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New Delhi, India
June 16, 2013
Not really; European missionaries had arrived well before—by the land route, and by the sea route from Arabia, coming all the way from France and Armenia to ‘bring salvation to the heathen’. Even earlier than them—and this might surprise many—Christianity, in its earliest form, had been brought to India by St Thomas (‘Doubting Thomas’), who baptized the first Indian Christians, forming the Syrian Christian Church.
To most people, though, Christianity in India is synonymous with European missionaries, and that’s where Kochi’s St Francis’s Church is a major landmark—because this is the site of the first church built by Europeans in India.
In 1498, Vasco da Gama had arrived in Calicut (present-day Kozhikode); two years later, in 100, the Portuguese Admiral Pedro Álvares Cabral landed in Kochi and was welcomed by the local ruler. By 1503, the Portuguese, under Afonso de Albuquerque were given the right to erect a fort at Kochi; the structure they built was Fort Manuel, a temporary citadel of mud and bamboo. As part of the fort, a wooden church—St Bartholomew’s—was built.
The church was later rebuilt in stone, and a tiled roof added. By 1516, the Franciscans had taken over the church and rebuilt it, naming it after St Anthony. The 1516 church is the one that still stands here, and what is today known as St Francis’s. The Conventional Church of the Order of St Francis of Assisi (as it was known between 1610 and 1633) remained Kochi’s major church during the Portuguese presence in Kochi.
In 1663, with the arrival of the Dutch in Kochi—and the departure of the Portuguese—this church was stripped of its Catholic trappings, and has remained staunchly Protestant ever since. When the British ousted the Dutch and took over in 1795, the Dutch were allowed to retain the church—but handed it over, on their own, in 1804. By 1819, the church had become an Anglican one, and after it was restored and renovated in 1886-87, the name was changed to St Francis’s, after the saint from Assisi. The church is today part of the Church of South India (CSI).
St Francis’s cream-painted plastered exterior does show its unmistakable Portuguese origins, with a little arched belfry, a bell-like curve to the façade, and a semi-circular arched entrance. Inside, though, it’s just as obviously an austere Protestant church, with none of the flamboyant paintings and fussy decorations we’d seen in Santa Cruz Basilica. From the pillared, wood-ceilinged porch, a set of semi-circular arches lead into the main body of the church. The ceiling here is of dark wood, high and vaulted so that it looks similar to the hull of a boat. The walls are cream-painted, and pierced by wide-arched windows on both the ground floor and the upper (where the choir loft is located).
One of the quaintest things about the church is the presence of long cloth punkhas above the pews. These were common in British days when electric fans were unknown, but are almost never seen in India nowadays. The punkhas in St Francis’s are pretty well-maintained, so may actually be in use—we weren’t able to confirm that.
The floor of the church is covered with red-cream-and-black patterned tiles, from the 19th century, when the British renovated the church. Originally, the floor of the nave also included the tombstones of prominent Dutch residents of Kochi. These, for the sake of conservation, have been removed from the floor and put up on the northern and southern walls of the church. Although (since neither of us knows Dutch) we couldn’t decipher these, the coats of arms and heraldic emblems on some of the tombstones were interesting, nevertheless. The earliest Dutch epitaph here dates back to 1664, while the earliest Portuguese one is from 1562.
The pride and joy of St Francis’s Church, however, is a rectangular section, marked off by a low wood-and-brass railing, near one of the windows. The sign above it says it all: Vasco da Gama Tomb. Yes, Vasco da Gama, on his third trip to India, died in Kochi on December 23, 1524, and was buried here. His body remained here for more than a decade; his son bringing it back to Portugal—where the remains were finally interred—only in 1538.
St Francis’s Church is open to visitors between 2.30 PM and 5 PM on weekdays. No entry fee is charged, but all footwear must be removed in the porch. Once you’ve finished seeing the church, a short walk down the road will bring you to the Dutch Cemetery, which is also part of the Church of South India. This is a small cemetery, very quiet and with a number of plastered gravestones standing beyond the palm trees that frame the gate. Unfortunately, the gate was locked the day we visited, but since it’s so close to St Francis’s, we didn’t really mind the short if fruitless walk to and from the cemetery.
From journal Four days in Kochi
Northampton, United Kingdom
April 28, 2012
From journal India 2011 Pt.7 - Kochi or Cochin
January 22, 2006
The church has an impressive façade with a decorative bell tower at its summit. It has been renovated recently and the bright white finish shone impressively against a clear blue sky. A clock installed in 1923 to commemorate the life of Hal Jones, a local dignitary, boldly declared the time with its roman numerals. Three polished shutters protected arched windows at the upper level and a large heavy-hinged church door welcomed all visitors to the simple but impressive interior.
Behind the altarpiece were three stained-glass windows simple in their design of the sacred cross. The top window with a red cross and blue background and the lower two with a green background. The sunlight reflecting through these windows cast magnificent hues and spooky shadows throughout the length of the church. The past grave of Vasco da Gama was marked with a low wooden and brass barrier and a simply engraved brass plaque. This was evidently well cared for and without fuss signalled Cochin’s important link with the explorer.
In a far corner of the church a basic engraved plaque is unceremoniously propped up against the wall. It states, “this tablet is erected as a memorial of the visit of her majesty Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain on 17th October 1997”. The wall carving itself is lacking in depth and the detail is hard to distinguish. In the vestry is a copy of the original Doop Book, an old baptism and marriage register from 1751 – 1804. The original book was sent to London in 1932 for substantive repair to the leave and was then rebound in the original style.
We were told that many old churches in Cochin were destroyed, often wilfully, in the fierce battles that took place. But St Francis’ was the munitions store so was extremely well protected and escaped any real damage. This is a major tourist attraction in Cochin.
From journal Chilling Out in Cochin