We are all well aware that, back in the day, many British officers explored Northeast India, the reason having mostly to do with tea. Many officers settled in this part of the country for more than a century, and so it is not surprising to find traces of colonial rule across the region, especially in Guwahati, that served as an important hub. Christ Church in Guwahati, nestled close to Nehru Park, is one such gem that dates back to 1844. In fact, the very first building of the church was photographed by Oscar Jean Baptiste Mallitte in the 1860s; the architecture was different to the present renovated building.
Then and Now
‘On May 9, 1844, Reverend Robert James Bland was appointed as the Chaplain of Assam. During that period, the need for a church in Guwahati was raised as there were none in the region. So, Reverend Bland took the initiative and formed a committee, which laid the foundation stone of Christ Church in 1844 itself,’ shared the current caretaker. However, the current facade bears a different look to the original building as it went through many facelifts over the years. ‘The church was destroyed twice by two powerful earthquakes in the middle of the 19th century. Earlier, the structure of the church was huge and extended till the present day Judges’ Field. In the 1856 earthquake, the walls of the building were severely damaged, but the church was somehow functioning. In the earthquake of 1897, the church was shattered and the building needed an immediate overhaul.’
The Church committee revealed, ‘In 1901, the committee rebuilt the church at the present location, giving it a new design.’ The present building, with 118 years of history, was witness to both the World Wars and the Indian independence movement. The building has vaulted windows and typical ceiling, which is presumed to be inspired from the neo-Gothic architecture in Europe. This direct transposition of European stylistic features can be seen in many examples of colonial British architecture in India. ‘There used to be huge horse stables nearby the church, used by the British officers to go to Shillong, which was the capital back then,’ added the caretaker.
Considered by some to be the oldest church in the Northeast, Christ Church marked a new beginning when it was renovated, more recently, in 2016. A group of conservationists and architects from the Heritage Conservation Society of Assam (HeCSA), an emerging State-based archaeological conservationists’ group helped in the renovation work. ‘This is a prime example of people across religious lines coming together to save a structure, which is unique to the skyline of the city. This small building is a reflection of the history, and a proud depiction of the city’s heritage. I feel proud that both Christians and Hindus came together to restore the church. It took 50 members around five months to achieve the impossible, and restore the church to its former glory,’ informed Jayanta Sarma of HeCSA. ‘The church was last renovated around 40 years back. During that renovation process, the mud plaster of the walls was replaced by concrete plaster. However, such renovations could not add much to its vitality, and hence the latest restoration work was undertaken.’ The restoration project cost INR 40 lakh.
‘The church’s structure is a reflection of early 20th century colonial architecture, but also draws inspiration from local design. There was some help from outside the church’s congregation as well. We didn’t approach the District Administration or the State Government for help. We kept a donation box. We remained optimistic that the public would come forward and donate,’ said Reverend Angel Daimari, of Christ Church.
‘The restored building has an additional floor area of around 500 square feet to cater to the growing number of worshipers. The church has around 120 regular worshipers. The restored building also has a total floor area of around 2,500 square feet,’ revealed architect Ranjib Baruah who worked on the design of the building and supervised the restoration work. ‘We stuck to the original design of the building, and have not added any new architectural features. This has been done to keep the traditional value of the structure intact.’
‘The structure has wooden doors and windows crafted in gothic style. The timber used was mostly sal and teak. The timber was kept dipped in linseed oil for some days to enhance their resistant capacity against the forces of elements,’ explained Baruah. ‘Even in the restoration work, treated sal timbers were used.’ He further informed that bamboo and steel mesh was used in the walls. Besides, polymer fibre, chemical admixture was used to add strength to the concrete used while plastering the walls.
The church has always been a safe haven for people arriving from different corners of the city seeking spiritual healing, and will likely continue to help and heal worshippers for many years to come.
By Manjum Mahanta
This feature was first published in Eclectic Northeast August 2019 issue