Monday, July 9, 2012

Kolkata Kaleidoscope : St. John's Church

On a pleasant morning just at the beginning of winter, I planned to visit St. John's Church, the third oldest and one of the most distinguished churches of Kolkata reminiscent of the British Raj. Saibal and Anirban were my partners in this venture. The church is located near Dalhousie Square in the north-western corner of Raj Bhavan, precisely at the intersection of Kiran Shankar Road and Council House Street. We had to pay a minimal entry fee and a parking fee for our car. It seemed that not too many people visit the place regularly since the bemused security guard asked us whether we were coming from outside the city. Although I have heard that it still holds Sunday services, it is improbable that many people attend those as the church is situated in a largely commercial neighborhood.

The land on which the church is built was donated by Maharaja Naba Krishna Deb of Sovabazar. The founding stone was laid by Warren Hastings, the then British Governor General of India, in 1784 and the church was inaugurated in the presence of Lord Cornwallis in 1787. It initially served as the Anglican Cathedral of Calcutta and was the first Anglican church in the city. Modeled by architect Lt. James Agg, on lines of the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in England, the church is built with brick and stone and often referred to as 'the stone church'. The portico with lofty pillars and the tall stone spire holding a giant clock along with the imposingly large square base make an impressive architecture. Inside, the main altar is a simple one and to its right is a colourful stained glass window.

To the left of the altar, hangs on the wall, the famous painting of 'Last Supper' by England based German artist Johann Zoffany. Unlike Leonardo da Vinci's rendering of the painting by the same name, Zoffany's 'Last Supper' has a distinct Indian touch like the sword or the spittoon and even it is believed that some of the disciples of Jesus were modeled on real life Britishers of then Calcutta. The painting was restored in 2010 by the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan India in cooperation with the Indian National Trust for Art and Culture Heritage. In Fact if my memory serves me right, I came across in the newspapers a few years back that during the restoration part only the identity of the artist was revealed and it was hitherto unknown that he had been to Kolkata.

All along the walls of the church are memorial tablets mainly of army officers and civil servants besides other prominent citizens of the day. Interestingly many of these tablets too has some Indian-ness reflecting in them. A wooden arching staircase on the right connects the first floor but it is now out of bounds for the general public.

The church compound also has a cemetery, probably the oldest Christian cemetery of Calcutta and many tombs and memorials of renowned persons are to be found here. Once we exited the church building from the left side, we came across such a memorial dedicated to Lady Canning, the wife of British Governor General and Viceroy to India, set up in 1861. Her name has been made immortal after a popular sweet was named after her in Bengal. Some of the other prominent people whose tombs we noticed included Lord Brabourne, Goveror General and Viceroy of British India.

At a far end of the ground is located the circular dome shaped tomb of Frances Johnson, a famous wealthy socialite who married four times and died in 1812 at a ripe old age of late eighties. She was popularly known as 'Begum' due to her close association with Amina Begum, the mother of Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, Siraj-ud-Daulah.

Not far from it, is the mausoleum of Job Charnock, a trader of the erstwhile British East India Company, who is popularly regarded as the founder of the city of Calcutta. Back in 1690, he set foot on the city which then comprised three small villages namely Sutanati, Gobindopur and Kolkata. Traditional belief is that he combined the three villages into the city of Calcutta but this theory is also challenged by many, especially the Sabarna Roy Chaudhury family and there had been a High Court ruling as well contradicting this opinion. Charnock only lived for two more years and died on 10th January, 1692 according to the date on his gravestone. However, from other reliable sources it is evident that he died in the year 1693. This discrepancy is attributed to the old calendar system by which the new year begun in March. The simple white two-storied mausoleum has an octagonal base with a dome shaped roof, arched doors and a balustrade of short peaked arches. The mausoleum, which has an evident effect of Indo-Islamic architecture was erected by Charnock's son-in-law, Sir Charles Eyre and the epitaph is inscribed in Latin.

Another interesting cenotaph is the Second Rohilla War Memorial, which comprises a circular dome shaped roof supported on twelve Doric pillars and contains a plaque with the names of many British soldiers who were killed in the Second Rohilla War of 1794.

Also located in the church compound is an obelisk with a wide base which commemorates the controversial Black Hole Tragedy of Calcutta. In 1756, after Sirad-ud-Daulah siezed Fort William from the British, it is said that the prisoners of war were confined in a small and poorly ventilated room and many of them died due to suffocation. John Holwell, who was a survivor of the incident narrated that 123 out of 146 prisoners died overnight. However, many historians have questioned the veracity of Holwell's account and feel that his version is highly exaggerated. Some even rejected the authenticity of the entire episode. Nevertheless, after Robert Clive defeated Siraj in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, Holwell built a memorial near the present day GPO in Dalhousie Square area to commemorate the victims of the Black Hole Tragedy. At some point of time during 1821, the memorial was broken or removed and Lord Curzon during his vice-regency (1901-6) commissioned a replica to be built in 1902 which was later on relocated to St. John's Church compound.

Contented after spending an hour in the peaceful church where we were the only visitors surrounded by so much history of the city of Calcutta of the colonial time, we stepped out to the busy modern city which is now rechristened as Kolkata.

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