In Sindh, Christianity is wrapped up into myth, history and fiction. In the last week of August 2019, I went to the Hyderabad Diocese. A thin man, roughly forty-five years old stopped me at the main gate. He inquired about my purpose. I told him that I want to write about Christ Church, Kotri. He listened, cleared his throat and then declared that Christianity and Sindh are associated from time immemorial. He continued, “Do you know the name of the cloth in which Christ’s body was shrouded?” I looked at him blankly. My gesture encouraged him, “Malmal was its name, it was made in Nasapur, Sindh”. He was in a jubilant mood and obviously wanted to tell more stories. But the Bishop’s man dropped in to call me. I followed him. A description flashed in my mind from Amin Maalouf’s novel, The Garden of Light, where he has portrayed the landing of Mani at the Debal Port. He has described the churches and the associated holy orders so vividly that it creates an image of Debal as a cultural centre of ancient Sindh.
The Bishop welcomed me with tea and Bakarkhani biscuits which were brought from the local chai-khana. I sipped tea and bit into the biscuit, but before my second bite an office helper came in and handed over a chit to the Bishop. The Bishop read and nodded. Immediately, a slender middle-aged man came in and the Bishop offered him a chair. The Bishop introduced Mr. Rafiq Masih who would be our guide for the Christ Church.
We left the office and drove in a Mehran car from Civil Lines Hyderabad to Kotri. And so began a fascinating journey.
We cross the bridge over the Kotri Barrage, collecting Mehran Mallah from the Government Hospital Bus Stop on our way. He is a young local scholar and resident of Kotri. Rafique Masih tells me that near Marvi Cinema in Kotri Town, there is an old workshop. Whether it was of Sind Railways, Indus Steam Flotilla or the West Pakistan Railways – of this he was not very sure.
The car was parked at a nearby shadow. “Reached!”, Rafique Masih announces in a jubilant tone.
“Now the Church’s area is somewhat squeezed. However, old documents show that it was spread over 18 acres”, he explains. We cross the main gate.
Now we are in front of the church building. Its layout is a cruciform plan. We enter the narthex from the western side. Immediately, we see the long wooden benches of a sobering brown colour, placed in between the south and the north aisles, extended to the nave. All of these face the apse.
Some marble memorials “in scared memory” of various Indus Steam Flotilla staff who passed away while in Sindh and Punjab are fixed in the walls. Another type of tablet commemorates civilians who died in Kotri.
We enter the transept area. In fact, this is the area which gave gives the church building its cross shape. We take the left turn, cross the pulpit, and stand for while in the chancel before the cross. We then take the right-hand turn, cross the vestry and reach the point from where we started. On our right is the baptismal font, marked with the year 1854. The bowl and its medium-sized stand were carved out from a single white marble piece.
It is said that Christ Church has not seen a priest like him – a humble, caring, forgiving and charitable man. He was the one who opened the doors of Christ Church for non-European Christians
Rafique Masih recalls what he had learned. He says that in old days families of the Indus Steam Flotilla, Sind Railways and various other Europeans crowded the Sunday services here. However, the celebrated event was the Baptism day. He explains that in colonial British times, Kotri was one of the commercial hubs of lower Sindh. The commercial activities of the Sind Railway Company and Indus Steam Flotilla, along with the easier availability of camels from Jati, Thatta and Badin helped the traders to assemble commercial caravans. Kotri town enjoyed this status till the Sind Railway Company started full operations. However, the railway route bypassed Jhrik town (which was also a river port) and left Kotri to carry on its micro cargo activity.
The description helps me to draw an overall picture of British Sindh – particularly the commercial side of it. I am reminded of some entries from the Sind Gazetteer of 1876. Kotri’s population along with adjacent areas in 1872 was 7,949 souls – of which 304 were Christians of European, Eurasian and Goanese descent. The number of Parsis and those of other faiths was 24.
Mehran Mallah tells me that Kotri was a river port city of the Indus. Its economy was based on freight transportation. He quotes from W.P. Andrew’s book, The Indus and its Provinces: Their Political And Commercial Importance that in the third quarter of 1855-6, some 827 boats passed here on their way up and down the mighty Indus – and they shipped some 8,613 tons of cargo. These boats operated from Karachi to Multan. However, in the rainy season, some of them went up to Kalabagh, Jehlum, Lahore and Ferozpur – all river ports on the Indus or its tributaries.
Rafique Masih further tells us that he has learned from his elders that Christ Church was established by a mechanical engineer who was perhaps an employee of Sind Railways. He resigned and went to England, where he studied theology. Thereafter he returned to Sindh and became the pastor at Christ Church Kotri. It is said that Christ Church has not seen a priest like him – a humble, caring, forgiving and charitable man. He was the one who opened the doors of Christ Church for non-European Christians. One of his pet sentences, which he always uttered in Sindhi, was “Church Yasu Ji Kunwar Aa!” (“The Church is the bride of Christ”).
Rafique goes on to tell us that it is believed that Christ Church’s design has a lot of resemblance with the church of the village of Echt in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. A surveyor of the Sind Railway Company drew its design. Its location suited the local staff of the Indus Steam Flotilla and Sind Railway Company alike. However, it was also near to the European quarters, which existed to the north and west of the local settlement. In addition to that, the European graveyard was also not too far away.
Today, stagnant sewerage water and salinity have degraded the building. Moreover, the earthworks and metallic roadwork in lanes and roads nearby have lowered the level of the building. Therefore, rainwater is retained for a longer period and damages the foundations. In 1988, locals as well as an international church alliance gathered some funds and repairs were done. But still there is a need for major restorative work. I find myself wondering who would care enough, though! The premises are often seen as an abandoned religious site for Punjabi Christians.
We returned to Hyderabad to hand over the car to the Bishop and thank him for the support. We met him in his office. He told us that Christ Church is administered by the Diocese of Hyderabad, Church of Pakistan. In response to our inquiry, he told that Christ Church’s land has already been gradually taken away by the land mafia and political parties. This process, in fact, continues. We understood his concerns were well grounded.
However, we left his office with cherished memories of the British Raj’s Kotri Town – and how Christ Church, a sample of fine Scottish architecture, enriched its religious and cultural life.
The author is a Ph.D. Scholar at the Department of History, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. The areas of his interest are Peasants’ Studies, Social History and the Colonial and Post-Colonial periods. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org