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A tranquil space

Friday, September 28, 2018

UNESCO Heritage award winner and the city's oldest Anglican church to celebrate its tercentenary, St Thomas Cathedral is a rich repository of history, says Ronita Torcato

In the hustle and bustle of the Fort business precinct stands a beautiful  neo-Gothic edifice which offers peace and quietude. In the cosmopolitan urbs prima indis, this meant author and academic Dr Shakuntala Bharvani could often visit the city’s oldest Anglican church, St Thomas Cathedral. Like other non-Christians, Dr Bharvani  loved to sit on a front pew. Asked what brought her almost daily to the church from where Churchgate gets its name, Dr  Bharvani said, “I love being cocooned in its tranquil  atmosphere.”

Music loving non-Christians are a familiar presence at  St Thomas’ Christmas and Easter services when Ravi Joshua,  choirmaster and, arguably, the country’s  finest organist, conducts the choir whose members include Christian and non-Christian students of the Cathedral and John Connon School. which was established in 1860, in order to provide choristers to the church. 

Winner of the UNESCO Asia Pacific heritage award in 2004, St Thomas Cathedral  has one of the best organs in the country. The culturati can be sighted  at the  plethora of concerts and recitals organised by the Cathedral’s Tercentenary Celebrations as well as heritage walks conducted by the  Committee’s Dr Kamal Jadhav who has shepherded people to the top of the iconic belfry...  But that’s not all.  The Committee headed by Presbyter in charge Avinash Rangayya has organised art  workshops and fun activities for children, and fed the poor and  various other programs.

This evening, for instance, New York based musician Joshua Anand Slater will give an organ recital and demonstration of  the works of Muffat, Bach, Brahms and Widor followed by a performance at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya tomorrow and a gala concert celebrating 300 Years of Sacred Music, on Tuesday, October 2,  which is  Gandhi Jayanti  and the International Day of Non-Violence. Appropriately, one of Mahatma Gandhi’s grandsons, the retired diplomat and ex-Governor of West Bengal, Gopalkrishna Gandhi will preside as  chief guest at the grand celebration in December commemorating the church’s  first service on Christmas Day, 1718.

It is not religion and spirituality but  a love of history and culture that brings tourists and members of heritage societies to St Thomas’, which has numerous plaques and statues as  well as baptism, marriage and burial records for Bombay Presidency from 1800-1947. These records are currently being digitised.

The Church was built by British Protestants  whose East India Company had famously declared back in 1668, that it would not convert the natives to Christianity unlike the Portuguese Catholics.  Bombay’s second Governor, Sir Gerald Aungier, whom Commander Narayan, former Curator of the Indian Navy’s Maritime History Society, describes as “the real founder of modern Bombay” laid the foundation stone in in 1676 but work was halted since  the British  were busy battling rebel soldiers, storms, mosquitoes, the French, the Marathas and the Sidis, who all  wanted to  wrest control of the seven  islands which the East India Company  had acquired following King Charles the Second’s marriage to the Portuguese princess Catherine. (Bombay was her dowry).

With the British expanding their occupation, the need for a church was felt and  eventually, a small church was consecrated and named after one of the 12 disciples of Christ, Doubting Thomas. It was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, the architect of Bombay University’s Convocation Hall and completed only in 1714 by  Richard Cobbe, the East India Company’s enthusiastic new Chaplain  with funds collected from Britain. The Naval dockyard is  a stone’s throw from  the  church which was regarded as a lighthouse for ships approaching the harbour and was also  the starting point of the original Zero  Mile—the point from which distances to and from Bombay were calculated. (Most of the milestones disappeared during  road works).

Should you  visit it now you will find labourers working on the outer façade, the ornate fountain in the compound funded by Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney, and also the interior,  although most  of the work  including restoration of the exquisite stained glass panels, has  been completed  under the guidance of leading architects and conservators.

Should you  go there sometime, pause  by the marble  memorials, plaques and epitaphs  honouring almost all of the city's governors, including Sir Bartle Frere, Lord Carnac, Lord Elphinstone, and Jonathan Duncan (who abolished infanticide in India). Among the plaques chronicling the British who lived in Bombay (their wives and  children died young) is a memorial commemorating  the loss of East India Company’s steam frigate Cleopatra along with nine officers and 142 crew in the hurricane of April 15, 1847. The Cleopatra’s passengers included  Indian convicts being transported to  Singapore, which the British used as a convict station. There is no mention of the 100 plus Indian convicts who also perished in that storm.

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