Thursday, June 29, 2006

St. Thomas Cathedral, Bombay

Tuesday afternoon, I had a couple of hours in downtown Bombay, which I spent wandering around St. Thomas (Anglican) Cathedral, the oldest church in the city, built in 1718, dedicated to the apostle who brought Christianity to these shores.

St. Thomas is in a leafy green enclave right next to Horniman Circle in the heart of the Fort district, the commercial and financial hub of Bombay (Yes, there was a Fort here. Until 1864. The name stuck). The Bombay Stock Exchange is a short walk away. It's an oasis of calm and quiet in the middle of all this pecuniary activity. I've often been past, but had never actually been inside the church. It seems to have always been under renovation, and I recall a time in college when a friend and I were shooed off the grounds by an overzealous warden.

This time, no one stopped me. There was a small stream of people going in and coming out of the church. Inside, one is struck immediately by the silence. Even the fans don't seem to squeak. A dozen or so people are scattered about praying in silence. One woman is reading. Another comes in, crosses herself and goes up to a seat (no pews!) and sits down. Obviously there are Catholics present. I'd suspect that people of all religions find this some escape from the bustle of the day in this tranquil location.

The church itself is gothic, with some beautiful stained glass in the apse area, but otherwise a very simple white stone, and windows through which the afternoon light poured in. This being a Protestant church, there are no statues to the saints or to the Virgin (though, no doubt, some higher Anglican churches would not shy away from such Popery :)). The walls however are fascinating. They are lined with memorial slabs and inscriptions commemorating the former rulers of India. Soldiers, officers, devoted husbands, loyal wives. In Memory of so and so, lovingly given by his brothers in this regiment. A former editor of the Times of India. Even one in Latin. Walking down the side of the nave is like getting a glimpse of India's colonial past, punctuated by the various wars Britain fought to wrest (and then maintain control) over the Jewel in the Crown and her far flung Empire. Kirkee (agains the Peshwa). Afghanistan. The Great War. Even Egypt. And, in several places the events of 1857 cast their shadow: the Great Mutiny. Which we were taught as the First War for Independence (and most recently glamorized in the Bollywood blockbuster Mangal Pandey, starring Aamrir Khan as the legendary sepoy whose revolt set the tinderbox alight). The latest date I noticed was 1967, twenty years after Independence.

Emerging back out into the crowded streets, vendors crying, taxi horns blaring, and a babel of voices in a dozen tongues filling the air is a jarring experience, as if walking back out of a time machine.

More pictures coming up!

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