St Stephen's, Delhi
Red brick, sandstone, carved or painted white stone trim
Church Mission Road, Old Delhi, India
Photograph, caption, and commentary by Jacqueline Banerjee
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St Stephen's Church stands on a wide, bustling street in Old Delhi, near such substantial buildings from the colonial era as the old town hall and the old railway station; but the street's atmosphere comes more from the cotton, spice and other markets around Chandni Chowk, the main shopping bazaar. The structure itself is described on the heritage board outside as a "large Romanesque Church" with "a series of fine pilasters forming an arcade on either side with intricately carved sandstone columns that line the façade...." No architect's name is given, but compare the campanile here, and its asymmetrical placing, as well as the colour of the church, to G. E. Street's St James the Less (1861) in Westminster. The Delhi church is likely to have been the work of the Anglican missionaries and DPW engineers who copied current trends at home, in this case, the Italianate Gothic. Ian Baucom explains that the Gothic triumphed so completely "in the cities, cantonments, and stations of the British Raj" because the "architects and engineers of the colony's Public Works Department had at their disposal not only the writings of Ruskin and Pugin but also such journals as the Camden Society's Ecclesiologist, a periodical devoted to disseminating Pugin's Gothic principles, and the The Builder, the leading architectural publication of the period" (78). Jan Morris labels this kind of building work neatly as "Royal Engineers' Gothic, Public Works Department Gothic" (29). But the architect's name may have been deliberately omitted from this church's history to enhance its symbolic function, for the Urdu script around the lofty apse translates as: "Ye are built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner-stone" (see Henderson, Ch. 3).
The organisation responsible for building St Stephen's was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), which had to resurrect its Delhi Mission after the uprising of 1857 had wiped it out. The SPG was later absorbed into the Cambridge Mission, which founded the prestigious St Stephen's College, Delhi, now a part of Delhi University (Henderson, Ch.1). The colour of the church is said to symbolise the blood of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr and patron saint of the city — and also the blood of the first Christian martyrs in North India, who were killed in Delhi in 1857. The interior of the church is well preserved, with (according to the heritage board) "clerestory lighting with arched openings between circular pilasters.... The stained glass rose window stands out as the only of its kind in Delhi." The church's own information board nearby adds that it has "a very high ceiling with baroque style of decoration which gives the feeling of divinity. All the carvings, motifs and icons of the church are well kept and preserved."
What does this kind of architecture, in such a setting, suggest? For example, does it simply represent a nostalgic harking back to "home" on the part of the original missionaries, or does it betray a more hard-headed attempt to annexe the colonised country to "home"? In this connection, note that Old Delhi was just Delhi in those days, and not juxtaposed to New Delhi; and remember that there were other colonial building projects in the area. Note also that Street's beautifully crafted St James the Less, mentioned above, also stood proud and "different," though this time in a poor part of London's own Westminster. This brings up another question: localities change, and Street's church no longer strikes the passer-by as "a lily among weeds." A different kind of process has been at work in Church Mission Road. How much of the impact of such a building derives from its context? Finally, St James the Less exhibits a mixture of styles (see the topics for discussion on that church). Does the further "hybridisation" of St Stephen's, which clearly uses native materials and craftsmanship, dilute or further universalise or even render meaningless its English or western elements (see Chopra 118ff.)?
Baucom, Ian. Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Chopra, Preeti. "Refiguring the Colonial City: Recovering the Role of Local Inhabitants in the Construction of Colonial Bombay, 1854-1918." Buildings and Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum 14 (2007): 109-125. Available here. Viewed 30 March 2008.
Henderson, Lilian F. The Cambridge Mission to Delhi: A Brief History. Westminster: Offices of the Mission, 1931. Available here.Viewed 30 March 2008.
Morris, Jan, with Simon Winchester. Stones of Empire: The Buildings of the Raj. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Cruikshank, Dan, ed. Sir Banister Fletcher's A History of Architecture (20th ed.). Oxford: Architectural Press, 1996. See Part 6, Ch. 41, "The Indian Subcontinent."
Davies, Philip.Splendours of the Raj: British Architecture in India, 1660-1947. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.
See also the booklist at "Colonial Architecture: Teen Murti, 1922" on the Postcolonial Web.
Last modified 31 March 2008