Today, it may not stand out as a landmark for ships cruising along the coast of Mumbai but the 60-metre-high church spire, at Mumbai's southern tip, once served as a beacon for seafarers and their vessels heading towards the nearby harbour.
This exceptional spire with a holy cross at the top belongs to the 170-year-old Church of St John the Evangelist, popularly known as the 'Afghan Church', behind Navy Nagar in Colaba. It gets its peculiar name from the fact that it was built as a memorial to soldiers who died thousands of miles away, in the First Anglo-Afghan War, one of the worst military defeats that the British Empire had suffered till then. But what is a memorial to fallen soldiers in faraway Afghanistan doing here?
In the first decades of the 19th century, the Russian Empire and the British Empire were vying for dominance in Central Asia, in what was called the ‘Great Game’. A Russian invasion of India through Kabul and Punjab was the British East India Company's biggest nightmare. To avoid such a possibility, the British looked to secure Kabul, the central point between both the powers, and establish control over Afghanistan.
The plan was to depose the then Afghan King, Dost Mohammad Khan (1793-1863) and put his rival Shah Shuja on the throne as a British puppet. Shah Shuja was the grandson of Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali, who had defeated the Marathas in the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761. Shah Shuja had been deposed by Dost Mohammad Khan, and had first taken refuge with Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Lahore and then with the British in Ludhiana.
– It was Shah Shuja who had handed over the Kohinoor diamond to Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, in the hope of finding an ally who would help him get back the throne.
The British launched a war on Afghanistan in 1838, on the pretext of ‘an unprovoked attack on our ancient ally, Maharaja Ranjit Singh.’ Around 21,000 British and Indian troops from the East India Company's Bombay and Bengal armies invaded Afghanistan and installed Shah Shuja on the throne.
But following a tough guerrilla war, the British had to withdraw in 1842. It was considered the worst British military disaster of that period. The war cost about $80 billion in today’s money and wrought devastating losses. Estimates are that around 4,500 British and Indian troops, along with 12,000 camp followers, lost their lives in this conflict.
From the Bombay contingent, the units which had won laurels in the war and faced heavy casualties included the Bombay Sappers & Miners, the Poona Horse, the 19th Bombay Infantry and the 1st Bombay Cavalry. To commemorate their valour, the British decided to build an Anglican Church in Bombay.
Rev George Piggot, the Chaplain of the East India Company in Bombay, took on the responsibility and the government released a plot of land in the south – in Colaba.
– Colaba was one of the oldest islands of Mumbai and the British had developed it as a military cantonment by 1796.
Once the Colaba Causeway was built in 1838, it filled in the creek that separated the Island of Bombay from Old Woman's Island or Little Colaba. The region became a commercial centre and Cotton Exchange was opened in 1844. It was here that the church was built.
After much deliberation, the Gothic Revival architectural designs submitted by city engineer Henry Conybeare (who had come to India to work on the Great Eastern Railway) were approved and the foundation stone was laid on 4th December 1847 by the then Governor George Russell Clerk.
While local stone like basalt, marble and limestone was used for most of the construction, the floor tiles were brought in from England. Many others contributed to the making of this strikingly beautiful church including noted English architect William Butterfield (known for his buildings in Oxford), who designed the altarpiece, and stained-glass expert William Wailes was consulted for the east and west windows.
The metal screen on the imposing door near the front was superintended by Mr Higgins, one of the most eminent metal workers in England. The bell tower has eight large bells that came from the Taylor Bellfoundry of England and are acknowledged to be the best in western India.
Apart from the grandeur of the church, what is perhaps most poignant are the many panels along its walls, filled with names of officers who died in the First Anglo-Afghan War, too many to be noted. Even today, there are those who visit the church to find the names of relatives inscribed here.
Besides the wide Gothic arches, another thing that stands out are the rosewood pews, which have slots for soldiers to rest their rifles in case of an emergency. These benches were brought in after the Revolt of 1857, which began in Meerut when the garrison was attending an evening service, unarmed.
The 'Afghan' church was consecrated on 7th January 1858 by the Bishop of Bombay, John Harding, and officially named the Church of St John the Evangelist. It is believed that its long spire cost Rs 5,65,000 and Parsi industrialist Sir Cowasji Jehangir contributed Rs 7,500 towards its building.
This one-of-a-kind church in Mumbai is largely deserted today, with no regular Mass, and the only visitors are a few heritage enthusiasts.
– LHI Travel Guide
The Afghan Church is located within the Colaba Military Station which can be easily reached by local bus or taxi from either the CST or Churchgate stations. If it is closed, just locate the caretaker who’ll be happy to open it for you.