How a Brahmin priest found pride of place in St. Thomas Cathedral | India News


MUMBAI: Behind a cluster of tall trees and amid the thickets of shops and buildings, smog and traffic in the Fort area, the three-century-old St. Thomas Cathedral has seen it all. But beyond its famous arches and inside its walls lined with sculpture, stained glass and liturgical art stands an intriguing piece of history that remains largely unknown.
Inside the city’s oldest Anglican church, on its western wall, is an imposing marble memorial that is decidedly out of place at first glance. It is the monumental figure of a Hindu Brahmin priest in a dhoti and shawl with a lowered face and his hands clasped in prayer under a banyan tree, leaning gracefully over an urn. To understand how this monument found a prominent place in a church, one would have to delve into the life of Jonathan Duncan, the oldest governor of Bombay from 1795 to 1811, buried at the cathedral and to whom the memorial is dedicated.
At the heart of the memorial – erected in 1817 by British residents of Bombay and sculpted by John Bacon Jr. – is a biographical sketch of the Scotsman who arrived in India as a writer for the East India Company at the age 16 and went on to distinguish himself as an administrator, patron of the ancient Indian apprenticeship, who established India’s first Sanskrit college in Benaras, and as a social reformer who eradicated infanticide female in Benaras and Kathiawar. According to James Mackintosh, the Bombay recorder, Duncan had been “Brahmanized” by his long residence in India for 39 years.
The upper level of the memorial features the young Brahmin and a female figure holding the scales of justice. Near his feet are two books, an open scroll, and a mirror with a snake wrapped around its handle. “The books and the open parchment represent his scholarship and his sponsorship of learning. The woman, personifying justice, highlights Duncan’s position as a just and noble administrator, ”famed historian Anila Verghese said in a South Asian Studies journal. The middle section has a plaque praising Duncan and two infants holding a parchment engraved “Infanticide Abolished in Benares and Kattywar”.
“After drawing the attention of the government of Bengal to the existence of infanticide in Benares in October 1789, he drew up a plan to control it. He recognized the special position of the Brahmins and had an extract from the Vratim Vayanta Parana translated to prove that this practice was contrary to the Hindu religion. Then he gathered the Rajkumar chiefs and reasoned them to sign an agreement renouncing this practice. As infanticide was also prevalent among the Raghuvamsis in Jaunpur, Duncan made similar commitments from them, ”writes historian VA Narain in his 1958 thesis on“ The Life and Career of Jonathan Duncan ”.
As for Western symbols – the weeping willow and urn or the face and physique of the Brahmin which conforms to the Greco-Roman allegorical style, Vijaya Gupchup who wrote ‘St. Thomas ‘Cathedral Bombay -A Witness to History’ observes that it was a “fusion of the best of East and West that characterized Duncan himself”.
“There is a lot of indigenization in most of Bacon’s sculptural works, but Duncan’s memorial is perhaps the most intriguing. People see it from a reformer’s point of view, ”says Reverend Avinash Rangayya, priest in charge of St. Thomas Cathedral.

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