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This Christmas, St Thomas Cathedral, a church that grew up with Mumbai, marks its 300th anniversary

Mumbai, as we know it today, isn’t what it used to be four centuries ago. We weren’t even a single mass of land. Mumbai, or Bombay — I’m not getting political here, but the city has had over 20 names since its inception — started off as an archipelago of seven islands, which were just part of one ruling empire or another. Not till the seven islands were gifted as a dowry to the King of England in 1661, and eventually handed over to the British East India company in 1667 for a princely sum total of 10 Pounds per annum, did the development of Mumbai as the trading hub we know it as today, began.

While the Portuguese arrived in Mumbai much before the British, ruling the seven islands from the northern bastion on Bassein (current day Vasai), part of their key responsibilities was missionary work. Till the 1660s, the islands of Bombay were dotted with Catholic Churches, with St Michael’s Church in Mahim dating back to 1534, St Andrews in Bandra established in 1575, followed by other churches in Dadar (Church of Our Lady of Salvation aka Portuguese Church), Byculla (Gloria Church) and so on.

 This Christmas, St Thomas Cathedral, a church that grew up with Mumbai, marks its 300th anniversary

St Thomas Cathedral today. Image courtesy of the author

Well, the English settlers weren’t Catholics and in effect, only had makeshift chapels to worship in.

The first place of public worship for the followers of the Anglican Church came up on Christmas day, 300 years ago, in the form of St Thomas’ Church.

But first, some history

Back when Mumbai was still an archipelago, the first thing that was done on the main H-shaped island of Bombay, was fortification. Be mindful that the East India Company was a trading company and India was not under the British Crown yet. So like any trading organisation at the time, they had to protect their land. The reason that the area around the current day CST station is called Fort is that there actually stood a fort surrounded by a moat — protecting the island of Bombay and its natural deep-water harbour (the reason the East India Company was interested in Bombay in the first place) from marauders and pirates.

To enter this fortified city, there were three gates which led the way in. The gate at the northern-most end was called the Bazaar Gate — that’s where the Crawford Market exists now. The southern-most gate which was called the Apollo Gate is where current day Gateway of India stands currently. The gate in between was called the Church Gate — the location of Flora Fountain. And no, that naming convention had nothing to do with the railway station of the same name nearby. In fact, it was the other way round.

Why it was called the Church Gate, you ask? Well, imagine you are standing outside this Church Gate before the 1860s, what you would then see in front of you was an archway, and through this archway you could see the spire of the St Thomas’ Church.

Erstwhile Church Gate with St Thomas in the background

Erstwhile Church Gate with St Thomas in the background. Archival image

St Thomas’ Church is what gave the name to the gate, and eventually to the station beside it.

St Thomas’ Church was the first Anglican Church in Mumbai, named after St Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ and among the only ones to have had come to India. The foundation stone was laid in 1674 after the then Governor of Bombay Presidency, Gerald Aungier wrote to the Court of Directors for assistance “to erect a small church for public worship in the centre of town” according to Dr V Gupchup’s St Thomas Cathedral Bombay: A Witness to History. But from 1675 to 1715, barely any work took place. The funds collected for the construction of the cathedral mysteriously disappeared. What we had, instead of a fully constructed church, was five metre high walls.

After 40 year slumber, church work begins

From 21 September 1714 to 19 June 1715, the then East India Company Chaplain, Richard Cobbe, carried out the service inside two rooms in a building in Fort. Cobbe wasn’t too pleased with the unsuitable nature of these services which were carried out in such a private manner. In 1715, Cobbe took over the second part of the construction of this church with a resolve to finish it.

“I ventured to propose the building of a Church for God’s honour and service, according to the rule of the Church of England, that all island might feel we had some religion among us,” writes Cobbe in his book, Bombay Church: Or, a True Account of the Building and Finishing the English Church at Bombay in the East Indies.

19 June 1715, being the first Sunday after Trinity, is when Cobbe recommended a Sermon to preach about building a proper church to have a more public celebration of God. After that, work on the incomplete church began in all earnestness. Cobbe wrote to a whole bunch on probable financiers, requesting them to donate funds for the building of this church. Everyone from the East India Company to businessmen operating out of Surat to Persian businessmen were approached and they donated. The exchange of letters between Cobbe and the benefactors went on from July 1715 to 1720. A sum total of Rs 43,992 was collected in all.

Photo of St Thomas Cathedral from 1885

Photo of St Thomas Cathedral from 1885. Archival image

On Christmas Day in 1718, 300 years ago, is when the first service was held in this church.

But it wasn’t until July 1837 that the Church was consecrated as a Cathedral, which coincided with the appointment of the first Bishop of Bombay Thomas Carr — a life-size memorial to whom lies just on the right side of the altar.

A work in progress, reflecting the growing city

The St Thomas’ Cathedral as it exists today, was not how it looked in 1718 when it began its public services. In fact, the neo-gothic style of architecture whose interiors are inspired by St Thomas Cathedral in Ireland, got additional elements as the decades passed and funds were easier to come by. Thanks in part to the cotton and opium traders of the time. Many portions of the church were added in the following years. For instance, the tower and clock were added in 1838. The inner chancel was renovated and enlarged in 1860 along with the external buttresses.

It was almost like the church was growing along with the city. From a non-important back of the beyond, to a powerful financial hub during the British era — the seeds for making Mumbai the financial hub that it is today were planted back in those days.

More than a church

St Thomas’ Cathedral is unlike most other churches in Mumbai. The walls of the cathedral are decorated with beautiful poignant sculptures and bas-reliefs of soldiers lost to war, memorials to prominent personalities who have left their stamp in Mumbai’s history, such as JA Ballard (after whom the Ballard Estate is named), and much more. The marble plaques remembering fallen soldiers have been financed mostly by their comrades or family members. Unlike the Afghan Church in Colaba, which was built in memoriam of Indian and British soldiers who died in the Anglo-Afghan War, the St Thomas Cathedral has more Anglican memorials.

St Thomas Cathedral (1) 825

Inside St Thomas Cathedra. Image courtesy of the author

The altar windows were designed in the 1800s by Victorian stained glass designer and manufacturer, Charles Kempe. There’s an interesting bit of anecdote behind that as well. Kempe had hoped to become a priest of the Cathedral, but was prevented by his stammer. However, he said, “If I was not permitted to minister in the Sanctuary, I would use my talents to adorn it.” And his artwork is there for all to see. The Cathedral is blessed with some impressive stained glass work. Enter the church and look right and you have a stained glass work showcasing St Thomas with the Holy Bible flanked by St Gabriel and St Michael. As you walk down towards the apse, the semi-circular wall also has fine stained glass work, some of which had to be restored over the years.

Inside St Thomas Cathedra. Image courtesy of the author

Inside St Thomas Cathedral. Image courtesy of the author

Back in those days, every church was associated with a school and St Thomas’ Cathedral was instrumental in the creation of one of the most popular schools in Mumbai, the Cathedral and John Connon School in 1860.

The Cathedral also saw almost all the baptisms that took place among all the Anglican churches in Bombay back in the 1800s and early 1900s. It kept records of not just baptisms but also marriages and death in all of Bombay Presidency (an area encompassing Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, and parts of Sindh region). A register of these records has an entry of a very prominent person’s baptism on 22 January 1866. The son of John Lockwood and Alice Kipling — Joseph Rudyard Kipling — was baptised in this very Cathedral. Yes, the author of books such as The Jungle Book and Kim, was a Bombay boy.

Register showing Kipling's baptism entry

Register showing Kipling's baptism entry. Archival image

It was also considered to be the ‘Zero Point’ or the centre of the city. The 16 milestones laid across erstwhile Bombay used the Cathedral as the starting point. Come to think of it, the towering spires of the Cathedral back in the day made it the most prominent landmark on the Bombay island.

For probably the first time in the Cathedral’s history, some of its artefacts — around 41 in all — have been showcased at the ongoing exhibition The Living Cathedral at the Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vaastu Sangrahalay. These artefacts include the Holy Bible that was used to read out from 1870, silver chalices and flagons, a Bishop’s staff which has carvings of Jesus as a shepherd, fading black and white portraits of Bishops from years ago and much more. The exhibit is a good journey of the cathedral along with the city in which it existed.

But I’d say, visit the Cathedral instead if you haven’t already. Even if you have, visit again, especially now that it has been decorated like a shining star. Walk around its premises, admire the supporting buttresses behind the chancel.

If there was one underrated gem in Mumbai, this is it.

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Updated Date: Dec 27, 2018 09:54:09 IST