Colonial Calcutta II: St John's Church

Our next visit was to the St John’s Church. The St John’s Church is less visited today and is (probably) the oldest surviving Church in Calcutta. he church is situated diagonally opposite to the south-west of, what was once the original Fort Williams, and is now the Customs House. The entire area around the Lal Dighi is dense with monuments of the colonial era.

The old Fort Williams had the original St John’s church, housed in a modest structure, built shortly after the victory at Plassey’s field. In 1782, at Hastings instance, Maharaja Nabo Krishna Deb donated the land for construction of a new St John’s Church. The Maharaja was a very wealthy and powerful Hindu royal and a personal friend of Warren Hastings. The land was transferred to Hastings’ personal name. Satyaki and I entered through the iron gates into the large yard. Probably two & quarter centuries ago, it was a quiet site near the Dalhousie square. What set St John’s church different from just about any other place was its understated past, elegance and welcome approach. Though St Paul’s cathedral is an awesome piece of edifice, it seemed less a match for St John’s graceful heritage. A tablet somewhere near the entrance said that the church land was donated by the Maharaja.

The church is spacious inside with ornamented wooden work. A large and glowing painting decorated the walls, with the theme being the angels. The older painting was of The Last Supper by Zoffany, but I forgot to see this, being in a hurry to visit more places during the day. The hall walls are filled with tablets in memory of someone’s someone lost. One of them was from a military officer for his infant daughter, starved to death at Lucknow’s siege at the Sepoy Mutiny. Another was for one captain James Kirkpatrick, by his brother. We could recall Kirkaptrick as William Dalrymple’s lead character in thebook ‘White Moguls’, being the romantic Resident at Nizam’s court.

It was the ‘Organ’ that caught our attention next. While the keys were the size of a piano, it had multiple levers to enable it to replicate sounds of flute, harp etc. The whole set is original and had 2 very big rooms dedicated to its mechanism -- pipes of all sizes and shapes for the air to pass and refine further. Then there was a chamber to generate air. In the earlier era, the church official explained, it was done manually – with men pulling. Now the same work is performed by an electric motor. The organ is used for the mass on Sundays.

There is monument dedicated to the English officers who died at the Rohilla War. We stopped for a while. I thought to myself about the countless Indians who died defending their lands from the brutal assaults of the English. There are no monuments anywhere for the blood lost by these men. There was monument for the Black Hole victims. But I didn’t look at it. I read of an entire village population in Bengal being burnt to death by the East India Company, to punish them. Their fault: growing opium, a threat to Company’s monopoly over opium production and export (to China).

To the north side of the church lies buried, the Calcutta founder, the English agent Job Charnock. Job Charnock’s tomb was built by his son-in-law, Eyle. Built around 1693, it is a relatively simple white and round structure, with a miniature replica of itself set on its crown. Charnock had moulded himself in the Indian way and had married a Bengali widow he rescued from being burnt to death at her husband’s funeral pyre. He ably withstood the immense forces of Bengali society that believed that its pride and piety would be destroyed should she not be killed immediately by burning. Their 3 daughters were married to well off English men in India.

To the side of Charnock’s tomb is a little tomb for the Admiral who was in-charge of at the time of Black Hole and Plassey.

The bonus was here. We could have a look at Hastings’ study room furniture. His table and chair; used for writing the lives of millions.


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