A pale rangoli of yellow and blue smears itself on the floor. The light in Panchmarhi, in the far end of the Satpuras, is flat, gentle and unrelenting. The stained glass warms the otherwise cold stone floors of this Church, which sits limed and regal amongst pines and ebony on these rolling hills. Like a saint on Samadhi forgetting time, or an enormous ship anchored in a deep green sea it stands alone, overlooking the path to Jaistambh Chowk. Built in 1875, Christ Catholic Church is homage to the serenity and grandeur of the place, which was rediscovered by British Captain James Forsyth after 1857. That old monk was a pious man, who found his penance in the hill town he helped develop. But he was not the first to grow old here, nor the first monk.
Long before UNESCO deemed Panchmarhi’s biosphere of global importance, its sapphire green coloured the history of Central India, back to the Mahabharata. In Pandav Gufa, the site Pachmarhi was named after, artefacts date back to 6-7 CE (as per ASI). It is fine example of rock hewn architecture. This region was culturally very rich and later Buddhist sites can be found by explorers of these hills. Forest tribes continue to live in the region, once the kingdom of the Gond tribe king Bhawut Singh. Before its annexation by the British, this was the capital of his tribal dynasty.
This Church’s architecture is scintillating; the stained glass panes adorning the walls and rear of the altar were said to be imported from Europe. A splendorous rose window of narthex can be seen from far outside. These stained glass windows on walls of the nave are donated to the church in memories of different people (with their names are written down). They present a playful view as the sun’s rays pass through them. Church’s sanctum-sanctorum (apse) has a hemispherical dome on top with its stone ribs sculpted as angels on their ends. The nave of the church does not contain even a single pillar for support and along with transepts is roofed with ebony finished wooden arched trusses and gable roof (with brick tiles). The baptismal font, which is a rare brass piece, is kept in the south transept. Adjacent to it, the edifice bell tower which is topped with steep pyramidal hip roof is also attached with south transept. The bell is as old as the church. The bell tower can be seen from far down the hill and the bell ringing can be heard even farther.
Close to north transept, a pulpit holds a worn small brass plate marker commemorating Frankford Morris (1843-1878), a general of East Bengal infantry and later assistant commandant of the British army in Pachmarhi, to whom the old monk dedicated this Church.
Both vestries attached to the chancel are low in height and their roofs are supported with wooden scissor trusses. Doors are made of wood and having beautiful cast iron hinges. Very basic amount of carving is also done on the outer walls. The whole structure is made of sand stone. Church has a rough finish on the outer walls while inner walls are plastered with lime. Walls are supported with buttresses and so some small but simply beautiful windows are achieved on the walls. Other than all these, the furniture of the church has its own beauty and is as old as church. Furniture is in ebony finish and has carving on it. Due to ignorance, this beautiful architecture is deteriorating.
Stone of basic structure (inner and outer surface) is powdering due to Active friability, flaking, weather erosion and infestations but small animals seeking warmth in the long winter. Some of voussoirs of inner arches and beautiful rose window are displaced and could be cause of serious distortion to the monument. Vegetation has cropped up on the top of the structure causing fractures and cracks in the walls. Water percolation has already started in the apse and bell tower. Tin sheets are installed at the narthex and the rear entrance of vestry and ordinary cement work on the roof make the Church look ugly. The brick tiles on the roof have given up and one can see the sky from inside. Care-taker explains that no one tries to climb up to the bell tower (not even for maintenance) because of decay of the ladder and tower itself. In absence of proper guidance, wooden doors are painted with ordinary oil paints. No one takes care of the furniture and antique furniture is being used by the local care taker in his house. Although government bodies checks it time to time and had done some work of grouting on the outer walls and laid Kota and marble stone inside on the floor (this looks rather funny and absurd with the church) but the condition of the church proves it insufficient.
Another Catholic Church is also situated in the vicinity, and is relatively recent and built in 1892 by the British, this Catholic Church is a blend of the French and Irish architecture. Its Belgium stained-glass windows add rare attraction and beauty to the building. That church bears more stains of the wars fought by its well-wishers. A cemetery attached to it and graves dating from 1859, World War I & II. The forests also house another cemetery on the way to Rajat Prapaat, near the Pandav Gufa. Many of old graves can be seen here with their beautiful grave markers and head stones.
The road adjacent to the Church follows the slope making an axis. When I visited the church, it was monsoon. In Pachmarhi clouds stalk the townsfolk, hugging the town and kissing the ground. The Church in this season looks as though muffled in a white translucent shawl and the lavish green backdrop balances its stone-rigid exterior. Church’s rough cut stones look very natural but create contrast with the fluorescent green background. Generally, a good amount of planned space is required to encourage the monumentality of any built mass and to observe the details. With a random outgrowth of trees all around, the one road that exists adds a little discipline to the scene and an opportunity to observe it from far. A good amount of space fenced with barbed wires has been left around it for the same purpose. The fence becomes invisible with trees and bushes around and doesn’t create any hindrance to the eye.
The care-taker explains to me the history of the church and expresses his sorrow for the ignorance towards this heritage structure. There are a very few Christian families in the town and are unable to refurbish it. He explained that the ugly wire mesh over the beautiful arched windows of the Church is to protect it from vandalism. He was also worried about deteriorating sloping roof of church which is tiled with backed brick tiles. This roof makes the church very generous and blurs the edge between colonial and local architecture.
Like this majestic roof, this church, these graveyards are slowly forgotten by time, the forests and architectural conservationists. Edifices of colonial history, already rare in Central India, will be lost.