Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A church for the Uplands

In the early 1800s, Waltair Uplands was the preferred place of residence for the British population, at least those of them who were elevated enough on the government ladder to deserve one of the pretty white-washed bungalows that dotted the hilly places all along the coast. The devout among these fortunate people, however, faced a problem. The only church for Europeans was located in the Old Town, four or five miles away from the Uplands, a not inconsiderable distance in those days.

Though it was easy enough to come up with the idea of building a new church in the Uplands, funds for churches were not easy to come by at the time, as the British East India Company left religion alone as a matter of policy and rarely paid up for churches, orphanages, chaplains or such other religious paraphernalia.

The chaplain of Vizagapatam, Vincent Shortland, raised the money from the congregation; in fact it was the congregation that paid for the furniture and most repairs over the next several years. Captain J.H. Bell of the Madras Engineers designed and supervised the construction of the building, which could house 150 people. The church -- named after St. Paul -- was completed in 1838 and consecrated by one Bishop Spencer.

Apart from the addition of a belfry in 1863 and the rebuilding of the same structure after it was destroyed in a cyclone in 1872, on the opposite side of the original one, the church has survived until today almost unaltered.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Good Friday at St. Paul's Church

It was squally in the morning but by afternoon the sun had torn itself free of the still lingering clouds and had begun to evaporate the odd puddle, with the result that the atmosphere was moist and hot and, on the whole, unbearable.

At St. Paul’s church, there was a pile of shoes outside and a pile of people inside. The old, white-washed structure peeped out from behind modern palms and as I stood outside waiting for my little girl to catch up with me, the entire impression was one of pleasant luxury.

Inside, sunlight streamed through the open windows painted a pale cream, but for some reason, the church’s organizing committee thought it fit to switch on the tube lights, whose ghostly white light clashed with the sunshine and made sure there were no shadows anywhere. I wished the power would be switched off for a while, though the heat might have made me delirious, just so that I could see what the place looked like back when it was built – 1838.

The girls were drably dressed because Good Friday was no day to deck up in diamonds, fake or real. The men were, as usual, all brown, black, white and grey. The pastor’s voice sounded sonorous through the microphone but when my wish was granted and the power was switched off, his real voice revealed itself as puny and would not carry across the aisles and upstairs to the balcony seats. So he stopped speaking until the generator was switched on and then his voice was back to its sonorous self, except that it now had to compete with the generator’s drone.

I was deaf to the meaning of the pastor’s words but his voice filled me with great peace. It probably had a similar, though, soporific effect on my girl, and she soon fell asleep with her feet in my dad’s lap and her head in mine. So, though the entire congregation rose and sat on orders from the pastor at regular intervals, I stuck to my chair and my mind hovered in that pleasant area between sleep and wakefulness, which often gives the impression that it delivers deep insights, but usually only results in some vague but commonplace ideas.