On a quiet tree-lined lane aptly called Church Lane, a stone’s throw from Rashtrapati Bhawan the president’s estate, is New Delhi’s most beautiful church.
Most people in the city, and to the city, are clueless about its existence. Much like I was, and would have been, if it wasn’t for a chance conversation on one of the heritage walks I have been taking since I came to Delhi.
Delhi’s Sultanate and Mughal-era chapters, with their magnificent monuments and dramatic stories, tend to be all-consuming. Yet, the years the British Crown used the city as the capital of their ‘Jewel in the Crown’, from 1931 to 1947, churned out edifices just as spectacular. [Prior to Delhi, Calcutta had been their capital.]
Take for instance Herbert Baker’s North and South Block Secretariat Buildings, Edwin Lutyens’ Viceroy’s House now the Rashtrapati Bhawan, their joint endeavour the Parliament House, and Henry Alexander Medd’s splendid stone church for the Englishman in Delhi—the Cathedral Church of the Redemption.
None of these works were created in isolated silos. The architects and Viceroys brainstormed ideas. A committee in England gave its final yay or nay.
It was no different with this church. Especially its name.
Lutyens, New Delhi’s chief architect, suggested it be called Church of God the Father. He envisaged it as an all-embracing church of the city, a haven for all creeds and sects, a refuge for everyone. The bishop of Oxford was of the opinion that salvation was the need of the hour what with world wars raging and the accompanied uncertainties on human morality. Lord Irwin, the then Viceroy, keeping these inputs in mind, decided to call it the Church of Holy Redemption.
Eventually, the ‘Holy’ word was dropped, the Cathedral prefix added to reflect its use as the seat for the bishop, and Delhi had its very own Cathedral Church of the Redemption on Sunday, 18 January, 1931.
When I entered the church, it was deserted save for a couple of youths setting up their musical instruments for the Contemporary Sunday Worship the next day.
What had looked from the outside like a tiered vanilla cake edged with pink icing sugar, straight out of the forgotten pages of the British Raj, had transformed into a medley of soaring arches, intrados, and columns topped with Corinthian, Ionian and Doric capitals on the inside.
The person behind this dazzling work of art was an architect called Henry Alexander Medd who had won the rights to design it through a competition in 1925. Semi-Palladian in style and built with a budget of Rs. 50,000, the edifice was further decorated with paintings in its lunettes by Indian Christian missionary artist A.D. Thomas. Lord Irwin himself laid its foundation stone in 1927 which gleams in white marble in the nave.
Its most expensive treasure, however, was the pipe organ which came at an additional cost of Rs. 34,825 or 70 percent of the building’s budget.
Everyone was mighty pleased with what turned out in 1931 and were quick to shower the church with gifts to adorn its bare surfaces.
King George V gave a silver cross for the High Altar, and the Dean and Chapter of York Minster in England paid for the marble High Altar and Pulpit, as well as sent three exquisite effigies carved in Italy of Christ, St. Mary, and St. John.
Lord and Lady Willingdon paid for the eight teak pews engraved with the British Crown and two of A.D. Thomas’ lunette paintings. When the choir sang, all that stone, unfortunately, resulted in pretty bad acoustics. So, Lady Willingdon raised funds and covered the ceiling with a matt coating too.
As a mark of its new found success and role in British Raj society, a tower and dome were added in 1935. The tiered cake was now complete.
The Viceroys and English congregation have long gone. But true to Lutyens wish, the church continued to be a refuge, albeit today to an Indian congregation.
I wondered what Lutyens would have thought of it all as I sat on one of the pews and gazed at the morning light filtering in through the skylights.
At this point, Alvin from the Church’s Youth Fellowship walked over to me and invited me to come over on Sunday. “6 pm. We have Contemporary Sunday Worship. Do come over.”
I promised I would, and the next day, on Sunday evening, made my way to the church again. The band performed hymns with lyrics displayed on LCD screens and there was a sermon on the Return of the Prodigal Son. After it ended, the youth of the church’s parish gathered into groups, chatting and laughing under Medd’s grand structure. As much a part of it as the English congregation had been 90 years ago.
I am sure I saw Lutyens smile.
Art in the Church. Left: Christ on the cross, part of a set of three effigies, was a gift from the Dean and Chapter of York Minster in England; Right: Chapel of Ascension with paintings by Indian Christian missionary artist A.D. Thomas. Thomas included himself [wearing a green robe] in the chapel altar painting.
Engraving of the British Crown on the teak pews.
Henry Alexander Medd’s play of arches and domes creates an enchanted world of light and shade.
Cathedral Church of the Redemption’s most expensive treasure: The Pipe Organ made by English organ builders William Hill & Norman & Beard at a cost of Rs. 34,825 in 1931.
Left: View of the ceiling over the nave; Right: Foundation stone laid by Viceroy Lord Irwin on 23 February, 1927 in the nave.
Semi-Palladian in style, the exuberance of Ionian and Corinthian detailing on pilasters vies for space with Neo-Classical simplicity.
Every detail in the church was given serious thought. Here’s a close-up of an opening in the ceiling.
Christ’s Appearance to St. Thomas. There are four such lunette paintings inside the church, all painted by the Indian artist A.D. Thomas.
High Altar and Pipe Organ at the front and rear ends of the church.
Left: Baptismal font near the main entrance. A gentle reminder to those who walk in of their initiation into the religion; Right: Just another door knob.
Sandwiched between a red sandstone plinth, dome, and red roof-tiles, the plain Dholpur stone church exterior is a delightful contrast to the beauty it holds within its walls. Another gentle reminder. At times we need to cross the threshold and step inside. ❤
Monday to Saturday: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm. Sunday service [Summer]: English – 8:00 am, Tamil – 9:35 am, Hindi – 11:15 am, Contemporary – 6:00 pm; [Winter]: English – 8:30 am, Tamil – 10:05 am, Hindi – 11:45 am, Contemporary – 5:30 pm.
[Note: Christian events and festivals are celebrated with much pomp and splendour at the Cathedral Church of the Redemption. These are all open to the public.]