13 September 2012

St. John's Church, Calcutta


Located in the heart of Calcutta’s heritage zone, St. John’s Church is surrounded by several famous landmarks of the city including the mighty Writer’s Building & Raj Bhavan, the peaceful Andrew’s Church & Sacred Heart Church & the enchanting Dalhousie Square. & yet it remains one of the most serene spots in the entire city, untouched by visitors who might write love letters on its walls & hidden from the prying eyes of passerbys. Old, crumbling & cut off from the rest of the city, yet beautifully maintained, it hides several treasures in its bosom. The blackened, yellow walls & shutters, surrounded by memorials & mausoleums set in a garden of flowering trees & bushes, filled with birds & cats, seem inviting. The graves – old, yet still showing signs of their erstwhile magnificence - hold ancient stories within themselves, revealed only to the most obstinate of travellers.


St. John's Church


That particular day I was alone, no friend accompanied me to Calcutta, walking through the old lanes & bylanes & checking my hand-made maps for directions & asking shopkeepers & pedestrians when my maps misled me, I finally walked in St. John’s Church. A signboard outside it detailed its history, old walls reminded me of several structures that I have seen during my travels, each with its own story. This one seemed special, it invoked silence around itself, despite being located in a commercial neighbourhood. Cars did not honk much here, dogs did not bark. I walked around the church’s hallowed grounds, alone, not even a soul in sight. This was good, I could photograph it as much as I wanted, from different angles, different perspectives. The grounds were recently watered, yet no gardeners were in sight. Only a small family with a lady doing laundry & kids playing nearby in a corner. They did not pay any attention to me, nor did I to them. It seemed we were the only people left in the entire world, there was no other sound from the outer world. & yet we stood obvious to each other. A whitish grave on one side of the church caught my attention. The headstone proclaimed it belonged to Michael Knatchbull, Viceroy of Bengal. A heavy stone cross stood looking over it.


Michael Knatchbull's grave


Walking further, I gazed at the line of coconut trees on one side, proudly displaying their green fruit. On the opposite side was a row of gleaming cars, perhaps people just park their cars here, the entire place was empty as I said. I glanced at the drivers, many dozing off on the grass under the bright sun, some smoked, others gossiped. As earlier I moved ahead, I did not know if photography inside would be permitted, so wanted to take as much photographs from outside as possible. I noticed a small section of the garden walled, the gate perennially open. A few white structures stood inside. As I progressed, out came a small kitten, rolling around, smelling at the flowers, gazing at me in silent contemplation, perhaps wondering who this intruder was. It came close, yet maintained its distance, allowed me to sit even closer & take as many snaps as I wanted. The drivers started laughing boisterously as I crouched to photograph the kitten. Perhaps they did not know that it was his (or her??) land, his jungle. It sat there, imploring me to click more, but as soon as I tried to pat it, it sprung & retreated, not showing itself again that day. 


Along the diagonal..


I entered through the gates, perhaps this was the cat’s home, I could see several snake holes all around in the bushes. On one side of me stood two memorial tablets, one with a triangular head, and the other in a stair-pattern with three differently sized stones. I read what they had to say, prosaic & sad, they were perhaps built by near & dear ones on the passing away of a family member or may be a regimental acquaintance, after all St. John’s is one of the first churches to be built in Calcutta by the British East India Company. Job Charnock’s tomb, a diminutive, octagonal structure with a dome for a roof stood in the centre of the walled garden (refer Pixelated Memories - Charnock's Tomb). Charnock, a trader with the British East India Company, is supposedly the guy who established the city of Calcutta by combining three neighbouring cities into one & established the Company’s stronghold there (a claim that has since been rejected following an order by Calcutta High Court, refer to the post about the Tomb for details). In here are also buried Charnock’s wife & several others. I stepped outside again, that harsh sunlight again blinding me. I looked down, there was an iron plate down there, I push aside the soil & fallen leaves, there were more graves all around the memorial. I was standing over them. Forgotten, covered with compost & decay, unlike Charnock who lies in his tomb next to them. Are spirits & the dead also rich & poor, I wonder. I walk away, how long can I stay with the dead, they don’t speak. Nearby are other memorials too, this place is littered with them. There is a memorial dedicated to Lady Francis Johnson (refer Pixelated Memories - Lady Johnson's Memorial), another dedicated to the Second Rohilla War (refer Pixelated Memories - Rohilla War Memorial), & a third dedicated to the “Black Hole” tragedy of Calcutta (see Pixelated Memories - Black Hole Memorial). There is also the tomb of Admiral Watson, who helped Lord Clive of the East India Company capture Bengal after the Black Hole tragedy.


The walled garden, filled with several mausoleums & tombs


I notice many pigeons flocking to overhead electrical wires near Charnock’s Tomb, they cooed but their voices were lost before reaching me. I look at the church. Nothing, no sound, no soul in sight. I head to it. Its spire rose high, I look up but am again blinded by the sun. The large clock on the 174-feet high spire ticking slowly, even time seemed to stop here. I start observing the architecture of the church – designed with a Greek touch by military architect Lt. James Agg, the church was built with stone & brick (hence often referred in Bangla as the “Pathare Girja” or “The Stone Church”) mostly derived (or as many say, robbed) from the ruins of Gaur in 1787 on land donated by a local lord Maharaja Naba Krishna Deba. The church’s large square base, & the pillared portico look impressive. Lt. Agg was good at what he did. Lost in these & several other thoughts, & clicking pictures here & there, I move ahead. The entrance was on the other side. 


The Stone Church


Before reaching the entrance I see another grave-like memorial sitting in the church’s corridor. This one was skilfully sculpted, a glorious cross stood over it. It belonged to Lady Charlotte Canning, the wife of Charles Canning, the first Viceroy of India (refer Pixelated Memories - Lady Canning Memorial). She died of malaria & lies buried in nearby suburb of Barrackpore. But this memorial was designed elaborately & constructed in the corridor of the church. I photograph it & step down the staircase.


Charlotte Canning's memorial


The entrance seems far, I find pleasure in the wonderful gardens, fragrant flowers spread cheers around, yet the place seems desolate, the air heavy. At the entrance is a big visitor’s book kept on a stand, its torn pages fluttering with the breeze as if some invisible being was turning them over to find some reference. Scrawled comments & signatures graced its pages. Many were illegible. As I entered the entrance, I saw a room on either side – the right one barred by a large, carved wooden board (more on it later), the other open. A man sat stooped in his chair, pen in hand, writing furiously in the latter room. I knock, no response. I knock again. He welcomes me in, offers me a chair, and asks the purpose of my visit. He too found it a matter of extreme importance that someone was visiting this long lost place.


Inside St. John's Church (Notice the secondary arch on the right side & the golden-ish painting on the left of the altar)


I tell him who I am, what I do. Satisfied, he grants me permission to photograph inside the Church. Cheerfully I leave, the prayer chamber is huge, painted white, its walls covered with epitaphs (mainly of army officers and civil servants besides other prominent citizens) & sculptures. I look around, not sure what to photograph & what to leave. Blue-paned windows usher in sun’s rays to lighten the chairs & benches. An organ starts playing as I step on the aisle. Confused, I look here & there, not sure where the sound is coming from. It seemed as if the entire hall was vibrating. My heart thumping, I regain my composure. Two pretty foreigners sit in the front rows, reading quietly from their hymn books. I walk ahead, we talk. I notice the monstrous pipe-organ besides the altar. I ask the ladies if going in is allowed. They did not know. I started photographing the altar, it was beautiful - a blue-painted arched wall covered with a row of golden paintings. More flowers & candles on the altar, a golden cross graced the table. 


The Altar view


The altar was flanked by a shallow arch on its right side. Angels with folded hands guarded the arch & splendid stained glass windows depicting scenes from Christ’s life adorned it. The left side had a painting similar to Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. But the characters seemed different, the props were different. The only character unmistakeable was that of Mary Magdalene sitting next to Jesus. I later read that this rendition of the “Last Supper” was created by England-based German artist Johann Zoffany. It is said that the artist scandalized the elite of that time by representing various known British personalities as Jesus & his disciples in this image.


Colorful..


I photograph as much as I can, then notice the organ player smiling at me. He steps down. An old, crippled man, he uses a stick as a walking aid. I acknowledge his presence with a smile & continue with photographing the church interiors. The two ladies come & talk to him, they move to a window & point out directions, and then they leave. 


John, the church's organ-player


The old man comes to me, asks my name & where I was from. I compliment him for the wonderful music he played. His name too was John, he says like the Church, I say like the saint. He tells me how he got crippled & asks me if I have taken as many photographs as I wanted for my writings. He then leads me to Warren Hastings room. It was the room right to the entrance, the door of which was barred with the wooden board. He switches on the lights (instructing me to switch them off when I am done). Warren Hastings was one of the Governor-Generals of British-ruled India. His room has been restored exactly to what it used to look like when he used it, & is decked with framed photographs hanging on the walls, old Bibles, wooden cupboards & furniture. A chair is placed in a sealed glass case, the inscription reads that it is the actual chair used by Hastings himself, since then preserved in its original condition. After I am done, I go back to the prayer hall, it seems much grander, yet lonelier without John & the foreigners. A wooden arching staircase on the right connects the first floor, I climb up but the door is locked. I step down again & look around one last time. The mighty organ was silent now, so was everything around again. Nothing, no sound, no soul in sight.


Hasting's room


I walk out again, silently contemplating the fates of numerous people buried here, hoping I come here again. Hoping then this beautiful place shows more signs of life, when people too tread its grounds along with the kittens.


Goodbye, dear friend!!


Location: BBD Bagh area. Walking distance from Raj Bhavan, the residence of Governor of Bengal.
Nearest Metro Station: Esplanade Metro Station
How to reach: One can simply walk from either Esplanade Bus Terminus or Raj Bhavan. Or take a taxi.
Open: All days, 10 am – 5 pm
Sunday service: 8–9 am
Entrance Fee: Rs 10 (for visitors on foot, you have to pay more for parking)
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Time required for sight seeing: 1.5 hrs
Relevant Links - 

  1. Pixelated Memories - Black Hole Memorial
  2. Pixelated Memories - Charnock's Tomb
  3. Pixelated Memories - Lady Canning Memorial
  4. Pixelated Memories - Lady Johnson's Memorial
  5. Pixelated Memories - Rohilla War Memorial
  6. Pixelated Memories - Sacred Heart Church
  7. Pixelated Memories - St. Andrew's Church
  8. Pixelated Memories - Writers' Building
Suggested Reading - 

8 comments:

  1. i have to agree, this is your best post till date. I love the descriptions more so than the pictures(not to imply that they weren't good), but the description is well thought out and hints at something at a more personal and enlightened level. I like the various references you give to the dead and soul while writing, which add a new depth of thinking!

    ReplyDelete
  2. descriptive,informative,fully used the power of imagination...

    the environment was well sensed and described... it feels as if it was me and not you who is visiting this heritage place..

    The room of Warren Hasting is restored extremely well ....all documents ready on his table for his use !!! ... it feels as if he will now come in !!!

    appreciable work done...

    ReplyDelete
  3. yp dr dis's ur best....nd da entire writing's like a flim..evey single things's clear..nd i saw a movie in front of my eyes....just amazing...
    nd da words..some lines ..." I look up but am again blinded by the sun."..and " I step down again & look around one last time. The mighty organ was silent now, so was everything around again. Nothing, no sound, no soul in sight.".....dis took my soul....i can't explain how much ur para is awesome....may be my comments'll help u....after a long time i read such a mesmerising para...

    ReplyDelete
  4. AWESME!!!!!!!!!!! CNT DESCRIBE IN WORDS!!!!:))))))))

    ReplyDelete
  5. beautiful work.
    Thanks for sharing

    ReplyDelete
  6. better way of discription , well done .

    ReplyDelete
  7. A very good article indeed

    ReplyDelete
  8. Asif MuhammadSeptember 29, 2014

    I went there a thousand times :) #ThePeacePlace

    ReplyDelete