An Up Close Look at the Churches of Guwahati- a photo story
Census 2011 data show that Christians constitute only about 2.3 percent of the entire Indian population but they constitute the majority in three northeastern states of Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya. Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh too have sizeable Christian population. In Assam’s capital city Guwahati Christians constitute about 0.93 per cent of the population. The city has a number of beautifully constructed Churches which are decked up during Christmas celebrations. The Christ Church Guwahati , Guwahati Baptist Church, St Joseph’s Cathedral Church, etc are to name a few among them, with their aesthetic church architecture attracting numerous visitors.
Considered as one of the oldest Churches in Guwahati, the beginnings of the Christ Church go back to the arrival of the first chaplain of Assam, the Revd. Robert Bland, on 9 May 1844. It is a historic English speaking Protestant Church located at Panbazar in Guwahati. The Church witnessed two powerful earthquakes, one in 1854 and the other in 1897 where the first two buildings collapsed. The present structure of the Church was built in 1901.
But apart from all these historical data there are various other facts concerning the Christ Church. Presently the Church consists of 242 members but when compared to last year it is seen that this number has decreased (from 257 to 242). The number of members of the Church keeps on fluctuating by at least 5 percent every year. The Secretary of the Pastorate Committee, Mr. Biswajit Barkakoty said that the transferable jobs of some of the families that join the membership of the Church is one of the main reasons behind the fluctuation in the number of members of the Church every year.
Like every other Church in the city the Christ Church too begins the Christmas celebrations by organising pre Christmas activities. But what is little known to the general public is that apart from conducting these activities and events, visiting orphanages, hospitals, old-homes etc have been an integral part of the tradition of this Church. Mr Biswajit Barkakoty said that as a part of the pre Christmas celebrations, an event with the unprivileged children was held on 20th December 2016 at the Church . Speaking further about this event he said that the unprivileged children are selected by an NGO named the WORLD VISION NGO. The children do not comprise of only Christians but belong to different faiths and come from different parts of the city.
The Christ Church Guwahati has also been holding the festival of nine lessons and carols in some form for some years as a part of their Pre- Christmas celebrations. This is the fifth time that the Church celebrates it with full choir, the first time being in 2012. It is hoped that in years to come it will grow into a much loved annual event in the city. The festival is a worship service and therefore open to all. The main theme of the readings is the development of the loving purposes of god seen through the words of the bible. On the day of Christmas the recording of this programme is being played in the television screen of the Church and those visitors who missed the programme earlier are able to enjoy it.
The Christmas celebrations in Christ Church starts on 24th December of every year with a midnight Service that begins at 11pm and carries on till 12 am. On 25th the Christmas service starts at 9 30 in the morning. Mr Biswajit Barkakoty said that about 47000 visitors thronged the gates of Christ Church on 25th December last year and this year they are expecting even more. Along with the Christian community, people from all other faiths visit the Church on this day, offer prayers, sing carols, and after a day full of enjoyment finally go back home with peace in their hearts.
The Baptist Church Guwahati located at Panbazar is one of the most popular and frequently visited Churches in Guwahati. The history of this Church dates back to 1836 when the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society (ABFMS) started a mission centre in Guwahati. There were some noteworthy events during the first ten years of the mission centre which saw towards the establishment of the Church. During this period, the Assamese Christians were scattered in Nagaon, Sibsagar and Guwahati. On 26th January 1845, representatives of Christians of these three places gathered and established this Church in Guwahati which became the first Baptist Church of Assam and Northeast.
Aziz- ul- Haque, the present pastor of the Guwahati Baptist Church said that the Church has about one thousand members and a population of one thousand five hundred all together and in the past five years the Church has mostly seen an increase in its number of members. But he also added that last year some families who came from defence background got transferred to some other place because of their transferable jobs and this affected the number of members of the Church which decreased by twenty persons. Speaking about the staff of the Church he said that there are 9 staff members at present which consists of the Pastor, the Office Assistant, etc. The accommodation strength of the Church is over 500 now. Earlier it was less but as we all know that the population in this Metropolis is ever increasing, so the need to enlarge the Church building became necessary and in 1985-86 part of the walls towards the pulpit side were removed and enlarged in the form of a cross and the present size was achieved.
Language has never been a barrier to Guwahati Baptist Church as it is not limited to just the English language. Different communities come and conduct prayer meetings here in their own languages. Every Sunday the worship service starts at 9 am. Before this the Sunday school starts from 8 am and is conducted in both Assamese and English. The Mizos have their fellowship service from 2 p.m. followed by the Khasis. They conduct these services in their own languages. Empowerment of women is another important concern of Guwahati Baptist Church. Mr Haque said that the Women’s Wing is an integral part of Guwahati Baptist Church and they help a lot in conducting the services of the Church. The Women’s meetings are held every Saturday at 3 p.m. Generally they meet at the Hospital Chapel and sometimes at women’s individual houses. The Church also celebrate Mother’s Day, visit jails and leprosy homes and has been following a tradition of organising a special feast for its members on Boxing day. (the day after Christmas ).
Saint Joseph’s Co-Cathedral is a Roman Catholic Church located at Panbazar adjacent to Salesian provincial house Guwahati. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Guwahati and the main cathedral of the Archdiocese of Guwahati. The history of this Church goes back to 1850, when three missionairies of the institute of Foreign Missions of Paris namely Fr. Julien Robin, Fr. Nicholas Michael Krick and Fr. Louis-Marie-Noel Bernard set up chapels in Guwahati and Nagaon. In the year 1877 Fr Broy built the Church of Panbazar and dedicated it to Saint Joseph which to this day is known as Saint Joseph’s Church. The foundation stone for the present structure was laid on October 6 1990 by Archbishop Hubert d- Rosario of Shillong.
Programmes in the Church include Sunday Mass at 7 am which is conducted both in Hindi and Assamese. English services begin at 8 30 am and 5 p.m. Daily services are held at 6 15 am in Hindi and Assamese and at 5 p.m . in English. Saint Joseph’s Co-Cathedral is one of the main centres of attraction in Guwahati during Christmas. The Church witnesses huge gatherings from 23rd December itself as devotees start flowing in and line up after enjoying various pre Christmas activities for the Christmas Mass. Being the oldest Church in Guwahati, over one lakh devotees from all over the city visit the Church during Christmas every year and gripped in all its Yuledite spirit this year too the Church is ready to welcome all its followers and visitors. During its pre Christmas celebrations recently, a family from Delhi who came to enjoy Christmas here in Northeast was spotted in the premises of this Church. When asked if they it any different here one of the members said, “Attending mass here was very much similar to attending Mass back home. There was an atmosphere of peace and prayer in the Church. It felt warm and familiar.”
Apart from these three frequently visited Churches, the Victory Family Church located at Dighalipukhri is another Church which irrespective of its smaller size, is slowly coming into prominence. According to Pastor David, the Church mostly organises “Bible study”, where one whole day is dedicated to the study of Bible and which according to the members of the Church is a great leap towards their Faith. Here Sunday Services start at 10 30 in the morning . Another interesting fact about Victory Family Church is that the members of this Church write testimonials about their life changing experiences at this Church and these testimonials are uploaded in the official home page of the Victory Family Church.
Beltola Church of Christ is yet another small Church situated at Bhetapara, away from all the hustle and bustle of the city. The total membership of this Church is about 20. The worship and bible study during Sundays start at 9 30 in the morning. On Wednesdays the Bible Study starts at 6 p.m. in the evening. With its small family the Beltola Church of Christ is serving Jesus in its own unique way.
All these small and big Churches of Guwahati do not serve as mere religious instituitions and places of worship for the Christian Community, but these are sources of great inspiration and light for the people of the city. The Churches fill in the void that exists in this 21st century and offer the people of the city a ‘spiritual fix’. And the most important lesson that each of these Churches give away to its followers is to look deep within their souls and arise to serve the needs of all the people in the name of Christ.
Text: Sushmita Mahanta
Photographs: Sushmita Mahanta and Mrinmoy Buragohain
( Sushmita Mahanta is pursuing M.A. in English Literature at Tezpur University. This photo essay has been produced as part of her internship at nezine.com )