One of the many remarkable features of Indian and Pakistani cities is their cathedrals and churches, most of them originally from the Anglican tradition now administered by the Churches of North India, South India or of Pakistan. Although originally built as places of worship for the British administrators and merchants of India and for the colonial army, the churches are now mostly patronised by middle class Anglo-Indians and a much larger congregation of poor Christians, many of them converts from the lower castes of Hinduism. By the very nature of colonial rule these cathedrals and churches are often prominently situated either in the bustling cities or on the calmer military cantonments.

There is a certain bitter-sweet quality about the care still lavished on buildings and memorial brasses dedicated to a ruling elite which has long departed (and which has shown precious little concern for what was left behind). There is also a certain poignancy that these churches were built in remembrance of town and village churches in faraway England which the architect would try to recreate with different materials under the unrelenting Indian sun.

The following selection of churches is highly subjective, based as much on their historical significance as on their aesthetic qualities.

Left to right: (a) St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London. (b) St Andrew’s in Calcutta (Kolkata). (c) St John's Church, Meerut. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Let me begin with the two churches based on James Gibbs design for St Martin in the Fields in London’s Trafalgar Square. St Andrew’s in Calcutta (Kolkata) is quite breathtaking at the end of a long and busy street. My photo has deliberately included the buses and taxis to provide this perspective. It is known as the Scottish Kirk and was opened in 1818. The second is St John’s Church, Meerut, chosen partly for its attractiveness but also because it was during church parade here on Sunday 10th May 1857 that the Sepoy Mutiny broke out. In future troops were allowed to take their rifles into church and small apertures were carved into the wooden pews to enable them to be secured. St John’s was completed in 1821 and is said to be the oldest church in north India.

Left to right: (a) St. James Church, Old Delhi.. (b) Holy Trinity, Karachi. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Next I have a Palladian church, St James in Old Delhi (more often known as Skinner’s Church). Construction began in 1826 and finished in 1836. It was badly damaged during the Mutiny and is only a few hundred yards from the Kashmir Gate where much of the most bitter fighting took place. Major Robert Smith, who designed the church, may have had in mind designs for Palladio’s Villa Rotunda near Vicenza or, more likely, Chiswick House in London (completed in 1729) which he would have seen.

As a one-off and unlike anything else that I have seen in the region, there is Captain Hill’s design for Holy Trinity Church, Karachi. It is built in Romanesque basilica style in local Gizri sandstone. The authorities were none too impressed: “The mixed style in which this proposed edifice has been designed is not in itself objectionable, the circular apse has been adopted at the suggestion of Mr. Frere, Commissioner in Sindh as being at once cheap and adapted to the climate.... We cannot however consider the spire to be at all in harmony with the rest of the building and we recommend its omission and the Tower be raised into a Tower for Bells”. Work began in 1852. The tower originally had five levels and was said to be used as a lookout tower (or even lighthouse) for ships entering the harbour but two of the levels were removed in 1904 and my photograph shows that the remaining three storeys are beginning to lean alarmingly towards the nave.

Left to right: (a) St Stephen's, Ootacamund. (b) Christ Church, Simla. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Now I include three churches in hill stations. St Stephen’s in Ootacamund was designed by Captain John James Underwood of the Madras Engineers and completed in 1831. It is in the understated style of an English Gothic parish church and beautifully positioned at the centre of the town. Equally central and perched on Scandal Point is Christ Church, Simla, the second oldest church in northern India, built between 1844 and 1857. It was designed by Colonel Boileau and is slightly more decorative that St Stephen’s. The little hill station of Simla (now Shimla) was the capital of India during the hot summer months and all the most powerful figures in the government worshipped at this church. There is still a small brass plaque on the front pew reserving the seats of the Viceroy and Vicereine. In 1861 All Saints in Coonoor was completed and is perhaps the most perfectly maintained church in India, both inside and out.

Left to right: (a) All Saints, Coonoor. (b) Christ Church, Rawalpindi. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

A much larger church is Christ Church in Rawalpindi cantonment, designed as the place of worship for the large British garrison. The interior is full of marble and brass commemorative plaques to all those who died in action, or more often from fever, in the campaigns on the North West Frontier of India from the 1850s to the 1940s. The church was built in 1852 and has recently been refurbished. The plasterwork render has been removed from the exterior walls and rather garish new roof-tiles fitted. The church is beautifully maintained by the small Christian community which nonetheless packs the church each Sunday. Only about 2 percent of Pakistanis are Christian and the sense of being such a small minority acts as a unifying force. St John’s Cathedral in Peshawar was built between 1851 and 1860 and, like Rawalpindi, is a cantonment church full of memorials to those killed on the wild frontier with Afghanistan.

Left to right: (a) St John’s Cathedral, Peshawar. (b) St Paul’s Cathedral, Calcutta. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

And finally St Paul’s Cathedral in Calcutta is enormous and highly decorative. It was designed by Major (later Major-General) William Nairn Forbes in the Gothic Revival style and is said to be inspired by Norwich cathedral. It was consecrated in 1847 and has references to Pugin and his designs for the Houses of Parliament in London.

Some of the standard texts on British India are dismissive of the churches’ architectural merit. Speaking of St Paul’s Calcutta, Philip Davies says that it “lacks that essential spark which separates the work of an inspired professional from the military dilettante” (149). But I find these judgements harsh. Why would an inspired professional architect go out to India? It is surely is an extraordinary achievement that these buildings have survived so many decades after the end of the Raj and moreover that they are treasured by local communities of which Christians are a tiny minority.

Furthermore all these ten churches were designed and built by young military engineers from the Madras, Bombay or Bengal Engineer Corps. As Davies notes “self-instruction was the most common form of practical knowledge using published reference books and architectural treatises. The works of Gibbs, Chambers, Stuart and Revett and the Adam brothers were available in Calcutta and Madras, together with French and Italian books.” (13).

The Obituary of Colonel Boileau adds. “The Corps of Bengal Engineers was in those days a very small one, its cadre including only thirty-six officers, and, if they entered it with a somewhat imperfect training, the manifold and incessant work into which the young officers were speedily plunged afforded them at least a very varied experience. In the first twelve years of Boileau's service we find him engaged as executive engineer in the construction of fortifications, roads, barracks, an important church and gaol, a considerable suspension bridge, ...and (among other duties when stationed at Agra) on measures for the conservation of the splendid buildings left there by the Mogul dynasty, including the Taj itself.

Jan Morris concludes “never-to-be-promoted captains, majors, otherwise obscure, are remembered on tablets on musty churches or dingy offices of their conception and often we may feel frustrated artists found their only true fulfilment in these constructions under the sun.” (24).

Related material

Further Reading

Cobbe, Richard. Bombay Church. London: J and W Oliver, 1766.

Davies, Philip. Splendours of the Raj. New Delhi: Dass Media, 1985.

Morris, Jan and Winchester, Simon. Stones of Empire. Oxford: OUP, 1983.

Obituary Notice of Fellow Deceased. Proceedings of the Royal Society (1887).

Last modified 28 September 2014