Church in the Foothills- How a Heritage Architecture in Nainital is Left in a Sorry State

Vacations and Nainital have an inseparable bond. Ever since its unorthodox and rather romantic chance discovery in 1841 by a sugar merchant from Saharanpur, this cup-shaped hill town has perpetually fascinated people from all over. Every year the lake-town is visited by thousands of tourists who wish to witness the surreal vista of the Himalayan valleys, the sparkling ice-caped ranges, and the placid emerald coloured mango-shaped lake. Besides its aesthetic charisma, Nainital is also home to a number of 19th century colonial structures. Sadly this prized possession is unknown to the swarms of visiting tourists to the town and is subjected to ignorance and neglect from all corners.

Nestled midst age-old Deodar trees at the foot of the Cheena Peak is one such architectural beauty, the Church of St John in the Wilderness. This 19th century Gothic architecture is a glaring example of the plight that art and architecture have been subjected to in a State whose lifeline survives on tourism. It highlights the nostalgia and romance of a colonial town which rose to become the ‘summer capital’ of the erstwhile United Province under the Raj.

With the progressive construction that began soon after the town’s discovery, the need for the construction of a church was felt to develop Nainital into a colonial hill station.

Photo: Mukesh Rawat
Photo: Mukesh Rawat

In 1844, Sir John Hallet, the then commissioner of Kumaon, selected the ground for its construction which was later approved by the Bishop of Calcutta, Daniel Wilson. The designs of the church were carried out by Captain Young, an executive engineer and the cornerstone was laid on October 13, 1846. Probably owing to the demands of the mounting population, it was first opened for divine service on April 2, 1848, even though its construction had not been completed by then. It is arguably one of the oldest churches in the entire Himalayan belt.

As years rolled by and Nainital slowly entered its halcyon days with beautiful bungalows and German arches dotting its slopes, the church too was gradually enlarged and beautified with art and artifacts. In 1860, a big metallic bell (which still hangs on the top of the tower, though it is dysfunctional) was purchased for the church. A stained glass window was erected at each end of the church in 1864. It is a captivating work of art by Ward & Hughes of London.

On September 18, 1880, a massive landslip occurred which left 151 people missing and dead. In 1881, a memorial was erected in the memory of those who lost their lives in the tragic incident. The memorial consisted of an east window, an alabaster reredos and a carved altar table. The memorial window consisted of a series of scenes concerning the resurrection of the dead. The names of those who perished in the landslip are inscribed on two brasses, one on each side of the reredos.

Every year, on September 18, a special prayer is organised by some vigilant members of a generation gone by at St John’s in the Wilderness, now commonly known as St John’s Church. This is apparently the only day when people think of this church. The younger generation is probably oblivious of its existence.

Books written by British travellers and residents on Nainital suggest that the church was once decorated with crystal chandeliers, colourful glasses and exotic brass work. But today the original window panes are mostly broken; thickets of jungle weeds have grown all over the roof and on the walls, and the place seems to be perpetually losing its sanctity.

Photo: Mukesh Rawat
Photo: Mukesh Rawat

Rajshekhar Pant, an educationist from the town, says: “Much of the brass plates, chandeliers and candle-stands have long been stolen. The interior of the church is dinged, damp and full of bats. There is no electricity or any other arrangements of light save the sunlight which comes through the main entrance”.

It appears that for the past 20 years the church has been single-handedly managed by one Wilson, a tea-stall vendor near the cemetery — with absolutely no funds from the administration. It is ironic that the place is just a five minute walk from the Nainital High Court and the famous hotel, Manumaharani. Sadly, it is denied even a signboard to direct people towards it.

The church, if properly maintained, has immense potential to draw tourists, both domestic and foreign, which would be a boon for the lake city and its residents. Its renovation is also possible within an economic budget. Its surroundings need proper parameter-fencing, the road demands a facelift, and probably the State Tourism Ministry can put it up on its website to attract some sponsors who can consider the logistics of its maintenance in the long run.

-By Mukesh Rawat

  • (This write-up was published in go The Pioneer on February 16, 2014 and can be found here.)