Gothic architecture at its finest: Church, St John in the Wilderness-Dharamshala
The world over human civilization has been constantly in a state of evolution leaving their imprints on the sand of human consciousness in myriad ways. Coming out of its cavernous existence as hunters and gatherers from the “Paleolithic period” around 2.5 million years ago to the present day has truly been a quantum leap of faith and action for sentient beings. humans. As the demands of existence became complicated with age, material possessions became increasingly complex, which showed a varying degree of sophistication wrought by human intellect in the spheres of science and of technology. Architecture being a seminal indicator of human progress was not left behind in this development race. Human civilizations influenced by the religious faith they followed developed their own architecture over time. The Egyptian, Chinese and Mesopotamian civilizations are among the great human concentrations that have shown a propensity to adhere to their religious inclinations by changing their architecture. Architecture thus became the singular “standard bearer” for identifying a particular race and its path of progression over a period of time.
Closer to home, the Indus Valley Civilization is an exception to the above postulate, as its architecture was influenced more by the concentration of the “utilitarian factor” than by the religio-aesthetic factor. The fact that the Indus Valley Civilization was at the crossroads of world trade routes, its inhabitants were more traders thus influencing “Harrapan architecture”. Functional expression was the sine quo non of Indus Valley architecture which did not feature magnificent palaces, monuments, towers, etc. unlike other civilizations in the world. “Gothic architecture,” on the other hand, was a pan-European style that emerged between the mid-12th century and the 16th century, characterized by cavernous spaces and walls broken by overlapping tracery. It was mainly symbolic of large stained glass windows, pointed arches, vaulted ceilings, etc. As part of the colonial culture, European countries including England, France, Spain, Germany and Italy formed their colonies around the world in their quest for expansionism ago a few centuries. This expansionism by the countries mentioned above brought Gothic architecture which was quite advanced in their own countries to their colonies. India was no exception to the above phenomenon being England’s largest colony.
One such exceptional case of Gothic architecture hidden from the prying eyes of tourists in northern India is that of the Church of ‘St John in the Deserts near Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh. It was by chance that I discovered this magnificent Gothic architecture while traveling to Macleodganj, Dharamshala in 2005. Although I mainly wanted to meet HH Dalai Lama who was in Dharamshala at that time, I was in for a pleasant surprise when even before reaching my destination at Macleod ganj, I was lucky enough to spot an excellent piece of gothic architecture shrouded in the shade of massive Doedar trees. At a place called ‘Forsythganj’ just off the road was a masterpiece of British imperialism in the form of an excellent church called St John in the desert.
As soon as I and my family entered the church grounds, we were blown away by the surreal beauty of its surroundings. The beauty of the place could not attenuate the aura of melancholy which seemed to invade the surroundings. Sunbeams playing hide and seek through the thick foliage of Deodar fell on the many graves that lay on either side of the path leading to the church. Each tomb seemed to coax us to listen to its story. The story of a husband and a wife, a mother, a father, a son and the girl. The church is the oldest in North India, having been built in 1852 during the height of the ‘great game’ era. Shadow boxing between England and Tsarist Russia for control of India’s hot waters Ocean and the crown jewel of his empire, that is, India. Ironically, it is also the only building that survived the famous “Kangra earthquake” of 1905 in this whole region. The Kangra earthquake of 1905 flattened almost everything vertical in Himachal Pradesh with the death toll reaching a staggering 20,000, uprooting canals, mountainsides, trees, plantations, villages at once.
Much of the British population living at this time in and around the area rests in eternal slumber beneath these graves at the scene of this church. The magnificent stone building of the church, as shown above, hides its glory from the prying eyes of an avid traveler only to unfold its grandeur when one winds its stony path and comes face to face with its beauty. surrealist. The main church has a rose colored roof which shines under the Deodar trees. Hundreds of tombs scattered around the stone facade attract your attention. Our morbid curiosity took over our discretion and we plodded along the misty paths to be transported to another world, a forgotten time. We found the graves graying with age with words on many barely visible epitaphs. Moss and weeds covered most of these graves. One could guess that the dead had been here in eternal rest for more than a century and a half. A Protestant church dedicated to ‘John the Baptist’, St John in the Desert escaped structural devastation from the fury of the Kangra earthquake but could not escape the fury affecting its steeple which continued to be damaged.
Ten years later, in 1915, a new bell was purchased in England and installed in the church. This church bell has been ringing tirelessly since 1915. Typical medieval Gothic architectural elements such as pointed arches, large stained glass windows, vaulted ceilings and intricately carved roofs of this 19th century church are a testimony to the fact that our colonial masters spared no effort to leave an imprint of their Western genius on an already highly evolved Indian culture.
Either way, the stone building looks cold and intimidating on its exterior facade, but once inside the church, the beautiful Belgian stained glass windows add color to this intimidating setting as such. . In fact, these stained glass windows were donated by Lady Elgin in remembrance of her husband ‘James Bruce’ who was the 8th Earl of Elgin’ and served as Viceroy and Governor General of India at the time of the ‘Great Game “. . He died in Dharamshala on November 20, 1863, presumably due to a fatal fall suffered while riding horseback. He was buried in the yard of the Church of St John in the Wilderness. A memorial resembling the design of the cathedral was built over Lord Elgin’s tomb by his widow Mary Louisa who came from England for the purpose. This memorial to ‘John Bruce or Lord Elgin’ stands solemnly overlooking the famous Dhaluadhar Ranges under the shade of Deodar trees. In addition to the above, a visitor can spot numerous war memorabilia/memories donated by the Royal Indian Army units to the church depicting their steadfast determination while engaging the enemies in the NWFP/North Frontier Province. west fighting Afghan warlords in punitive expeditions. Other features of the church include its beautiful polished wooden altar railings and brass lamps that tell the story of a great bygone era.
It is the only church in India that houses the remains of a former Viceroy/Governor General now in obscurity. The nearest airport to Mcleodganj is Kangra Airport in Gaggal at a distance of about 18 km. It is a regional airport and therefore has flights from Chandigarh and Delhi etc. Alternatively, one can also embark at Pathankot, which is approximately 90 kilometers from the place of interest. The closed broad gauge line to Mcleodganj is again at Pathankot. Well, one can also explore the fancy ride on the narrow gauge line from Pathankot to Jogindernagar. Get off at Kangra mandir station and then take a taxi to Forsythganj church, a distance of about 38 km. If one decides to go by road, the place is well connected to almost all major cities in the country. The living part of a visitor can be taken care of by booking accommodation in Dharamshala, Mcleodganj, Bir, Palampur, etc. in fairly decent hotels that don’t burn a hole in your pocket as such. The sightseeing itinerary should be planned in such a way as to take into account as many sites as possible such as Mcleodganj, Palampur, Andretta, Kangra so that in one go these places are done justice, suiting the adventure palate of a traveler / tourist. As in the opening quote from Samauel Taylor Coleridge — Gothic architecture is made endlessly imaginable.
(The author is a retired army officer and RK columnist. Email: [email protected])