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St Francis Church (Kochi, India)

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The oldest European church in India - burial place of Vasco da Gama.

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      09.07.2012 14:54
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      A fascinating insight into early colonial life in India

      ~The Oldest Church in India~

      The second church we visited in Kochi (formerly known as Cochin) in the Indian state of Kerala was St Francis' CSI Church. CSI stands for Church of South India - not Crime Scene Investigation, in case you were wondering. Our visit came directly after we'd been to Santa Cruz Basilica so the contrasts between the two were quite noticeable. Although the basilica is bigger and grander than St Francis, it's less authentically old, having been destroyed and rebuilt. St Francis, by contrast, is the real thing - a genuine old 'as it was built' chuch which dates back to 1503 when it was founded by the Portuguese explorers who were the first to land in India.

      1503 might not make your jaw drop open with astonishment - after all we were building fabulous churches and cathedrals long before that in the UK. My village church dates back to 680 so why would a church from 1503 be so significant? Well for a start it's the oldest and the first European church in India and secondly it was built only five years after the sea route from Europe to India was first discovered. That discovery is all the more significant since the man who made it - the great Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama - was subsequently buried in St Francis church in 1524 after taking ill and dying on his third visit to India.

      It seems funny today to reflect that the world was once the shared oyster of the Spanish and the Portuguese. All the more so when you consider what a mess the two countries are currently in with their economies and unemployment problems. In the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, the Pope had carved up the world dividing the Americas and as yet undiscovered new lands between the two countries. It's hard to imagine the arrogance of such a decree but it certainly fired up the Portuguese to head off in search of the riches to the east after the Spanish got the better deal in the West. Speaking of arrogance, of course we Brits didn't do too badly a couple of centuries later, building our own empire without any help from the Pope.

      ~A Brief History of the Church~

      St Francis is both a church and a record of the history of Kochi and its surroundings. The Portuguese arrived first led by da Gama and they built a fort by the sea to protect their position. To this day the area is still called Fort Kochi though there's little of the actual fort to see any more. After risking life and limb on the high seas, it was perhaps not a surprise that the Portuguese wanted to build a church to thank God for their safe arrival. At that time the church named after St Bartholomew was built in wood and then a few years later was replaced with a more solid and long-lasting construction of brick which was completed in 1516 and rededicated to St Anthony.

      In 1663 Kochi fell to the Dutch who kicked out the Portuguese and destroyed most of their catholic churches, retaining just St Francis and the original Santa Cruz church. I read somewhere that they used Santa Cruz to store their weapons but they must have rather liked St Francis and converted it to become a protestant church. Looking around the church you can find evidence of tombs of both Portuguese and Dutch settlers. In 1795 the British turned up to seize Kochi from the Dutch who later offered it to the Anglican church who in turn changed it's name and rededicated it to St Francis.

      ~What you'll see~

      St Francis is not a grand or fancy church and at the time of our visit it wasn't looking its best. The exterior is painted and was looking distinctly damp and mouldy in places, though this is pretty typical in such a high humidity environment. Scaffolding on the facade suggested there were plans to do some work, perhaps to repaint the building. The church looks distinctly Portuguese in shape when viewed from the front with a bell-shaped gable. Stepping through the metal gates, the first thing to notice is the war memorial to the dead of the First World War which stands directly in front of the church. Passing round the side of the church to find the entrance, you'll see lush green trees and neat gardens.

      There's no fee to go inside but if you want to make a donation, you'll find various boxes inside to leave some money. Some are for specific parish causes, others for the upkeep of the church. Aside from being the oldest church in India, the attraction that pulls in the visitors is Vasco da Gama's tomb, set into the floor of the church. As I stood looking at stone a little voice in my head was saying "Haven't you already seen Vasco da Gama's tomb' in Portugal? I had a sneaky suspicion that I'd already been to see the great man in the Jeronimos monastery in Lisbon and I found a framed document on the wall explaining that da Gama was originally buried here but had subsequently been dug up and repatriated to the homeland where he now inhabits a much grander tomb in the monastery and where far more of his countrymen and women can visit his mortal remains.

      The church is small inside and quite plain. I would imagine in its Catholic days it might have been rather more brash but centuries of protestantism have calmed it down and it's very calm compared to the Santa Cruz. The walls are white with little decoration. The stained glass windows are very simple with just blocks of colour and simple cross designs. The altar area is very simple too - though there's an attractive dark wood screen behind the altar. The place appears to be very much a working church rather than a tourist attraction - it's a bit scruffy and untidy in fact. Simple chandeliers are hung from the ceiling and there are electrical ceiling fans to cool the congregation. The tiled floors through the centre of the nave are attractive and clearly later than the stone floors at the sides.

      The wooden pews have woven cane seats and look rather more comfortable than the wooden benches we saw elsewhere. Basic 'punka' style fans are suspended at the sides of the nave.

      Vasco da Gama's second to last resting place is surrounded by a brass rail and there's a frame on the wall beside it with a painting of the man and photographs of the Jeronimos monastery, his tomb and the nearby Monument to the Discoverers. It's quietly understated and a nice memorial to the great man. Marking the later Dutch wave of inhabitants, we found lots of tombs with inscriptions in Dutch as well as those with Portuguese.

      ~The Dutch Cemetery~

      A visit to St Francis won't take you long as there's not too much to see other than the tomb. It's a calm, quiet place and if you can't face the onslaught of the post card touts outside, just sit down and take a few minutes in the cool interior before you head out again. Whilst there's not much to look at, it's worth stopping to think about how life must have been for the first settlers who made Kochi their home and the generations that followed them to India - whether Portuguese, Dutch, British or local converts. Soaking up the atmosphere is the thing to do in St Francis - and when you're ready to head out, take with you a little bit of the 'feel' of this rather modest little place. I recommend to take a quick walk down the road to the Dutch Cemetery. It's not often open but I found it interesting to peer through the iron gates at the tombs of the many Dutch who didn't get to use any return tickets and left their souls on Indian land.


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