Just as you move around the north-western corner of Raj Bhavan, the Governor’s house, you come across a Neo-classical structure – the St. John’s Church. The church stands tall as a witness to all the bygone eras of Kolkata. St. John’s Cathedral is the third oldest church in Calcutta only after the Armenian Church and the Old Mission Church. You might as well pass by the structure every now and then and might have dismissed it off as just another church. But the place is a treasure house of historical facts.
The land on which the St. John’s cathedral was built was actually a burial ground known as the old burial ground. In fact, the tomb of Job Charnock lies here. The land was the property of Maharaja Naba Krishna Bahadur of Sovabazar Rajbari. He had donated the land to Warren Hastings, the Governor General of Calcutta. All the graves were dug up and the remains removed barring that of Job Charnock and Admiral Watson. The foundation stone of the church was laid on April 6, 1784, by Warren Hastings. This was one of the first few constructions commissioned by the East India company in Calcutta and the construction was completed with Rs.30,000.00 raised by public lottery. Military engineer James Agg was the architect behind this colossal structure. He had modeled the church on the lines on St. Martin’s-in-the-field, London. The construction was completed in 1787 and St. John’s church served as the Anglican Cathedral of Calcutta till 1847 when it was transferred to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The church was built by a combination of bricks and stones. Stones were quite a rare construction material during those times. So stones were robbed from ancient ruins of Gour near Malda and were shipped down the Hooghly river and brought here.The use of stone gave the church its native name “Pathure Girja”. The church was built on the neo-classical architectural style. The impressive spire is 174 ft high. The verandah was added in 1811. The structure rests on tall columns. The interior of the church is quite ancient but well maintained. Stained glasses, marble works, woodcarvings and beautiful paintings add beauty to the interiors. The Church was consecrated on the 24th of June, 1787, the date being that of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. The church was used for baptisms and weddings of the nobles of British Bengal of that time. In 1798, merchant and Calcutta Sheriff William Fairlie, after whom Fairlie Place got its name, married Miss Margaret Ogilvie here. The notables inside the St. John’s church include these and all of them have interesting anecdotes behind them.
Memorial of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the White Mughal
Lt. Col. James Achilles Kirkpatrick was initially a resident of Hyderabad and was quite fond of Indo-Persian culture. Initially, he too came to India with the burning ambition of subjugating the nation, but it is so said that he was himself conquered by a Hyderabadi noblewoman Khair-un-Nissa. Kirkpatrick fell in love with Khair-un-Nissa and they got married in the 1800s after much resentment from her family and the Hyderabadi nobles. He even took on to the customs and religion of India. As Lord Wellesley became the new Governor General of British India, he strongly disapproved British- India liaison. Kirkpatrick was asked to come to Calcutta, the then capital of India and was dismissed from his service later on. He died in Calcutta due to ill health on 15th October 1805. He was buried at North Park Street cemetery but neither the cemetery nor the grave remains today.
James Achilles Kirkpatrick was the protagonist of William Dalrymple’s best-selling novel “The White Mughal”.
Memorial to James Pattle and his wife
Near the Kirkpatrick memorial, there is the memorial of James Pattle and his wife. There is an even more interesting story behind James Pattle. He was the ancestor of noted historian William Dalrymple. In the very own words of Dalrymple – “Seven generations of my family were born in Calcutta, there are three Dalrymples’ sitting inside St John’s graveyard. And a great-great-grandfather’s plaque is on the St John’s Church wall, James Pattle. James Pattle was known as the greatest liar in India. A man supposed to be so wicked that the Devil wouldn’t let him leave India after he died. Pattle left instructions that when he died, his body should be shipped back to Britain. So, after his demise (in 1845) they pickled the body in rum, as was the way of transporting bodies back then. The coffin was placed in the cabin of Pattle’s wife and the ship set sail from Garden Reach. In the middle of the night, the corpse broke through the coffin and sat up. The wife had a heart attack and died. Now both bodies had to be preserved in rum. But the casks reeked of alcohol and the sailors bored holes through the sides of the coffins and drank the rum… and, of course, got drunk and the ship hit a sandbank and the whole thing exploded, cremating Pattle and his wife in the middle of the Hooghly! That’s why you see a plaque on the wall and not a grave in the graveyard of my great-great-grandfather.”
Zoffany’s painting of the Last Supper
Another attraction inside the St. John’s Church is the “Last Supper” painting by Johann Zoffany. In spite of the painting being a replica of Leonardo’s famous masterpiece, Zoffany had added Indian touches to the painting. Interestingly, Zoffany based the characters in the paintings on real people of Calcutta. Lord Christ was based on the Greek priest Father Parthenio. The effeminate police magistrate of Calcutta during the 1780’s W.C Blacquiere was modeled as John. William Tulloh, an auctioneer modeled as Judas. It is said that William Tulloh was under the impression that he was posing for St. John. Imagine his indignation when he found out after the unveiling of the painting that he was actually portrayed as Judas!
If you thought that is all that St. John’s Church has to offer, then you are quite mistaken. The St. John’s Cathedral compound also houses several other monuments of historical importance. Find about them more in our next post.
Location: At Council House Street. It is a walking distance from Raj Bhavan, the residence of Governor of Bengal.
Nearest Metro Station: Esplanade Metro Station
How to reach: One can simply walk from either Esplanade Bus Terminus or Raj Bhavan. Or take a taxi.
Open: All days, 10 am – 5 pm
Sunday service: 8–9 am
Entrance Fee: Rs 10
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Heartfelt thanks to Rangan Da whose blog inspires us to explore Kolkata and West Bengal.