The Churches in Kolkata


WHEN the British recovered Calcutta from Suraj-ud-Dowlah’s forces, in 1757, they found the English portion of the town in a deplorable state of ruin, none of the buildings within and around the Fort having escaped the destructive hands of the Mussulman soldiery. The church, which had stood for over forty years nearly opposite the main gate of the Fort, was a heap of ruins. It had been utilized by the besieged and besiegers in turn, during the attack on Calcutta, and had suffered considerably, and at the last it had been fired with other buildings, and was so absolutely destroyed that there could be no thought of building a new church on the desecrated site. During the first decade after the return of the British to the town, all their resources and energies, as regards building, were devoted to the new Fort and to dwelling-houses. Not only had most of the former houses been destroyed, but the number of Europeans requiring accommodation had greatly increased, owing to the large number of military officers who had come with the troops from Madras. The junior officers and young writers had to manage as best they could in slight “apartments” of mat and thatch, while the seniors fared but little better in badly patched houses, both building materials and builders being scarce. Even in 1768 it was said that, though the town of Calcutta was daily increasing in size, “the English inhabitants multiply so fast that houses are extremely scarce.” Under these circumstances it was natural that the building of a church should be relegated to the distant future, when the new Fort should have been completed, and that, in the mean while, the chaplain had to find what place he could for the celebration of Divine Service. The banishment of the Romish priests from the settlement for a time, allowed him the use of their chapel—a “damp and unwholesome” little brick building, on the site of the Moorgehatta Cathedral; but in 1760 this chapel was restored to its rightful owners, and a room, which cost Rs. 2,500, was built by the main gate of the Old Fort for use as a chapel, as a temporary measure, till a new presidency church could be built within the new Fort. The worthy Directors of the East India Company were very particular as to the due attendance of their covenanted and military officers at church, and had standing orders on the subject, besides giving the Calcutta Board occasional reminders that their servants “be required to give due obedience thereto.” This ensured a regular congregation, and all Calcutta society met regularly at church on Sunday mornings, for there was no evening service: where also young ladies, on their first arrival in the settlement, made their public début. The lively writer of ” Hartly House, Calcutta,” a collection of letters published in 1789, gave an account of a quaint custom permitted on such occasions:—

“I have been at church, my dear girl,” she wrote, “in my new palanquin (the model of genteel conveyance), where all ladies are approached, by sanction of ancient custom, by all gentlemen indiscriminately, known or unknown, with offers of their hand to conduct them to their seat. Accordingly those gentlemen who wish to change their condition (which, between ourselves, are chiefly old fellows), on hearing of a ship’s arrival make a point of repairing to this holy dome, and eagerly tender their services to the fair strangers, who, if this stolen view happens to captivate, often, without undergoing the ceremony of a formal introduction, receive matrimonial overtures.”

This picture is, no doubt, slightly overdrawn, but it is easy to see how such a custom must have arisen when we remember that that “model of genteel conveyance,” the palanquin, conveyed only a single person, and the lady’s natural escort could not be in attendance to assist her to, not alight, but rise from her conveyance when it had been deposited on the ground.

The palanquin of old times was very different from the ugly boxlike modern palkee. Surgeon Ives described it as “a covered machine with cushions in it, arched in the middle to give more room and air, and carried on the shoulders of four or six men.” Tavernier, the enterprising and observant merchant-traveller of the seventeenth century, gave a more interesting and minute description of the genuine Indian palanquin, which, with possibly slight alterations, was the same as that used by the English.

“The pallankeen” wrote the Frenchman, ” is a kind of bed of six or seven feet long, and three feet wide, with a small rail all round. A sort of cane, called bamboo, which they bend when young in order to cause it to take the form of a bow, in the middle sustains the cover of the pallankeen which is of satin or brocade; and when the sun shines on one side, an attendant, who walks near the pallankeen, takes care to lower the covering. There is another, who carries at the end of a stick a kind of basketwork shield, covered with some sort of beautiful stuff, in order to promptly shelter the occupant of the pallankeen from the heat of the sun when it turns and strikes him on the face. The two ends of the bamboo are attached on both sides to the body of the pallankeen, between two poles joined together in a saltier or St. Andrew’s cross; and each of these poles is five or six feet long. Three men at most place themselves at each of these two ends, to carry the pallankeen on the shoulder, the one on the right, the other on the left, and they travel in this way faster than our chairmen in Paris, and with an easier pace, being trained to the trade from an early age.

This was the sort of palanquin which was considered by the East India Company to be a “piece of eastern luxury,” in which they forbid their junior servants to indulge; and Ives records that they—

“gave the strictest orders that none of these young gentlemen should be allowed even to hire a roundel-boy whose business it is to walk by his master and defend him with his roundel, or umbrella, from the sun. A young fellow of humour, on this last order coming out, altered the form of his umbrella from a round to a square, called it a squaredel instead of a roundel and insisted, that no order yet in force forbade him the use of it.

However grand and luxurious its outward appearance, the palanquin had many drawbacks: To get into it, it was necessary to enter backwards—a feat which men performed standing, the bearers lowering the poles from the shoulder to the fore-arm. As ladies’ skirts forbade such a display of athletics on their part, the palanquin would be placed on the ground, from which it was raised some three or four inches by the legs on which it stood. The intending occupant would sit into it, and then gather up her skirts and feet, and turn inwards—a process sadly detrimental, one would think, to a fashionable toilette, and a performance in which it must have been difficult, for even the young and slender, to display either grace or dignity.

At a later period palanquins, or palkees, as they came to be called, were closed in with a roof and sides, with sliding-panel doors in place of the awning and draperies. They were upholstered like carriages, and painted and varnished in the same style. Sedan chairs were also introduced from England; and the tonjon, a chair with movable hood, became popular at one time, and was used by Lady William Bentinck during her stay in India, when her husband was Governor-General, from 1828 to 1835.

Before the sack of Calcutta there were but few carriages in the settlement, but as the town began to spread, and roads were made, the number of conveyances increased. M. Grandpré, writing in 1790, said that Calcutta, exclusive of palanquins,—

“abounds with all sorts of carriages, chariots, whiskies, and phaetons, which occasion in the evening as great a bustle as in one of the principal towns of Europe, There are also a great number of saddle horses, some of the Persian breed of exquisite beauty, but not Arabians, except a small sort called pooni, which are very much in vogue for phaetons.”

It is supposed that the word “whiskies,” used in the above account as the name of a carriage, is a mistake, and should be “britzska,” a term which is now as obsolete as, and conveys even less meaning to the modern ear than “whiskies,” which at least suggests being whisked along at a rapid rate! Besides the britzska, which was at one time a very fashionable conveyance, and was something between a barouche and a phaeton, there have been a variety of names for different styles of conveyance which have been in fashion at different times. The writer of an article in the Calcutta Review, in 1844, drew a series of comparisons between Calcutta as it was in his day, and as it had been fifty years earlier; and, with much complacency and pride, enumerated the variety of carriages to be seen in the town—”britzskas, barouches, landaulets, chariots, phaetons, buggies, palanquins, palki-gharries, brownberries, and crahanchys.”

A great deal of emulation and rivalry used to be shown in the decoration and appointments of these fine carriages, and the chariots especially were very gorgeous affairs, with their great springs, and deep bodies, the handsome hammer-cloth, and silver-mounted harness: the coachman, in flat disc-like turban, with crested band across, and full cummerbund, or waist-cloth; and the running footmen with their chowries, or fly-whisks of great yaks’ tails, mounted on silver handles, slung across the shoulder. A handsome carriage of her own was the ambition of every young lady of proper spirit, which led to a bachelor’s fine equipage being called a “wife-trap” by the wits of the day. An amusing story in this connection is given in the Calcutta Gazette of the

“A gentleman, remarkable for his gallantry and elegance of his equipage, drove up to a young lady, a night or two ago, on the course, and, after a little conversation, asked how she liked his wife-trap. ‘Very well, sir; I think it a very handsome carriage.’ ‘And pray, madam, how do you like the bait within side?’ ‘Pray, sir’ replied the lady, “do you speak in French or English?”

In spite of the carriages, the palanquin continued to hold its own till well into the nineteenth century. St. John’s Church had not been built very long, when it was found necessary to provide special slopes for the palkees to approach the entrance, where the riders might alight apart from the dust and inconvenience of the carriageway, and a palkee-shed was built on the south side of the churchyard, where they might remain sheltered from sun and rain while service was proceeding.

St. John’s Church was consecrated in 1787. After having been talked of for years, the scheme for building a new presidency church took shape in December, 1783, when a public meeting was held, and a committee headed by the Governor-General, Warren Hastings, was appointed to receive subscriptions, which amounted to no less a sum than Rs. 35,950 on the first day, and totalled over a hundred and seventy thousand rupees by the time the church was completed. The ground selected for building the church was the old Powder Magazine Yard, which adjoined the burial-ground on the east This plot of land had been sold by the Government to the Maharaja Nobkissen, who now conveyed it back to Warren Hastings for the purpose of building a church. In the end, however, this ground was not utilized for the actual building, but formed the churchyard on the east, while the church was erected entirely within the boundaries of the old burial-ground, and the foundations were laid among the mouldering remains of scores upon scores of those who had died during the ninety years of the English occupation.

The church was erected from the design of Lieutenant James Agg, and under his superintendence; and chunar stone was largely used in its construction, as well as stone from the ruins of Gour, from where it was also proposed at first, but not carried out, to bring coloured marbles from the tombs of the old kings of Bengal. The stone church, or Pathuriya Girja as the natives call it, was consecrated on the 24th of June, 1787, under the name of St. John, and remained the presidency church till 1814, when, Calcutta having been constituted a bishopric, St. John’s became the Cathedral. Old St. James’s Church was built in 1820, the Free School Church, St. Thomas’s, in 1831, and St. Peter’s, in the Fort, in 1835, but it was not till 1839 that, it having been found impracticable to enlarge St. John’s Church to meet the growing needs of the community, the scheme for building a new Cathedral took definite form. The Government gave a site in Chowringhee: Bishop Wilson, to whose strenuous efforts the success of the scheme was due, gave two lakhs of rupees: three lakhs of rupees were raised by public subscription and donations from the great missionary societies. In October, 1839, the foundation-stone was laid; and in October, 1847, St. Paul’s Cathedral was consecrated; and St. John’s Church fell back from its leading position, retaining only the name of the “Old Cathedral,” by which it is known to many even at the present day.

Among the many munificent gifts to St. Paul’s Cathedral, were a superb set of silver-gilt plate for the service of the Holy Communion, from Queen Victoria; and a painting of the Crucifixion by West and Forrest, which, with Her Majesty’s sanction, was presented by the Dean and Canons of Windsor. This picture was one of three, which were designed by West, in 1787, for the western windows of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, when King George III. was restoring that edifice. The painting is described as “a representation of the Crucifixion, including the two thieves, angels flying above, and the heads and shoulders of Roman soldiers seen below.”

It was found that the insertion of these windows at the western end of St. George’s Chapel would involve, as in the case of the eastern window, the removal of all the stone work and tracery, except the two main mullions; and as this was strongly objected to, the intention was abandoned.

The two paintings for the aisles were finished, and inserted; but that for the central window, of which only the main group had been completed at the time of Forrest’s death, remained in its unfinished state in the Chapter House at Windsor till, in 1847, ft was presented to the Bishop of Calcutta for his new Cathedral. Here it was placed in the eastern window—a position which it occupied till it fell in the great cyclone of 1864, when it was replaced by one erected by public subscription. The windows on either side were given at a much later period by the Government of India—the one in memory of Bishop Milman, and the other to the memory of Lord Mayo, the latter from a design by Burne-Jones.

It may be noted in passing, that when, in 1790, West’s altar-piece was placed in position in
St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, it displaced one that had occupied the same place at the time of the Great Rebellion. This latter picture, a “Representation of the Last Supper,” had been brought back to the altar in 1702, and remained there until superseded by West’s picture, when it was given to Windsor parish church, where it is at the present time. West’s picture, superseded in its turn in 1863, is now in the east aisle of St. George’s Chapel.

It was at the time that the future President of the Royal Academy was painting the altar-piece for St. George’s Chapel, that another Royal Academician, Zoffany, painted, in Calcutta, a picture, “The Last Supper,” which he, in 1787, presented for an altar-piece to St. John’s Church, then approaching completion.

John Zoffany was one of the earliest Royal Academicians. He was obliged to leave England, owing, it is said, to the ill feeling he had roused against himself through his injudicious indulgence in the habit of introducing the portraits of his friends and acquaintances into his pictures without the permission of the original, and often in unflattering guise. He arrived in India about the year 1781, and spent some years in Lucknow, where he amassed a considerable fortune by painting the portraits of members of the native nobility. In 17871 Zoffany was residing in Calcutta; his name is given in the list of professions in an almanac for that year, under the heading ” Artist and portrait painter.” The Calcutta Gazette, for April 12, 1787, announced—

“We hear Mr. Zoffany is employed in painting a large historical picture, ‘The Last Supper:’ he has already made considerable progress in the work, which promises to equal any production which has yet appeared from the pencil of this able artist, and, with that spirit of liberality for which he has ever been distinguished, we understand he means to present it to the public as an altar-piece for the New Church.”

The building committee of the church accepted the painter’s offer with enthusiasm, and were anxious to present him with a return gift of a ring of five thousand rupees value; but they found the funds at their disposal did not admit of the outlay, and were therefore obliged to content themselves by sending the artist a handsome letter of thanks. When the church was consecrated the painting had been finished and hung in its place, and must have caused no small sensation in Calcutta society when it was found that the figures in the picture were more or less faithful likenesses of members of the community. The three principal figures in the picture, the Saviour, St John, and Judas Iscariot, were portraits. The original of the first is said to have been a Greek priest, Father Parthenio, who was well known in Calcutta for his piety and good works. St John was represented by Mr. Blaquiere, who was for years a magistrate of Calcutta; and in Judas Iscariot was pilloried an old resident of the town, Tulloh, the auctioneer. The remaining figures appear to have been less exact portraits, and the names of others who appeared in the canvas have not come down to the present day.

There can be little doubt that Calcutta society was considerably scandalized by the painter’s curious humour, but he seems to have been very well satisfied with his efforts, for ten years later he repeated the performance in England. Again he painted a picture of the Last Supper, again he took his friends and neighbours for his models, and again presented the work to a church for an altar-piece. He was then living at Strand-on-the-Green, near Kew and Brentford, and it is said that he painted the picture for the parish church of the former place, but, as the authorities refused to pay as high a price as he demanded, he declined to let them have it, and made a gift of the painting to Brentford, where it may still be seen, in St. George’s Church. In this picture, Zoffany himself figures as St Peter, a strong full face with small grey beard; and the face of St. John is a portrait of the painter’s young wife; whom he married on his return from abroad. The Apostles were painted from local fishermen, and a curious proof that the figures were actual portraits was the fact that the grandson of one of the men, whose likeness has thus been preserved, was so exactly like his grandsire that he might well have been taken for the original of the figure in the canvas.

The two pictures do not agree in their arrangement. In the foreground of the St. John’s painting are shown a great layer of brass with a ewer and small dish, while in the Brentford picture their place is occupied by two figures, who appear to be about to descend from the “large upper room” by steps, to which access is given by an opening in the floor. The figures are those of a white youth and a negro, the latter a portrait of the artist’s “black slave.” It is thought that Zoffany, by the introduction of these two figures, the negro and the Caucasian, in connection with the Jewish type, wished to exemplify the three races of mankind—the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japhet, sharers alike in the blessing of the New Dispensation.

To return to St. John’s Church, Calcutta, in the days while it was still the “New Church.” By a curious arrangement the galleries of the church were reserved for the leading officials and their ladies, while the floor of the building was left for subordinates and their families, and the poor members of the community. Even more curious was the arrangement by which the ladies and gentlemen sat apart In the centre of the northern gallery were the seats of the Governor-General and his Council, and behind them were arrayed the ladies of the settlement. In the southern gallery, facing the Governor and Council, sat the judges of the Supreme Court, and with them sat the gentlemen; while in the western gallery, flanking the organ and choir, were the respective pews of the churchwardens’ and the chaplain’s families.
In this latter pew sat, at the time the church was consecrated, a very notable personage—the lady of Chaplain William Johnson, known to more than one generation of Calcutta residents as Begum Johnson. It was in a great measure due to the sustained efforts of Mr. Johnson that the erection of the church was undertaken and carried through, but, beyond the fact that he was an ardent Freemason, there seems little to record of him of interest, save that he was the fourth husband of “the Begum,”

Mrs. Johnson’s tomb, in excellent preservation, is in St. John’s Churchyard, and her epitaph records her history at length. She was Frances, second daughter of Edward Crook, Esq., Governor of Fort St. David, an English factory on the Madras coast, near the French settlement of Pondicherry. Her father declined the post of Governor of Fort St. George (Madras), on account of his “age and infirm health,” and retired to England, but it does not appear whether his family accompanied him. When Frances was in her twentieth year, she married, in Calcutta, the nephew of the then Governor (Mr. Braddyll), Parry Purple Templer, Esq. The date of this marriage is given in the epitaph as 1738, but the Rev. Mr. Hyde has been able to prove by the old parish registers that the correct date is November 3, 1744. Exactly four years later, on the 2nd of November, 1748, the young wife, who had then been a widow for nine months, was married to her second husband, James Althen, Esq.; and ten days later he died of smallpox, and she was once more a widow. When November came round again, the doubly-widowed Frances, who was still under twenty-five, stood once again before the altar in St. Anne’s, and became the wife of William Watts, Esq., Senior Member of the Council in Bengal.

When the Nawab Aliverdi Khan died, in 1756, and was succeeded by his grandson, Suraj-ud-Dowlah, Mr. Watts was chief of the Company’s factory at Cossimbazar, near Murshedabad; and when the young nawab plundered the factory, Mr. and Mrs. Watts with their three children were taken to Murshedabad, where Mr. Watts was placed in strict confinement, while his wife and children, two girls and a boy, were taken under the protection of the begum, the widow of Aliverdi Khan, and grandmother of Suraj-ud-Dowlah. Mrs. Watts had, no doubt, been on terms of friendship with the begum during the lifetime of the old nawab: she now received every care and attention from her friend, who, while the nawab was still in the neighbourhood of Calcutta, sent the mother and children under a strong escort to Chandernagore, where they were hospitably received and entertained by the French authorities. Mr. Watts had in the mean time been sent to Hughly, where he and other English prisoners were released by the nawab when he reached that town on his return journey from Calcutta, an act of clemency which has always been attributed to the influence of his grandmother, the old begum.

When, in the following year, Calcutta was recaptured by the English, and a temporary peace arranged between them and Suraj-ud-Dowlah, Mr. Watts returned to Murshedabad as Resident, and ran considerable risks from the nawab’s ungovernable temper while negotiations were proceeding between him and Clive. In the end, Mr. Watts escaped secretly from Murshedabad, the nawab marched to meet Clive, and the Battle of Plassey swept away all the old order, and ushered in a new era. In 1760, Mr. Watts with his wife and children left India, and returned to England, where some years later he died. Mrs. Watts, who during her long residence in India had no doubt acquired many Eastern habits, and must have missed the luxury and authority of the old life, returned to India in 1769. Her daughters had both married, and her son was provided for, and in 1774 she once again entered the married state, and took for her fourth husband the Rev. William Johnson, the second, not the principal, presidency chaplain, as the epitaph states. The marriage does not appear to have been a success, for when he left India, some years later, his wife elected to remain behind, and lived on in Calcutta, “in a style of dignified hospitality,” in her house “to the northward of the Old Fort,” where she died on the 3rd of February, 1812, at the great age of 87 years, It is not difficult to picture the old lady, in her hale old age, reclining among great cushions, waited on by attentive slave girls, enjoying the fragrant hookah, and telling over the oft-told tale of her experiences and adventures when under the protection of her friend the begum, whose title, so often on her lips, was turned by her friends in kindly jest into a soubriquet for herself. That the old lady was very particular about the observance of forms and ceremonies is shown by her having obtained from the Marquis of Wellesley the grant of a plot of ground, and permission that she might be buried in St. John’s Churchyard, which had long been closed for interments, and also the promise that she should have a public funeral. When, in 1812, the time came for the fulfilment of these undertakings, Lord Wellesley had long vacated the Governor-Generalship, but his successor redeemed his pledge, and Begum Johnson was followed to her last resting-place by all the members of Calcutta society, headed by the Governor-General in his state coach, drawn by six horses, attended by the Body-Guard, and followed by the members of Council, and judges in their coaches.


Calcutta: Past and Present (1905)-by Kathleen Blechynden


Image: – ST. JOHN’S CHURCH, 1905.

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