Christianity is said to have come to India in 52 AD, when Thomas the Apostle landed in Muziris in Kerala. Today, it is the third most followed religion in the country, with its followers constituting around 2.3 percent of the population. Christianity spread across India, and several denominations are to be found across the Indian populace. One of the most beautiful facets of the religion is its places of worship, some of which date back to several centuries earlier and boast unique architectural influences and legends of miracles. We take a walk through some prominent churches across the country.
St. Andrew’s Church, Kolkata
One of the oldest churches in India, St Andrew’s Church in Kolkata (also known as the ‘Kirk’ as it is only Scottish church in Kolkata) was opened to the public in March 1818. Back then, the Scottish community was an important part of the European population of Calcutta. The clock tower was fitted in 1835.
The builders of the church, Messrs Burn, Currie and Co., worked on a design inspired by St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square. The Church stands on a plinth seven feet high, and there are elegant porticos supported by lofty Doric columns on the northern and southern sides. Reverend Dr. James Bryce, who arrived in November 1814 to fill the position of Chaplain, is said to have had the marble for the floor imported, duty free, using his connections in the government.
There is an interesting story about the church’s spire. It is said that an argument broke out between Rec. Bryce and Bishop Fanshawe Middleton, Bishop of the Indian Episcopate, with the Bishop not being in favour of the spire being erected. Rev. Bryce declared that he would not only have a steeple higher than the Cathedral Church of St. John’s but also place a cock on the top of it to crow over the Bishop! Later on, the Government declared that while the entire building might be repaired by the Public Works Department, they would not touch the ‘audacious bird’. The bird is still there.
All Saints’ Cathedral, Allahabad
All Saints’ Cathedral, also known as ‘Patthar Girja’ (Church of Stones) is an Anglican cathedral modelled after 13th century Gothic style churches and was among the Gothic Revival buildings built by the British during colonial rule. British architect Sir William Emerson, who designed the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, designed the cathedral in 1871. It was consecrated in 1887, and completed four years later. The total length of the church is about 240 feet and the internal width is about 56 feet. It is designed to accommodate 300 to 400 persons. The quality of the glass and marble work retain their originality even after more than 125 years. The Cathedral also houses many plaques that depict the death of different British nationals for a variety of reasons during their rule in India. The pulpit is an exceedingly fine piece of workmanship in alabaster by Mr. Nicholls of Lambeth from Mr. Emerson’s designs. The lantern tower, Victoria Tower, is a memorial to Queen Victoria.
Se Cathedral, Old Goa
One of the oldest churches in Asia, the Sé Catedral de Santa Catarina, commonly known as Se Cathedral, was built to commemorate the victory of the Portuguese army under Alfonso de Albuquerque over a Muslim army, leading to the capture of the city of Goa in 1510. Since the day of the victory happened to be on the Feast of Saint Catherine, the cathedral was dedicated to her. The word Sé is Portuguese for ‘See’.
Construction of the church began in 1562 in the reign of King Dom Sebastião. The cathedral was completed in 1619 and consecrated in 1640. The Cathedral had two towers, but one collapsed in 1776 and was never rebuilt. The architecture style of the Cathedral is Portuguese-Manueline; the exterior is Tuscan, whereas the interior is Corinthian. The church is 250 feet in length and 181 feet in breadth. The frontispiece stands 115 feet high. A noteworthy feature is the large bell housed in the Cathedral’s tower, which is known as the ‘Golden Bell’ due to its rich tone. The bell is said to be the largest in Goa, and one of the best in the world.
The main altar is dedicated to Catherine of Alexandria, and there are several old paintings. There is also a Chapel of the Cross of Miracles, where a vision of Christ is said to have appeared in 1619. There are six main panels, on which scenes from the life of Saint Catherine are carved.
In 1953, the Se Cathedral was presented with ‘The Golden Rose’ by Venerable Pope Pius XII. The Golden Rose is a gold ornament, which the Popes of the Catholic Church have traditionally blessed and conferred as a token of reverence or affection.
Basilica of Bom Jesus, Old Goa
The Bom Jesus (‘Good Jesus’) church is one of the most popular churches in the country. Construction of the church began in 1594 and the place of worship was consecrated in May 1605. Apart from the distinction of being declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the church is known for holding the body of St. Francis Xavier, a close friend of St. Ignatius Loyola, with whom he founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). St. Francis died in December 1552, while en route to China. His body was first taken to Portuguese Malacca and then brought to Goa, two years later, but it is said that the Saint’s body was as fresh as on the day it was buried. The Saint’s remains are opened to public viewing every 10 years, and they attract a large number of visitors (Christians and non-Christians), especially because he was known for his healing powers.
The Church is also known to be one of the best examples of Baroque architecture in India. The marble floor is inlaid with precious stones, and there are elaborate gilded altars. The altar table, which is used in Holy Mass, is gilded and adorned with the figures of Christ and his apostles at the Last Supper, along with the words ‘Hi Mhoji Kudd’ (‘This is my Body’ in Konkani). The mausoleum, on top of which the silver casket with the body of St. Francis Xavier is placed, was designed by 17th century Florentine sculptor Giovanni Battista Foggini and took 10 years to complete.
Mount Mary Church, Mumbai
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount, commonly known as Mount Mary Church, is a Roman Catholic Basilica located in Bandra, Mumbai. The basilica stands on a hillock, about 80 m above sea level, overlooking the Arabian Sea. The church draws lakhs of devotees and pilgrims (from all faiths), and many attest to the miraculous powers of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
While the current church edifice is around 100 years old, the history behind the current statue of Our Lady goes back to the 16th century when Jesuit priests from Portugal brought the statue to the current location and constructed a chapel. In 1700, Arab pirates, interested in the gilt-lined object held in the hand, cut off the statue’s right hand. In 1760, the church was rebuilt and the statue was substituted with a statue of Our Lady of Navigators in St. Andrew’s church nearby. This statue has a legend behind it. A Koli fisherman dreamt that he would find a statue in the sea, and the statue was found floating in the sea between 1700 and 1760. A Jesuit Annual Letter dated 1669 and published in the book St. Andrew’s Church, Bandra (1616–1966) supports this claim. Koli fishermen call the statue ‘Mot Mauli’, meaning ‘The Pearl Mother’. The previous statue was later restored.
Mount Mary Church is specially known for ‘The feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary’, which is celebrated on the first Sunday after September 8 – the birthday of the Virgin Mary. The feast is followed by a week-long celebration known locally as the ‘Bandra Fair’ and is visited by thousands of people. Wax figures of the Virgin Mary, along with candles shaped like hands, feet and various other parts of the body are sold at kiosks. People choose a wax figure that corresponds to their ailment and light it in the church, in the hope that Mother Mary will answer their prayer.
Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health, Velankanni
One of the most frequented religious sites in India, the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health in the town of Velankanni in Tamil Nadu is popularly known as the ‘Lourdes of the East’, and its origin can be traced to the 16th century. The Gothic-style architecture is a unique feature of the Church, as is the fact that the Blessed Mother is clothed in a sari.
Oral traditions testify to the apparition of the Blessed Mother of Velankanni on more than one occasion. The first is said to have occurred in 1570, when a local shepherd boy, who was delivering milk, met a beautiful woman holding a child. The lady asked him for some milk for her child. After giving her the milk, the boy continued on his way and later discovered that his jug was full of fresh, cool milk. A small shrine was built near the site where the boy encountered the woman – which came to be known as ‘Matha Kulam’ (in Tamil) or ‘Our Lady’s Pool’. The second apparition is said to have happened in 1597, not far from Matha Kulam.
A beautiful woman with a child in her arms appeared before a crippled boy who was selling buttermilk. The child asked for some buttermilk; after he drank it, the woman asked the boy to visit a gentleman in the next town and ask him to build a chapel in her honour at that location. The boy set out – and realised that he was no longer lame. A thatched chapel was built in honour of ‘Our Lady of Health’ known in Tamil as ‘Arokia Matha’.
The third incident occurred when a Portuguese ship sailing from Macao to Sri Lanka was caught in a storm in the Bay of Bengal. Those on board invoked the Blessed Virgin’s help. The storm subsided and the 150 men were saved. It was September 8, the Feast of the Nativity of Mary. In thanksgiving, the sailors rebuilt the Shrine to Our Lady of Good Health. The shrine that started as a thatched chapel in the mid-sixteenth century became a parish church in 1771.
In 1962, it was granted special status of a Minor Basilica by Pope John XIII. The shrine of Velankanni was elevated to the status of ‘Minor Basilica’ and merged with the Major Basilica of Mary (Mary majore) in Rome on November 3, 1962 by Pope John XXIII.
San Thome Basilica, Chennai
Built in the 16th century by Portuguese explorers over the tomb of St. Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, the San Thome Basilica was rebuilt as a church with the status of a cathedral by the British in 1893. St. Thomas is said to have arrived at Muziris in present-day Kerala from the Roman province of Judea in 52 AD, and preached between 52 and 72 AD. He was martyred at St. Thomas Mount in Chennai.
The present church building was designed in the Neo-Gothic style, and is one of the only three known churches in the world built over the tomb of an apostle of Jesus (the other two are St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City and Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Galicia, Spain). San Thome Basilica is the principal church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madras and Mylapore. The church also has an attached museum.
Malayattoor Church, Kerala
The St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Church (or Malayattoor Church) is one of the most prominent Christian pilgrim centres in India. Oral traditions maintain that while St. Thomas was travelling through Malayattoor, he fled hostile natives to the hilltop where he remained in prayer, and he left his footprint on one of the rocks. Furthermore, it is said that, during prayer, he touched a rock and blood poured forth from it. Another legend goes that St. Thomas used to make the Sign of the Cross on the rock, kiss it and pray, and a golden cross miraculously appeared at that particular spot.
The shrine was promoted to Archdiocesan status by Major Archbishop Mar Varkey Cardinal Vithayathil on September 4, 1998. The church has been designated by the Vatican as one among the eight international shrines in the world.
Parumala Church, Kerala
St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s Church, Parumala (also known as ‘Parumala Pally’ in Malayalam or Parumala Church) is a parish church of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. Parumala is a small stretch of land on the shores of the river Pampa. In the 1870s, Malankara Metropolitan Joseph Mar Dionysius wanted to establish a seminary in the area – a two-acre plot of land was donated by Arikupurathu Mathen Karnavar for this purpose and a building was constructed. This was used for teaching church functionaries, including providing lessons in Syriac. Dionysios eventually passed the responsibility for the seminary to Metropolitan Mar Gregorios. A church in Parumala was rebuilt by Gregorios and consecrated in 1895.
The western face of the tomb was closed in 1910; the altar on the northern side was dedicated in the name of St. Mary, and the one on the southern side in the name of St. Thomas. Subsequently, all the three altars were embellished with beautiful gilt work.
The church contains the tomb of Gregorios, who died on November 2 , 1902 at the age of 54. Belief in his saintly qualities caused it to become a centre of pilgrimage, and in 1947 he was beatified by the Catholicos of the church.