The deceptive solitude of Mumbai’s Afghan Church

If you’re in Mumbai’s Navy Nagar area, the Afghan Church cannot escape your eye. The monumental architecture of the Church of St. John the Evangelist, as it is formally called, defies the scope of what a camera lens can capture. However, surrounded by trees and wild vegetation, a 60-metre high spire, with large Gothic-style windows and doors, the church’s property is mostly deserted. The Guardian, in its tour guide of Mumbai’s heritage Colaba area, called it a place of “fairytale solitude”.

The fairytale-like solitude may seem deceptive if you walk into the church with the awareness of what it stands for. Its eerie quietude is palpable, made more prominent by the brown texture of this monument. The church’s interior is furnished with stained glass panels, marble inlays, reredos, rifle pews, and memorial plaques.

Located in the leafy cantonment area of south Mumbai, this 19th century Gothic structure was built as a memorial to the British and Indian soldiers who died during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42). It was the first of the three British invasions into Afghanistan, a country that has battled foreign forces since Alexander the Great. After the war, thousands of soldiers were killed during their retreat from Kabul back to British India, leaving a sole survivor who made it to the colony.

According to historian William Dalrymple, Lady Florentina Wynch Sale was “possibly the only Brit to come out of the first Afghan war…who arrived [from the retreat] with her daughter, seeds from her garden, and a grand piano.” She has recorded her experience in a book, A Journal of the Disasters in Affghanistan 1841-42. Dalrymple’s own account of the invasion was published in 2013 under the title “Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan”. These books are part of several studies on the Anglo-Afghan conflicts, a search on Amazon website shows.

Of late, this sprawling monument has made it to the news because of a land scam, a murder case (a woman’s dead body was found behind the church), apart from being one of the most sought-after places for Easter celebrations.

Here are some pictures from my visit to the church.

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