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Christ Church - God's Own Home

As the Christ Church in Shimla turns 150 years old, in September 1993, the whole year is earmarked for celebrations-special services and seminars, lots of literature and an overall revival. What better time to visit this graceful and well-proportioned landmark?

We spent a whole day hanging about the Shimla ridge in the hope of getting a good shot of Christ Church. Not just an ordinary head and shoulders shot but a special one that would merit a delighted gasp of surprise from the viewer. It didn’t seem likely, though. Right through the day, banks of cloud were blocking out the sun and when the sky finally cleared, there was but half an hour to go before sunset. Let’s try a silhouette, suggested someone. As on cue, we skirted the church compound and bounded up the long flight of steps at the back till we came level with the base of the spire. With the setting sun behind the spire it could have been an impressive view but for the buildup of electric cables in the foreground. Disappointed, we walked back to the ridge and had all but left for out hotel when suddenly the western horizon burst into flame and for one brief, magic moment, Christ Church was plated in copper. We got our shot.

For generations now, the graceful, well proportioned Christ Church has been perhaps the best known landmark in Shimla. It has appeared again and again in books and brochures and on picture postcards. It needs no caption, even as Shimla needs no introduction. Down the years, Christ Church has been many things to many people, from the halcyon days of the Raj to the present time. Naturally it was designed as a place of worship and remains such to this day, despite the fact that the congregation has dwindled in number and no longer includes peers and dyed in the wool, five star generals, all very British and all very proper. With a young but highly motivated chaplain-Sunil Caleb, to lead them, the devout still worship at this church, not only on Sundays but on other days as well. The door is open right through the daylight hours, with an old caretaker from Kinnaur, Devi Ram by name, in regular attendance. Being the 150th year of its existence, 9th September 93 to 8th September 94 has been earmarked as a time for celebration and revival, with special services and seminars and the publication of relevant literature, all under the enthusiastic leadership of Chaplain Caleb.

Church services first began in Shimla in 1836 and the house of worship was no more than an old, thatched building on the Mall, just below the present GPO. But this church was in a sorry state, apart from being too small to hold ht e400-strong church going population of Shimla. In 1844 it was decided that a new church be built on a different site. A building Committee was formed and Major Boileau (after whom the locality of Boileaugunje has been named) designated architect. The cornerstone of Christ Church was laid on 9th September 1844 and the building opened for divine service two years later. But it was conscrated only in 1857, taking nearly thirteen years to build and coasting between Rs.40 and 50,000/-

From the very start the going was rough. The Building Committee applied to the Bishop of Calcutta for permission to build a new church accommodating about 500 people and asking for aid. But the Supreme Government was unwilling to help. A letter from Lord Ellenborough stated Shimla is the last place in India at which it is necessary for the government to be put at the expense of building a church. The amount that finally came through as aid was a meager Rs.5,000/-, the rest being raise through loans and voluntary funds.

The site of the new church was part of the old Ballyhack Estate, purchased for Rs.100/- by the Committee. The quarry on the state was expected to provide enough stone for the entire building but it is served only the foundations. With the need for bricks and mortar, the building costs were pushed up. To cut down expenses, some material from the old church was also used. For instance, the organ loft is really the gallery from the old church. Parison labour was used to clear and level the site.

Services started long before the church was complete and this raised a fresh crop of problems. The church was like a shell, without pews. People brought their own chairs or sat on benches. Crinolines were in vogue at the time. But one Sunday the chaplain commented on the room taken up by crinolines and lo and behold, the following Sunday all the ladies of the congregation turned up in riding habits! Indeed many people did ride to church and some of the ladies preferred to be carried in dandies or jhampanis as they were called. The church compound could boast of sheds for both horses and jhampanis.

The struggle for funds continued right through, as did the battle with snow and rain, of which Shimla has always received a fair share. Come bad weather and the construction was stopped forthwith. The attendance at church also dropped dismally. The elements seemed to have reigned supreme well into the 20th century. Within the church compound, towards the north lies a grave, the inscription on the headstone long since obliterated. But parish records say it is the final resting place of one Cecilia Winifred Soysa, who passed away on 4th January 1945 but could not be taken to the cemetery at Sanjauli because of a heavy snowfall. A week later, she had to be interred within the church compound.

But problems notwithstanding, the structure that emerged was charming, within and without. Pews in polished deodar and beautiful stained glass windows lent grace to the serene, well ordered interior. The window to the east was erected in 1890, in memory of Jilia Elizabeth Mathew, wife of Bishop Mathew, who was for many years organist of this church. The fresco on the sanctuary wall was copied from the original design by Lockwood Kipling (father of novelist Rudyard Kipling) by one of his most gifted pupils from the Mayco College of Art, Lahore.

At one time the choir used to emerge and vanish behind the curtain at the back of the organ. One morning, after a sermon in which there had been repeated references to God’s house, a child in the congregation asked his mother, What is God’s house? The church, dear came the answer. There was a pause and then came the next question, loud and clear, and is the bit behind the curtain God’s bathroom?

The choir continued to be select and well trained. After the construction of the church was complete, a balance of Rs.281/- was left over from the voluntary building fund and this amount was deposited in a post office savings bank. The interest annually received was spent on a prize for the best choir boy.

The church still has copies of the Bible dating back to British times. One in Roman Urdu, titled Kitab-e-Muqaddas (The Holy Book) is a vintage publication dated 1804. The hymn book goes back to 1906. There are several memorial tablets in brass along the walls. The floor plan of the church has remained unchanged. The pews are as they were, and in surprising good shape considering the years that have elapsed in between. During the Raj, the front pews were reserved for the Viceroy, the C-in-C and other dignitaries. Till the early years of the 20th century, it was considered a social and moral duty to attend mid-day service. But then there were some who went for reasons of their own. Sir. Edward Buck of Shimla Past and Present fame has an interesting story to release. One day a pretty young thing came to church with her mother. On the way she was heard gushing. Oh mother, wasn’t it a wonderful service? Why wonderful dear? It seemed to me just as usual. Oh mother, cried the girl, didn’t you notice? There were five ADCs!

Rudtyard Kipling acted in a play A Scrap of Paper at the Gaiety Theatre to raise funds for the church. The Kiplings worshipped here, as did the Mountbattens. And novelist M.M.Kaye was baptized under this roof. Weddings at Christ Church used to be a grand affair with ushers in morning suits, lavender waistcoats and top hats, the porch and aisle gaily carpeted, floral decorations all over and soul stirring music flowing from the pipe organ…

British nationals still come to Shimla because someone near and deer was either baptized or married here. Donations still arrive from England. But the church is in need of restoration and the present congregation of 120 strong cannot raise enough funds for the purpose. Chirst Church is an institution. To this day it holds services in both Hindi and English, along with Sunday School and special services to mark Christmas, Good Friday, Easter and Independence Day. The devout come from Chhota Shimla, Totu, Jotugh and Sanjauli to spend an hour or two in an atmosphere of peace that passeth all understanding.

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