How a Lost Church in Rajasthan Helped Me Find My Way Home
The magic of the Bandikui church is that it stays, rests, and remains, despite the world moving on and away from it.
Growing up in Delhi, I used to walk past Islamic dome-shaped mausoleums, decrepit temples, and aging columns of British buildings, deep stepwells on my way to school, playgrounds, and library. The modern and the old, even the forgotten coexisted. So why worry about this old church now?
“Church janaa hai,” I decided. I have to go see it.
What I haven’t confessed yet is that no matter how many countries I visit, no matter how many oceans I cross, I have no sense of direction. Every trip I make is my announcement to that fear: look, look at me, I can do it. I am afraid of heights, look at me trek up this mountain. I am afraid of getting lost; look, I found my way back. Look, look!
My ex-husband was, is, a human GPS. When I traveled with him, I didn’t worry. It’s an interesting adjustment, to worry. Worry because if I don’t, I’ll be lost.
I don’t have an internal compass, or any compass for that matter. Every time I travel, I plan for extra time to get back on track. I always get back on track. But I need time. Theek hai, it’s okay.
The church calls me. I trace Bandikui, in the middle of Rajasthan. I’ll be there, I promise the town that doesn’t know I exist. My heart beats loudly, telling me, You’ll get lost for sure. Pataa hai, I know, I tell it. I’d rather be lost than be with him.
Bandikui, the small town where the church sits, is a train junction in the North-western state of Rajasthan. Once upon a time when the British ruled India, trains stopped there on the route between Jaipur—the pink city of marble, slate, and royalty—and Delhi, the administrative capital. In the midst of dry fields, cow dung-patties, and dusty mustard-yellow flowers, the little town rises up quietly, softly. Painted stone British-style bungalows dot the small narrow streets.
The bungalows are still inhabited. Attached to each bungalow are innocuous-looking buffalo sheds, as if animals living so close to humans is a natural way of life. It must be, because most of the people in these bungalows have buffaloes as their neighbors. In the sheds, I see the massive animals, their fur glistening in the heat. I think about Bandikui and its people, a normal small town with townspeople who’ve lived there forever.
But then I get lost, as always. Each narrow lane close to the railway station led me to another cluster of small homes, bungalows, white-washed and shining in the sunlight. “Bhaiyya,” I ask the tea stall owner, “Yeh church kahaan hai?”
He points left, as if he has been asked this question many times by tourists, curious journalists, and travelers alike. I notice the sweaty plastic water bottles with Bisleri labels stuck on them, hanging from the wooden columns holding the aluminum sheet roof of his stall. It’s so hot in Bandikui that even water is thirsty.
I follow the road ahead. It’s another long one, its asphalt turning ash with the heat. Bougainvillea wave in the soft breeze, a bright shocking fuchsia against whitewashed building walls. No church yet. I make another turn, for no reason at all, except that I am lost and I am used to not finding my way to any of my destinations. On that road, to the left, is another whitewashed wall, and beyond that a small, single-level one-room house. A shed next to it. Another buffalo there, I guess.
Walking up to the house, I spot a child and (likely) her grandmother sitting on the charpoy bed on the patio. The child grins. Adjusting her bright red dupatta over her head, the grandmother waves and signals, “Come, sit!” Baitho, sit. It seems like a standard greeting there. People welcoming strangers, visitors, travelers.
Prema is her name, she tells me. It means love in our language.
“Do you know where the church is?” I ask, wiping the sweat off my glasses. It is 110 degrees in the mid-morning heat.
Her eyes disappear in the creases of her weather-weary face. Smiling, she says, “Yes, my father-in-law used to be the caretaker in the British days. Look, it’s right there!”—and she points to her left.
Next to the shed, the church rises in the dust, among the dry cacti, desert flowers, and desiccated brown field. My heart races. This is what I have traveled from San Diego for. This is what I got lost for. This is home. This is foreign. It’s a church among Hindus.
I don’t know what to ask now, so I resort to pleasantries. “How long have you lived here? Is this your granddaughter?”
“I’ve lived here all my life,” she says, her eyes watering. “This is Guriya, and we don’t know how long we can live here.”
Guriya. Doll. The little girl plays with her grubby fingers, looking down. I turn back to look at the church. The towers rise, supported by columns constructed for a Christian god, protected by a Hindu caretaker. “Why do you say that?” I ask.
Her voice unsteady, Prema says, “We’ve lived next to this temple all our lives. It was beautiful when I came here as a new bride—”
I realize that for her, a temple and a church are the same: places for worship. “How many years ago was it?”
“When I was this little,” she says, putting her hand near her waist. She comes from a time when age was measured by your height. She seems eager to tell me, someone, anyone, her story.
“The church is stuck with lawyers. Locked up. Closed. These no-good luffungas came one night, stole the lamp, the brass locks, the candle holders, everything, even Jesus. The town blamed me, my family. Said we stole everything!”
Prema’s family was blamed for allegedly selling church artifacts. While they live on the property, they don’t have access to the church.
She then points at another building in the far corner. “Our temple is a Kandahar, a broken relic. Now everyone who is Christian goes to St. Francis.”
Her eyes are worried as she looks at the church door. “I’m not sure what they want to do with the building. Isn’t it aalishan?” Dignified?
“Yes,” I agree, “It still is. I’ll go there now. Thank you for your time.”
When I turn back to wave at Prema, she watches me, unseeing, her lips pursed with worry. Behind her, Guriya has lost interest and walks unsteadily toward the buffalo shed.
The church sits on a dry desert land, cactus flowers strewn haphazardly on a path made by weather. A surprising jasmine next to the boarded-up door leans toward the windows. Through the cracks I can see the high ceilings, the majestic interior, shattered windows—it used to be hallowed, once upon a time.
Behind the building are three wells, or what remains of them—iron and concrete structures, a winch-pulley left behind to raise buckets of water for people living in a desert town. This church was more than a place of worship. People used to gather here. They drew water from the wells on the property. There must have been celebrations here. Nearby is a broken arbor—there were weddings, too. Funerals. Baptisms.
I peer into the church through the broken window. The pews, built from heavy dark wood, are stained and cracked. The wind and dry heat worked at breaking the church down, pew by pew, brick by brick. In the distance, the breeze whispers secrets I don’t know. The abandoned building stands tall, as if in defiance, asking me to remember what it used to be.
The first photo of the Bandikui church I had seen was taken in early spring, late winter. It was a happy photo, taken by my architect friend: yellow flowers caressing the outline of the tall building in a field of mustard.
That doesn’t match what I see now. The church, much like me, is old, tired, hot. It is cracked open, its guts spilling out, holding memories that leak out of the broken stained-glass windows. But the steps to the front door are surprisingly clean, as if waiting for someone to ascend and knock on the closed door. I don’t. The church is abandoned. They even stole Jesus.
I return to Delhi before I leave for San Diego. I tell my architect friend, “There used to be happy memories in that church, I think.”
He agrees. They had weddings there, christenings. There was a garden behind the church. There is still a cemetery, where the headstones are intact. This used to be a world. You can lose a place, a home, even if home is where you still live.
You can lose a place, a home, even if home is where you still live.
“Was the church what you expected?” my friend asks.
I don’t know how to answer that. I had traveled thousands of miles to connect with a church that was once vibrant, a place of worship for Anglo-Indians and British families. Did I find my answers yet? If I feel like I am like the church, is the church then alive, as I am? Or am I as dead as the church?
“Yes,” I finally tell my friend. “It was all and more than what I expected.”
Later, back in San Diego, the church looms large in my dreams—dark, tall and surrounded by the summer sunlight. It feels like its story is yet unknown to me. Sometimes, in my dreams, I see Prema waiting for a house to be a home, her dupatta a slash of red in the white heat. Sometimes I think I see Guriya running to the shed where the buffalo concentrates on chewing hay.
I feel as if I have lived many lives, as many houses, many buildings, many churches have. The neighborhood I lived in isn’t mine anymore. The parents I had are now gone. My marriage shattered. Sometimes I wonder, did I just imagine all that? And through it all, as I fumble from country to country, continent to continent, house to house, I am the keeper of memories—much like the forgotten church in Bandikui—holding stories that are embedded in me.
The magic of the Bandikui church is that it stays, rests, and remains, despite the world moving on and away from it. Prema and her family may be facing an uncertain future. And I, who have crossed continents hoping to find a sense of belonging in Bandikui, feel it and innately also know that it’s not my home, either. I may be lost most of the time, but what I found in Bandikui is a sliver of direction. Even though the thread connecting me to what used to be home is tenuous, it’s still there. And in San Diego, I realize this American city next to the Pacific is my home, too: It’s my home now.
Essayist. Memoirist. Woman in Bioscience. Immigrant. Daughter of Refugees. Seeker of food, stories, and travel. Published (or finalist) in New York Times, Chicago Quarterly Review, Zoetrope, The Missouri Review, Panorama (Pushcart-nominated), DAME, Unearth Women, The Rumpus (forthcoming), Atlas Obscura, Garnet News and others.
Current nonfiction book-in-progress focuses on outlier women of color, "Hatke: Fearless Outlier Women". @WriteMadhushree