A City Secret
It was the spring of 1849, 21st of Feb to be precise and an Infantry advance was underway on the plains of Goojerat. Amidst fierce resistance there were casualties on both sides; men, horses, cannons falling, engulfed in a hue of dirt, blood and the gunpowder. Battle of Goojerat was the final action in the Second Anglo Sikh War and from the countless who fell that day a few names were remembered, etched on marble and hung to stay a lifetime, even more than that…
In early April of 1937, at Shahur Tangi defile, a brief and narrow pass in the mountains of South Waziristan, a motor convoy was ambushed. The tribesmen from Tori Khel Tribe had their day and killed 52 soldiers of the British Indian Army including seven Officers. Of these were Major Henry William Dayrell Palmer and Captain Miles Bertram Courtney of 16th Punjab Regiment and they were to be honoured by their brother officers of the Regiment with their names cast on a brass plate that to this day stays sombre in remembrance and is shining bright…
They say when a prayer is raised, a part of it travels to skies and a part thereof stays in the surroundings for that instance in time and for all the times to come. For every prayer, trivial or significant gets its share of rotation in the eternal circle of life. A prayer is a connection of visible with The Invisible, a remembrance for the ones that have gone invisible and a prayer that gets uttered, dear reader, inspires a lot many others. The above two happenings, geographically apart and equally distant in the time capsule had none but one thing in common. These were prayed for and remembered and in that got scribed on the same roll of remembrance. A roll, dear reader, hung on the walls in Sialkot that holds together a lot many tributes and prayers for the loved ones. For some reason, I knew there was something more than the Gothic Architecture as I headed out to explore the mid 19th century Holy Trinity Cathedral in Sialkot Cantt…
It was partly, I must confess, to just get near to that majestic building that wore the brick red, and appreciate the architecture in a bit greater detail. Yet for the most part it was inspired to come across the plaques, the brass ones, the ones carved on stone and wood, raised and placed there for years, in remembrance of the ones invisible, for the prayers raised in remembrance radiate an aura of somberness and an aroma of respect, and I was there to savour the taste. In pure contrast to the moods in mind, I was greeted by a juvenile and jubilant spirit right at the gates. Emanuel Nanak with a beautiful smile he had reserved for strangers was waiting for the visitor and as the events would unfold later was to be my host at the place to show me around that majestic edifice of Holy Trinity Cathedral. Emanuel Nanak, carrying a family name from his Sikh forefathers from times unknown was the caretaker at the church and this task had transitioned to him from his father to whom it was bestowed upon by his father, for one specific time in history they had converted to the new faith and it was from there Emanuel carried his first name.
It was a husky day that started with a morning walk in the Company Bagh now a days known as Khayaban e Iqbal. My itinerary that day enforced an early departure from Sialkot and I had to visit the two places almost in a hurried schedule, the first of what was the Company Bagh. Bidding farewell to the lodging comfort at Services Club early, the morning walk was serene and refreshing. Sun rays were on the typical morning tilt as from Company Bagh I headed to the Holy Trinity, the edifice of which shone past the green tree tops swaying in the morning breeze. And straight ahead I bumped into Emanuel Nanak. Having attained the permission for the visit, Emanuel accompanied me inside and I prepared myself to embrace the first feel of the colonial architecture in the heart of Sialkot.
The church of Sialkot is reminiscent of the mid 12th century Gothic Architecture. Tall tower, large windows and high pointed arched vaults. Designed and built under Lt J. Hartley Maxwell of Bengal Engineers the Church was consecrated on Jan 30th 1857, around 5 years after its foundation stone was laid. An eternally beautiful and evergreen Latin phrase decorates the commemorative plaque; “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice”, that would be translated to “seeking the craftsmen’s legacy? well… look around you!” Having been renovated under one Military Station Commander of Sialkot, the building of the Church was in good shape. Emanuel was all praises for the said emissary but did mention that the Church is gradually being eaten up by the soil salinity and the humid surroundings for which no durable plan was at hand.
The building derived its structural pattern form the practice in ancient Rome, a longitudinal plan having a nave in center with one aisle on each side and colonnades on both the sides separating the two. Parting with the conventional design, a tall bell tower decorated the façade, the western front where there was main entrance. Buttresses and flying buttresses supported the slanted rooftops on the side of aisles. Towards the eastern end, the transept protruded out on the sides giving the building the shape of the cross. As we took a walk appreciating the interior, we noticed the high pointed arched vaults and the wooden roof that in line with the custom was shaped as an inverted ship hull, for the congregation in a church is in the God’s ship sailing through the troubled waters of life. Light trickled inside from the clerestory windows above the rooftop of the aisles that were lower than the nave. The seating arrangement for the congregation typically reflected the “class” status from colonial times. The cushioned seats in front were for the officers’ cadre and the notables followed by the flat wooden seats for the soldiers and the ordinary. Emanuel pointed out to me the design pattern of the seats that provided the place for holding the rifles and bayonets as the soldiers sat praying. On the edges of the seats as well as on the walls were the hinges to secure the flower bunches fresh from the church gardens. Emanuel mentioned the story that had travelled to him from his elders that there used to be a battalion especially designated for the upkeep of the Church gardens and the roster changed every month. Such used to be the zeal and motivation that it sort of transformed into a competition of garden maintenance and floral skills. Having reached the ‘crossing’ we stepped ahead towards the choir that ended in a square eastern end with a large window with a beautiful stained glass. The altar was typically a marble table top above which a giant cross was hung. Standing there in front of the altar little did I know that in times to come I, along with a friend would be part of a full rite of Communion while served with Blessed Sacrament of bread and wine, but that, dear reader, is a different story.
Apart from admiring an aesthetic and enduring architecture, there was something else awaiting to be appreciated. There were prayers everywhere, the notations of remembrance in abundance populated the church walls, the floor pieces and with each object made of wood, marble, bronze were associated, the feelings, soft and invisible, a piece of heart written down with the scribed words that invited me to every corner, and which, I have a strong feeling, glowed in the dark. There were tablets commemorating officers from the Battle of Goojerat and the Shahur Tangi Ambush, and my readers would recall that the current post started with the sketches from the two. An ode to a beloved wife, a eulogy to some untimely deaths, a mention of a few riding accidents, the officers of the Imperial Service and the men from the veteran battalions from the British Indian Army; the infantrymen from 9th Bhopal Infantry and those from the 1st Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, the cavaliers from The 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own) and those from The 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, the gunners from the Royal Horse Artillery and a lot many others. The Holy Trinity Cathedral at Sialkot has stories, obscured from the cursory look yet inviting to the curious heart, preserving the feelings and the moments into eternity.
One of the prized possessions at the Holy Trinity Sialkot, Emanuel proudly afforded me a look at, was the original edition of the Bible preserved in a showcase that was presented by the Bishop of Madras on the day of Consecration, 31st of January in 1857. Having seen the relics and spending some moments of silence in respect in the choir in front of the altar, I prepared to take my leave. We came out of the edifice and exchanged some pleasantries. I thanked Emanuel Nanak for being a wonderful host and sparing time to show me around in greater detail. As I exited the gates of the pavilion, I looked back with that farewell emotion on the edifice. Like every other church, Holy Trinity Cathedral at Sialkot had been very kind to me, in that it revealed its secrets. It disclosed its architectural finesse through which I came to feel the hardship and the inspiration of the artisans who toiled here once. Artisans who played with the elements of stone, wood, glass and marble and in doing so cast a magic. The cathedral held open for me the feelings expressed, the prayers said and the emotions let loose with words that got scribed on the tablets and I savoured the taste to the fullest. Within a short span of time that morning at Sialkot I lived a lifetime of emotions, I lived a lifetime of magic. Thank you Emanuel Nanak! Thank you Holy Trinity Cathedral.