Three years back when I was walking for the first time towards AG Bengal building, which was to be my new office, I was overwhelmed by the magnificent colonial structures all around the Dalhousie square. It was then that I noticed an old church round the corner. That day, I made a mental note to visit these buildings very soon …specially the church. Believe me, it took me three years to walk exactly 38 steps from my office to see the beautiful and historical St.John’s Church. I passed by its gate dozens of time, every time promising myself that I will come back to see the church building very soon…but it had to happen only today. Just now, when I narrated this tale to a fellow visitor at the church and he aptly quipped the saying :The nearer the church, the farther from God. But thank God that it happened before I say goodbye to Calcutta. It was wonderful to walk in the church compound on this lovely afternoon (I went there during lunch hour ) . It was a learning experience too .After all , till yesterday, I knew only three facts about this church.
One that It houses Job Charnock’s mausoleum. Two that there is a replica of Holwell Monument which was commissioned by Curzon and third that this was Warren Hastings church... even later Governor Generals’ too attended the Sunday masses here …after all it is bang opposite the east gate of Governor General’s house (now Raj Bhawan) . Just before leaving for the church, thanks to my ever-reliable Google, I found that there is a famous painting of The Last Supper by John Zoffany .
Replica of Holwell monument in memory of the Black Hole victims
So curious by all this trivia, and equipped with my soapbox camera , I walked inside the green compound of the church. The old building was looking regal in the afternoon glow and adding to the charm were the groups of birds chirping happily on the old trees of the campus .About two dozen cars were parked inside….no, not the visitor’s cars ..these are cars of people working in nearby offices and High Court. For them ,the Church compound provides a cheap option for car parking. As for visitors, there were hardly any. Besides me there were only two other people admiring the building .
The Last Supper by John Zoffany .
This church , which was built in 1787 and is believed to be the original parish church of Bengal, is located on an area of 8 bighas and 16 cottahs. Warren Hastings and Reverend William Johnson were said to be the prime movers behind its construction at an old burial ground that had been closed since 1676. The land belonged to a zamindar Raja Nabo Kishen Bahadur (of Shovabazar Royal Family) who donated this land to Church committee and Warren Hastings in 1783. On 6th April 1784 the work started and within three years the building was completed.
I was very keen about this church because of Job Charnock. A very interesting person by all counts. He was ,of course, the British trade administrator and is founder of city of Calcutta but what I find most interesting about him is his marriage. The circumstances under which he met his wife were romantic, astonishing and somewhat appalling too. It is said that one day Charnock and his associates saw the ritual of sati being performed on the banks of Hooghly. Charnock saw the woman about to be burnt with her husband’s body. Moved by the scene and possessed by the beauty of the young widow, he ordered his men to stop the ritual, dispersed the crowd of relatives and priests and seize the woman . The woman was taken to one of his apartments and after few days he married her. It is believed that he even embraced Hinduism to get his ladylove’s consent for the marriage . They had several children and spent many blissful years together. Job Charnock however, is not lying alone over here, in his grave. He shares this cemetery with several distinguished Britons and of course his beloved wife and two daughters are also buried here . His sculpture was made by his son-in-law Sir Charles Ayar around 1695. The sculpture is a unique specimen of art. There is a dome with a pitcher appended to it. There are also the tombs of the daughters of Charnock, the sculptures of British Admiral Watson who with Clive liberated/subjugated Calcutta in 1757, Lord Brabourne, Lady Canning and several distinguished persons.
Job Charnock’s mausoleum
Inside the church besides the famous paintings of The Last Supper by John Zoffany is a marvelous stained glass window and memorial tablets of prominent citizens through the ages. It was interesting to find Mary Magdalene leaning over Jesus’ shoulder in this version of The last Supper. I was suddenly reminded of the movie ‘DA VINCI CODE’ . But what I found even more interesting was a huge organ with its wooden wind pipes going up to the ceiling. It was placed just next to the pulpit and I was told that it was brought from Glasgow .Believe it or not it still plays with perfect notes.
The lovely wooden Organ
Another beauty was a marble statue of a lady which was donated by the merchants of Calcutta. I was lucky that another visitor familiar with the place was also there. He took me to the clock and bell tower and from the roof of the church I saw a very novel sight of my office building . The clock chimes announced 2.30 (Yes, this 300 year old clock is still functioning). And what an old church and cemetery is worth if there are no ghosts. So my fellow visitor informed me that there have been several 'sightings' of a man playing organ and a woman (who was beheaded and later buried in the campus )walking near the graves with her head on her hand... wooo....now that is not original... reminds me of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow .
The obelisk commemorating the black hole was moved from near the GPO to a corner of this graveyard. It is the earliest example of British masonry in India. Near the west wall is a replica of the Holwell Monument - originally erected at the site of the Black Hole of Calcutta. Those were the days of Governor General in council and the church contains the original furniture used for council meetings. It was brought from the Governor General’s house and is kept in the study of Warren Hastings the first Governor-general of India. The study is decorated with old oil paintings of the gentlemen who graced the room few centuries back . There are some old sketches of the church also kept here.
Thanks to the money received by World Heritage council in 2004 , the conservation work was going on for the church building and the cemetery .While present efforts are concentrating on conserving the exterior, reviving the clock and bell tower and cleaning the churchyard, subsequent phases will concentrate on the landscaping of the rest of the grounds and conservation of the mausoleums and tombstones there.
Let’s see when I can visit the next place in my list ..may be some other day during lunch hour . That is if my boss does not happen to read this post
You can find my pics from this visit here .