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Based out of Sydney, Australia-born Joanne Taylor is scholar, writer and photographer specialising in Indian architecture and culture. Her first visit to India was in 1971. Taylor studied Indian History at the University of Sydney and wrote her thesis on Calcutta's Great Houses for the University of New South Wales. In her book The Forgotten Palaces of Calcutta, Taylor focused on the architectural history of the heritage houses of the city (note: Calcutta became Kolkata from 2001). Along with writing for numerous publications, she penned her third book The Churches of India.
What makes Taylor’s The Churches of India unique is that she not only focuses on the architecture but the curious artefacts too, such as the ‘punkhas’ (embroidered cloth fans) inside the Church of St Francis in Fort Kochi.
In this interview, Taylor offers an insight why she chose to write on the churches of India, how she charted her travel, and her favourite churches in the country.
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Wouldn't another metro city been a logical follow up for the third book? Why Churches of India?
I had spent a lot of time in Kolkata and become fascinated by the wealthy merchants and landowners’ houses, the erstwhile rajahs of the city. It is always interesting to see where people stay, not just the great monuments of a city. Many people heard about my work in Kolkata and would tell me they knew someone who lived in ‘an old house’. This is how I managed to be invited to visit and take photographs of the interiors. To start afresh in another city would have been lengthy and difficult.
My publisher Bikash Niyogi (of Niyogi Books) suggested I look at the architecture and history of India’s churches. The idea captured my imagination. It is my first all-India book, and I was still able to include the history of each area I focussed on. Altogether it was a wonderful experience.How easy or difficult was it to choose the churches that you wanted to cover in the book?
I wanted to showcase a variety of churches, but I also wanted to tell the story of how European and British churches came to be built on Indian soil. I began at the beginning, in Kerala, where it is widely believed the apostle St Thomas brought Christianity to India in 52 C.E.
The book then moves on across the country to the places where various colonial powers held sway and the ways in which they introduced their own form of Christian architecture. The more I researched and travelled, the more I realised I would have to narrow down the number of churches I could include.
Kerala has many churches as does Goa which I begin the book with. Nagaland has the largest number which I included rather briefly. Perhaps a second volume could include that interesting state and others I had time to touch on only briefly.
How long did it take you to research, travel and write the book?
It has taken around three years, off and on, as I am based in Sydney and have a family.
If you were to name five favourite churches from the ones featured in your book, which ones would you choose?
St Martins’s Garrison Church to the west of Delhi was designed by architect Arthur Gordon Shoosmith, a contemporary and disciple of Edwin Lutyens, the famous architect who designed New Delhi. Construction began in 1929 and was completed in 1931. Sadly, it is not well known despite it being one of the 20th century’s most remarkable churches.
The Church of St Francis in Fort Kochi was originally built in 1503. It is full of European colonial history, and was once the burial site of the great Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama who discovered the sea route from Europe to India. The church is small with beautiful hand-embroidered punkahs.
One of Old Goa’s most famous and fabulous churches is the Basilica of Bom Jesu. It was built in 1594, the oldest of Goa’s churches, and holds the remains of St. Francis Xavier. Visitors can’t help being intrigued by the story of this saint. It is Baroque in style, and the interior glows with burnished golden carvings and an enormous statue of St. Ignatius of Loyola looming above a tiny statue of Jesus. It is an amazing building.
St John’s Cathedral in Tiruvalla is another wonderful church. It is huge with a Hindu temple-like exterior. The original church was considerably smaller and designed by the famous British architect Laurie Baker however, after it deteriorated over time it was replaced by the building we see today. It closely follows the original circular design. Along with aspects of temple architecture are Keralan and ancient Syrian Christian design elements as well. It is a surprising building in so many ways and well worth a visit to Tiruvalla.
St Pauls Cathedral is one of the most important buildings in Kolkata. It is notable for its Gothic Revival architecture with Indo-Saracenic elements as well as its colonial era history and collection of artifacts inside. It is situated right in the city surrounded by a large garden. Across the road is the Bishop’s Palace, also one of Kolkata’s famous buildings. At Christmas, the whole cathedral and the surrounding area is decorated with lights to herald the beautiful Anglican ceremony in the church.What would you like to say about Kolkata?
Kolkata has a unique history, and the wealthy merchants and landowner’s mansions and palaces are part of that. I wanted to show another side to the city rather than the maligned image it has suffered for so long. I now feel I know Kolkata well and have made many good friends there.
Apart from the modern shopping malls and new housing developments, much of Kolkata is original. This really interests me. Everywhere is a photo opportunity and yes, I would love to work on another book on Kolkata, after all I see it as my ‘second home’ now.
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