Mumbai’s St. Thomas’ Cathedral to Celebrate 300-Year Anniversary

St. Thomas’ Cathedral was built at the geographic center of Bombay three hundred years ago.

St. Thomas’ Cathedral was built at the geographic center of Bombay three hundred years ago.

By Vijaya Gupchup

In June 1820 the church was lighted with lamps for the evening service. Chandeliers were fitted with glass shades, glass tumblers and burners, while iron chains were installed in 1822.

The first mention of punkahs used in the Church was found in Mrs Elwood’s Narrative of a Journey Overland from England to India in 1826. Punkahs were monstrous fans, ten to thirty feet long and suspended from the ceiling and moved to and fro by men outside by ropes and pulleys.

To go back to the roots of the establishment of the Church, it was Gerald Aungier, the second Governor of the East India Company who conceived the idea of putting up a church for the small English community then residing in the Fort area.

In 1672 and again in 1674 Aungier wrote to the Court of Directors proposing a scheme for building a garrison church.

The foundations of the Church were laid in 1676. Unfortunately, Aungier died in 1677; but the building work continued during the governorship of his successor, Sir John Child (1681- 1690). The walls were raised to a height of 15 feet. But soon the work was suspended and the English community lost interest.

It was now left to Richard Cobbe, who was appointed chaplain in 1715 to the factory of Bombay for the United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies (later called The East India Company), to continue the work on the Church.

Rev Richard Cobbe was an enthusiastic person and he set about writing letters to important persons in order to collect funds for the Church. Cobbe’s words were transformed into action when Stephen Strutt, the Deputy Governor of Bombay, laid the foundation stone once again on the same site as the old Church on 18th November 1715.

Charles Boone, Governor of Bombay, chose Christmas Day 1718 for the inauguration of the Church. The inauguration ceremony was indeed a colourful event. The procession started at about 10am when the Governor-in-Council ‘attended by free merchants, military and other inhabitants of the place proceeding from the Fort in great order to the church and approaching the great western door at the west end were met by the chaplain …….’

In June 1817, the Bombay Government sanctioned Rs 7,700 for providing 172 additional seats. The plan for the new pews would accommodate a congregation of persons  “independent of soldiers” and these pews would be rented to private families and individuals.

With a steady stream of worshippers, a fact that one finds even today, many additions were made to the church. First the Church became a Cathedral, after the Archdeaconry of Bombay became a Bishop’s See and Rev Thomas Carr, the then Archdeacon was elevated to the Bishop of the Diocese. He was installed on 25th February 1838. St Thomas’ Church was notified in the Bombay Government Gazette to be the Cathedral Church of the See.

The Public Works Department at Bombay felt the need to improve the dignity of the Cathedral-to-be, by raising the tower and completing it in 1839.

But the urge for change was a constant factor, for new buildings were coming up in the surrounding area in the Neo-Gothic style. This can be clearly perceived if we look at an early map of the Fort and the Esplanade of 1827. Here we can see that the Church was the Geographical centre, with the Bombay Castle, the Town Hall, the Bombay Green, the Church and Churchgate Station being actually on one axis. This formed the east-west axis with the Bombay Castle and Churchgate station at the eastern and western ends and the others forming punctuations with the Church being the dominant nerve-centre. Using the Church as a pivotal point, the Bombay Government planned and structured the whole Fort Area.

If we go back in time and picture the early British troops landing in Bombay, there is no doubt that at some time, if only for a short time, they must have visited the Church and found solace.

Following in the footsteps of Richard Cobbe was the Senior Chaplain Rev W K Fletcher. He along with the other trustees consisting of important persons on the social ladder, recognized the importance of keeping the Cathedral in tune with the new Neo-Gothic wave. Accordingly, in the 1860s they appointed James Trubshawe as the architect, to renovate the Church to be consistent with the great buildings that were being planned in the city.

Stained Glass windows on the East side of the chancel.

Stained Glass windows on the East side of the chancel.

During the period of the 1860s, repairs to the Cathedral were funded partly by the congregation and partly by the Government. The project was spearheaded by the then Senior Chaplain Rev W K Fletcher from 1861 to 1867.

Trubshawe had ambitious plans but these could not be executed to their entirety. Nevertheless, James Trubshawe cleverly put in some Gothic features which elevated the Cathedral to be almost on par with the Gothic structures at the time.

Thus, Trubshawe put in the Gothic wrought iron gates at the western entranceway, the chancel with its stained glass-windows, and the Fountain at the entrance, executed by Gilbert Scott. He also used Flying Buttresses at the Eastern end, to support the dome over the chancel. The chancel was extended in length to 40 feet while the width remained the same at 23 feet. The 1860s thus saw the chancel with its stained- glass windows.

The other set of stained-glass windows are seen in the south west corner. These represent St Thomas, St Gabriel and St Michael. This is known as the Chapel of St Thomas. These stained glass windows were executed by Messrs Heaton, Butler and Bayne from the designs and cartoons of Henry George Alexander Holiday and were shipped to Bombay in 1869. Henry Holiday was the most respected artist of the nineteenth century; stained-glass researchers believe that the St Thomas depicted in this window is a stylized self-portrait of Henry Holiday, an unusual and highly original work.

Many renowned dignitaries have visited and prayed in this Cathedral. To the south of the central aisle one observes two chairs, in the first row to the right of the chancel which bear the inscription “Here sat King George V” and “Here sat Queen Mary on 3rd November 1911 during Even Song”. This no doubt was during the historic visit of the King and Queen to India that was commemorated by the construction of the Gateway of India.

At right angles to these chairs is placed a well-polished pew which bears witness to a historic moment in the 20th century; for the inscription reads, “Mother Teresa used this pew on 8-1-1983”.

After the Indian Independence in 1947, the management of the Cathedral has moved into the hands of well-known Indians. They have maintained the grand status of the Cathedral by keeping it renovated from time to time.

This is indeed a unique Cathedral, a Grade I Heritage Structure with its rare and exquisite monuments sculpted in England and shipped to India, which besides being 300 years old (25/12/1718  – 2018 ) has its own story to tell as no other building can!

Reference: St. Thomas’s Cathedral Bombay: A Witness to History, Dr. Vijaya Gupchup, Emincence Designs Pvt. Ltd., Mumbai 2005