Amidst the cool, breezy trees in the South Mumbai district of Colaba, a tall church spire rises from their midst. This 60-meter structure once served as a landmark for ships in the harbor. The spire belongs to the Church of St. John the Evangelist, also known as the Afghan Church.
During the early years of the 19th century, both Russian and British forces were seeking to establish control over Central Asia. The British sought to conquer Kabul, which led to the First Anglo-Afghan War fought from 1839 to 1842. The British were forced to retreat in 1842, in what was seen as one of the biggest military disasters of the time. An estimated 4,500 British and Indian soldiers and 12,000 camp followers lost their lives in the conflict.
Many of the soldiers who fought and died in the war hailed from Mumbai, and it was thus decided to erect a memorial in their honor. The plans for a Gothic Revival architectural design submitted by city engineer Henry Conybeare were approved and the foundation stone was laid on December 4, 1847, by the then-Governor Sir George Russell Clerk. The construction was completed in 1865.
Local basalt and limestone were used to build the church. Inside, there are wide gothic arches and intricate stained-glass windows. The rosewood pews were specially built with space for soldiers to lay their rifles down. An inscription inside the church reads: “This church was built in memory of the officers whose names are written on the walls of the chancel and of the non-commissioned officers and private soldiers, too many to be so recorded who fell, mindful of their duty, by sickness or by sword in the campaigns of Sind and Afghanistan, A.D. 1838-1843.”
It is a beautiful place to explore during a visit to Colaba. The church lies in a quiet, peaceful neighbourhood, surrounded by trees. It remains an iconic architectural landmark and a popular spot for tourists and curious heritage enthusiasts.