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St Thomas Cathedral: 300 years of Christmas in Bombay

Once regarded as the centre of colonial Bombay, one of India's oldest cathedrals turns 300 this Christmas

The grand nave of St Thomas Cathedral.  Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
The grand nave of St Thomas Cathedral. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

There are moments when the average church visit takes on overtones of a childhood adventure novel. On a Sunday morning earlier this month, instead of reverentially treading the awe-inspiring nave of St Thomas Cathedral, we find ourselves on all fours, clambering up a steep fleet of stairs. We are headed up to the clock tower of one of the oldest churches in India, one that completes 300 years on Christmas this year.

With considerable effort on the narrow staircase, we reach the first floor of the steeple, where Reverend Avinash Rangayya shows us several hardbound, sepia-toned volumes. The dusty tomes are filed by the year, some going all the way back to 1769. Further categorization is in the form of the letters B, M or D scrawled on them. Rangayya, who currently leads the congregation at St Thomas Cathedral, says, “The cathedral held the records of all the baptisms, marriages and burials that took place across the Anglican churches in the Bombay Presidency. All the churches sent an original record to the cathedral in addition to what they had. That way, people could cross-verify."

Baptism, marriage and death. The circle of life is complete at St Thomas Cathedral. This isn’t merely a metaphor; we are not just referring to the cathedral’s ornate baptismal font, or the long aisle fit for a queenly bride, or the sheer number of sombre graves and heavy-duty memorials that pervade the cathedral’s architecture. As the centre of religious authority for the Anglican Church in the erstwhile Bombay Presidency, the cathedral amassed a number of maps, documents and official letters pertaining to historic events (see box).

Growing with the city

Completed in 1718, with its first service on Christmas Day, the cathedral has been a defining landmark in the urban development of Mumbai. The church was constructed under the supervision of Richard Cobbe, the chaplain, whose letter in 1715 to the bishop of London, John Robinson, urged for the need to cater to the English community in Bombay that only had “a private chapel for their public devotion". He also observed that the Catholic Portuguese had enough churches.

But, it wasn’t until 1837 that it was consecrated as a cathedral, along with the appointment of the first bishop of Bombay, Thomas Carr. The clock tower was added after that.

Led by Rangayya, we climb further up the steeple through various levels, one of which features Gothic rose windows that allow light to filter in gently. With renovation work underway, scaffolding has overtaken the interiors, making our climb seem like nothing less than a calisthenics class as we duck and swing across rods. When we ultimately reach the top, a panoramic view of South Mumbai is thrown open to us. Many of the architectural jewels left behind by the British legacy as well as important government offices are part of this view. Despite the towering skyscrapers that have come up around it, the fact remains that the stature of St Thomas Cathedral was once unparalleled.

St Thomas Cathedral became the spot that would define Churchgate, today the southernmost stop of the western line of Mumbai’s railway network. Before the walls of Bombay Fort came down in 1862, to make way for the city’s expansion, a straight road from the railway station led to the cathedral, literally through the church’s gate. The layout hasn’t changed much—the road from Churchgate station to the cathedral still exists, but the gate has been replaced by Flora Fountain.

The cathedral was also marked as colonial Bombay’s point-zero, the exact centre of the city. From the church, 16 milestones of the city were or laid down, leading all the way up north to the city. These milestones measured about 4 feet in height, but got submerged as road levels kept increasing over decades. Of these, 11 have been documented till date, some unearthed as recently as last year. Let’s not forget how Great Britain claimed the centre of the world atlas, according to the Mercator Map System, with Greenwich marking zero degrees. Going by that logic, the cathedral, belonging to the Church of England, would mark the centre of urbs prima in Indis (the premier city of India).

A museum in use

The upkeep of this veteran structure is no simple business. Solomon Raj, the chairperson of the cathedral’s board, says that much of the restoration is through the sponsorship of private businesses and members of the congregation. He adds that the monthly figure for the upkeep is around 1 lakh, and the restoration of the cathedral in the tercentennial year has been around 2 crore.

Today, St Thomas Cathedral belongs to the Church of North India (CNI), a part of the larger Anglican community and looks over the Mumbai diocese alone.

As our tour comes to an end, Rangayya shows us the main altar, which is surrounded by exceptional stained glass windows. Most have been conserved over the ages, and there are new ones that blend in harmoniously. Created by stained glass designer and conservationist Swati Chandgadkar, one such panel has imagery that you may not find often in a church. Here, the cathedral is depicted along with Flora Fountain and, curiously enough, the local train.

The religious site incidentally functions as a museum, for memorials of British officers, judges and generals are etched in stone all around. It may come across as a glorification of the many English men and women who passed through this land. But, among these are also several names that have contributed to the making of Bombay—Colonel J.A. Ballard, a founder of the Mumbai Port Trust, after whom Ballard Estate is named, for instance.

But none can capture the manner in which the east met the west on this turf than the poetic memorial to Jonathan Duncan, near the entrance. Duncan was the governor of Bombay from 1795 to 1811, and started the Sanskrit College in Varanasi. The memorial features a banyan tree and a statue of a dhoti-clad Brahmin, symbolic of the love that Duncan had for India.


An archival trove

If baptism records could tell stories, then here is one such. A record from 1865 bears details about the son of John Lockwood and Alice, born in St Thomas Cathedral. The baby would become the writer who gave us The Jungle Book—Rudyard Kipling. The pages that document Kipling’s, and scores of other babies’ baptisms, are on display at an exhibition titled The Living Museum, newly-opened at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS). The month-long exhibition is part of the cathedral’s tercentenary celebrations, and digs into the cathedral’s archives and ritual artefacts.

Architect Nandini Somaya Sampat, curator of The Living Museum, says that the story of the cathedral is the story of the city. She explains that the exhibition establishes the narrative around each object (there are 41 in all), and their connections to Mumbai. “The cathedral came into being only when the city started prospering; it is only when a city is doing well can you invest in large, public institutions. Moreover, when the first bishop was appointed here, and the stature of the building changed, so did Bombay’s. From a town, it became a city. It is all intertwined with each other," she says.

Among the things to look out for at the exhibition are a steeple chalice, flagons and a silver chalice marked with the name of Sir Gerald Aungier, the governor who memorably laid the foundations of the modern city. Of particular interest are seals that accompanied important documents, bearing a rare kind of penmanship.

Several of these artefacts had fallen out of use many years ago, and have been safeguarded by the cathedral. Coming into public display for the first time in decades possibly, all the artefacts have gone through a discerning process of conservation.

ConservArte, an art conservation partnership between CSMVS and Citibank, led by Anupam Sah has brought back the shine to tarnished silver chalices, unraveled maps to reveal details and lighthouses and even fixed some of the processional banners. Sah believes the exhibition confirms that there are important collections like this across several smaller institutions, “which could together weave a fantastic story of the city." He says, “Look at these records, for instance. They also tell you what kind of professions existed then, some of which we no longer have."

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