Saint John's Church

We get to know so little about our near and dear ones even after having spent our entire life with them. That was the first thought that popped up in my head the moment I entered the humongous courtyard of Saint John’s Church. I have spent my entire life in Calcutta, and yet I had no idea about the existence of this beautiful piece of early colonial history of India in the very heart of my own city of joy. Just where the Kiran Shankar Road ends and Netaji Subhas Road begins its stretch towards the GPO, the intersection creates a little delta where about 232 years ago, the contemporary Governor General of India, Lord Warren Hastings laid the foundation stone of Saint John’s Church. The land was donated by Maharaj Nabakrishna Deb of Shovabazar.


I was awestruck the moment I saw the church building and its humongous spire, which happens to be 174 ft tall. In its days of glory, the Saint John’s Church was more famous among the natives as the ‘pathure girja’ or the stone church. It was built by Lieutenant James Agg of the Bengal Engineers who came to India in the company of William Hickey. The stones used to build the church came from the ruins of Gaur, the ancient capital of Bengal. In fact, the ruins were robbed to collect stones to bring back home. This church was considered as the prototype of many Anglo-Indian churches later.
The inside of the church is as impressive as it is on the outside. Important pieces of the colonial history of India are scattered all over the place.




However the most outstanding object in the interior is the colossal pipe organ on the left side of the alter. A musical instrument made of a few life-sized metal pipes and operated through a wooden panel of switches and a keyboard that I had first mistaken for a pianoforte.

The pipe organ

Luck was on our side. A journalist happened to be there along with her photographer and the church musician was playing the organ for them. We stood there and enjoyed the sweet melody coming out of the instrument for some time. It was really a great and rare experience.

Johan Zoffany's Last Supper
There is a massive oil painting of The Last Supper by a German painter named Johan Zoffany. Moved (or annoyed) by my incessant questioning, the caretaker guy took us to a small antichamber to show us various other paintings and photographs. There we saw a self-portrait of the Artist himself. The old chair of Lord Hastings was also on display there, inside a large glass case.


The inside wall of the church is adorned with marble plaques depicting various incidence from the gospel as well as memorials of British officers and civil servants. One of the most noteworthy of them is the memorial of Sir James Achilles Kirkpatrick, known as the White Mughal. He was the main protagonist of The White Mughals, a book by William Dalrymple.




Another notable memorial is of James Pattle who was the great-great-grandfather of Dalrymple. James Pattle’s story is a most extra-ordinary and funny one. Let's hear it in Dalrymple's words.

"James Pattle was known as the greatest liar in India. A man supposed to be so wicked that the Devil wouldn't let him leave India after he died. Pattle left instructions that when he died, his body should be shipped back to Britain. So, after his demise (in 1845) they pickled the body in rum, as was the way of transporting bodies back then. The coffin was placed in the cabin of Pattle's wife and the ship set sail from Garden Reach. In the middle of the night, the corpse broke through the coffin and sat up. The wife had a heart attack and died."
"Now both bodies had to be preserved in rum. But the casks reeked of alcohol and the sailors bored holes through the sides of the coffins and drank the rum... and, of course, got drunk and the ship hit a sandbank and the whole thing exploded, cremating Pattle and his wife in the middle of the Hooghly! That's why you see a plaque on the wall and not a grave in the graveyard of my great-great-grandfather."

The church ground is a history enthusiast's paradise. It still bears the sign of a most important period in the history of Calcutta. Many famous people's final resting place is the courtyard of Saint John's. There is the grave of Lady Canning, wife of Charles Canning, the Governor General of India. The famous Bengali sweet Ladykeni was named after her, by renowned sweet maker Bhim Nag. If you visited Calcutta and didn't taste Bhim Nag's sondesh, then your trip would remain incomplete.

Charnock's mausoleum
In 1690, an English trader of British East India Company named Job Charnock touched the soil of Sutanuti village by the bank of river Hooghly. Later he got the rights (it's called jagir) of Sutanuti, Calcutta and Gobindopur, by lease from Saborno Roy Chowdhury family and formed the city of Calcutta. Charnock's mausoleum can be seen at the church ground where a few other people of his family are also resting with him.

Second Rohilla War memorial
The Second Rohilla War memorial was built in the memories the British soldiers who were killed in the war between the Rohillas and Nawab of Oudh. The Britsh backed the Nawab of Oudh to defeat this Pashtun tribe of Afghanistan settled in the Oudh region (modern day Rohilkhand, UP).

Holwell Monument
The Holwell Monument was built by a certain John Holwell, an East India Company officer. It was raised in the memories of 123 people who died in the Black Hole incident of Calcutta. As per Holwell's account, in 1756, Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah imprisoned 146 people in a 14x18 feet room at Fort William overnight. Next morning when the room was opened, 123 people were already dead owing to suffocation. Holwell himself was a survivor. The repercussion of this incident led to the Battle of Plassey which sealed the fate of India for next 200 years. However, historians have found that Holwell's account was misleading and exaggerated. Lord Curzon (this guy was a total asshole) rebuilt and put it at Writer's Building in 1901, but it was shifted here in 1940 owing to the objections raised by Indian freedom fighters.

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