September 25, 2012

St. Andrew's Church, Calcutta

Boasting of an interesting tale behind its construction with simple yet quirky architecture for company, St. Andrew’s Church is perhaps amongst the least known of the heritage structures in Calcutta despite its prominent location in the famed historic area referred to as BBD Bagh (formerly known as “Dalhousie Square” after the then Viceroy, later christened after the three freedom fighters – Binoy, Badal and Dinesh). When the British writ reigned supreme in the country that had been converted into one of the colonies supplying expensive raw materials like spices and silk and providing a fledging market for cheap products like textiles, Calcutta was the capital of administration and BBD Bagh its heart where splendid structures straight out of Victorian England were raised both by the Europeans and the locals. The age was that of mingling of the Orientals and the Europeans, the period golden for the mercantile men, capitalists and plantation owners who decided to take risk and set up businesses offshore to maximize profits, the locals were forced to grow indigo and opium on their fields amid much hardship to supply to the markets in England and China respectively while the British East India “trading” Company was slowly expanding its influence over the subcontinent under competition from French, Dutch and Portuguese companies looking for their place in the spotlight – such were the conditions when the Scottish Minister Reverend James Bryce decided that the city needed an inspiring church for its Scottish population. Since the union of Scotland with England in 1707, Scots formed a large fraction of those coming to the subcontinent to eke out a living in the rapidly-expanding colonial trade and politicized administration of the controlled territories; they worked here as soldiers and mercenaries in service of both the Company and the local kings, doctors and surgeons, jute mill owners and captains, plantation owners and traders, missionaries and industrialists. 

A towering presence in the city and yet forgotten by the people!

The government of the day supplied land for building the hallowed structure and donations were raised by wealthy individuals for commissioning the church; but not only did Reverend Bryce think of building the magnificent church, he also decided that its spire ought to be higher than that of the nearby located St. John’s, an Anglican denomination church (refer Pixelated Memories - St. John's Church) – the latter wish annoyed Bishop Middleton, the first Bishop of Calcutta and the head priest of St. John's, who believed that only the English church has the authority to commission steeples and did not authorize the construction. Cruel words followed from both sides and an irritated Rev. Bryce pledged that not only will the spire of the Scottish church be higher, he will also have a rooster as the finial atop it that will crow on the Church of England’s head and remind them of this debacle – much to the mortification of Bishop Middleton, Rev. Bryce did obtain all the necessary permissions and permits for the construction and height of St. Andrew’s Church (or Kirk, as the Scottish churches are referred to) despite the entire bureaucracy and permits departments controlled by the English – hence the final result, a black rooster fixed on the finial atop the beautiful church. To pacify the enraged Bishop, the then government directed the Public Works Department to not touch the rooster whenever they undertake conservation and repair work at the church, a practice that has since been followed citing the controversial character and history of the rooster. 

Built over 1815-18 by the construction company Messrs Burns, Currie and Co. and dedicated to St. Andrew, the imposing church with its glistening white facade and tall Doric pillars is a striking sight to behold in the perennially congested and traffic-ridden BBD Bagh area – it is another matter that the handsome church square is so engulfed by fast moving vehicles that photographing the structure in its entirety becomes quite a feat (though my minimalist point and shoot camera had difficulty reading the brilliant white paint of the church building too against a deep blue sky interspersed with fluffy clouds) – but one can admire the church building, standing in all its majesty at the head of the broad road in vintage photographs. 

The magnificence of the massive church is only apparent here - poles apart from the congested, overcrowded and crumbling Calcutta of today (Photo courtesy -

The urge to witness the black weather cock topping the conical spire lured me to St. Andrew’s but except for its interesting history and antiquity, the church doesn’t have much to show for; moreover as is the case with most churches, photography here too is restricted by the permission of the Vicar and since he wasn’t in the day I visited, I was allowed to only see the church interiors from the entrance and that too after much pleading with the person in-charge. I was able to sneak in just a single click and as is apparent, there isn’t much to see within the church too except for its simplistic white structure framed by tall ionic pillars and topped by low hanging lamps dangling from the blue-green ceiling; I’d let the photo say a thousand words since I cannot conceive enough thoughts to describe the structure. Interestingly, the church is the only one in India that is fully air conditioned, the air conditioners being visible in the photograph I clicked; also visible are the numerous stone tablets that adorn the walls and commemorate the Scotsmen who passed away while in India and were buried in the Scottish cemetery which falls under the aegis of this church. I wasn’t able to closely inspect and photograph these memorials since the caretaker had allowed me only to have a look at the prayer hall and return – newspaper articles suggest that as part of the conservation of Scottish heritage worldwide, the Scottish government has commissioned and funded a project under which both the church and the cemetery will be restored to their original pristine condition. 

Call me irreverent, but I had expected a more dazzling interior to match the passionate history 

Inspired by St. Martin-in-the-Fields of London, the Victorian architecture of the church building consists of a large square structure seated on a high plinth with a massive triangular facade supported on tall Doric pillars forming an elegant portico in the front and a high spire surmounting the building. The large black clock with orange dials was fitted on the spire in 1835. At the bottom of the plinth on which the church structure stands are two plaques – a simple wooden board that lists visiting hours & mass timings and an ornate iron one installed by Kolkata Municipal Corporation that provides a short history and photographs of the church. The interiors are dark and dimly-lit and the hour at which I visited the prayer hall was empty, in fact there was no one in the entire church except the caretaker. 

The wife of the then Governor-General of India, Lord Warren Hastings, laid the foundation stone of the church on St. Andrew’s Day (November 30), 1815 and since its conception it solely holds the responsibility for archiving of records (baptism, marriage & burial details), files and correspondence to the numerous Scottish churches existing in India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Gulf nations as well as the maintenance of Calcutta’s Scottish Cemetery (opened soon after the church). While the church was under construction, another building close to its present location was used as a makeshift church for temporary basis. Besides the Scottish population of the city, the church also provided solace in the times of need to the local Bengali converts to Christianity as well members of other churches. Locally referred to as “Laat Sahib ka Girja” (“Church of the Governor”, I couldn’t fathom the reason for this odd vernacular christening), the beautiful building is hemmed in by some very important structures that can claim an essential architectural and cultural connection to Calcutta’s life and history, besides Writer’s Building and St. John’s Church, there is Tipu Sultan Mosque, Sacred Heart Church and a street leads straight to the historic but obscure “Quan Ti”, clubs-cum-shrines belonging to the Chinese community of the city (see links in the post footer). 

The church and one of the wings of the beautiful Writer's Building (Photo courtesy -

In reality, I had planned to visit St. Andrew’s much late in the day after finishing a tour of some of the more prominent structures that I mentioned above, but somehow I got lost in the jumble of Calcutta’s streets (despite, as always, having a handmade map displaying all the places I had to go as well as the routes and the time required for each) and turned up at this part of the city early in the morning even though I must have stopped a score times to click structures that caught my eye, street life and the trams. Needless to say, as Calcutta goes, the traffic even so early was a nightmare and the area was choked with pedestrians as well as vehicles; the entire area, on account of housing the office of the Chief Minister and the residence of the Governor, is very heavily guarded by police and paramilitary personnel and photography does invite a few unwarranted cautious stares. The sun, already high in the sky and scorching in its temerity, made the church’s flawless white dazzle brilliantly and as mentioned before, I had much difficulty clicking it with my simple camera – would suggest a very early visit if an uncrowded, serene click is the requirement. The church, with its painted exteriors and well-maintained grounds stand out in sharp contrast to the buildings of BBD Bagh, most of which have been accustomed to urban decay, collapse and a reoccupation by small shops, shanties (consider the street joining Tipu Sultan mosque to Sacred Heart Church) and vegetation (consider the fig tree emanating from the corner tower of Standard Assurance Corp. building). 

Noticed the rooster yet?

Hope the conservation project being spearheaded by the Scottish government doesn’t get entangled in India’s cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles but is fully supported by the governments of India and Bengal and the church is preserved for the benefit of the generations to come who too, like us, might be amazed by the age of colonialism and the spirit of the seafarers and merchants who reached out to distant foreign shores in search of business as well as adventure! 

A note about the significance of St. Andrew for the Scottish people - A fisherman by profession, St. Andrew was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ and is considered the patron saint of Scotland among several other countries. According to one legend, the mortal remains of St. Andrew were preserved in Greece and a monk named St. Regulus had a dream invoking him to set sail and take the remains to the "end of the (known) world" for protection and build a shrine wherever he was shipwrecked - it is said that the said shrine was built in Scotland (though there is confusion regarding when Regulus lived - Scottish documents state 8th century but historical records peg the date at 7th century AD). Another legend says that during a battle in which they were vastly outnumbered, the Scottish king Oengus II prayed to St. Andrew that if he won the battle he will declare St. Andrew the patron saint of Scotland. The morning of the battle, the clouds formed an 'X' shape in the sky ('X' being the symbol of St. Andrew since he was crucified on an X-shaped crucifix) and the Scots were victorious. Since then the Scottish flag (and consequently the Union Flag) bears a white 'X' against a blue background.

Location: Next to Writer's Building, BBD Bagh
Nearest Bus terminus/Metro station: Esplanade
How to reach: Buses and metro are available from different parts of the city for Esplanade. Walk or take a taxi from there.
Open: Tuesday to Saturday, 9 am - 2 pm
Service: 9.30 am on Sundays; 9.30 pm on New Year’s Day, Christmas & Easter’s
Entrance Fees: Nil
Photography/Video Charges: Nil, but restricted by permission of Vicar
Time required for sightseeing: 30 min
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  1. i found it nce buddy:))

  2. Interesting article Sahil and well researched too !

  3. Interesting post! somehow, i feel your other posts were a bit beter!

  4. Pintu JethvaSeptember 29, 2014

    Well written