01 September 2012

St. Paul's Cathedral, Calcutta


My first visit to Calcutta, I was accompanied by some of my closest friends at college and we decided to visit some of the most famous landmarks of the city in a single day – the list included the magnificent Victoria Memorial, knowledge-packed Indian Museum, traditional Kalighat Temple, boring Birla Planetarium and the massive Howrah Bridge. We called it a day after visiting all these spots and stopping by several times to relish the street food and photograph the general life in this ancient metropolis. But the cherry on the cake we saved for the last when we paid a brief visit to the alluringly charming St. Paul’s Cathedral situated in the heart of the city. There seemed so much to do, so much to see – since then I’ve visited Calcutta so many times and yet it holds the same charm for me as the first time. The thrill of passing over the wide and congested Howrah Bridge, the Esplanade Square which is essentially antique like the entire city, the railway stations filled to the brim with travellers young and old, the poverty & squalor around the boon-bestowing Kalighat Temple contrasted with the beautified elegance of the Victoria Memorial – all these are indescribable to someone who hasn’t been to Calcutta. The city simply makes you fall in love with itself with its timeless history, myriad monuments & stagnant culture.

Impressive beyond measure, St. Paul’s Cathedral is one of the most famous landmarks of Calcutta, architecturally, religiously as well as historically. Located besides Birla Planetarium, stone’s throw from the mesmerizing Victoria Memorial complex, the Anglican denomination church was built during 1839-47 largely with funds contributed by the then Bishop of Calcutta, Reverend Daniel Wilson. Given the increasing European population of Calcutta, several of whom occupied seats of great power and supremacy, the construction of a larger, more grand and imposing cathedral was in discussion decades before the commissioning of St. Paul’s, but the exorbitant First Burmese war of 1824-26 had pushed back the plans due to the paucity of funds. Previously, St. John’s Church occupied the position of the English cathedral of the city but it had begun to prove unequipped to house the increasing number of Christians thronging to its hallowed grounds. Several eminent merchants and men of religion put up money along with Bishop Wilson to raise this exceedingly graceful cathedral in order to ensure the English religion in Calcutta could provide faith and succor to its followers as well as awe and inspire the local Indians and other Europeans who had established strongholds and trading posts in Calcutta.


Gothic (Photo courtesy - Greenjaydeep.tumblr.com)


The credit for the stunning Neo-Gothic design of the cathedral goes to the military engineer-architect Major W.N. Forbes who was assisted by C.K. Robinson in modeling the structure after the Norwich Cathedral. The cathedral’s tower and spire were damaged and then completely toppled in the earthquakes of 1897 and 1934 and then the tower was rebuilt on an earthquake-proof foundation according to the plans inspired by the Bell Harry Tower of the Canterbury Cathedral.

Measuring 247 feet X 81 feet with tower height 201 feet, the pristine cathedral sits in solemn isolation in its massive 7-acre compound which is dotted with huge, lush green trees whose dense foliage contrasts with the snow-white structure of the cathedral. The picture is one of peace and harmony, the duo complimenting each other despite the contrasts in their appearance and age. The tall windows with their ornamental shutters and the plasterwork crenellations that frame the church’s walls give it a distinguishably European appearance; the centerpiece is a striking floral pattern embossment in plaster enclosed in a circle right above the entrance to the prayer hall; above rises the tower of the cathedral with a white watch with a black dial affixed firmly at its very top; through the roof rise slender cones topped by crosses which have their origin in the pillars that rise from the ground along each of the windows. 


Once upon a time - The cathedral with its spire yet intact (Photo courtesy - Wikimedia.org)


The interiors are adorned with exquisitely carved stone sculptures and several touching memorial tablets with life-like figurines marking them – the tablets are artwork in themselves when it comes to the skill and the craft that went into their design and execution. The main prayer hall is massive and possesses beautifully carved wooden pews and chairs. Sadly again, photography within is restricted by the permission of the Vicar who was absent the day we visited and hence I was denied the permission to photograph the beautiful interiors by the caretaker present. Vibrantly colorful stained-glass windows, created skillfully by the famous pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones (who was then employed by the company Messrs. Morris & Co.), depicting the life and works of St. Paul to whom the church is dedicated prove to be a feast for even the most discerning art lover. These stained-glass artworks were commissioned in 1872 by the Govt. of India and their designs chosen by Lady Bourke in memory of her husband Richard Bourke, then Viceroy of India, who was assassinated by Sher Ali Afridi, a prisoner at the notorious Port Blair prison (“Kala pani”). Richard Bourke, on account of his being the sixth Earl of Mayo, was more popularly known as Lord Mayo. The central figure represents justice and the inscription below it quotes the Latin translation of Biblical statement Hebrews 4:13 –

“Omnia nuda et aperta suni oculis Ejus ad quem sermo”
“Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight”


Striking - The stained glass windows (Photo courtesy - Rangandatta.wordpress.com)


The Florentine Renaissance-style fresco panels above the altar were designed by Arthur Blomfeld – one isn’t allowed to go near them, anyway it would have been a travesty to photograph them with my poor mobile phone camera! Bishop Wilson, buried in an underground chamber in the church, must be very happy in his eternal sleep to know that his creation is adored and appreciated.

The silence inside the cathedral is intimidatingly disarming – one tries to be cautious lest they make a noise, no matter how low, that will definitely disturb the other devotees and visitors, all of whom sit silently, heads bowed & hands joined in believing stance. The moderately-sized pewter seems more human compared to several other places of worship I have seen.


Interiors (Photo courtesy - Facebook.com/St. Paul's, Kolkata)


One of my friends was secretly clicking photos of the cathedral with my mobile phone and the caretaker, suspecting some wrongdoing, had me under his watchful gaze all the time even though I was simply observing the memorials. He breathing down my neck took away half the fun of being at such an interesting place. After observing every nook and cranny of the place, we decided to take a few minutes break from travelling here and there through the city and running around the cathedral premises and instead sit there in silent contemplation like the others. While my friends prayed for what seemed like eternity (but was actually 5 minutes, that’s how atheists like me feel when struck with believers), I took one last long look around the place hoping am able to return someday here to photograph the place inside out with a proper camera.

Close to the cathedral are several hawkers and vendors offering eatables like momos, chowmein and parathas (Indian bread) stuffed with eggs. It is a wonder that the cathedral proves to be an island of peace and tranquility even though it is situated in one of the most traffic-congested parts of the city and outside its grounds the full blast of Calcutta’s energy, noise and flood of humanity hits one with full force. I believe the cathedral ought to have been one of the more frequented places in the city on account of it being one of the oldest churches in the country and also because the Bishop of Calcutta, who has maintained his seat here since the cathedral’s consecration, has religious jurisdiction over all the churches of north and east India. This also happened to be the first time that I was visiting a church and am actually glad I chose this historic cathedral for the purpose – but then Calcutta is a city of churches, there are so many here and am sure am going to visit a lot many more and document their stories too.


My sorry click could do no justice to the church's splendid appearance


How to reach: Taxis & buses are available from different parts of the city. The cathedral is a short walk from Victoria Memorial & Birla Planetarium (“Taramandal” in Hindi/Bangla, refer link below)
Timings: Morning: 9-12 noon; Evening: 3-6 pm
Sunday service: 7:30 am (short service), 8:30 am (English service followed by Bengali service), 6 pm
Special occasions to visit on: Christmas, Easter, New Year
Entry fees: Nil
Photography/Video Charges: Nil, but restricted by the permission of the Vicar.
Relevant Links -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Birla Planetarium
  2. Pixelated Memories - Howrah Bridge & Railway Station
  3. Pixelated Memories - Indian Museum
  4. Pixelated Memories - Kalighat Temple
  5. Pixelated Memories - Victoria Memorial
Suggested reading - 

3 comments:

  1. very ncely presented:)

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  2. it's seriously nice..coz those who don't know anything abt kolkata's beauty from ur para he/she gets all dat info...nd imagine da whole kolkata things....i like it too much...

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  3. You better consider writing a novel now, Sahil :)) each post of your blog is damn awesome!! Keep up the spirit :))

    ReplyDelete