Did you know that the Mughal Emperor Akbar, commissioned one of the earliest churches to be built in North India? Built in 1598 CE, this church in Agra, which is still called ‘Akbar’s Church’ formed the core around which a thriving Armenian Christian community flourished. It also played witness to some tumultuous events in Indian history!
A man who loved to open his mind to new influences, Akbar could have been introduced to Christianity through the Jesuit missionaries he invited to his court from Goa. Around the same time, there was also a large thriving community of Armenian Christian merchants, jewelers and bankers living in the Mughal capital of Agra and when the Jesuits expressed a wish to build a church here, Akbar obliged and donated generously for the small chapel.
Akbar’s successor Jahangir, continued the patronage to the church and even gave large grants to it. Sadly, it could not remain unaffected by the volatility in relations between the Mughals and the Christian powers. In 1632 CE, Shah Jahan declared war on the Portuguese and defeated them two years later. This led to the persecution of Christians in Agra and Akbar’s church was pulled down in 1635 CE. However, as relations between the two powers improved the following year, the church was rebuilt in 1636 CE. This church underwent several changes over the next two centuries.
With the decline of the Mughal empire, Agra suffered a series of assaults by marauding armies and this church was often a target.
The greatest damage to the church was caused during the invasion of Agra by Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1758 CE. Afghan soldiers ransacked the place. Thankfully, the church soon found a patron in European mercenary, Walter Reinhart Sombre who helped rebuild and extend the church. It is in this very church that Sombre’s wife Farzana, the famous Begum Samru of Sardhana was baptised and converted to Christianity in the year 1781 CE.
Today, this small Church, may stand in the shadow of the much grander Church of Immaculate Conception better known as St Peter’s church close by. But, walk in and it is hard to miss the aura of ‘Akbar’s Church’. You will be awed by all the history this little church has been witness to.