St. Thomas Cathedral Church located in Mumbai is a magnificently designed heritage monument with a rich 300-year history and a tradition that is still dynamic and relevant today. Sir John Oxinden, the East India Company’s first Governor of Bombay, thought of the St. Thomas Cathedral construction in 1668. Building Christian churches in India during the early 17th century was a big struggle for missionaries as it was a matter of how differentiable the churches should be amid diverse urban and rural settings in India. New churches had to be well-built, as inexpensively as feasible, elegant, and suitable for ceremonial usage. Arches, vaults, foundations, entire masonry walls, stone carving, wood trusses, towering towers, steps, and other Western methods were almost non-existent in India before 1800, except in treaty ports and significant towns. The church’s foundation stone was laid in 1676, but it was not dedicated for divine service until 1718 as the first Anglican church in Mumbai.
Start of Conservation Project
Following the concerns and discussions put up by the trust caretakers about the flat R.C.C. slab, a pitched tiled roof had been replaced in 1921 as a part of an improvement program. The R.C.C. slab had totally deteriorated by the end of the century, resulting in rainfall infiltrating the vaults inside. As a result, it was made to restore the apse end as it was designed in 1865 and address the issue of water percolating inside the vaults.
“Savani Heritage Conservation Pvt. Ltd.” was assigned with the project to resurrect the structure while conserving its architectural and textural elements. A dedicated team of experts from Savani Heritage Conservation Private Limited engaged in the task by employing skilled masons and laborers under the supervision of Engineers to execute the task. Hence, this prompted the concerned to take action to protect the existing structure for future generations, and that is when SNK entered the scene intending to conserve the building in 2013. The Phase-I of the restoration began under the leadership of Principal Ar. Brinda Somaya focused on the Altar and the Ancillary structure. The Phase-II restoration and repairs were carried out as required under Ar. Sheetal Gandhi focused on the tower and the internal repairs.
The UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Heritage Award accorded the “Award of Distinction” in 2004 for the St. Thomas Cathedral to SNK’s partner, Brinda Somaya. She underlines that her interest in conservation is not self-indulgent or reverential, but rather a sensible blending of the old and modern to create an architectural practice that serves the present.
The cathedral tower has many intricate characteristics, one of which is the architectural element and length of the cathedral that extends to a height to act as a belfry and clock tower. It houses a bell that is no longer in operation. However, these antique bells stand in significance because they have been there since 1798. Moldings, Rose Windows, and Arches are among the magnificent architectural elements on exhibit in the tower. The Rose window on the first floor is encircled by spires that go up to the clock. The whole structure became contaminated with biodeterioration over time, resulting in algae growth and flaking or faded plaster, giving it a dreary look. A layer of a blackish surface over the stone was cast that accelerated the degradation and harmed its look.
Conservation of the Monument
After determining the cause and impact, careful conservation, restoration, and repair techniques were implemented. All defects in the tower’s structure were removed. The surface was carefully cleaned and treated with water jet sprays, re-pointing with lime as needed. The parapet band was re-plastered with white paint, and a layer of waterproofing was applied to avoid further unpleasant stains.
The original sloping roof was rebuilt in 1920 with a reinforced cement concrete flat roof. It was commonly utilized for concrete construction in Mumbai at the time. By 1990, the R.C.C. Roof had deteriorated, producing water leaks that inundated the vaults and destroyed the carved intricacies of the limestone. A massive amount of restoration work was meticulously carried out, which included the replacement of the damaged R.C.C. flat slab with a sloping roof evocative of the original building completed in 1865. In addition to the requisite brickwork and painting, restoration work was also performed on the altar.
The exposed stone surface caused moisture causing water seepages, and the missing pointing work was re-done in several areas. The stone surface around the clerestory was distressed. Evident flaking plaster and vertical stone pieces of the clerestory arches were missing. Refitting with stones comparable to those found in the original form was done. The floral band running beneath the parapet became discolored resulting in algae. Pressured water jets were used to remove the black spots, which helped the stone surface restore its form and gloss.
Flying buttresses were used to distribute lateral forces throughout the flyer. As a result, the flying arch is segmental and sits on a substantial stone pier. These flying buttresses, with their modest point of contact, allowed room for large windows while also minimizing the extra stress on the load-bearing walls. At the east end of the apse, seven flying buttresses surrounded the cathedral apse. The buttresses were thoroughly cleaned, and coated with a waterproofing coating to prevent further staining and algae development.
The presence of Venetian louvered windows on the wains of the north and the south aisles were thoughtfully designed keeping in mind the humid climate of Mumbai. These double-layered windows take care of the changing weather and facilitate necessary comfort. Over time, the timber window frame appeared to decay and deteriorated intensively. Frames had layers of worn-out paint, which had to be scraped off and treated with anti-termite and French polishing to give a tidy look.
A unique structural design was the vaulted nave that led up to the alter through a series of benches on either side. The altar and the nave are divided by a small space called the chancel. This chancel consists of space meant for an organ and choir that leads up to the altar. The altar is beautifully adorned with panels of translucent stained glasses embedded in a lancet window. These stained-glass windows are a typical feature of gothic architecture and are arranged as clerestory windows, divided by the ribs of the conical roof of the apse. The upper lancet windows portray Christ in Glory, centrally flanked by two archangels on either lancet panel. Below clerestory windows denote Mother Mary with Baby Jesus, to its right Jesus ascending with a banner holding angels in the bottom half. While to the left window represents St. Thomas listening to people’s confessions. The semi-circular clerestory arrangements end with lancet windows adorned with kaleidoscopic patterns. Below the lancet windows are a series of semi-circular windows, which are also in the stained glass form.
The vault arrangement forms an air chamber to serve the purpose of air ventilation. Because of this intensive dampness was produced that led to flaking in plaster. Considerable interior restoration and repair work of varied kinds were executed to restore the structure. Moreover, warm shades of illumination were applied that brought back the grandeur of the cathedral.
The ribbed vault roof in the chancel area of the cathedral is a typical roof setting in the gothic style of architecture. An alternating band of stone strips in a darker shade is used to create a floral pattern in the vault. The vault was given minor repairs in terms of fabric and concerning its joinery and stone surface. A new light fixture was placed at the center that lights up the space below at the chancel which is another typical feature of the cathedral.
The timber porch at the entrance of the cathedral is symbolic and meant to welcome the visitors. The placement of Mangalore tiles directly over the purlins caused leakages. Hence to correct the damage caused by the leakages, the porch was treated with a zero-puncture system, a methodology developed by Savani Heritage Conservation Pvt. Ltd. This system involves sandwiched layers of aluminum and glass wool in between the purlins and the rafters, which is topped with Mangalore tiles. The porch is now watertight and deftly restored after applying an inner layer of boards to safeguard it from the damages caused by the falling tree branches.
The stone plaque that adorns the interior walls of the cathedral has been put up in the memory of the personnel who had served the British Govt. during colonial rule in India. The plaques are not just a mere representation of the records but form an integral part of the cathedral fabric. The black granite plaque that was broken into fragments had to be dismantled from its base. Before fixing it back, it was meticulously stitched and cleaned with the help of steam. Repainting and polishing works were extended to uphold their respectful appearance.
The Baptismal Font at the St. Thomas Cathedral is an important element of a cathedral and stands on a pedestal holding water. The font is placed near the entrance. The cathedral had a sculpture installed with a Bird-like creature that looked completely distressed and damaged. A procedure of plastic repairs was executed for its repair. The broken wings, head, torso, and legs were mended meticulously. A pedestal base was also constructed that would help the sculpture to stand firmly.
- 2004. St Thomas Cathedral. Savani Heritage Conservation Pvt. Ltd.
- Athwani, R., n.d. ST. THOMAS CATHEDRAL, MUMBAI – A living testimony to the Pre-Independence India.
- gluelagoon.com, G., 2022. Somaya & Kalappa Consultants – Architecture, Interiors, Planning, Conservation, And Urban Design. [online] Snkindia.com. Available at: <https://www.snkindia.com/project-id.php?category_id=3&sub_category_id=&project_id=53>
- Katakam, A., 2020. St Thomas’ Cathedral: A chapter in Mumbai’s history. Frontline, [online] Available at: <https://frontline.thehindu.com/arts-and-culture/heritage/article30441685.ece>