(The Almost Complete) History and Architecture of Afghan Church

There were two options, either go walking to Afghan Church or take a bus. As exhausted as we were we decided to take the bus. We passed through some old buildings in Colaba. We were not aware this old part of town was beautiful and gave a nostalgic feeling. Most of the buildings surrounding Afghan Church were military buildings. With a soldier posted at  every entrance who was ready to jump into action at a moments notice. Most of the buildings were painted in white, with the emblems of Indian Army, Navy and Air Force and its name written in bold red letters. As we got down the bus, we spotted a tower, rising through the trees, with a holy cross on the top

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The Afghan Church is actually a memorial to one of the British Raj’s disastrous campaigns to Afghanistan. This was was known as the First Anglo Afghan War which was in 1838. This army of around 16,000 men were annihilated by the Afghans Warriors and only one survived, Dr. William Brydon. After surviving the horror, I have no doubt that the doctor had an amazing story to tell to the world.

A Depiction of Slaughter of the English Army by the Afghan Warriors…Painting : The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck, 1842. Source – Wikippedia

‘Remnants of an Army’ by Elizabeth Butler portraying William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as the only survivor of a 16,500 strong evacuation from Kabul in January 1842; Source – Wikipedia

You can have a look at the following links to read more about William Brydon’s account of the War

http://www.khyber.org/publications/011-015/brydonreport.shtml

http://www.fortrosemarkie.org/brydon01.htm

The the question you should be asking is why was this memorial church made in Mumbai, as the war was fought in Afghanistan. The answer to that question is many of the soldiers who died there came from the Company’s Bombay Army.

The Church of St. John the Evangelist (Afghan Church) was commissioned by East India Company to be built at Navy Nagar, Colaba, South Mumbai.

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In early 1820’s, before the First Afghan War even happened, Archdeacon Barnes had written a letter to the government urging them that a church is needed in Colaba. The site where the Church now stands was a burial ground of military and naval officers. Hence it could have been a spiritual home for the Bombay Army. In January 1824, the government sanctioned the proposal to build a chapel at the cost of Rs. 28,000. But after the Chief Engineer supplied the plan the estimate cost went up to staggering Rs. 74,000 and the work was held up.

In 1843, after the Afghan War, Reverend Geroge Piggot (whose plaque  is kept on display at the Church) started collecting the funds. Sir George Russel, The Governor of Bombay laid the foundation stone on December 4th, 1847.

The work on the Church begun in 1847 and the church was consecrated (definition – make or declare (something, typically a church) sacred; dedicate formally to a religious purpose.) in January 7, 1858 by Rev. John Hardinges, Second Bishop of Bombay. It was originally planned to include the name of all the officers and men who had fallen in the war, on vellum rolls (definition – parchment made up of calf skin). But it didn’t materialize could be, according to my assumption, due to the fact that cow is considered holy in India.

The huge 60 – meter high bell tower which grabs the attention was completed in 1865. The architects Henry Conybeare Esq., ‘son of the Dean of Llandaff’ and Henry Butterfield are responsible for the Gothic look of the Church. It was mainly inspired by other Gothic Buildings in the vicinity such as Victoria Terminus (now known as C.S.T.) and The High Court. It was considered to be the first Gothic Church of India.

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It is needless to say that the memorials are only focused on the British Officers who fell in the war and little acknowledgement is given to the Indian Soldiers. This Church also has memorials which are dedicated to officers who fell in the Second Afghan War (1879 – 1880).

The caretaker had opened the door for us and informed us that photography is  not allowed inside. We did respect his wishes but with regretted not trying to convince him for the same.

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The interiors of the Church was soothing as well as mesmerizing at the same time. There was a white metal door with floral design, beautifully made, with a holy cross  on the top.This metal screen is done by Mr. Higgins, one of the eminent metal workers of England who had came to Bombay, specially to do this work.   There lied a sign board to switch off the cell phones. Most of the people happily did that and enjoyed the serenity of this religious place. Tall graceful arches surrounded the place. Although not well maintained, it was still grandiose.

The walls of this building are made from Kurla Stone. The Piers (Pillars), Arches are made of Porbunder Stone. The Roof is varnished Teak Wood.

The next thing that would grab your attention (if it hasn’t already been grabbed before) would be the five panels of stained glass at the top of the Altar which filters the rays of lights and we can watch the magnificent piece of art. These were imported from England just as many other things. These panels are installed in the chancel arch which is at around 50 ft. in height.

Image of the Five Stained Glasses; Source – Flickr

The chancel door was again painted in Red and White and had a floral design. Inside the Chancel on the south side stands a stone Pulpit (definition – An elevated platform, lectern, or stand used in preaching or conducting a religious service.). The floor of the Chancel is also imported from England. Many of  the memorials on both sides of the wall.

The fine marble lectern (definition – A reading desk with a slanted top used to hold a sacred text from which passages are read in a religious service.) which is on the left side in Transept arrived on May 2nd 1865, and its base was added in 1890.

Image of the Lectern; Source – Flickr

When we turned back, we  saw three more stained glasses just on the top of the entrance of the Church. Just above the Entrance were the memorials of officers who fell in the Second Afghan War, and on its left and right were many other memorials, some with Regimental colors hanging inside the Glass Case.

Image of the Stained Glasses above the Entrance

There lies a Memorial plaque  of First Afghan War

Memorial Plaque of First Afghan War; Source- http://blog.bijanomrani.com/

The church bells were unique as they were only used in the western parts of India. Sir Charles Cayzer of Gertomore Pertshire, a former resident of Colaba donated the Church bells to commemorate his wedding, which cost him around 8,000 Rs. This bell was made by John Taylor. You can check out the history of John Taylor here and there is also a John Taylor Bellfoundry Museum in England.

Sir Cowasjee Jehangir had made an offer to put an Illuminated Clock in the structure but  it was inexplicably declined.

We decided to just have a walk around the Church and we found out this place, similar to a well, which has plaques all over its interiors. There is no mention of it in any of the websites or blogs

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Sources

Stones of Empire – The Buildings of the Raj (Pg 189)

http://blog.bijanomrani.com/?p=168

http://www.bdtapvtltd.org/afghan.htm

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