St. John’s Church Rediscovering a Heritage

Joydip Sur

There comes a moment in our lives when we are reminded of the fact that having roamed the world, we haven’t discovered the treasures that our own city has to offer. On a wintry morning, we discovered one such treasure right at the heart of Calcutta! I am referring to St. John’s Church — which has stood as a prominent landmark in the city since time immemorial. Sadly for many of us Calcuttans, its importance ends there! St. John’s Church has rightly been declared a heritage site and if you haven’t visited it till date, do so now. We really wouldn’t want you to miss out on a date with history.

The moment we stepped into the premises of St. John’s Church, we were touched by the serenity of the place and were immediately transported to a whole new world of beauty and tranquility. However, our imaginary trip to bliss was interrupted by the shrill voice of the gate-keeper who was asking for our entry fee. We were a bit taken aback by his gesture for never before had we paid any entry fee to get into a church. He pointed his right hand’s index finger at a blue board which said ‘Tourist on foot – Rs. 10/-‘. I quietly took out the money, paid him before we resumed our trail.

We were awestruck by the architectural beauty of the building. St. John’s Church in Dalhousie Square, originally a cathedral, was among the first public buildings to be erected by the East India Company after Calcutta became the capital of British India. It was designed by Lieutenant James Agg of the Bengal Engineers and its construction was completed by 1787. Like many other British churches in India, St. John’s Church is based on James Gibbs’ St. Martin-in the-Fields, London, but due to poor subsoil conditions, the entire fourth tier of the steeple was omitted, giving the church a compressed appearance. The church was built under the leadership of Warren Hastings and Reverend William Johnson.

The single-spire Gothic church is built entirely of stone and its original construction is left virtually untouched till date. The steeple and porticos have grand Doric columns. The floor of the church is paved with slabs of blue-grey or black marble. These slabs came from the ruins of Gour in Malda district and the minutes (Folio 153, dated June 1, 1784) of the kirk sessions of this church document this act of vandalism.

The 174 feet tall clock bell tower is made of stone from Chunar and there is magnificent teakwood furniture in the church and a grand old pipe organ which is still played during the Sunday service. It has been over a decade that the government had declared St. John’s Church as a heritage site.

It was Nabo Kishen Bahadur, patriarch of the Sovabazar royal family who gifted the land to the British to build the church in 1783. A lottery was organised in 1784 to raise funds to build the church. This lottery was a grand success and subsequently, 30,000 rupees was raised for the construction of St. John’s Church. Its foundation stone was laid on April 8, 1784, by Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of India.

The grounds of St. John’s Church are graced with a large number of memorial tombs. The church premise houses the mausoleum of Job Charnock who passed away in 1692. Though the graveyard was officially closed in 1676, Job Charnock was possibly admitted due to his special status as the Founder of Calcutta. Charnock’s daughter Mary and her husband, Charles Eyre, who was the governor of the fledgling English settlement, also rest here.

St. John’s Church is also home to the tomb of Admiral Charles Watson, who, with Robert Clive, liberated Calcutta from Siraj-ud-Daula. He provided transport for Clive and his forces up the River Hooghly and then supported them in the repossession operation.

In the permanent shade of the lofty northern portico of the St. John’s Church is one of the most touching memorials in the city. It honours Lady Charlotte Canning (1817-61), devoted and loving wife of the first viceroy of the newly-established Raj, Earl Canning. In the tragic tradition of loss in British India, Lady Canning contracted malaria when on tour in the sub-Himalayan Terrain, while returning from Darjeeling. She died in November, 1861.

Another must see in the St. John’s Church’s compound is the circular, twelve-Tuscan-pillared pavilion which commemorates the brave hearts of Rohilla War of 1794, another military operation which occupies a special place in the Company’s history.

The church also contains Warren Hastings’ study which has been restored exactly to what it used to be back in those days. You can see a lot of old teak wood furniture (chairs, table, cupboard), portraits of eminent British people, the chair on which Warren Hastings used to sit (history certainly doesn’t get better than this), old safes used by the East India Company and some old Bibles. While visiting this room, carefully observe the table that is placed in the centre of the room. This has some very elegant craftwork on it.

You can also see the Holwell monument built to commemorate those who lost their lives at the tragic ‘Black Hole’ prison in the Old Fort William. On June 20, 1756, a total of 146 people were allegedly stuffed inside an 18 feet by 14 feet room. When the door of the room was opened the following day, 123 prisoners were found dead. Only 23 out of the unfortunate 146 managed to survive. The former memorial was erected by one of their surviving fellow sufferer J. Z. Holwell, Governor of Fort William, on the spot where the bodies of the dead had been thrown. The obelisk was moved from near the GPO to a corner of this graveyard. This monument is the earliest example of British masonry in India. It was recreated by Lord Curzon, Viceroy and Governor General of India, in 1902 based on the original design at St. John’s Church.

Inside the church there is the famous painting of ‘The Last Supper’ by John Zoffany, a marvellous stained glass window and numerous memorial tablets of prominent citizens through the ages. The painting of ‘The Last Supper’ by John Zoffany is a true master-piece. The bold strokes on the canvas demonstrate the expertise of the master artist as he brings to life a scene from history. And you certainly cannot miss out on Mary Magdalene sitting beside Jesus at the table. Need we say more?

There is a wooden staircase which leads to a small room upstairs. The leather-bound minutes of the kirk sessions of the St. John’s Church were kept there. Large and heavy tome of papers where entries were made in a lovely flowing handwriting as elegant as calligraphy, the kind that one rarely gets to see these days. The minutes tell in detail the story of how the ruins of Gour were robbed to build St John’s Church.

The visit to St. John’s Church was exhilarating. We wanted to stay on and re-visit the place all over again. But after five hours of walking and climbing, our feet started to protest. We are planning to return sometime soon and this time we would bring our families and friends. But before, we finish this article, there’s something else that we would like to share with you. St. John’s Church embodies history, but the way it is maintained saddened our hearts. We completely failed to understand, how even after being declared a heritage site the concerned authority is so casual in its maintenance! What is worse is that the Church premise is being used as a parking lot. The entire compound is quite dirty and people have no qualms about adding to the filth. And what is worse is that none of the guards and caretakers so much as even raise an eyebrow if you polluting the place. Can’t we — the citizens –  as well as the concerned authority — show a little more regard for a heritage site that is more than 230 years old?