If you are in Mumbai to explore the city, admire its colonial landmarks and buildings, witness the busy commercial activities around and if you have not paid a visit to the oldest church or your tour guide missed this edifice of serenity and magnificence known as St Thomas Cathedral in the heart of the city, you will be missing an important page in the history of Mumbai. Being one of the oldest buildings in the city, St Thomas Cathedral has been a witness to the growth of the city of Mumbai.
St Thomas Cathedral was originally named as St Thomas Church after one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ who came to the South West (Malabar) coast of India along with traders who traditionally imported spices from Malabar. St Thomas established the earliest Christian communities and Churches in Kerala in the first century AD.
St Thomas Cathedral is one of the oldest English buildings in Mumbai. It is Mumbai’s first Anglican Church and is situated in the heart of the commercial Fort area at the centre of the Veer Nariman Road and Cowasji Patel Street opposite to Horniman Circle, few meters from the Flora Fountain.
The foundation for a church in the site of the present St Thomas Cathedral was laid in 1676 during the governorship of Gerald Aungier. However, following his death the construction of the church was suspended for almost 40 years due to several setbacks such as shortage of finance, revolt against the Company in 1683, the siege of Bombay by Sidi Yakub in 1689, a plague epidemic from 1686-96, etc.
During the second decade of the eighteenth century, the project of the church was renewed by Richard Cobbe, an enthusiastic chaplain of the East India Company. The construction was completed under his dynamic leadership and the church was opened to the public on the Christmas Day in 1718.
A marble plaque at the front entrance reads: "Let all who enter this church remember. Richard Cobbe, chaplain to the Honorable East India Company 1715 to 1719, sometime vicar of Whitechurch Dorset. The walls of this church had risen to the height of 15 feet when the building ceased and the site lay desolate after 33 years. At length the devoted energy of Mr Cobbe stirred up his countrymen to complete the church which was opened for divine worship on Christmas day 1718…”
The East India Company had built a Fort to protect its settlement. One of the gates on the western side of the Fort was the entrance to St Thomas Church. It was called ‘Churchgate’. That is why the whole area towards the West of the Church has been called ‘Churchgate’even today though the gate had disappeared long ago. The street leading to the Church was originally called the Churchgate Street and has been more recently renamed as Veer Nariman Road.
The original St Thomas Church was converted into a Cathedral in July 1837 following the appointment of an Anglican Bishop for Mumbai. The tower and the clock at the western end of the Cathedral were added in 1838. About 25 years later a major renovation work was started to enlarge part of the church near altar which was completed by 1865. A second major renovation of the Cathedral was undertaken in 2002-03. Simultaneously the stained glass windows over the altar and the St Thomas Chapel on the south side were restored to their original condition.
The structure of St Thomas Cathedral is a fine blend of Classical and Gothic style of architecture. Though the building has undergone subsequent changes, most of these were additions. Thus, the original form of the building has been preserved. Carved marble monuments, Victorian iron-works, choir stands and stained glasses enhance the internal beauty of the Cathedral.
St Thomas Cathedral being a Protestant Church (Church of North India), there are no statues of saints or of the Virgin Mary. However, the walls are fascinating. They are lined with memorial slabs and inscriptions commemorating the former rulers of India. Governors, diplomats, judges, sailors, soldiers, officers, devoted husbands, loyal wives and many others have been immortalized by erecting memorial slabs in their honour. A large number of Englishmen and women have been laid to rest at the cemetery within the premises of the Cathedral.
Walking down the side of the nave is like getting a glimpse of India's colonial past. The eulogies refer to the officers and soldiers who perished in various wars that England had fought within and outside India including the Revolt of 1857 and the First World War.
The memorial plaques include those dedicated to John Watson, the Commander-in-chief of the British Naval Force, who was wounded in the course of the siege of Thana and died on December 27, 1774; Thomas Mostyn, the diplomat who was a Resident at the Peshwa’s Court at Poona who died in 1779 at the age of 48 years; Jonathan Duncan, the Governor of Mumbai from 1795-1811; Lieutenant George Grant, who died along with his wife Eliza and daughter Ellen at Lucknow on 28th July 1857 while defending the residency from the rebel sepoys.
There are also marble slabs commemorating the captains and sailors who lost their lives at sea due to shipwreck and those who perished during the First World War. There is a plaque dedicated to Edger Thomas Faulkner, the organist of the Cathedral from 1900 to 1926 who had died on 19th March 1929 at Lausanne at the age of 64. A former editor of the Times of India also finds a place on the walls of the Cathedral.
There is also Mangalore connection in St Thomas Cathedral. One elegantly carved marble eulogy tablet perpetuates the memory of Lieutenant Colonel John Campbell who defended Mangalore for the British during the siege of eight months against the joint armies of Tipu Sultan of Mysore and France in 1784, and died from hardships at the age of 33 years. There are many more similar eulogies.
St Thomas Cathedral attracts not only devotees but also tourists who seek a moment of peace and admire the beautiful architecture and acquaint with the elaborate eulogies engraved on the marble and metal tablets.
Realizing its historical and architectural value, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) selected St Thomas Cathedral for the Asia-Pacific heritage conservation award in 2004.
St Thomas Cathedral, which is easily accessible, is open on all days from 7.00 am to 6.00 pm. Those who have not yet had an opportunity to explore this piece of history may find it worthwhile to spare some time and visit St Thomas Cathedral that iss a witness to the growth of the city of Mumbai.
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