Vasco was here

On Christmas Eve we reached Kochi’s St. Francis church a little late. The church is a historic monument, being the oldest church built by Europeans in India. and not in use, and it was closed by the time we reached. The Portuguese style facade looked interesting, and we wondered whether it would be open the next day.

The church was not only open when we went back in the morning of Christmas day, but it was crowded. As we walked in through the open gate I realized that this was a pretty international crowd from the old world. Europeans on holiday spoke languages from the east, west, north and south of the continent, and there were Indian, Sri Lankan, Thai and Chinese tourists too. I hadn’t expected that Kochi would be such a widely appreciated destination.

The door was wider than it was high, not something I’ve seen before. Even if you include the height of the arch above it into the opening, it was still an unusually wide doorway. The current facade is certainly not older than 1506 CE, when the Portuguese were allowed to convert the wooden St. Bartolomew’s church, which had been built here in 1503, into a masonry and stone structure with a tiled roof. The facade and doorway probably dates from that rebuilding by the Franciscans in 1516, although the door looked modern.

The clock in the facade did not look very old either; I guessed early 20th century. It turns out to have been installed in 1923 in memory of a former managing director of the 56 year old Aspinwall and Company, which by then had begun to dominate trade in the Malabar region. The church, by then Anglican, was declared a heritage structure later the same year.

But this story is running ahead of itself. The Family had walked into the church while I was still gazing at the door. I followed her and noticed the worn flagstones just inside. Benches were helpfully placed here so that you could sit while you removed your shoes. If I’d seen the wood paneling of ceiling in Portugal I would certainly have said that this was in the Mudejar style. Here it was difficult to guess when this paneling was installed. The plain pillars which supported the ceiling gave an impression of great simplicity.

I moved into the main church and looked up at the upper story beyond the lobby area. This large balcony would probably have seated dignitaries in the days when the church still attracted them. The church was pretty bare inside. Was it always so bare, or had the Dutch occupation after 1663 responsible for its current looks? It seems that an altar and a gilded screen was removed after the Dutch occupation. A plaque at the entrance commemorates a renovation by the Dutch in 1779. The church was handed over to Anglican in 1804, and renamed St. Francis’ church.

The church, and the Dutch cemetery behind, is an epigraphist’s delight. I’m not one but I walked along the walls peering at the commemoration stones behind which various then-famous people are buried. A lot of them are from the late 17th century CE, and hence likely to be Dutch. Vasco da Gama was buried in this church exactly 495 years, to the day, before we visited. His body remained there for 14 years, until, in 1538, it was moved to Lisbon. His body is now in the Geronimos monastery outside Lisbon. A small railing surrounding a bare stone flag on the floor marks the spot where he was first buried.

In spite of the crowds, tourists here had been so orderly that I’d managed to take all the photos I wanted without having unwanted body parts in the frame. Now, as I left, I noticed the tiles on the floor and took a photos. These tiles were definitely installed by the Anglicans, because I found them elsewhere in Anglican buildings in Kochi. For the first time I noticed that a disembodied toe had entered the frame. Good, I thought, one way to tell that the place wasn’t empty.

Author: I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

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