic 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 on-site, to be executed by local masons, who inadvertently changed the orientation, and added elements to the structure as they saw fit. Regardless, there is no doubt that the Holy Rosary Church was, and in many ways still is, quite an intriguing structure.
It is surprising that in spite of the annual dunking it receives, so much of the church is still standing. Locals say 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’s famous Bada Imambara, for example, daal or lentils and gum arabic were used as mortar. Whatever the formula used here, it certainly seems to be durable.
With a source of water close by, plenty of trees, and vast open spaces, Shettihalli is full of birds, many of them around the church. The church is popular with both visitors as well as film crews and is often used in movies and music videos. Photographers have also found the area ideal for astrophotography due to the low levels of light pollution.
When the waters recede in the summer months and the church becomes accessible, it attracts explorers and visitors. During the monsoon, as the church is submerged, coracle rides take visitors around the area.
The Holy Rosary Church is certainly not the only religious structure to be drowned by the waters of a dam. When construction of the Bhakra Nangal Dam across the Sutlej River in Himachal Pradesh began in 1948, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called dams “temples of modern India”. These ‘temples’ have been responsible for the submergence of many actual temples and historic sites of ancient India.
In Telkupi in West Bengal, ancient stone temples still peek out of the waters of the Panchet Reservoir. After the Hirakud Dam across the Mahanadi River in Odisha was completed in 1957, scores of temples were drowned in the waters of the reservoir. Interest in these temples has been rekindled after Deepak Kumar Panda and Surya Panigrahi, senior office bearers of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), discovered two ancient rock edicts from the Padmaseni Temple in Padmapur in the submerged area of the Hirakud Dam in June 2014.
The reservoir also led to the formation of the curious ‘cattle island’. Abandoned cattle, which stayed on the top of a hill when it became an island as the waters rose, have been living without any human intervention for more than 50 years. They are now wild, larger than domesticated cattle, very swift and almost all-white. Attempts to capture them have been unsuccessful.
When Egypt decided to construct the Aswan Dam, the temples of Abu Simbel were dismantled in 1968, moved, and reassembled at a distance from the original site. It was a Herculean effort that took five years but it was done, all the same. It is a pity such efforts are not taken in India, where we have all too often watched as religious and other archaeological sites literally sink into oblivion.
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