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MUMBAI - HISTORY
 

In the altar of history

The Afghan church in Mumbai city stands sentinel to an era gone
by. Dancewithshadows peeps behind the stained glass windows currently
under restoration

BY HARPREET KAUR

 

 

Built to commemorate the dead of the three Afghan Wars between 1835-43, this church in Mumbai stands guard over the living and the dead today.

Unnoticed by passers-by, you catch glimpses of an elegant looking church – the Afghan Church – that peers from behind the thick bushes and trees. The few visitors belong to the armed forces.

A temporary chapel of thatched roof was erected about half-a-mile south of what was known as the Sick Bungalows - now INS Ashvini - the Naval Hospital. Attendees brought their own chairs. This was replaced by the church known as St. John The Evangelist, also known as Afghan Church.

The land for this church was released by the government on the condition that its spire should be seen as a landmark from the sea as a guide to ships coming into the Bombay Harbour. Hire a boat and take it to Prongs lighthouse in the Arabian Sea, the spire can still be seen.

An imposing basalt structure with a towering limestone spire, the church is impressive with its wide Gothic arches and beautiful stained-glass windows. Besides the British soldiers, it also commemorates different Indian regiments, including the Bombay Army, the Madras Army, and Ranjit Singh's army from Lahore. The records mention that out of 16,000 men who began their retreat from the battlefield, only one reached exhausted and staggering back to Jalalabad.

Designed by Henry Conbeare, city engineer (who also laid the plans to build Vihar lake), its architect was the Victorian William Butterfield. The church was consecrated on January 7, 1858 by Bishop Harding. The spire cost Rs 5,65,000 and was completed on June 10, 1865. Sir Cawasjee Jahangir raised the amount privately for the spire and contributed Rs 7,500 for it and also had an illuminated clock placed in the tower.

Essentially English in design, the chapel has a naive and aisle with a chancel – the end containing an altar/choir, 50 ft in length and 27 ft in width. The tower and spire are 198 ft high. the stained glass windows and the encaustic flooring (geometric pattern flooring) are of the finest quality and were imported from England. The Great east and west windows were designed by James Wailles, stained glass expert during the mid-1800s. It is the finest stained glass window to date in the city, superior to those in Rajabai Tower and Victoria Terminus. The great significance of the bell tower is the peals of its eight bells that remain unrivalled in western India. Eight bells usually take anything from two and a half hours to fours to ring and have 40,320 changes.

In the chancel, you will find the memorial stones with an inscription just below it: "This church was built in memory of the officers and private soldiers, too many to be recorded who fell mindful of their duty, by sickness or by sword on the campaign of Scinde (Sind) and Afghanistan, A.D. 1838-43." A memorial brass set in the Chancel pavement also commemorates its founder Rev. G Piggot.

Over the years, the window panels around the aisles as well as the timber casing and lead ribs have suffered damage, breakage, buckling and corrosion. The church, instead of losing its identity, has received a boost, on being graded to Grade I heritage building recently and with an input of Rs 30 Lakh to restore its stained glass windows. Conservationist Kirti Unwalla and stain glass expert Swati Chandgadkar have restored two aisle window panels. With the monsoon, over 37 panels of the aisle will also be replaced. The conservationists though, are looking for an input of a crore rupees and over.

The entire effort will result in natural light coming into the chapel, making it bright and beautiful once again. With Mumbai heritage buildings receiving awards for being the best maintained, the effort of the conservationist is paying off slowly and steadily All they need is some infusion not of blood but of money, to complete their assignments.


Facts 

Open: Daily dawn-dusk; the verger who lives next to the church will open the door if it is locked.
Admission: Free.
You can catch the 123 Bus from Churchgate station or Regal theatre and get off at the Afghan church stop. Cross the road and you have
arrived.

BY HARPREET KAUR

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