Spiritual and artistic grandeur

Serenity beckons

Amidst wilderness: The St John’s Church at McLeodganj. Photo by author

McLeodganj was known as the Ghost Town after the British left India in 1947. This little hilly town came into prominence after the world famous Tibetan spiritual leader and Noble Peace Prize winner, Dalai Lama, settled here with thousands of his followers, after fleeing from Tibet in 1959.

The historical cathedral here, which was once an Army Church for the British soldiers, today, attracts a large number of local tourists and foreign travellers. As many as 500 visitors come to see this artistic wonder every day. The official visiting hours are from 10 am to 5 pm, but the pastor often keeps the church open from early mornings to late evenings.

The church is also renowned for its artistic design and its Belgian stained glass windows, painted by an Italian artist from the 18th century. These stained glass windows were donated to the church by Countess Elgin. Her husband, Lord Elgin, Viceroy and Governor-General of India, died in 1863 and was buried next to the church.

Colonial past

The cathedral nestles amid thick pine and deodar tress and is a place of serenity. “It’s always calm and quiet here. Everything about the place is special — the trees, mountains and snow in the winters. Everything around reflects the beauty of God’s creation,” extols Kunjumon. Scenes from the life of St John the Baptist are depicted on a pair of stained glass windows. As the sun’s rays filter through the deodar and cedar trees surrounding this gray-stone church, the colourful stained-glass paintings light up in all their brilliance.

Outside the church is a beautiful and impressive memorial of Lord Elgin, which has been declared a protected monument of national importance by local authorities. McLeodganj reminded Lord Elgin of his native Scotland. It is said that had he lived longer, then Dharamshala, and not Shimla, would have become the summer capital of the Raj.

The church is named as St John’s Church because the place was located in the midst of complete wilderness when it was built in 1852, says pastor Kunjumon. Incidentally, a brass plaque in the church reads that a man was mauled to death by a bear in 1883. The vast cemetery around the church compound also reveals similar incidents through their epitaphs.

A devastating earthquake in 1905 struck the Kangra Valley, razing most of the buildings to the ground, but the church remained unaffected. It was just the spire and the bell that suffered some damage. However, its stone-slated roof is often damaged by monkeys, which abound the area.

A new bell, weighing about 600 quintals, and made of nine different metals, was brought from London in 1915. Some burglars once made an attempt to steal the bell, but apparently called off the task considering its heavy weight. They could barely manage to lug it up to the nearby road. Since then, the pastor has put this bell along with the brass reading stand (weighing 150 kilograms) and the oil lamps under lock and key. The oil lamps, imported from Germany, used to illuminate the church instead of the candles.

Ask the pastor for any interesting experiences in this wilderness and he recalls amusingly, “Once on a moon-lit winter night, I was taking a walk around the church with my dog. I suddenly saw a huge dog-like figure blocking our path at a distance. My usually shy dog started barking. The figure menacingly started moving towards us. To my utter shock, I discovered that it was a leopard. On instinct, I threw the torch at him with full force and it vanished into the deep, dark forests.”

The 55-year-old jovial pastor Kunjumon continues to follow God’s will and is happy serving this wonder for the last 20 years now. Twice every year, he offers a feast of chicken curry with rice to several beggars living in the area.

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