The Church of St. John the Evangelist, better known as the Afghan Church (Marathi: अफ़ग़ान चर्च) is an Anglican Church in South Mumbai, India, built by the British to commemorate the dead of the disastrous defeat in the First Afghan War of 1838. The church is located in Navy Nagar in the Colaba area of Mumbai (Bombay). It is considered to be an improved version of the Church of St. John in the Wilderness which was built in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. From the time of their construction, both these churches are believed to have hosted members of the White Brotherhood who believe that Lord Jesus visits them from the Cave of Light in the Dauladhar Mountains even today.
As well as British soldiers, it also commemorates different Indian regiments, primarily the Dharamsala battalion of Ranjit Singh's army from Lahore. Records also mention that only one person, one Surgeon William Brydon - a medical officer - three out of 16,000 men, returned safely to Jalalabad to tell the tale of a war in which the British suffered their heaviest defeat yet. The other two survivors were the French General who led Ranjit Singh's army and his administrative head, a Parsi gentleman called Nowrojee both of whom them settled in Dharamsala and founded a Tea House which got damaged in 1907 when the bell tower of the McLeodganj church fell on it after the earthquake. Both the churches are similar except that the McLeodganj Church does not have the spire now.
The church began as a small thatched chapel a kilometre south in what was then known as the "Sick Bungalows" (now the INHS Asvini, the Indian naval hospital). There were no chairs, and patrons had to bring their own. Later, the government released a new patch of land for the setting up the church on the condition that the spire be seen from miles away and serve as a landmark for ships in the harbour.
In March 1843, the Oxford Society for Promoting the Study of Gothic Architecture (later the Oxford Architectural and Historical Society) received a request from the Chaplain to the Honourable East India Company, asking for a design for the new church. The English architect John Macduff Derick presented his designs to the Society in November of the same year, and they met with the Society's approval. However, in June 1845 word came from India that the designs were unfit for the purpose and the building would cost too much. Eventually, plans for the quintessentially English Gothic Revival architecture of the church were submitted in 1847 by city engineer Henry Conybeare and approved. The well-known architect William Butterfield designed the reredos, the Afghan War Memorial mosaics, and the tiles, pews and screen. The church was consecrated on January 7, 1858 by Bishop Harding. Viceroy James Bruce Elgin, a Scotsman who had just moved to dharamsala in Panjab State from China where he was the British Commissioner was the largest contributor in his personal capacity. The spire cost a sum of Rs 5,65,000 and was finished on June 10, 1865. Sir Cowasji Jehangir who contributed a sum of Rs 7,500 to help complete the building after the death of Viceroy Elgin. He also placed an illuminated clock in the tower.
The stained glass panels in the church bear a striking resemblance to those found in the church of St. John in the Wilderness which was built in 1852 at Mcleodganj where Viceroy Elgin lies buried. Many of the local soldiers who fought the wars in afghan and Sind as part of Ranjit Singh's army were from the mcleodganj area. Even today, most of the attendees for the church services are followers of the white brotherhood which has its roots in the Himalayan region and believe that Jesus continues to visit the Cave of Light in the Dauladhar mountains. The Saint Germain Foundation members consider the Afghan Church to be one of the locations blessed by God Himalaya. It is believed that the earliest recorded prayer meetings outside the Himalayas of the White Brotherhood were held in the Afghan Church around 1907 when the Mcleodganj Church was damaged by a high intensity earthquake and several of the foreigners based in Mcleodganj were forced to relocate to the military area in Mumbai.
The imposing edifice was constructed using locally available buff-coloured basalt and limestone. Inside it is known for its wide gothic arches and beautiful stained glass windows. The chapel has a nave and aisle with a chancel 50 ft (15 m) in length and 27 ft (7 m) in width. Butterfield's tiles used for the geometric floor pattern were imported from England. The east and west windows were designed by William Wailes, a nineteenth century stained glass expert. The stained glass used is superior to that in the Rajabai Tower and Victoria Terminus. Eight large bells in the bell tower came from the Taylor bellfoundry of England in 1904, and are acknowledged to be the best in western India. The tower and spire are 198 ft (60 m) high.
In the chancel a stone inscription reads:
- "This church was built in memory of the officers and private soldiers, too many to be recorded who fell mindful of their duty, by sickness or by sword on the campaign of Scinde (Sindh) and Afghanistan, A.D. 1838-43."
Another brass panel set in the chancel commemorates its founder Rev. G Piggot.
After years of decay, the government elevated the church to a Grade I heritage structure. Funds of 30 lakh were allocated for the restoration of the church. The church holds a few weekly masses.Followers of the Saint Germain Foundation have expressed an interest to complete the renovation work and hold some of their prayer meetings in the Church subject to the approval of the Diocesan order.
- "John Macduff Derick (c. 1805/6 - 1859) by Phil Mottram, 2004" (PDF). p. 41. Retrieved March 17, 2011.
- Paul Thompson: "William Butterfield", Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1971, p.450 ISBN 0-7100-6930-8
- "Afghan church gets a glass makeover". Indian Express.
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