Heritage Reviews

‘The Churches of India’ review: Murals, a legend, and Christian architecture

An account of the churches of India doesn’t mention some key places of worship

My abiding memory of a church comes from Chennai’s Annai Velankanni at Besant Nagar. As a young child, I played among its pews and aisles as my grandfather and the priest had long conversations and usually finished with a storytelling session and a ‘biscuit’ as a treat. Much later, I learnt that I’d been happily munching on a communion wafer. When I told my Christian friends this story, it raised quite a few eyebrows. Luckily those were more tolerant times.

Which is why I was very excited by Joanne Taylor’s The Churches of India. Beginning with a lovely aquatint on the cover, the book is filled with photographs of altars, external façades, plaques, pulpits.

Temple motif

Initially I pored over the photographs, exclaiming at lace pankhas, hand-painted tiles, murals and more. It took a while to move to the text, which is eminently readable.

Taylor first establishes the arrival of Christianity in India and how elements of temples were incorporated in the early churches. She then moves on to the entry of the Portuguese in Kerala and the changes that wrought.

There are interesting nuggets of information like “each year an eagle is seen flying high in the sky, seeming to follow the procession” on the feast day of St. Sebastian at Arthunkal, Kerala. This reminded me of the legend of the eagles that are said to visit Tirukazhukundram daily.

Then she starts exploring her selection of churches, which are mostly restricted to the coastal belt: Kerala, Mumbai and Goa on the west and Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Chandannagar and Kolkata on the east. Only Delhi, Bengaluru and Kottayam are from the interior. Every single church is easily accessible and one wonders if this was done with an eye on tourists. The Northeast and central India don’t even get a look in.

Some quibbles

Shouldn’t Christ Church in Shimla, All Saints Cathedral in Allahabad, the Moravian Church of Leh, the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health in Velankanni, St. John’s Church in Meerut to name just a few have been featured in a book titled The Churches of India (emphasis mine)?

In fact, after reading this book, I looked up the churches of Coimbatore and found at least four that were more than 100 years old. Given that this is likely to be true across the country, perhaps the author and the publishers should have taken more care with the name. This is definitely not “the most comprehensive work on India’s churches to date,” as the front flap cover text claims.

One more grouse: The Cathedral Church of Redemption, New Delhi, is referred to as Roman Catholic in the entry. The history that follows makes it amply clear that the church is Anglican. Designed by British architects Henry Medd and completed by Edwin Lutyens, the then Viceroy Lord Irwin took a great deal of interest in the plans and, in fact, the church is known as Viceroy’s Church. Shouldn’t this have been caught?

The Churches of India; Joanne Taylor, Niyogi Books, ₹1,495.

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Printable version | Jul 2, 2020 4:26:00 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/the-churches-of-india-review-murals-a-legend-and-christian-architecture/article30357689.ece

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