You may not find this one on the tourist map, or even on regular lists of old buildings of significance in the history of Shimla. Back in the 1970s-80s, it was part of my playground. A playground that had my aunt’s house at its centre, the sprawling hostel buildings down the hill towards the front, the Electric House buildings and the primary school on the hill behind the house, the steep steps down to the main road on the left, and of course this little old Church building to the right of the house. By the time my aunt shifted from that house in the late 1980s, that little old Church building was more or less a 100 years old (I didn’t know it then).
Growing up in the 1970s, every weekend we used to walk the six-odd kilometres from home to The Mall and back. As one might expect, the various buildings along the way etched themselves in my memory, with the Kalibari, Town Hall, Gaiety Theatre, and the church on the Ridge in The Mall being most prominent. The church on the Ridge was striking to look at, bright and inviting on any given day (I learnt later that it was called The Christ Church).
Playing all over the hillside near the Electric House in the late 1970s by myself meant I had to find new occupation every day. And the little church next to our house was a favourite place for sitting and thinking, sketching, playing hide and seek, and in general imagining how grand the building must have been in its day. My aunt’s children were born in that house next to the chapel – my brother Ameen in 1981 and sister Tammana in 1985. I remember carrying my little brother (and later also my sister) all around that hillside and the chapel. One thing I distinctly remember: the chapel had a very positive vibe, and I felt at peace whenever I was in or around it. I seem to have some memories of remnants of weather-beaten stained glass pieces on the broken window frames and on the ground, but those memories may be from the late 1970s or even ghosts from a distant time.
In the 1990s, my aunt had shifted house to Prospect Hill, and on every visit, I was dropping my little brother Ameen and his childhood friend, Abhishek to the school bus stand in Boileauganj, every school day. Through the 1990s, my curiosity about the little chapel near our old house led me to ask and ask and read and read and dig into old books, and eventually I found out that the little chapel next to my aunt’s old house was once the grand little Chapel of All Saints, built on grounds within the erstwhile Viceregal Lodge Estate (present day Indian Institute of Advanced Study).
Many years later, in 2016, Ameen, Abhishek and I founded The Mountain Walker. And as part of one of our first researches into historical monuments in Himachal Pradesh, we were reading through the Gazetteer of The Shimla District (1904 publication) and E. J. Buck’s Simla Past and Present (second edition from 1925), and guess what we found? The Chapel of All Saints was consecrated by Bishop French on the 6th April 1885, and: it was assigned as a perpetual chapel-of-ease to the Christ Church on The Mall. Voila! There was a connection between the little chapel and the grand church on The Ridge… and also our lives and work.
Designed by Colonel J. T. Boileau, the Christ Church is an iconic monument, not just because of its heritage value, but also because its profile is visible from various parts of town. It is also the second oldest church in Northern India. The foundation stone of the Christ Church was laid in 1844, while the Church was consecrated on the 10th of January in 1857 – that’ll be exactly 160 years ago from the 10th of January 2017. In the fifty-odd years from 1857 till the early 20th century, the Church was enhanced and improved with the clock in 1860, a chancel added in 1864, a stone pulpit was added in 1877, the East Window added in 1890, the magnificent Organ (said to be the largest in the Indian sub-continent) was erected in 1899. The Stained Glass windows in the Christ Church date back to the late 1890s and early 1900s, and they are mesmerising to say the very least. The Fresco on the Sanctuary Wall was designed by Lockwood Kipling (father of the famous writer, Rudyard Kipling).
The past few years, I have been visiting Shimla every winter, usually in December, which means a Christmas morning visit to the Christ Church where devout Christians congregate for religious reasons, while a multitude of people (local and tourists) also visit for different reasons.
And on every one of these sojourns in Shimla, I also visit the old quarters near Electric House and the little chapel, wandering about it, sitting on the hillside, reminiscing, taking in the peace, and pondering the state of the building, and realising that like all cultures, empires, governments, peoples, and great architectural structures, I too will one day fall into decay and then move on from memory.
But for the time being, I like visiting the grand old Church, and the little chapel of yore where once-upon-a-not-so-distant-time, many had congregated to say their prayers to their God, and be a part of a community.