Down memory lane Society

Delhi’s Christian link

The Sacred Heart Cathedral Church in the Capital. Photo:Shiv Kumar Pushpakar   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

While revisiting Shahjahanabad, the Christian community’s contribution to its development needs to be viewed in its historical perspective. Delhi’s Christian link goes back to Mughal times when there were two Armenian Catholic churches built in Jahangir’s reign, one of them near the old Subzi mandi and the other near a slaughter house which were destroyed during the invasion of Nadir Shah in 1739. These churches were repaired in 1722-25 by Father Desideri, though some accounts say he rebuilt a church in 1723 that was opened for worship on All Saints’ Day (Nov 2 of that year). The Jesuits interestingly were working in the city over 100 years earlier in Akbar’s time. Then after the capture of Delhi by Lord Lake, a church came up near the Red Fort under the aegis of the Baptist Mission in 1814. It was later moved to Chandni Chowk while in between St James’s Church was built in Kashmere Gate by Col James Skinner. The early Christian communities were based in Subzi mandi, Civil Lines, Kashmere Gate, Mori Gate, Turkman Gate, Daryaganj, Paharganj and, of course, Chandni Chowk.

In the Civil Lines lived Europeans and Anglo-Indians in posh bungalows. Bungalow No. 8 became a disputed property recently. The Cambridge Brotherhood Mission house exists in Court Lane and the Lt Governor’s residence (earlier occupied by the British Commissioner) in Raj Niwas Marg, the erstwhile Ludlow Castle Road.

In Daryaganj were Christian settlements near the Cavalry Lines, in Old Pataudi House and Turkman Gate, where the Holy Trinity Church came up in 1904. Incidentally, there used to be an “Army chapel” in the main Daryaganj market, which has now become a shop. The Turkman Gate church was erected in a Muslim locality, though it was earlier proposed to be built in Ajmeri Gate, but for the discovery of an underground reservoir of Aurangzeb’s time. This came to light when the church foundation was being laid and so it was shifted to the present site. The parish cemetery, however, was where the Ajmere Gate side extension of New Delhi station has come up near the old Thomson Road. The graves, which were quite old, were either demolished or moved to Trinity Church, Burari and Rajpura Road cemeteries. It’s pertinent to point out that a Christian cemetery existed in Delhi as early as 1650 (Shah Jahan’s period) and the number of Roman Catholics was 120, which increased to 300 in 1686 (Aurangzeb’s reign). They now number over a lakh.

The cemetery in Lothian Road was closed to burials in the 1960s. The Paharganj cemetery, however, is still in use. The CMS Protestants worshipped at St James’s Church, the Catholics in St Mary’s (the mother Church of Sacred Heart Cathedral) which came up in 1865 after the First War of Independence in 1857, as the existing prayer hall was demolished at that time and the priest in-charge, Fr Zachery of Tretti killed. As for the Armenians, their cemetery is there in Kishanganj, near Old Delhi station, but in a badly dilapidated state because of neglect and encroachments. This cemetery also has some Dutch and Portuguese tombs of those attached to the Mughal court along with their matriarch, Bibi Juliana of Aurangzeb’s reign. It was Bibi Juliana’s sarai in Okhla that has now made way for DDA flats in a colony named after her as Julhana Sarai. Among her descendants were the Dominga family, headed by Mrs Dominga D’Eremao who allotted land for the resettlement of Christians displaced from Raisina Hill during the building of New Delhi. Near this settlement of Masihgarh has now come up the Church of Our Lady of Good Health, which is the venue of the annual devotions to the Virgin Mary in the first week of September.

Coming back to Kashmere Gate and Chandni Chowk, it is worth mentioning that the Christian population there included quite a few Europeans, who bore the brunt of the 1857 war of independence, with some of them like the Beresford family being killed. The Skinner family, however, escaped that fate as its members were in Hansi, their ancestral estate. However, the church they built was vandalised and the graves in the compound, including that of William Fraser, were desecrated.

One other reason for the Skinners not suffering so much in those days was because their ancestor, Col Skinner was known as Sikandar Sahib to the Delhiwallahs and had a Muslim wife too in Meerut, whose children were brought up as Mussalmans. The Colonel had also repaired the Kashmere Gate mosque built by the widow of a Mughal army commander and consequently earned much goodwill.

After 1857 the Christians re-established themselves in the city but the Europeans shifted to the new Cantonment for safety. A few Christian families are still living in Old Pataudi House, besides the ones in Turkman Gate, Kashmere Gate and the Civil Lines as reminders of the community’s old link with Shahjahanabad. And, of course, the schools they built have become important institutions, though Nirmala College has made way for Kirorimal College and Ludlow Castle, where the British had their Delhi Club once, has become a Model School after its demolition.

(The author is a veteran chronicler of Delhi)

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 6:10:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/delhis-christian-link/article7692770.ece

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