Ten Churches of British India

The 200 years of British Raj definitely gave a lot of good things to us. This includes the spectacular architecture seen in colonial buildings. Some mind blowing Cathedrals and Churches are often prominently situated either in the bustling cities or on the calmer military cantonments. These churches were built in remembrance of town and village churches in faraway England which the architect would try to recreate with different materials on Indian soil.

Let us flag off our journey with two churches based on James Gibbs design for St Martin in the Fields in London's Trafalgar Square. St Andrew's in Calcutta (Kolkata) is breathtakingly beautiful and located at the end of a busy street. The second is St John's Church, Meerut, chosen partly for its attractiveness but also because it was during church parade here on Sunday 10th May 1857 that the Mutiny broke out. Later on troops were allowed to walk in with their rifles into church and small apertures were carved into the wooden pews to enable them to be secured. St John's was completed in 1821 and is said to be the oldest church in north India.

St Paul's Cathedral in Calcutta is enormous and highly decorative. It was designed by Major (later Major General) William Nairn Forbes in the Gothic Revival style and is said to be inspired by the Norwich Cathedral. It was consecrated in 1847 and has references to Pugin and his designs for the Houses of Parliament in London.

The next is a Palladian Church, St. James in Old Delhi (commonly known as Skinner's Church). Its construction began in 1826 and it was completed in 1836. It was however badly damaged during the 1857 Mutiny. The church is only a few hundred yards from the Kashmir Gate where much of the bitter fighting took place. Major Robert Smith, who designed the church, may have had in his mind the designof Cheswick House in London (completed in 1729) which he would have seen. This is quite reminiscent in St. James.

St Stephen's Church in Ootacamund was designed by Captain John James Underwood of the Madras Sappers and was completed in 1831. It is in the understated style of an English Gothic Parish Church, beautifully positioned at the center of the town.

Equally central and perched on Scandal Point is Christ Church, Simla, the second oldest church in northern India, built between 1844 and 1857. A design by Colonel Boileau, this church is slightly more decorative than St Stephen's. Simla (now Shimla) was the summer capital of India during the British Raj and all the most powerful figures in the government worshipped at this church. There is still a small brass plaque on the front pew reserving the seats of the Viceroy and Vicereine.

Coonoor, another beautiful hill station in India is home to All Saints. All Saints, a Church in this lovely town was completed in 1861 and is regarded as one of the most perfectly maintained churches in India, both inside and out.

A much larger church is Christ Church in Rawalpindi cantonment, designed as the place of worship for the large British garrison. The church was built in 1852 and has recently been refurbished. The plasterwork render has been removed from the exterior walls and rather garish new roof-tiles fitted. The church is beautifully maintained by the small Christian community which nonetheless packs the church every Sunday.

St John's Cathedral in Peshawar was built between 1851 and 1860 and, like Rawalpindi, is a cantonment church full of memorials to those killed on the wild frontier with Afghanistan.

The Trinity Church, Karachi was built in Romanesque basilica style in local Gizri sandstone. This was designed by Captain Hill which depicts a mixed style. Work began in 1852. The tower originally had five levels and was used as a lookout tower (or even lighthouse) for ships entering the docks.

It is quite an extraordinary achievement for these buildings to have survived so many decades after the end of the Raj. Moreover, another amazing fact is that all these churches of yore have been treasured and maintained by local communities of which Christians are a tiny minority.

Furthermore, all these ten churches were designed and built by young military engineers from the Madras, Bombay or Bengal Engineer Corps.

To conclude lets refer to the Obituary of Colonel Boileau which says - "The Corps of Bengal Engineers was in those days a very small one, its cadre including only thirty-six officers, and, if they entered it with a somewhat imperfect training, the manifold and incessant work into which the young officers were speedily plunged afforded them at least a very varied experience."