How a Brahmin priest found pride of place in St Thomas Cathedral | India News – Times of India

MUMBAI: Behind a cluster of tall trees and amid the thickets of shops and buildings, smog and traffic in Fort area, the three-century-old St Thomas Cathedral has seen it all. But past its famous arches and inside its walls lined with sculptures, stained glass and liturgical art stands an intriguing piece of history that remains in good part unknown.
Inside the city’s oldest Anglican church, on its west wall, lies an imposing marble memorial that is decidedly out of place at first glance. It is the monumental figure of a Hindu Brahmin priest in dhoti and shawl with a downturned visage and his hands joined in prayer under a banyan tree, bending gracefully over an urn. To understand how this monument found pride of place in a church, one would need to delve into the life of Jonathan Duncan, Bombay’s longest-serving governor from 1795 to 1811, who lies buried at the Cathedral and to whom the memorial is dedicated.
At the heart of the memorial — erected in 1817 by British inhabitants of Bombay and sculpted by John Bacon Jr. — is a biographical sketch of the Scotsman who arrived in India as a writer for the East India Company at the age of 16 and went on to distinguish himself as an administrator, a patron of ancient Indian learning, who established India’s first Sanskrit college in Benaras, and as a social reformer who stamped out female infanticide in Benaras and Kathiawar. According to James Mackintosh, the Recorder of Bombay, Duncan had been ‘Brahmanised’ by his long residence in India for 39 years.
The uppermost tier of the memorial features the young Brahmin and a female figure holding the scales of justice. Near her feet are two books, an open scroll and a mirror with a serpent coiled around its handle. “The books and open scroll represent his erudition and patronage of learning. The woman, personifying justice, highlights Duncan’s standing as a just and noble administrator,” says noted historian Anila Verghese in a journal on South Asia Studies. The mid-section has a plaque eulogising Duncan and two infants holding a scroll engraved with ‘Infanticide Abolished in Benares and Kattywar’.
“After directing the attention of the Bengal government to the existence of infanticide in Benares in October 1789, he devised a plan by which it might be checked. He recognised the special position of the Brahmans and had an extract from the Vratim Vayanta Parana translated to prove that this practice was against the Hindu religion. Then he assembled the Rajkumar chiefs and reasoned with them to sign an agreement renouncing the practice. As infanticide also prevailed among the Raghuvamsis in Jaunpur, Duncan took similar engagements from them,” writes historian VA Narain in his 1958 thesis on ‘The Life and Career of Jonathan Duncan’.
As for the western symbols—weeping willow and urn or the face and physique of the Brahmin that conform to the Greco-Roman allegorical style, Vijaya Gupchup who authored ‘St. Thomas’ Cathedral Bombay -A Witness to History’ observes it was a “fusion of the best from the East and West that characterised Duncan himself.”
“There’s a lot of indigenisation in much of Bacon’s sculptural works, but Duncan’s memorial is perhaps the most intriguing. People see it from a reformer’s perspective,” says Rev Avinash Rangayya, presbyter-in-charge of St Thomas Cathedral.

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