Monday, 23 September 2013

Remembering Peshawar's All Saints Church

- This piece was published in 2007 by a regular QK contributor

By Ali Jan

The church in the British India had an important purpose. In addition to the institution's role in missionary work and conducting regular religious services, it was also essential for performing baptisms, marriages and funerals. The subcontinental landscape is dotted with numerous old churches from the colonial era. Most of these have been built in typical European and gothic style. However, the All Saints' Church (built 1883); located inside the Kohati gate of the old walled city of Peshawar is an architecturally unique place of worship that bears a striking resemblance to an Islamic saracenic mosque with minarets and a dome.

Before 1883, the old city native congregation worshipped in the nearby Edwardes Mission School. The school is the oldest in the Frontier region and is located at a stone's throw from the church. It is named after Herbert Edwardes, the commissioner of Peshawar who helped in setting up the Peshawar Afghan Mission in 1853. After the British annexation of the city in 1849 the property where the present school stands was confiscated by the government and handed over to Major (later Colonel) Martin to establish the first educational institution in the North West of India. But it was sadly demolished a few years ago and replaced with tacky new construction to make new classrooms.

Another place of worship in the old city was a small reading hall known as Anjuman (or Mission Chapel) under an ancient tree in Peepal Mandi where missionaries often preached the gospel to passing Afghans. Actual conversions by natives in this part of India were rare. Rev T.P Hughes, missionary in Peshawar from 1865 to 1884, felt that Christianity should have some fitting external embodiment like a mosque. He therefore spared no pains to begin construction in the vicinity of Edwardes Mission School and started collecting the necessary funds. He purchased a piece of land to build a church and a pastor's house. In July 1882 a fund raising bazaar was held in Simla on the instigation of Lady Aitchison, the wife of the Governor General of India to collect Rs. 21,000.

Rev. Worthington Jukes one of its founding members records, "It was decided that the church should be oriental in aspect, cruciform in shape, with a dome in the centre, minarets flanking the front and each transept. General Follard (Royal Engineers), very kindly helped with working plans, dimensions etc... Foundations were duly laid in August 1882 and by the time contracts were signed for the building in December, the foundations had solidified, ready for immediate building... the summer of 1883 saw the Church roofed in, and the plaster work pushed on."

The church was opened on St John's Day, December 27, 1883. The foundation stone was laid by Captain Graves whose widow presented the brass desk on the Lord's Table. A plaque on a wall records: 'This church is erected to the glory of God and dedicated to the memory of All Saints in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ 1883.'

The mosque-like architecture adapts splendidly to the purposes of Christian worship. The columns, minarets and oriental arches are flawlessly symmetrical. The church is aligned to face Jerusalem and bears text calligraphy in Persian on its frontal facade.

It is open to visitors on ever Sunday. The church-staff is very courteous and the Vicar Rev SP Asghar, who is a dear man, often takes the guests around personally whenever he is available. The interior is exactly as it was more than a century ago.The church has the capacity to hold about 200 people. Inside the entrance is a rare photograph of Reverend Jukes in native Afghan dress.The walls are covered in texts in various languages spoken in the city in old times such as Persian, Urdu, Pashto, Arabic, English and Hebrew. The altar contains a beautiful screen of intricate wood carving (the pinjra-work for which Peshawar was famous). The inscription on the brass lectern indicates that it was 'presented by Miss Milman, Sir Richard Pollock and the Reverend E Jacob in memory of the Bishop of Calcutta, Robert Milman.'

A curved passageway leads to the ambulatory behind the altar and the wooden screen. Dozens of white marble memorial plaques are displayed here. Amongst them is a tablet to the memory of the notorious outlaw Dilawar Khan who converted to Christianity, and later joined the elite Corps of Guides and died whilst in their service in 1869. Conspicuous among these is the name of Miss Annie Norman, daughter of Sir Henry Norman, K.C.B., who died at the age of 27 after only one year's work among the women of Peshawar, and lies buried, according to her wish, in the native Wazirbagh Christian cemetery in the city -- the only European there. There is also a tablet about Rev Isidor Lowenthal, a Polish Jew convert who after becoming convinced that the Pakhtuns were the lost tribe of Bani Israel chose to work in Peshawar to 'serve his brethren.'

Another memorial plaque recounts the services of Vernon Starr the martyred missionary whose wife Lilian Vade Starr, matron at the Mission Hospital, travelled deep into the Tribal Areas to rescue Molly Ellis, a young Englishwoman who had been kidnapped by the tribals and brought her back safe. This historic incident made international headlines back in 1923.

The visitors are often shown an old bible in Hebrew and English dated 1806, with a brass latch engraved with 'Peshawar City, Afghanistan' that memorialises the deep historical links with the Afghans. It is pertinent to mention here that Peshawar was once the winter capital of the kingdom of Afghanistan which is the reason why the Frontier still bears a striking likeness with that country.

One can climb onto the parapet built around the domed roof. A curious story -- probably apocryphal -- is told of 13 brave Christian men who laid down their lives one after another whilst trying to fix the cross atop the church in its early days. According to the workers at the church, they were all martyred in the process by locals who were opposed to its opening. While narrating the account one of them will even point to a few 'bullet holes' near the cross to substantiate their claim. Apocryphal as it might sound, to any sceptic listener, it is still an interesting story! There is no evidence of it in the church records nor in the memoirs by any of the missionaries. What is more, let's suppose the story is not mythical then there should have been at least a commemorative plaque mentioning it but none exists.

The building which is now almost 124 year old is beginning to show signs of aging and has developed minor cracks at a few places lately. A local proactive group the Frontier Heritage Trust (FHT) which lobbies for preservation of built heritage in NWFP has included All Saints' Church among other buildings in a list complied by its experts. It has appealed to the government authorities for proper notification of endangered historic buildings in the Frontier and to declare this church a protected national monument under the Federal Antiquities Act 1975. It is hoped that the concerned departments will pay heed to their plea so this building can be preserved for our future generations.

- Republished with permission from The News on Sunday (15-04-2007). originally published under the title Mosque-like
The 124 year old All Saints' Church in Peshawar is waiting to be declared a protected national monument
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