Nainital – The unknown route.. St John’s Church in Wilderness

Memories of Facebook are a wonderful tool to make me remember, to soak me in nostalgia. Over the years August has been the month when I have invariably travelled. The pictures which came as memories indicated August 2014 as the date when I had stayed in Nainital for nearly a month for an academic purpose.Sundays were free, so were the evenings. Though the climb down from the Institute was sharp and the climb up often exasperating yet a customary stroll around the lake or some unknown hill Road was my favourite. It was one such Sunday that most of my colleagues had gone to Ranikhet, I gave it a miss. The desire to explore the city not on the tourist’s map made me stay back.

Walking across the Mall I had noticed few churches and even some church spirals up the hills. Churches as colonial footmarks are always fascinating. It not only showcases architectural styles but narrate stories. The moss ridden stones, the uncared for cemetery in the compound, the organ pipes stand testimony to the first setllers of the town, their lives and deaths. While looking through books on Nainital in the Town Library the name St John’s Church in Wilderness fascinated me. A church in the wilderness- untold stories, histories and events.

Tucked away within the tall pines and firs where sunlight rarely penetrates the soil, the iron gate of the church and it’s creaking sound assured me that the visit to the oldest standing Methodist Church in India would be worth a rememberance. I almost lost myself in the splendor of the wilderness, the stained glass windows, antique wooden door transported me to the 1800s and to that bygone era.

Nestled within the dark Deodar trees at the foot of the Cheena Peak and located near Mallital,a five minute walk uphill past the High Court,the church was built in 1844.The church was named by Daniel Wilson, the Bishop of Calcutta who fell I’ll and was forced to sleep a night in an unfinished house on the edge of the forest. John Hallet, the then commissioner of Kumaon selected the ground for the construction of a church and the designs were implemented by Captain Young. The cornerstone was laid on October 13,1846. Rev Wilson was an assistant curator at at St Johns Chapel,Bloomsbury and named the church St John’s Wilderness Church.It was opened for divine service on April 1848.

Built in Gothic style, a big metallic bell was purchased and which still hangs on the church spiral. The dark colored timber roof sort of complements the cemetery standing silently and in ignorance. The cost of the original structure was about Rs 15000. Stained glass windows were erected at each end of the church and the art pieces were executed by Ward and Hughes of London. A number of memorial windows representing biblical episodes were built. In the centre is a figure of St John and the Baptist holding a banner and the following words, “ The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness ,prepare ye the way of the Lord.” A brass plaque on the altar is inscribed with names of the victims of the Landslip of 1880.The church had an unusual feature of a gun rack near the door as followers often had to encounter wild animals on their way to Sunday service. A carved communion table was added in 1885 and an Font was also placed in the Baptistery.

Adjoining the church there stands a cemetery, uncared for. The bushes and ferns cover the broken plaques. On one of the upper terraces lies the grave of Christopher Corbett,a postmaster in the local post office and father of Jim Corbett. The grave of Jim Corbett’s mother, Mary Jane Corbett lies here who was the doyen of tourism in Nainital when she built the first lodging facility for tourists.

I was in time for the Sunday service but the church seemed closed. As I walked about the compound I saw the door ajar. There were barely 10 people The church lies uncared for- damp, dark with a flickering bulb. Rose wood windows creak and refuse to open. Sunlight gives the church a miss. The candles burned dimly. A father came out of nowhere and asked me where I was from. Little bewildered, I followed his instructions and sat in the first row. My first service ever, the lights went off, candles flickered, as I faintly heard the prayers I felt something Felt God very near me, a life enriching experience in the wilderness. I remember the theme of the service, God forgives all sins but never forgives a bad word coming from his creatures. These words will reverberate within me all my life. An old woman, a young couple in love , the father who promptly changed his robe once the service was over, the dilapidated but beautiful church will be fresh in my thought for ever. The church reminded me of those silk stoles of my grandmother, neatly folded and preserved but when opened showed signs of being worn out from the passage of time.

Naintal- the city of lakes during that one month seemed to smile in the morning rays and azure skies,glimmer in the orange dusk rays,cry in the torrential rainy season and warm up the soul during the chilly winters. Nainital does not solely exist around the lake teeming with tourists,nor does it live on the rows of shops selling candles,wollens,wooden clocks and rhododendron juices.There exists in sheer grandiose a Nainital less travelled,less cared for yet beautiful steeped in history,colonial past,stories,lives and deaths.The road I travelled ,the road I will remember .