St Thomas' Cathedral

St Thomas' Cathedral: A chapter in Mumbai’s history

Print edition : January 17, 2020

In 2004, St Thomas’ Cathedral earned the UNESCO Asia-Pacific heritage conservation award. Photo: Zahan Lamba

The commemorative plaque near Horniman Circle in Mumbai’s Fort district, which is filled with heritage structures. Photo: Anupama Katakam

A plaque recognising Zero Point and the importance of the cathedral in the development of Mumbai city. Photo: Paul Noronha

The exquisite interior of the 300-year-old cathedral. Photo: Paul Noronha

A fountain outside the cathedral. Photo: Zahan Lamba

A marble statue inside. Photo: Zahan Lamba

Windows near the steps leading to the clock tower. Photo: Zahan Lamba

Arches at the back of the church. The church has gone through several rounds of restoration over the years. Photo: Zahan Lamba

St Thomas’ Cathedral, which celebrated its 300th Christmas this year, has a shared history with Mumbai from its colonial days and stands as a symbol of its heritage.

St Thomas’ Cathedral, located in Mumbai’s Fort precinct, is inextricably linked to the city’s history. In a way, as many historians say, the story of the cathedral is the story of the city itself. The first Anglican church in Bombay (now Mumbai), it has borne witness to wars, epidemics, India’s freedom movement, and the city’s rise as the country’s commercial capital.

On December 25, the cathedral celebrated its 300th Christmas. The first service in this iconic church was held on December 25, 1718. As part the tricentenary, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has named a crossroad, St. Thomas’ Cathedral Chowk, after it. The chowk was inaugurated on November 24. In keeping with the material used in the surrounding heritage buildings, a commemorative seven-foot black basalt plaque was placed at the junction of the restored Horniman Circle (built in 1872) and Veer Nariman Road.

Inaugurating the chowk, BMC Commissioner Praveen Pardesi said the government was committed to saving heritage buildings that were part of Mumbai’s rich history. Pardesi has been giving a leg up to conservation.

“We really need to increase the awareness of the city’s rich history. When I tell people, especially youngsters, to meet me at St Thomas’ Cathedral, there is a blank look. But if I say it is opposite Starbucks they know the location. Starbucks came here five years ago. The cathedral has been here for 300 years,” says Bharat Gothoskar, founder, Khaki Tours, a non-profit organisation that conducts heritage workshops and walks in the city. “It was the centre of British Bombay and it is not just a religious place. It has a great significance to the city.”

Gothoskar says that Mumbai, a port city, saw great prosperity during the cotton boom. (The American Civil War (1861-65) led to a boom in the production of cotton elsewhere in the Empire.) Much of the money went into creating the city, and some of it was spent on the cathedral.

In the past year, the cathedral’s committee has held several interesting events that showcase how it has been a defining landmark in the city’s development. One of these events was an exhibition called “The Living Museum” held at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (the erstwhile Prince of Wales Museum) earlier this year. The curator of the show, Nandini Somaya Sampat, says the exhibition establishes the narrative around each object and its connection to Mumbai.

In her introduction to The Living Museum, she says: “This is a story dating back centuries of a church and a city. As the city took shape a church was built and both evolved through time, surviving and thriving through history. The Cathedral continues to stand today as a symbol of our heritage and as a beacon for the future. This is the story of the Living Cathedral.”

A witness to history

A riveting book titled St. Thomas’ Cathedral Bombay: A Witness to History, written by Dr Vijaya Gupchup and T. Thomas and published in 2005, is perhaps the foremost authority on the history of the cathedral and its connection to Mumbai. In the opening line, Gupchup writes: “If one were to walk 100 metres down from Veer Nariman Road (former Churchgate Street) towards the east of Flora Fountain, the Piccadilly of Bombay, and step through the unpretentious iron gate of a church on the right hand side of the road, one would be entering an eventful chapter in this city’s history.”

Tracing the history of the church, Gupchup says the first proposal to build a house of worship for the tiny English settlement in Mumbai came from Gerald Aungier, the Governor of Bombay from 1672-77. He is credited for his grand vision of Mumbai, which turned a tiny fishing island into India’s commercial capital. As Governor, he wrote to the East India Company in 1674 asking that a small church be erected for the company. While the foundation of the church was laid in 1676, its construction was interrupted because of Aungier’s death and lack of resources from the company.

When Richard Cobbe, the chaplain at the factory of the United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies, arrived in India around 1715, he resurrected the plan to construct the church. Cobbe, who had been preaching in a chapel in Bombay Fort, which he describes in his letters as “two upper rooms beat into one”, proposed to the bishop of London that a church be built to cater to the English community. The church was finally constructed under Cobbe’s supervision.

The move to convert it to a cathedral came only in 1833, when the East India Company’s Charter came up for another renewal. The British Parliament enacted legislation saying that there should be two more bishoprics, in Madras and Bombay, says Gupchup in the book. In 1838, a government gazette declared the church a cathedral. By this time, Mumbai was a thriving commercial centre and the company felt it deserved a cathedral.

Historians say the British followed a tradition set by Henry VIII that the presence of a cathedral was sufficient grounds to grant city status to a town. The colonists also believed that a cathedral meant the presence of power and the representation of wealth. Bombay was certainly that during the 1800s. At the peak of East India Company rule, the city was called “Urbs Prima in Indus”, or the first (premier) city of India.

Such was St Thomas’ Cathedral’s importance at the time that it was Zero Point from where distances were measured in Mumbai. Recently, conservationists discovered and restored 11 old milestones kept at different distances from the cathedral. Later, the Zero Point was shifted to the nearby town hall and finally to the General Post Office.

Mumbai has always valued the magnificent structure that lies at the heart of Fort area. With its multiple-level clock tower, Gothic-style flying buttresses and Victorian stained-glass windows, the cathedral, city historians say, falls into the same bracket as the Victoria Terminus (opened in 1887), now named Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.

Conservationists say the architecture of the cathedral has gone through several changes over time. “The structure may be described as mixtiform in character and is, in fact, a mixture of sequential styles added on at various times,” says Gupchup. The building consists of a tower at the western end, flanked on the north and the south by the vestry. The gates at the western entranceway open to the nave, which consists of six bays with a north aisle and a south aisle on either side. Historians say it may broadly be termed as Norman architecture—the nomenclature given to a style that began during the Norman Conquest (1066) until the rise of the Gothic style around 1180. The walls are built of rubble stone (basalt and coral with customary exterior of staged buttresses).

Stained-glass windows

The absolute standout, however, is the Victorian stained-glass windows from the studios of Charles Eamer Kempe, William Wailes and Henry Holiday. The cathedral’s seven-sided apse has five sides filled with stunning stained glass on two tiers: three pictorial stained glass, flanked by two bejeweled, ornamental windows—all crafted in the 19th century by Kempe. In 2012, the cathedral’s committee decided to fill three empty window panels. While keeping in tune with the Victorian style, the new panels have a few quirky modern elements such as a local train and the nearby flora fountain painted within the glass sheets.

The church has gone through several rounds of restoration too. In 2004, it earned the UNESCO Asia-Pacific heritage conservation award for its beautifully restored exterior and interior. The church committee raised approximately Rs.2 crore for restoration work in the tricentennial year.

Mumbai is filled with fascinating trivia on St Thomas’ Cathedral. For instance, Churchgate station, the southern and last stop on the local Western Railway line, has been named after one of the three gates that lead to the cathedral. The church was also the dividing line between what was known as White Bombay and Black Bombay, or the European area and the native area. When King George V and Queen Mary visited the country in 1911, they worshiped at the cathedral, and the two chairs the sovereigns used have been preserved to date. It also has memorial stones of well-known Britishers such as Robert Falcon Scott, who led an expedition to the Antarctic in 1901.

Reverend Avinash Rangayya, the Presbyter, says the cathedral holds all the baptism, marriage and death records of Anglican parishers across Bombay Presidency. An 1865 record shows that the renowned writer Rudyard Kipling was baptised in this cathedral. Rangayya says the cathedral also has a number of ancient maps and official documents pertaining to historical events such as the Second World War or the plague when it sheltered those affected by it. It still stands tall in the city, offering solace for the soul to many people and welcoming numerous visitors who come to have a look around.

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