5 Churches of India you must know about!

Did you know there are over 28,000 churches in India? Scattered around small towns and big metropolitan cities alike, churches offer both a haven for silent introspection, as well as a place to strengthen community ties for the 26 million christians that reside in the country. But Indian churches and cathedrals are also architectural marvels and house some of the most beautiful art in the form of frescoes or stained glass. Many of them also have a rich past, making them milestones in local and national history. This Christmas, accompany us as we take a look at some of India’s most interesting churches!

1. The First Church of India: St Thomas Church, Kerala

Its a common misconception that Christianity came to India with the Portuguese in 1498. In fact it was centuries ago, in AD 52 that the winds of the Arabian Sea carried St Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Christ to the shores of Kerala.

It is said that St Thomas landed in the port of Muziris (present day Kodungallur) to sow the seeds of Christianity. He began to spread the gospel among the natives and by performing divine miracles even managed to convert many of the high-caste nambudiri brahmins. He established 7 churches, the first of which was at Palayur, making it the very first church of India. Through the years the church has undergone much renovation. But parts of the original construction still survive, like the altar consecrated by the very hands of St. Thomas, a living relic of a divine past.

2. The original burial spot of Vasco da Gama: St. Francis Church, Kerala

In search of “Christians and spices” Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut (Kozhikode) in 1498. Expecting a warm reception, he presented gifts to the Zamorin king, the overlord of the Malabar states. However, unimpressed with his gifts, the king denied him the commercial treaty he sought. (Don’t let anyone tell you gifts aren’t important!) Da Gama’s successor Pedro Álvares Cabral had slightly better luck with the next Zamorin King who granted him the rights to set up a Portuguese factory in Calicut.

But tensions flared during an Arab-Portuguese dispute, leading to a massacre of Portuguese merchants. Cabral demanded compensation for their loss and pushed for the expulsion of Arab traders from Calicut. The Zamorin king refused, marking the beginning of the war between Portugal and Calicut. Finding easy allies in the kingdoms unhappy with the Zamorins like the Raja of Kochi, the Portuguese fought two battles against Calicut.

As the victors of the war, the Raja of Kochi gave the Portuguese permission to establish Fort Emmanuel in 1503. And it was within this compound that they built the first European-style church in India. St Francis Church is therefore a symbol of the first win of a colonial power in India. Ironically enough, St Francis Church, a marker for the beginnings of colonialism, is also where the first colonial ambassador was buried. Da Gama’s body was later moved to Portugal.

3. A church nestled in nature: St. John in the Wilderness Church, Dharamshala

Although the monasteries of Dharamshala are popular among tourists, this quaint little church on the way to McLeod Ganj is missing from the itinerary! It has made it to our list for its unique location and stunning architecture. It has characteristics typical of the neo-Gothic style. These include lancet windows, which are narrow and pointed at the top. It also features beautiful stained glass that was popular in the original Gothic styles. These were made by Ward and Hughes, a British company that also created the East Window of Lincoln Cathedral in 1885. The stained glass was a donation of Lady Elgin, wife of James Bruce, Viceroy of India between 1862-1863. He is buried in the same church. Notably, he is the son of Thomas Bruce Elgin after whom the contested Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum are named!

4. A repository of History and Art: St John’s Church, Kolkata

This church should be on every history buff or art lover’s list! It is a treasure trove of random bits of history— it houses the Holwell Monument, the Second Rohilla War Memorial, the Memorial of James Achilles Kirkpatrick AKA “the White Mughal”, the protagonist of William Dalrymple’s White Mughals! Incidentally, Dalrymple’s great-great-grandfather James Pattle also has a memorial here.

If you’re an art lover, the Last Supper by Johann Zoffany is hard to miss! Arguably one of the most celebrated colonial artists of his time, Zoffany presented his version of the Last Supper to St John’s Church in 1787. The painting was heavily criticised for his use of common merchants and police officers as models for the apostles!

It was originally hung above the altar, but was probably moved due to its controversial nature. Today five gilded panels take the centre stage. They display angels and biblical scenes like the birth of Christ. On another wall three beautiful stained glass windows stun visitors. They also display different biblical scenes such as the baptism, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ.

There is also a small room full of old photographs, portraits and paintings. There is one painting, of the crucifixion of Christ, that stands out among the rest. Unfortunately no labels are present to give us context. Regardless, for its sheer variety of memorials, monuments and paintings, it is definitely my favourite church in India!

5. A vow and a legacy: St James Church

Lying wounded on a battlefield at Uniara, Rajasthan, James Skinner an Anglo-Indian soldier promised to erect a church if God let him live. Since he was granted this boon, true to his word, Skinner commissioned a Church near Kashmere Gate in Delhi. Completed in 1836, St James Church stands as a masterpiece in the Greek Revival style. And typical to its style, is shaped like a cross (cruciform).

As the mastermind behind the Yellow Boys cavalry unit (so named for the colour of their uniform), Skinner reaped rewards in the form of a lucrative jagir in Hansi, Haryana, yielding Rs. 20,000 annually. Despite his wealth, the construction of St James Church, the first in Delhi, set him back by Rs. 95,000—every rupee from his own pocket.

An enduring legacy

After his death in Hansi in 1841, the church became his final resting place. The resilience of St James Church was tested during the 1857 revolt. Although the church endured heavy damage, Skinner’s tomb remained untouched owing to the respect the Indian soldiers had for him. The Church returned to its former glory soon due to the efforts of Skinners descendants.

The church even assumed a pivotal role when the then Prince of Wales declared Delhi to be India’s imperial capital during the 1911 Delhi Durbar. Following this, St James Church became the semi-official church of the Government of India and the Army Headquarters. Fast forward to 1962, the Church was a key spot in the itinerary of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who even signed the Church’s guest book!

In this journey through some of India’s most captivating churches, we discovered not just places of worship but living chapters of history, art, and human resilience. Do you have any suggestions you would like to add to the list? Let us know below and we’ll try to incorporate them in a photo album on this page!

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