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Places in Search of a Purpose: Colonial Cathedrals in Postcolonial India

Guest author Jonathan Miles-Watson (Tallinn U) contributes this essay to continue the March 2011 Anthropology News series on place.

Christ Church Cathedral. Photo courtesy Jonathan Miles-Watson

If, as Fernandez has argued (“Emergence and Convergence in Some African Sacred Places” in Low & Lawrence-Zuniga, eds, The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture, 2003), space is transformed into place through the mutual constitution of people and their environment, then what happens to places when there is a sudden and dramatic population shift? Does the built environment and the humans that dwell there become disconnected? How do new populations deal with and understand visible traces of past human action? These are the questions that a group of anthropologists and geographers, collectively known as the Landscape Heritage and Practice group, at Tallinn University, have been jointly exploring for the last six years. I have been part of that team for the last three years and throughout that time I have been focusing on engaging my specific fieldwork in Shimla with these general concepts and the theories surrounding them. This has lead me to question the way that the value of sacred places is assessed by those interested in the development of civil society.

From Simla to Shimla
In many ways Shimla provides an ideal case study for this kind of project: it was built at the height of British India as a refuge for Europeans, a place where they could inscribe their presence into the Himalayan Mountains. The historical record suggests that early European visitors to the location that was to become first Simla and then Shimla, often noted that its temperature provided a suitable backdrop to recreate a piece of Europe in India (Pubby, Shimla Then and Now, 1988, p 20). A series of complicated historical events saw the place gradually transformed towards this goal as people deliberately set out to generate a space that resonated with their homeland. Simla then was intended to be a place whose features evoked the homeland and made its European residents feel somewhat at home.

Simla became Shimla and the former summer capital of British India was transformed into the state capital of Himachal Pradesh. To dwell in Shimla today, as I did in 2006 and throughout 2009, is to enter into the life of a sentimental place that looks back to a mythical Europe and yet is something far more interesting than a typical English village, or Swiss hamlet. On my first visit to Shimla it was instantly striking that something in the built environment and the plant life of the place did indeed seem to talk to places in Europe and yet it was clear that Shimla is in no way a simple or imperfect replica of such places.

While occasional Europeans, including myself, do spot the landscape today, Shimla is a place that is overwhelmingly constituted by an Indian (and Hindu) population. It seems as though there has been a break in the thread of population continuity post-independence. This may oversimplify the situation, yet it is clear that Simla has transformed: it was once a place designed to meet the needs of people cut off from the landscape of their ancestors, yet is now a diverse place where people with rather different family connections dominate.

A Surplus of Churches
When MS Randhawa was stationed at Shimla in 1952, he noted that the place suffered from a surplus of Church Buildings (Kanwar, Imperial Simla: The Political Culture of the Raj, 1990,  p 248). This is perhaps not surprising given that Simla had been established as a place where Christian worship was naturally central to the dominant Christian population. However, in what was rapidly becoming modern Shimla Christians would form an increasingly small, if still influential and important minority. It is natural then that the large Cathedrals built in Gothic style and positioned prominently throughout the town were of questionable value.

When I first visited Shimla I failed to realize the importance of these buildings and it was only after living there for some time that the church buildings and the Christian population surrounding them became a clear and obvious research focus. Since I have written and spoken about them at length before (including at the recent AAA meeting in New Orleans),  here I restrict my comments to a brief discussion of the way that two of Shimla’s central Christian places of worship have developed in the postcolonial period. In particular I hope to show that these two places reflect very different understandings of the enduring value of places of worship, which I have previously termed their spatial capital ( Miles-Watson, “Ethnographic Insights into Happiness”, in Steedman, Atherton,  Graham, eds,  Political Economy, Religion and Wellbeing: The Practices of Happiness, 2010).

St Andrews, as seen from the mall. Photo courtesy Jonathan Miles-Watson

It was a while before St Andrews, known as the Scottish church, caught my eye. This is perhaps surprising as it is the highest positioned church in central Shimla. However, it is only visible from certain angles and is not a particularly striking building, being made of red bricks and of an average size. It is built in a Gothic cruciform style with a few ornate features that only reveal themselves upon closer inspection. Moreover, it is not a space the flows of people along the mall regularly and naturally are drawn to. The current building was constructed in 1914 and it was intended to both provide a space for a simple form of worship and cater to Simla’s large Scottish population (Buck, Simla Past and Present, 1925,  p 121).

Post-independence, the Scots moved away and the church lost its importance as a place of worship. The building was assessed and it was decided that its value to society lay in its central location and the fact that it was a reasonably large and sturdy construction. It was understood that it was servicing the needs of increasingly few people and so the space was deconsecrated and reassigned as a library and an evening centre for Himachal Pradesh University. St Andrews today is a little off the tourist trail, which tends to fail to capture the imagination of visitors and most locals, apart from those who are educated there. St Andrews then shows how sacred places can dissolve into functional spaces only to be remade as more limited secular places. It also demonstrates the kind of disconnection between the traces of past action and the present population, which, given Shimla’s history, we might expect to see.

Postcolonial Evolution of Sacred Space
Opposite St Andrews, at the other end of the central ridge, stands Christ Church Cathedral, a place that I instantly noticed and became involved with. Christ Church Cathedral was constructed between 1844 and 1857 to service the Anglican community (Buck, 1925, p 118). The church stands at the most prominent point in Shimla and its imposing stone Gothic style frame can be seen from most points in the city. It crowns the central ridge and draws tourists to it in the summer months. It is also a central location for locals to pass through and around and residents of all faiths have personal stories that they attach to the place. Although the regular attendance at worship significantly dropped post-independence, the church augmented its numbers by integrating with St Thomas, commonly called the “native church”, located on the lower bazaar and continued as an active place of worship. 

Today it holds two regular Sunday services, one in Hindi and one traditional English language service and is the center of several special festivities. Present day worship in the cathedral sensitively engages with past worship, creating a strong bond between the past and the present despite the historical shift in population. By continuing as an active place of worship the church has also intensified its value as a tourist destination, for people of all faiths, who repeatedly report how they are drawn to it as a place of living religious practice. It also is extremely important for the majority Hindu resident population many of whom repeatedly told me how greatly they value the church as a living space of worship. Indeed, they stressed that they also feel a part of the place, which has become a key part of their own identity.

Place, Performance and Spatial Capital
I have highlighted two specific locations within Shimla with an important history of Christian worship in the hope of demonstrating how in one city similar sacred spaces can be made, unmade and remade again into places by the people whose lives they also help to shape. Here we see two models of spatial capital that captures the value of places for civil society. One understands former sacred places as simply a backdrop, a space within which things can be done; it does not seek to limit the potential use of the space by seeking to engage with the traces of past action. The other represents a more subtle understanding wherein action and space are drawn together in the generation of sacred places that can obviate the effects of history by incorporating them (Miles-Watson, 2010). I am beginning to understand that for places to contribute to civil society in the latter sense there must be a privileging of what Lévi-Strauss (Lévi-Strauss,  L’Homme Nu, 1971, p 598) has termed “mythologie implicite”. This is an idea that I will be developing (as part of a panel exploring implicit mythology) at the forthcoming biennial meeting of the Society for the Anthropology of Religion (a section of AAA), which will be held in Santa Fe, this spring.

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