Batalha Monastery, Portugal
After navigating some very interesting twists and turns filled with medieval charm through the town of Batalha in central Portugal, we halt in front of a massive structure. Bathed in the glow of an afternoon sun, the monastery stands majestic, bones and flesh of someone’s imagination and beautiful enough to pull at one’s heart strings. Santa Maria da Vitoria or Monastery of Batalha.
The sheer architectural scale has taken me aback. This was created in the middle ages? I approach closer my eyes lingering in dazed fascination on the exquisite stone lacework of the balustrades along the top of the walls. Since the church is situated on a plain, we did not see it as we approached from the Lisbon-Leiria road. Nothing had prepared me for this.
If only stones could speak…
Sometimes they do. You have to quiet your mind in order to be able to hear.
Once again, the might of Spain comes in arrogant quest for more and more of our territory, Portugal’s villages hugging the beira (border) will diminish; swallowed whole if something is not done quickly. We pray day and night seeking deliverance.
It is the eve of the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, August 14, 1385. We are drawn up on the battlefield of Aljubarrota. We knew this was going to happen. Too many skirmishes at the beira forcing us to flee our ancestral homes, our fields laid to waste, our children hungry. But, our faith in our King Joao 1 remains high for he has been on his knees through the night praying to Saint Mary. Why should we be afraid?
My lord, a high-ranking knight in the royal army, is good to me because he knows I am honest and will do all in my power to see to his needs. He rides a great Lucitano three years old with flexibility throughout and freedom of movement. I care for this horse personally for he carries a most noble load. My lord tells me not to discount the small horse for they are quicker and smarter. I think I know what he means for this one is all of that and more.
Well, we routed our enemy. Memory of that fateful day will remain with me until I die. We were gravely outnumbered yet we won.
Our King Joao 1 has promised to build a monastery in Batalha in tribute to Saint Mary for granting us victory over the King of Castile. It will be handed over to the Dominican friars who having left town will need a place to live and carry on their prayers and meditation.
I hear work on the monastery has begun. Each time a village is established along the beira, a church is built. People are starting to live in these villages for that is the only way to safeguard our land.
I have asked my liege lord to relieve me of my duties for I desire to enter the Dominican Order. It is highly unusual. At first, he demurred, a glint of amusement in those war hardened eyes. Possibly imagining me, only half a man with downy cheeks kneeling in prayer at all times of day and night. I will never know how it happened but I heard myself chanting in a language I did not recognize. Afterwards, my lord took me aside and asked how I came to know Latin. I do not know, I said, only that I must go where I am called. My heart says to live the rest of my life as a monk devoting my time in reading, praying and looking after the soil. We must heed the transforming power of our dreams.
King Joao 1 of Portugal signed his last will on October 4, 1426. Among many clauses and testaments there was one striking feature. He specified his reason for building the Monastery of Santa Maria da Vitoria or the Monastery of Batalha and his motives behind handing it over to the religious community of the Dominicans. In this way, he fulfilled his promise to Saint Mary made on the eve of the battle with the King of Castile that if he won, a Monastery would be built. The Dominican Order was devoted to Our Lady Mary; hence the Monastery was given to this Order.
Keep well…Keep smiling.
Purabi Sinha Das
(This is the third piece in a series recounting my time in Portugal).
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