The entwined history of Mumbai, St Thomas Cathedral that turned 300

church-2 'The Living Cathedral' exhibition

At Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghrahalaya (CSMVS), Nandini Somaya-Sampat, director, Somaya & Kalappa, takes me through an exquisite exhibition, The Living Cathedral. Curated and designed by her, The Living Cathedral commemorates 300 years of Mumbai's St Thomas Cathedral. The exhibition is a collaboration between St Thomas Cathedral, The Cathedral and John Connon School and CSVMS.

Both Nandini Somaya-Sampat and her renowned mother, Brinda Somaya, principal architect at Somaya & Kalappa and alumnus of The Cathedral & John Connon School, had, in fact, restored the St Thomas Cathedral in 2003. And now, almost 15 years later, the mother-daughter duo are associated with the beautiful cathedral again.

Sampat remembers how the school actually started as a choir school for the St Thomas Cathedral and then went on to grow into an educational institution. Through this well-researched exhibition, one learns not only about the famous cathedral and its growth but also about how it is deeply entwined with the growth of the city of Bombay. Dr Vijaya Gupchup’s seminal book, St. Thomas Cathedral – A Witness To History, was the ‘go to’ book for Sampat and most people associated with this exhibition, in order to understand the history of the cathedral, she says.

Sampat says the idea of an exhibition was put forth by the school's principal, Meera Issacs, and Rev. Avinash Rangayya after they found very old cups, plates and flagons in the cathedral. The Living Cathedral exhibition, entailed writing the story and understanding the objects that were later meticulously conserved by conservationist Anupam Saha and his team at CSMVS “who took all these fragile objects and brought life back into them.” “These beautiful objects had never been displayed to the public before,” says Sampat.

The exhibition throws light on how Bombay grew and how a church was built in the city which not only evolved but also survived through the centuries, going on to become a historical landmark. According to records, the church was inaugurated on December 25, 1718. The event was so significant that and there was a ten-gun salute in the castle and it was responded by a ten-gun salute by every ship in the Bombay harbour. The church was consecrated on June 7, 1816 by Bishop Thomas Fanshaw Middleton and named St Thomas church. In fact, Mumbai’s famous railway station, Churchgate, (Church’s gate) derived its name from this very cathedral, says Sampat. The church, later, went on to grow into a cathedral and that growth is represented by its tower, which also represents Bombay’s promotion to the rank of a city, says Sampat.

gallery-image The Holy Bible on display
gallery-image Chalices on display at the exhibition
gallery-image Rudyard Kipling's baptism entry on display

The exhibition, very tenderly, captures the history of not just the birth of Bombay but also of its growth—from its islands, as they fused to become Bombay over the years, to the manner in which the Portuguese named it Bom Bahai or ‘The Good Harbour’. All of this and more are on display at the exhibition, in the form of some extremely detailed cartography to objects such as the steeple cup (only three exist in the world), a beautiful leather-bound Bible with its beautiful spine containing gold lettering and the wax seals that were used to stamp official documents. Records also state that when the British took over, the Bombay Presidency was overseen by the Bishop of Bombay, Thomas Carr, and the St Thomas Cathedral was a centre-stage that oversaw most important events. It was also in this very cathedral that all the city’s baptisms, marriages and deaths of Christians were recorded. One of the delights of The Living Cathedral exhibition is seeing the baptism record of the great writer, Rudyard Kipling. A playful Mowgli stands next to Kipling’s baptism record, a thoughtful touch by the curator.

Besides the exhibits, the highlight is an exquisitely designed sanctum, specially created to give a beautiful panoramic view of the historical city, complete with famous mile markers. The zero marker of course, remains the St Thomas Cathedral, which stands tall even today.