Deep in the heart of a city lies its guarded secrets—amidst winding alleys, behind curtained and shuttered windows, underneath the thick cobwebs of time, like a forgotten jewel, ready to be rediscovered, reemerging from the folds of time, to sparkle and dazzle once again. Such are the secrets that Calcutta nurtures and most of them are little known. Being a colonial city, Calcutta has had its share of colonial architecture in the form of buildings, schools, theatres, markets, churches and so on. The churches were mostly modelled on the European architectural styles and they range from the Portuguese to the Greek Orthodox Church. But what makes these churches undoubtedly beautiful, is their stained glass windows. Stained glasses are not just confined to the churches but are seen in some synagogues and mosques as well. The local Bengalis drew inspiration from such artistry and most of the old heritage mansions of the affluent rich have colourful glass decorations over their doors or windows.

The Christian faith has been the inspiration behind stained glass windows. These stained glasses have been a means of bringing light into the Church and form a simple way of communicating with the commoners the stories of the Bible, incorporating various Christian symbologies in a form of art work. Thus these stained glasses not only create a deep belief in faith but also lend a beautiful serene atmosphere to the Churches, making them apt for worship.

 

The Stained Glass of St. Mary’s Church  (also known as Bangali Cathedral; 1887) overlooks four smaller windows. This window depicts the Lord Almighty, The Holy Ghost and He is flanked on both the sides by seraphims (angels/ heavenly messengers).

 

The four different stained glass windows of St. Mary’s Church which depicts the beautiful story of the birth of Christ. The window on the extreme left shows the annunciation of Virgin Mary by the Angle Gabriel.

 

The white dove above Mary’s head represents the Holy Spirit. The second window shows Mary and Joseph with the Child Christ after his birth in Bethlehem. The third window shows the three wise men bearing gifts for Jesus and the extreme right window depicts the scene where Jesus is being presented in the temple on the 8th day to Simeon the priest.

The St. Mary’s Church was the initiative of Reverend Harilal Sandel, who started worshipping in the St. Paul’s cathedral with a few Christian employees and who later thought of having a church where Church services would be conducted in Bengali. Finally, his dreams came true. Posthumously, the St. Mary’s Church opened its door to the common masses on 18th February, 1899 under the leadership of Reverend Aghore Nath Banerjee. The marble plaques lining the church walls are in Bengali with the service being conducted in Bengali.

The service held in this church is in Bengali, which made me wonder about the early days of the Church. Did the converted Bengali Christians feel like their European counterparts, praying under the impressive churches in faraway Europe? Did these stained glasses serve their real purpose and actually made the Bible easier for many of these Bengalis. This church houses some fine chandeliers along with beautiful paintings and age old pews and plaques.

 

The St. John’s Church is not only famous for its history, the Rohila Monument, Zoffani’s ‘Last Supper’, Black Hole Monument and Job Charnock’s grave, it also houses some beautiful stained glasses.

 

Built in 1787, this church has been built on land donated by Raja Nobo Krishna Deb of the Sovabazar Raj family. The stone and pillared church was built in the lines of St. Martin’s, London. The foundation of this church was laid by Sir Warren Hastings, Governor General of India in the year 1784.These stained glasses depicts the scenes from the last supper of Christ to his crucifixion and finally his resurrection. The crucifixion of Christ is essentially a traditional theme for stained glass windows and is commonly seen in a lot of Churches all over the world. A very popular place with a large number of visitors every year, this church has a quaint and antique feeling. The stained glasses are just an addition to the other attractions of the place. I was mesmerised to see the beautiful statues inside the church complex and even more fascinated to see names read in history books being scattered in abundance- on the plaques, graves and memorials. Of all the attractions of St. John’s church, the stained glasses are the ignored jewels of its crown.

 

The beautiful stained glass of Old Mission Church or ‘Laal Girja’ (Red Church).This church dates back to the 1770.

 

The left window shows Jesus, the Saviour with his disciples. The centre window shows the ascension of Jesus into Heaven and the right window depicts Jesus as the Lamb of the Lord, the Shepherd.

Founded by the Swedish Lutheran missionary Johann Zachariah Kiernander the Mission Church was founded in 1770 and happens to be the oldest Protestant Church in Calcutta (Kolkata) and the second oldest (only next to Armenian Church) of Calcutta. The area around the church is highly encroached and its red brick walls that gave it its former name have been plastered off. The church is simple, despite its share of history but the main attraction were these three stain glass panels on the main alter. On a Sunday morning as the light streamed inside the church, I realised that this was one of the most beautiful sights that anybody could witness on a visit to Calcutta.

 

The stained glass window of Portuguese Church shows how Saint Jonah is being pulled out of the Hell fires by angles, the emissaries of the Lord.

 

It gives the massage that the Lord forgives all sinners and delivers them from evil. This beautiful church, with its life sized statues of Mother Mary, Jesus Christ and many of the saints leaves one mesmerised by its grandeur and serenity.The very delicate and intricate round stained glasses add to the beauty of this Church.

The Portuguese Church also known as Cathedral of the Holy Rosary (built in 1799). The Portuguese arrived before the British in Calcutta and have a long history with the city. In 1700 they had a small brick structure for their worship. Later Lord Clive had expelled them from the city to later lift the ban when the Portuguese returned to build an elaborate chapel. Hence the Portuguese Church came into existence.

 

The patterned Rose window of St. James Church or the twin spires of ‘Jora Girja’.

 

This church was built in the year 1868. The beautiful patterns create a surreal atmosphere inside the church, lighting up the main entrance with wonderful magical lights. The Church contains a number of windows but the rose window is most striking. The beautiful church interiors are made more beautiful with the presence of these glorious stained glass windows along with the woodwork and angels.

The St. James Church has been built in Gothic style with the beautiful twin spires and its mahogany ceilings and marble floors. The original St. James church had a different location and was built in 1823. But soon the Church had to be shut due to some construction errors. Thus in 1868, the new church was built and designed by W.B. Granville.

 

Jali work is common in mosques in many parts of India but what is rarely seen is jail work or lattice window combined with stained glasses.

 

This latticed window is seen in the Nakhoda Mosque of Calcutta (foundation stone was laid in 1926), which has given the stone lattices a more ethereal beauty. It may be easily surmised that such a stained glass lattice window speaks volumes about the cultural diffusion that Calcutta has witnessed.

The Nakhoda mosque was built as an imitation of Emperor Akbar’s mausoleum at Sikandra, Agra. This mosque was built by a small community of Gujarati Sunni Muslim. The mosque was named “nakhoda” which means “mariner” as the main funding was done by the shipping community.

 

The stained glass of Beth-El Synagogue (constructed in the year 1856). The beautiful colour combinations give a dazzling beauty to the pattern.

 

As described by Wasim, the caretaker of Beth-El “….on a moonlit night, the whole place dazzles like a magic palace.” The stained glass window adds to the beauty of this prayer hall.

Ezekiel Judah built the Beth El Synagogue on Pollock Street. Beth El Synagogue was set up in 1856 and literally means the House of God. The synagogue has a beautiful alter with different Jewish symbols to denote the Star of David.

 

Acknowledgements

My gratitude to Lourdes Samuel and Crystal Samuel Khalil for their patience and time for narrating and describing the Biblical stories behind the stained glasses! I am also grateful to Dr Jael Siliman for giving me permission to visit the Jewish synagogues of Calcutta. I have referred to Rangan Datta’s blog for some the basic information on the various heritage buildings and I am ever so grateful to them for the lucid descriptions and information that he has compiled. I thank Anindita Gupta, my friend, who has assisted me in most of my trips across the city.

 

All photographs: courtesy the author.

 

Debika Banerji

Debika Banerji is a research scholar, at the Department of Geography, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. Her study is essentially on river environments. She is a heritage enthusiast, participating in a number of Kolkata based heritage walks. Her aims are to rediscover the city’s past and to create awareness about its hidden history.

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