Where there are peacocks at prayer...

Lucknow cantonment`s All Saints Garrison Church is one sumptuous Raj relic, writes Sheila Kumar

All Saints Garrison Church in Lucknow. photos by author

As we turned left into the compound of our army guest house, we were taken aback because what met our eyes on the right was a truly magnificent sight, something that belonged in a Merchant Ivory film.

Any moment now, we expected a crinoline-clad lady with a parasol walking into the church. For church it was, the big red-brick sprawling building, the All Saints Garrison
Church of Lucknow Cantt. Within the hour, we were in the compound of the place, picking our way through the uncut grass, taking a closer look at this 111-year-old structure. It was a frosty January evening and someone (nary a sight of him/her, though) had lit a bonfire out back; the fire was dying, with the
smoke lazily rising up to the widespread branches of a lovely old tree arching above it.

Out back, it was unkempt wilderness. As we stood staring, there was the loud flutter of heavy wings and a peacock flew awkwardly from a low branch of one of the trees into a bamboo thicket close by.

They were everywhere in the church precincts, these peacocks and peahens. Perched atop a mini turret in front, pecking desultorily at the barren, dry ground in the front yard, sitting on trees, one insouciantly looking down at us from the tower which housed the church bell at the main entrance. Somehow,
these birds complemented the structure and further intensified the ambience of ages past. This is a church with significant history. The first Anglican church in the city, it was built and consecrated in 1860, just three years after the Indian Rebellion. Back then it was smaller in size but by the early 1900s, there were many more troops stationed in Nucklow and the church was reconstructed on a larger scale, the new building coming up slightly to the southeast of the original structure.

From the moment we first set eyes on the building, it seemed familiar but elusively familiar. Reading up on the place later, we found that engineer Jones Ransom who built it, had been inspired by another building far away, one which we had admired at length years ago, Oxford’s Magdalene College. The same dreaming spires, the same main tower, the same majestic sprawl; yet this church was considered a tad modern for its time. Construction costs were a steep (for that time) Rs 91,000.

The interior of the church is a large one with pews (the largest number in a Lucknow church) made of plywood. One unusual feature of these seats is the niche on every bench that was used to keep guns while at prayer. It doesn’t take me long to connect the dots here: the mutineers had entered churches
and attacked the British, so soldiers with weapons were probably safeguards.

Now, an air of utter abandonment prevails over the church and its environs. Rows of fairy lights hang unlit, probably left over from Christmas and New Year celebrations at the spot. We found ourselves wishing fervently that there had been grand celebrations on-site, because a church this grand deserves grand
celebrations.

There wasn’t a soul in sight anywhere around, on the day of our first visit, and our subsequent visits. Elsewhere, though, we met someone who was a regular at Sunday Mass and she said a mere handful came to the church now, which probably accounted for the derelict air. Sad, but then again, nothing can take away the magnificence of this imposing edifice. 

Lucknow is not lacking in old and beautiful churches built during the Raj; there is the Christ Church, the Old Methodist Church, the Church of the Epiphany, the St Francis of Assisi Church, and more.

And as our visit came to an end and we drove out past the church, we did a repeat act: craned the neck till the red brick building was lost to sight. There was no crinoline-clad lady with a parasol strolling in the grounds but we did hear the raucous cry of a peacock, almost as if it was bidding us goodbye. Some
places have you turning fanciful like that.

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