OLD CHURCHES AND CEMETERIES OF DHAKA
Places of worship and burial are good indices to the religious beliefs of a community. But they can also be useful in assessing the diversity of belief within a community, its economic situation, social status, and architectural and artistic preferences. Names are disclosed which may not be important enough for history books hut of interest for cultural history. Here we want to let you know about the OLD CHURCHES AND CEMETERIES OF DHAKA.
Christianity, like Islam, was brought to this country by foreigners, and for a long time was identified as the religion of the rulers. First came the Portuguese, then the Dutch, French, Armenians, Greeks and the English, with intentions primarily to trade.
The Dhaka connection with these foreigners began in the 17th century. Though the real vigour of the foreign connection ended with the departure of the English as rulers of the subcontinent in 1947, the marks they left upon the history of Dhaka are evident from their religious buildings and cemeteries. The faith they practised still lives on. The Catholics of Dhaka have always been an active minority religious group busy with propagating their faith. They now have a very modern cathedral, St. Mary’s, next to the Archbishop’s house in Kakrail which was built in the 1950s and it indicates how the bulk of the church-going population have moved to the new town.
The history of the Catholic Church in Dhaka goes back to almost three hundred and fifty years before St. Mary’s was built. The first Christians were Portuguese Catholics who came either to pirate or trade, and in their wake followed the Augustinian priests. The first church of Dhaka seems to have been the Church of the Assumption at Narinda built by the Portuguese Augustinians and is mentioned by Padre Sebastio Manrique in his account of the Augustinian visitation of’ Bengal during 1628-29) Bengal churches were then under the diocese of Mylapore in South India and were funded largely by the King of Portugal via his representative in Goa. Manrique writes that the suburb of Narandin (now Narinda) was inhabited by Christians and the Augustinians possessed a “pretty though small Convent with a good church”. When Emperor Shahjahan was carrying out his destruction of the Portuguese stronghold of Hughly in 1632, Father Bernardo, a priest of the Church of the Assumption at Dhaka was beaten to death in a show of solidarity with the Emperor’s actions. The church seems to have escaped any harm, because when the French traveler Jean Baptiste Tavernier visited Dhaka in l666, soon to be followed by the Venetian Manucci, the church as described as “all of brick and a comely pile being served by a friar called Agostinho.’’ Father Anthony Barbier, who accompanied Bishop Francis Laynes of Mylapore during the diocesan visit to Dhaka in 1713, writes that the city was filthy and ill-arranged, but the church was in a somewhat better quarter in the east of the town. The Bishop spent Christmas of 1713 in this fairly large, brick— built church in the company of six other priests, which was a rare event in that area. Sometime after this, the church at Narinda became extinct because in the complete list of Augustinians in Bengal made in 1789, the only church mentioned is the one at Tesgaon (now Tejgaon), a village tour miles north of Dhaka. The exact site of the church in Narinda is now impossible to locate, although one may guess that it was probably near the cemetery. The Tejgaon church being still a living church will be dealt with later.
The Church of Our Lady of Piety was built in Amputty, Islampur, in 1815. There is no trace of the old church now. It was built under the patronage of Mr. Robert Doucett, a rich indigo planter and a talukdar in Tumilia under the Bhowal Rapa. Bishop Heber, the Metropolitan of the Anglican Church wrote in his journal in 1824, that the Portuguese who were few in number were very poor and degraded, and their church (in Tejgaon) was overgrown with jungle. It declined so much in importance that there was no resident priest there and the Amputty pastor used to sign the Amputty Register as the Vicar of both Dhaka and Tejgaon.
Dhaka was soon to become the stage for an ecclesiastical drama. This was in consequence to the decision of the Vatican in 1834 to establish the Vicariate of Bengal with headquarters in Calcutta, because the Holy See felt that the Portuguese government was unable to provide adequately for the churches of the East. The Portuguese Augustinians having thus far worked under their own Provincial in Mylapore now refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the Vicar Apostolic appointed by the Pope. Hence the churches of East Bengal, which included both Tejgaon and Amputty, were all in ‘schism’. The priests of the Vicariate stayed in Calcutta and did not come to Dhaka until an invitation was sent by Mr. Deucett in 1836, when he had been denied sacraments by the schismatics. The story goes that during the Christmas of 1835 the parishioners of the church at Panjora, who were Mr. Deucett’s tenants, arrived at the church so drunk that the Augustinian pastor locked the church and refused to say Mass for them. Angered, they returned home and wrote a petition to the Vicariate of Calcutta to send them a priest, and it was this petition that was transmitted by Mr. Deucett. A Jesuit priest, Father Hippolyte More was sent from Calcutta, and he reported that there were about 200 Catholics in Dhaka, and only 10 in Tejgaon. When all but the Amputty Church submitted to the Vicariate, it was put tinder interdict, and the Dhaka Catholics were forbidden to attend this church.
At the initiative of Mr. Deucett, the Vicariate built its own church in Dhaka, hut ii was only a small house and its location cannot be determined any more. It was next moved to a double storied building rented for the Loretto Sisters near the Anglican Church, until its own building was built in Lakshmi Bazar, probably at the site of the present convent school. Whether it was destroyed or became part of the convent buildings is now unknown. A new cathedral dedicated to St. Louis was completed in 1889, at the site of the present Holy Cross Church attached to St. Gregory’s School. During the great earthquake of 1897 the building was SO badly cracked that it had to be torn down, and the Holy Cross Cathedral was built on its site.
Meanwhile, although the Amputty parishioners dwindled in number, they refused to submit to the Vicariate. Finally a compromise was made by Rome and a separate jurisdiction was recognized in Bengal so that the Portuguese could remain under Mylapore. This tactical victory could not gloss over the fact that the Portuguese were fast becoming a spent force. So in 1930 the last Portuguese pastor handed over the church to the Dhaka diocese. Three years later the Adoration Monastery of the cloistered nuns was founded there. Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity took over from them and completely demolished the old building.
Bishop Heber had found that the numbers of Greeks were considerable; they were industrious and intelligent, and fraternized more with the English than the rest of the Europeans. Their church was built in 1821 in Muqim Katra Road (cast of Chawk Bazar) in 1821. This was a close ally with foetid drains that were never cleared. The church was completely destroyed in the earthquake of 1897. A description of the church can, however, is reconstructed on the basis of Lt. Col. Davidson’s account when he visited Dhaka in 1840. It was a rather plain, one roomed building whose only redeeming feature was a spire surmounted by a cross. The interior of the room was 30’x20’, and the floor was alt on one level. The altar at the eastern end was not railed oil but was before a painting of the Holy Family with large candles on either side. All around on the walls were varnished paintings on wood and copper of Gabriel, other angels, the apostles, and Greek saints, all of which had been procured from Greece. On the floor was the tombstone of Alexis Argyree, the founder of the Greek community in Bengal who died in Dhaka in 1777.
There was a Greek cemetery on the west side of the race course probably where the present Atomic Energy Commission is situated. In l840 Davidson found it in a dirty and disgraceful state, there being nothing beautiful about the tombs at all. The present mausoleum (Fig.1) at the site was built in 1915 at the initiative of Rev. J.M. Macdonald the chaplain of St. Thomas’ Church and was reported in the Sunday Statesman of Calcutta on February 28, 1915. It is curious that the government architect designed the building as a perfect Doric monument of Classical Greece, instead of something of a more ecclesiastical nature. The building is square with a flat roof, projecting facades on all sides, and an entrance on the east. There are nine tombstones still fixed in the wall, and another lying broken on the floor. The oldest stone is of Mrs. Sultana Alexander, who died on February 6, 1800, at the age of 34. A stone is dedicated to the three Ellias brothers:
“Named Nicholas, John and Constantine, Famed as brave hunters ̶ ̶ ̶ Who erst to sport did their merry lives confine.”
John Ellias was killed by a tiger while out shooting at Mirzapur, 25 miles North West of Dhaka. Basil Demetrius, the Greek clerk of St. Thomas’ Church mentioned by Bishop Heber is also buried here. In addition to his church duties he was also a Writing Master and a teacher in Dacca College for 10 years. He died in 1860.
The Church of the Holy Rosary in Tejgaon behind Holy Cross College is the oldest living church in Bangladesh (Fig.2). The date 1677 inscribed in plaster is not a firm (late although it may in fact be quite close. The earliest mention of Tejgaon is in 1678 when the Jesuit priest Father Magalhaes came to Dhaka to take care of the new converts of Anthony of Bhusna. He did not visit Tejgaon but mentions that the Augustinians were established there. If not a church, there was perhaps only a chapel there. Augustinian sources reveal that around this time there were 700 Catholics in Tejgaon, and about 2000 in Dhaka. The archdiocese of Goa, the headquarters of the Portuguese Augustinians, lists the church of Tejgaon as being established in 1714. This can only mean that the small chapel was enlarged to a church on that date. This is also corroborated architecturally, because the thickness of the walls and the manner of roofing of the sanctuary (that being the oldest part) (tillers from the main body of the church. By the time of the Augustinian Provincial’s visitation in 1789 this was the only church in Dhaka: the Narinda church had ceased to exist.
The decline of the city in the early 19th century, made it extremely difficult for one to go to Tejgaon, because it involved going through the tiger inhabited jungle of Ramna. This probably prompted Mr. Doucett to take the initiative to build the Amputty church in 1815. The number of Catholics in Tejgaon dwindled to a dismal 10 in 1836, but made a dramatic recovery at the turn of this century. The church underwent extensive repairs in 1940, hut it seems that physically the structure of the 1714 church was retained. The size of the Tejgaon parish, now the largest in Dhaka numbers to almost 10,000. Architecturally, the church building is large, and has a rather plain exterior except for the facade which has a gable top surmounted by a cross. This is deceptive because it hides a flat roof. There are engaged cupolaed corner towers also surmounted with crosses. In the absence of a spire, the gable top and the crosses establish its identity as a church. The engaged faceted pillars, rectangular panels, blind niches, tapering fluted pilasters on either side of the doorway, the cusped arch of the doorway recess as well as the curved cave over it make the front a collage of elements from the architectural vocabulary of 18th century Bengal, hut lacking the elegance of the Mughal monuments of Dhaka.
The interior is divided into a nave and two aisles by two rows of six circular columns; the sanctuary is elevated and the crucifix is visible through a cusped archway. There are several tombstones inside the church, some of which are in Armenian, Portuguese and Latin, and the rest in English. The oldest Christian tomb in Dhaka dated June 7, 1714, inscribed in Portuguese is here. The oldest Armenian tombstone, of Aviates, a merchant who was the son of Lazar of Erivan is of August 15 of the same year. Thus the Armenians were using the cemetery of the Portuguese chapel before their own church was built, and continued using it afterwards until 1794. A distinguished Tejgaon parishioner was Dr. Clement Dos Anjos, a native of Goa who died in 1841 and gave Lo the church several villages including Brahmandi, Kharakmura, and half of the village of Tejkunipara.
The Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection, located in Armenian Street was built in 1781, traditionally on the site of an old Armenian chapel (Fig.3). The inscription plaque is in front of the sanctuary. It is traditionally known that the land was presented by Aga Minas Catchick of Julfa, Isfahan, whose wife Soope (Sofia) died in 1764 and lies buried inside the church. There seems to be a general resemblance between all Armenian churches which derive from their mother church in Echmiadzin, the Vatican of Armenians, and now in Soviet Armenia. Size, building material, and adaptations to weather account for some of the differences. The entrance is through a porch in the west which had a belfry with five bells, surmounted by a steeple. The original steeple and clock tower erected in 1837 by Johannes Carapiet Sarkies fell in the great earthquake of’ 1897. The apse in the cast is semi-circular and is surmounted by a crown-like ornamental parapet. There are deep verandahs in the north and south. In the interior, the sanctuary is raised from the ground and railed off, while at the opposite end is a gallery which can be reached by a wooden spiral staircase. The present altar piece is composed of two oil paintings of the Lord’s Supper and the Crucifixion done by C. Pote in 1849. Dirt and smoke from candles have darkened it So much that ii needs cleaning badly When Lt. Cot. Davidson visited the church on the morning of January 6, 1840, the Armenians were celebrating their Christmas,” He noticed that many had come in palkees, and the presiding priest who was gaudily dressed in kinkhab and garments embroidered with saints and angels had a shaven patch on his scalp that was precisely 21/4”.
There are numerous tombs around the church, but the older ones are inside. The oldest is of Gooltatick, daughter of Parsadan of Erivan, and wife of Michael Sarkies who died on August 21, 1762. Thus before the church was built, the chapel grounds were used as a cemetery. The Persian connection becomes very obvious in the ornamentation of the tombstones. A Simple statement of death such as skull and crossbones is rare. There are beautiful borders, vases with bouquets, and pavilions of a very Persian flavour. Some have angels blowing trumpets, or hearing aloft the crown of eternal life, all symbolizing heaven. The double headed eagle, known as a Russian imperial symbol, appears quite frequently. Its significance is not known. Aviet Ter Gregory of Shiraz, who died in 1862 at the ripe old age of 108, was probably the longest living Armenian of the city. A particularly tender message is inscribed on the marble tomb of Mack S. Mackertich, of Kerman, Persia who died in Chandpore on December 21, 1929 aged 24 years:
As I loved him so I miss him
In my memory he is near
Loved, remembered longed for always
Bringing many a silent tear.
The second part in the form of a reply from the young man is:
Weep not for me my sweetheart dear
I am not dead hut sleeping here
I was not your’s but Christ’s alone
lie loved me best, and took mc home.
“Erected by his fiancée” (who chose to remain anonymous).
Rev. Paul, the Archbishop of the Armenian Church died while visiting Dhaka in 1831 and is buried here, as are several members of distinguished Armenian families such as Manook, Lazarus, Lucas, and Pogose, the last remembered for the land donated for Pogose School. The stones were all carved in Calcutta, except for the lone vertical monument of marble which was probably imported from Europe. It is of a woman standing with her hand anchored to the tomb beneath, a “fond wife’s tribute to her deeply mourned and best of husbands, Catchick Avietick Thomas who died on Sep. 24, 1877, aged 57.”
St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in Johnson Road, north of Bahadur Shah Park was completed in 1819, and consecrated on Sunday, July 10, 1824, by Bishop Heber, the Metropolitan of Calcutta when he was visiting Dhaka (Fig.4). Externally, its porch, crenellated parapet, clock tower, and Gothic arches are similar to the parish churches in England. While the verandahs have sloping roofs, the main hail is flat- roofed supported by wooden girders. The rectangular hail is well proportioned and dominated by two fluted pillars which have no load bearing function.
Near the entrance, to the right, is a baptismal font of carved stone and marble with a wooden lid. Through a four centred pointed arch one can see the wood paneled sanctuary which was a later extension. It has only an altar and a crucifix, there being no statuary. Daily services are held behind a small altar on the floor. The main Anglican congregation now meets in the New St. Thomas’ Church in Maghbazar because there are no Anglicans remaining in the old city.
The proceedings of the Church Committee meetings which were made available to me revealed interesting facts. In 1910, two members of the church committee resigned, Professor R.B. Ramsbotham for joining the Church of Rome, and Col. I.M.S. Hall, as protest against the chaplain’s invitation to the Nawab of Dhaka anti other non-Christians to the state service in memory of the late Edward VII. In defense, the chaplain pointed out that the Aga Khan had a seat within the chancel at the state service in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. By 1913, the site for a new church in Ramna was being considered, because consequent to the shifting of the European population to Ramna, attendance at St. Thomas’ had dropped. A chapel attached to the Christian College of the proposed Dhaka University was also under consideration. At the end of 1918 services were being held in a room in the North Block of New Govt. House (old High Court). On June 16, 1930, services were held in Mr. Hodson, the S.P.’s bungalow in Ramna because of the disturbed state of the town. It is also recorded that on August 29, of the same year, at 3:30 p.m. Mr. Hodson, and Mr. G.
- Lowman, I.G.P. Bengal was shot at the Mitford Hospital. Mr. Lowman died and Mr. Hodson was seriously wounded. At the Easter Day service in 1934, Mrs. Langley, the wife of the Vice-Chancellor of Dhaka University, sang a solo. At a meeting held at the Dhaka Club in 1946, the Archdeacon lamented the small number of the Anglicans when compared to the Roman Catholics and Baptists, because the Anglicans ‘have only really taken care of the Europeans.’ Times have changed. Now the resident bishop of the Anglicans is Rev. Mondol of Barisal, and about 1000 people, almost all Bengalis turn up for the Christmas and Easter services.
The Holy Cross Church in Laxmi Bazar was finished and blessed in 1898 as a cathedral (Fig. 5). The two storied spire over the porch pierced by traceried Gothic windows is the most distinctive feature externally. The main hall has a sloping roof of corrugated iron. The interior is large with an elaborate sanctuary. Behind the altar is the crucifix showing the Passion of Christ with Mary and St. John on either side. There is a rose window behind the crucifix and other statuary in niches, garishly painted with shiny varnish paint. The ceiling of the apse is painted with angels and Jesus as the Lamb of God, all symbolical of the glory of Heaven. It is traditionally known that in the earlier part of this century the centre row was reserved only for Europeans and Anglo-Indians. There is still a large Catholic community left in this parish, and two Sunday services are held.
When Bishop Heber consecrated the Christian Cemetery in Wan on July 9, 1824, he described it as a wild and dismal place, surrounded by a wilderness of ruins and jungles, about I mile from the inhabited part of the city. Entrance was through an old Moorish gateway. Most of the tombs were from a Lime when Dhaka was commercially more prosperous and the number of European residents more numerous.
In September1 1917, the gateway was almost in the centre of the ground because of an extension. The greatest expansion since then has been northward.
The old part has quite a lot of traditional neo-classical funerary architecture such as pyramids, obelisks, pavilions1 and urns, hut the most remarkable mausoleum is the one known as Beck’s (Fig.6). It is a square tomb housing three uninscribed graves, with a high octagonal domed tower over it. There are doorways on each side of the square chamber, and cusped arch windows on each side of the octagonal tower. The walls have recessed niches, and the engaged corner towers are continued above the parapet. The building is a unique combination of architectural elements borrowed from 18th century Mughal Bengal. This tomb had been pointed out to Heber as that of a certain ‘Colombo Sahib, Company ka Naukar’ whose identity is not known. Inside, there are several tombstones embedded in the walls, one being Ezekiel Beck’s. Beck was born in Barbados, and died in 1791 when he “fell a sacrifice to power through the conduct of an Asiatic oppressor in the 37th year of his age.”
Records in Sylhet show that Mr. J. Willis the Collector broke up Beck’s business and compelled him to quit the district. His offense seems to have been that he had in his employment some well-known people of disrepute. There is also the tombstone of William Kerkman, of the Dutch East India Company who died in 1774. This happens to be the only relic of the Dutch in Dhaka.
Close by is the oldest grave in the cemetery, of Rev. Joseph Paget, Minister of Calcutta who died in 1774 at the age of 26. There are graves of five Factors of the East India Company, four of whom died in their 20s and 30s. Also interred is Jane, infant daughter of James Rennell (the famous geographer and first Surveyor-General of India) and Jane Rennell (sister of W.M. Thackeray of Sylhet, the famous novelist). To the north is the oldest Chinese grave erected by Wong for his friend Wonsi Quan who died in 1796. The ages indicated in these gravestones, together with the burial registers preserved in St. Thomas’ Church show the high mortality rate of the youth. The register of 1819-28 records 93 deaths, out of which only one person reached the age of 70, and two their 50s. The vast majority of the rest are under 40. In the record of 100 people buried during 1842-57 only 12 were beyond 50 and 52 were in their 20s and below. It seems that the price of British rule was paid by the lives of children and youth. Catholics, the largest of the Christian groups, number about two hundred thousand. Their present Archbishop is the third Bengali to hold that position, showing that Christians are now an integral part of Bangladesh society.