Gour to St John's

Read more below

By SOUMITRA DAS
  • Published 22.06.08
  •  

About 20 years ago, long before one had to pay to enter St John’s church (Is that permitted in a monument protected by the Archaeological Survey of India like this place of worship?) in Dalhousie Square and the church grounds was turned into a parking lot, it was possible to walk right into the office, and, if memory serves, to a spooky staircase that led to a small dusty room upstairs. The leather-bound minutes of the kirk sessions of the church were kept there. It was a large and heavy tome and the paper was thick as parchment. The entries were in a lovely flowing hand as elegant as calligraphy, the kind of handwriting one doesn’t see any longer in these days when script typefaces are available in PCs themselves.

The minutes tell in detail the story of how the ruins of Gour were robbed to build St John’s church. As a marble plaque at the entrance states quite clearly, the land on which the church stands was gifted by the Sobhabazar royal family. A developer has been trying hard since the early 1980s to construct a highrise office building in the churchyard, and they still have not given up on it. It was one of the first buildings to be constructed by the British here in 1787, and its model was St Martin’s-in-the-Fields of London. That was when Warren Hastings was in charge.

St John’s church

The single-spire Gothic church is built entirely of stone and is left virtually untouched. The floor of the church is paved with slabs of blue-grey or black marble. These slabs came from the ruins of Gour in Malda district and the minutes (Folio 153, dated June 1, 1784) of the kirk sessions of this church document this act of vandalism. A lottery was organised in 1784 to raise funds for building the church, thanks to the penny-pinching East India Company. This lottery made ripples that did not die down for five months. Subsequently, Rs 30,000 was raised and the foundation stone was laid on April 8. Two months later its was proposed that stones be shipped from Gour. This was long before Lord Curzon had enacted the Protection of Ancient Monuments Act to safeguard India’s heritage.

According to the relevant entry, the secretary had written to Charles Grant, a director of the company, at Malda, and a copy of the missive was being laid before the committee for building the church in Calcutta. Grant was being requested to find out if any flat stones measuring two to six inches in thickness existed at Gour to pave the church’s floor, a square of 70 ft. Grant was also required to calculate the cost of procuring and transporting the slabs to Calcutta, and to find out if any government order would be necessary.

Grant wrote back on June 9 from Malda in Folio 161: “I imagine a number of stones sufficient for the pavement of the new church may be collected from the ruins of Gour. The stones there are of various sizes: many from a foot to two feet long, seven inches to fifteen broad and seldom less than six inches deep… I conceive that in the first place an order or permission from Government to take them (unpolished blue stones) would be proper. It is true that the people here who use them as they frequently do in small quantities buy a permission from the zeminder but these and all the remains of Gour are unquestionably the property of Government which may dispose them at its pleasure.

“Besides these stones there are among the ruins a few huge masses which appear to be of blue marble and have a fine polish. The most remarkable of these covered the tombs of some of the Kings of Gour, where they were removed about 15 years ago by a Major Adams employed in surveying who intended to send them to Calcutta, but not being able to weigh them into boats they still remain on the bank of the river... There are also smaller stones polished and ornamented with sculpture of flowers, fretwork etc. and a few free stones of great length.”

A meeting on June 15 asked for “a perwannah to the zeminder of that part of Malda”, directing him to permit Grant to send the stones to Calcutta. But the Committee of Revenue turned down the request because “such a measure could be considered by His excellency the Nabab as an encroachment upon his rights, as we are not certain but he claims an exclusive right to those ruins as successor to the former Soubedars of Bengal.”

On June 26, the secretary issued fresh instructions to Grant: “… I have made every enquiry… for Major Capt Adam’s reports to the Council from Gour but without success… written to the Nabab to desire the perwannah from him which I asked from the committee (of Revenue) and as there is no doubt of his immediately sending it to the zeminder, and the zeminder himself has no particular rights, I should hope that you will agree with me that there can be little objection to your beginning immediately to collect the stones.”

After Grant wrote back on July 8, the exchange of letters is nearly over. “I have just completed agreements with four Munduls of villages on the site of Gour for digging and carrying stones to the waterside… I hope in a few weeks to send you the first produce… I will engage boats here as they can be had more expeditiously and cheaper than from Calcutta. With regard to the long marble blocks the great difficulty will be in weighing them… Of the sculptured stones, fine stones, and others found at the distance of two or three Coss from the factory, I had out of curiosity caused 50 or 60 to be carried thither. They will serve as a specimen of the different sorts and I wish they may be found applicable to use as well as objects of curiosity.

“I have begun to act without waiting for the perwannas. When the Nabab transmits one I believe it would be better it should pass through my hands than be sent immediately to the zeminder. It would seem that no right of the Nabab is recognised in this quarter, for the ruins are sold to any person that will purchase them without asking any permission from the Nabab and make an article of the revenue which is collected by the company…”

On July 10, Grant sent an inventory of the stones shipped: “Dear Sir, Agreeable to that I wrote to you on the 8th instant. I have now the pleasure to dispatch to you a boat laden with Gour Stones.

Large face stones 5

Sculptured face stones 8

Plain blue face stones 37-50.”