While the historic East Fort area and its precincts were considered as the ‘native core’ of old Thiruvananthapuram, the Cantonment in Palayam developed as a thriving European neighbourhood. The Cantonment was home to several European military officials, who had their bungalows in the area. In the very heart of the old Cantonment area in Palayam is Christ Church, an architectural gem, almost hidden by the canopy of ancient trees.
A steady rise in European as well as native Christian population in the early decades of the 19th century led to the establishment of the first chapel in Thiruvananthapuram, in 1838. However, towards the mid- nineteenth century, this early chapel, located somewhere between the present University Library and VJT Hall, fell into disuse. The Anglicans who proposed to have a church of their own received support from General Cullen, Resident of erstwhile Travancore, and the Bishop of Madras [Chennai]. Soon, a plot of land was acquired in Palayam, where Christ Church stands today. Founded in 1858, during the reign of Uthram Tirunal Marthanda Varma, the C.S.I. Christ Church was the first church to be erected in Thiruvananthapuram town. According to the records maintained by the church authorities, the foundation stone for the church was laid by General Cullen on December 13, 1858 and once the construction was completed, the church was consecrated on November 15,1859 by Rev. Thomas Dealtry, Bishop of Madras.
Rev. S. Pettigrew, the Government chaplain (1874-78) describes the Christ Church as ‘ a pretty little Gothic building, much more ecclesiastical in its outward appearance than most Churches at that time in India ’.
In fact, the original church building was reconstructed by eminent architect Laurie Baker, who took care to preserve its heritage charm. The spatial planning is in accordance with the church traditions with aisles and nave. The original structure had a ‘narthex’ (entrance foyer on the western façade), fashioned as a three-storied spire with a square plan. A wide nave connected the foyer with the altar before which was the transept oriented in the north-south direction. Today, walking past the foyer, one reaches the enlarged congregational space.
Laurie Baker’s touch
The original layout of the space was altered and aisles added by Laurie Baker, providing a spacious interior. The outer walls of the congregational space are designed with buttresses with narrow Gothic windows with symbols specially designed by the master architect. The roof over the congregational space rests on top of the buttresses. A central Gothic arch and two smaller arches (added later) separate the congregational space from the altar.
The three arch windows with exquisite stained glass panes draw one’s eyes towards the altar. The eastern sun when it falls on the stained glass imparts a heavenly glow into the church interior. The bell tower atop the entrance foyer houses the unique ‘tubular bell’ donated by Mr. Hunt, the High Court Judge, in 1915. An old hearse, now thoroughly restored, rests in a specially made glass box erected in front of the church.
Beneath the shade of the ancient trees lie the graves of some of the important personalities associated with Travancore history. Amongst the early European tombs, the ones belonging to Caldecott (d.1849), ‘ Astronomer of His Highness the Raja of Travancore ’, and J.E. Faikney (d.1838), ‘ Captain in the Nair Brigade ’ is regularly visited by history enthusiasts. Laurie Baker, who designed an old age home and the common vault with 350 cells, lies buried in one of the vaults.
The foundation stone of a Centenary Hall was laid on November 1, 1956 by Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. It is situated at the northern end of the Church premises in the capital city. The Hall was opened on November 21, 1959, when the Church celebrated its centenary.
The writer is a conservation architect and history buff