It is the faith that has taught the world the power of charity and love through a faith in God. The religion was founded by Jesus of Nazareth who was born in Bethlehem in the Israel-Palestine region of the Middle East in 4 BC. He was born in a Jewish family and his parents were Joseph, a carpenter and his wife Mary. Jesus’ public ministry began when he was thirty years old and lasted for three years. He wandered with his twelve companions, called Apostles, teaching to the poor and healing the sick. His most famous sermon is the Sermon on the Mount that has inspired people for centuries.
Jesus is called Christ or the messiah by his followers and he taught a moral path using parables that are remembered till today. He preached about having faith in God, treating people with kindness and love, of helping the poor and forgiving sinners. Christians believe Jesus was the son of God who came down to earth to save humanity. His life and message was collected in the four Gospels by his disciples Mathew, Mark, Luke and John and this sacred scripture is the New Testament. Jesus was crucified by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate in 29 AD. Today Christianity is one of the greatest of world religions and churches across the globe echo to the singing of hymns and fervent prayers, bringing the message of kindness, charity, tolerance and humility to people.
Christianity came to India much before many countries in Europe. The religion was introduced into India by St. Thomas, the Apostle who visited Kerala in 52 AD. He was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ. He landed at Muzuris (modern Kodungallur) hoping to convert the Jewish community that had settled there. St. Thomas worked in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and laid the foundation of seven churches in the region. He was martyred in Mylapore in the modern city of Chennai in 72 AD and was buried there.
In 1498 AD the Portuguese mariner Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India and soon Christian priests began arriving in India to establish churches. The Jesuit priest from Portugal, St. Francis Xavier arrived in Goa in 1542 AD and he is buried there. The Portuguese established a colony in Goa and some of the oldest churches in the country were built there. Two Portuguese priests even became religious advisers to the Mughal Emperor Akbar.
By the 16th century European traders began to arrive hoping to trade in Indian textiles and spices and would gradually establish colonies. Among them were the English, the French and the Dutch and the preachers and missionaries arrived soon after. They founded schools, hospitals and printing presses and played an important role in modernising education in the country.
The teachings of Christianity and modern education led to socio-religious movements like the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj that worked to reform the ills of Hindu society. By the 18th century India was a part of the British Empire and had a growing Christian community. Today Christianity is the third largest religion in India and the country has many beautiful and ancient churches that are visited by members of every faith.
Churches were built in India often keeping to the architectural traditions of European countries. Every important city, especially those founded by Europeans like Goa, Kolkata or Chennai have churches famous for their architecture. They belong to the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Syrian Christian sects. Here the Christian festivals like Christmas and Easter are celebrated with the joyous ringing of bells and the singing of melodious hymns. Some of the churches mentioned below draw pilgrims, some are famous landmarks in their respective cities.
Basilica of Bom Jesus, Goa
This church is famous throughout the Roman Catholic world and is included in World Heritage Sites of UNESCO. The basilica is the best example of European Baroque architecture in India with Bernini columns, decorative pediments and carved altars. It was built by the Portuguese in the 17th century and houses the mausoleum of St. Francis Xavier and is dedicated to the Infant Jesus. Xavier was one of the founders of the Society of Jesus. In 1541 AD the Jesuit priest was sent by the Pope to spread Christianity in the Portuguese colonies. The mortal remains of the patron saint of Goa are kept in a silver casket and are believed to have miraculous powers of healing. It draws thousands of pilgrims to this church. Every ten years the sacred relics are carried in procession to the Se Cathedral for a public viewing.
Church of St. Francis Of Assisi, Goa
Built by Franciscan Friars, this ancient church and convent has a Tuscan facade and Baroque interiors. It contains gilded and carved woodwork, floral frescoes and old murals depicting the life of the saint. The floor has carved gravestones dating back to the 16th century.
Se Cathedral, Goa
Built in the 16th century by the orders of the Portuguese king Dom Sebastiao, this cathedral took eighty years to build and is the largest church in Goa. The ornate main altar is gilded in gold and covered with intricate carvings. There are smaller altars decorated in filigree work and the church has a magnificent crucifix. The cathedral has a tower with a giant bell called the Golden Bell for its rich sound. It is also the seat of the Archdiocese of Goa.
Other notable churches in Goa include the Chapel of St. Catherine, the Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, the Church of St. Cajetan, the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary and the Church of Our Lady of the Mount.
Vailankanni Church, Tamil Nadu
This gleaming white church with a dramatic red tiled roof stands on the shores of the Bay of Bengal near Nagapattinam. The Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health is dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ and is considered to be the Lourdes of the East for its healing powers. The legend of the church says that Mother Mary appeared here twice to local people and performed the miracle of curing a lame boy. Then in the 16th century a group of Portuguese sailors were caught in a storm at sea and prayed to her and the storm abated. These sailors built the original church where the faithful come by the thousands on a pilgrimage to seek the blessings of Mother Mary.
St. Francis Church, Kochi
Built in 1503 AD this is India’s oldest European built church, constructed by Portuguese Franciscan priests. It was originally built in wood and later it was rebuilt in stone. When Vasco da Gama died in Kochi in 1524 AD, he was buried here. His remains were taken back to Portugal fourteen years later. The tombstone of his grave still stands here.
Santa Cruz Basilica, Kochi
This large church was originally built by the Portuguese and later rebuilt by the British in 1885 AD. Built in the Gothic style it has an ornate and colourful interior with stained glass windows, arches and confessional boxes. There are beautiful frescoes and murals covering the walls of the chapels.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, Kolkata
Modelled on the Canterbury Cathedral with a high soaring Gothic steeple, this is the landmark church of the city. Built by the British in the 19th century it is one of the most famous churches in India. It stands to the east of the Victoria Memorial Building and has Florentine frescoes and murals depicting the life of St. Paul. The exquisite stained glass windows were designed by the famous English artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Hundreds of the faithful gather here for the Christmas Mass every year.
St. John’s Church, Kolkata
This church is the oldest in the city, dating back to 1787 AD. Its cemetery has the graves of many famous Englishmen like the unique octagonal mausoleum to Job Charnock, founder of the city of Calcutta and the grave of Admiral Watson who fought beside Robert Clive against the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula.
St. Mary’s Church, Chennai
Located near the Fort Street George, this was the first Protestant church built in India. It was built by the East India Company in Madras in the 17th century and it is the oldest surviving British church in India.
San Thome Cathedral, Chennai
Originally built in 1504 AD and then redesigned in a neo Gothic style in the 19th century, this church houses the remains of St. Thomas the Apostle. It stands in the old city of Mylapore where the saint is believed to have been martyred in 72 AD. The Portuguese established the settlement of San Thome here in the 16th century.
St. Thomas Mount Church, Chennai
The Church of Our Lady of Expectations stands on top of the hill called Mount of St. Thomas. It was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. A flight of steps lead to the church that has murals depicting the twelve apostle of Jesus Christ. There is a cave nearby called Little Mount where the apostle used to meditate.
St. Thomas Cathedral, Mumbai
This church was the first Anglican Church to be built in the city. It was completed in the 18th century and its interior has interesting marble memorials to the English who founded this city. It is the oldest colonial building in Mumbai and has beautiful stained glass windows. The church gave the name to the famous Churchgate Station nearby.
St. Andrews Church, Mumbai
Built by the Portuguese in the 16th century on the sea shore of Bandra, it is the oldest church in the city. It has painted wooden altars, murals depicting the life of Christ and a window that allows the first rays of the rising sun to spread into the interiors of the church.
St. James’ Church, Delhi
This domed and pillared cream and white church was built by the colourful Anglo-Indian adventurer James Skinner in the 19th century. Skinner was the founder of the cavalry regiment called Skinner’s Horse and once when he was in danger, he promised to build a church. The church is the oldest in Delhi and has a fine stained glass window, Skinner’s grave stands before the altar and members of his family are buried in the graveyard.
Sacred Heart Cathedral, Delhi
This church was built in 1930 AD during the building of the new capital city of New Delhi by the British. It was financed by the colonial government and built in an Italian style. The church has two of Delhi’s best known convent schools within its precincts.