A Byzantine phantom.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
A succession of white domes, topped with lantern-like structures, estranges this old building from its counterparts in this quarter of the city.
The Holy Trinity Church stands at the southern border of Old Delhi. Red lines run across the thick walls of grey stones. The church was erected early last century. A tablet on the front wall says:
To the glory of God
And in memory of
Alexander Charles Maitland
The foundation stone of
This Church of the Holy Trinity
Was laid on Feb.1.1904
By his widow Mary R. Maitland
The very-long-named book Alumni Cantabrigienses: A Biographical List of All Known Students, Graduates and Holders of Office at the University of Cambridge, from the Earliest Times to 1900, describes Mr Maitland as the London-born son of a reverend. “One of the saints of this earth, he gave his life to the Delhi Mission,” informs the biographical sketch. What’s more – “[He] Left the bulk of his property to the Mission.”
A community of Christian families lives in the church’s compound. Posters of Christ adorn the windows of their houses. Bougainvillea creepers run alongside their water pipes. The residents include a black cat who, unlike other Old Delhi cats, fearlessly looks into the eyes of unfamiliar faces.
The church’s paved courtyard teems with ordinary life: children play hopscotch, men talk about politics and women huddle in their own groups. It’s like being in a village whose daily life revolves around its principal house of worship. The complex also has a primary school.
On one of their frequent trips to India, Chicago-based Steve Browne and John Verkleir, while exploring the church, were invited by one of the residents to his home where they were served with chai and biscuits. The host later opened the church for the two visitors to take a look inside at the low-hanging chandelier, the Urdu-language Bibles, the white curtains and a framed painting of the church; he also gifted them a historical booklet on the church. Sharing its image on their online photo album, Mr Browne and Mr Verkleir wrote:
“The cover of the Holy Trinity Church Golden Jubilee program was published in 1955 to celebrate 50 years of service. It gives a detailed history of the founding of the church. Mr. Alexander Charles Maitland, who was “weak and delicate from his childhood”, “entered into his rest after a brief illness” in 1894 at the age of 41 (my age now). He left Rs. 10,000 to build a new church in a “distant quarter of the city.” After some years of fund raising, another 10,000 was acquired, and the church was built in just a year.””
Perhaps because it is the cleanest area in the filthy Walled City, the church appears to stand isolated from its neighborhood. A walk around the building showcases the different domes more panoramically. One dome is almost wholly covered by the branches of a tree.
In their book Margins of Faith: Dalit and Tribal Christianity in India, authors Rowena Robinson and Joseph Marianus Kujur mentions the Holy Trinity, saying:
“Its historical roots go back to the evangelist work of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in the Chamar (sic) bastis of Delhi and its neighboring villages from 1860 onward. In 1883 these Anglican missionaries purchased four sites on which to settle some of their Chamar converts who agreed to avoid work on Sundays as well as participation in non-Christian rites and ceremonies. One of these sites was at Turkman Gate. In 1905 a beautiful Byzantine church was built there, thus creating a separate congregation and cementing a close relation between the church and the basti. Whereas all of the original residents and members were leather workers, by 1947 none of them were, and today it is predominantly a middle-class congregation of skilled and white-collar workers in diverse occupations and professions.”
A sepia-washed photograph of the church depicts it in a rather desolate setting of leafless trees. Today, surrounded by tall buildings, the church’s stone visage, at least, remains faithful to its original spirit.
Aloof and pretty
3. (Courtesy: Proxy Indian)
18. (Courtesy: Proxy Indian)