Emperor Akbar’s Church in Agra
When we think of Agra, the first thing that comes in our mind is the resplendent Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort, the markets that offer exciting food opportunities, and lastly the infamous Pethe that we get for our relatives when we come back from the old Mughal city. Little do we know that Emperor Akbar who is today known for his secular credentials and maintaining the policy of Suhl-e-Kul, had commissioned one of the first Churches in North India. Akbar is well known for being receptive to the Christian community to an extent that he set up embassies for Jesuit Missionaries and the Jesuits even gave schooling to his children.
According to records, on 18th February, 1580, a delegation of the Jesuit priests (Father Antonio Monserrate, Francois Henriques, Rodolfe Aquauiua) reached Agra for a meeting with Emperor Akbar. The Jesuit priests were received with respect at court and they were honored and debates on religion were held at Akbar’s court between the Jesuits and the scholars at court. With the Jesuits spreading their faith across Agra, it got popularized and merchants, travelers, and traders from all over the world flocked to Agra, and even conversion to Christianity started to take place amongst the locals of the imperial capital.
Impressed with the dedication of the Jesuit missionaries, Akbar decided on giving them a piece of land on the outskirts of Agra where the Christian Armenian community flourished. They were granted permission to build a Church, which would become one of the first churches to be built in North India. As a top-up gift, Emperor Akbar even paid the construction cost of the Church. Today the Church is known as the church of Pieta. It was the first cathedral church of Agra and it was even the Cathedral of Agra till 1848. As the Church gained prominence, and Mughal princes started to come to pray at the Church, Prince Salim (Jahangir) donated a large sum of money to expand the Church as he found the church to be very small. During Christmas, Akbar used to visit the Church, and the priests used to receive him outside the Church and escort him in. Joyous hymns sang by the choir used to take place and the Christmas bells used to ring in the chilly Agra winter. In the evening, the ladies of the Harem and the young princes used to visit the Church carrying candles with them. Easter festivities also started taking place in the city and acquired local color. On Good Friday, the Christians took out a procession to the Church in the evening, and elements of Mughal pageantry were also incorporated in the myriad of festivities with caparisoned elephants, camels, and horses. After the death of Akbar, Jahangir also supported the Church and regularly used to visit it, and pay them a monthly stipend was increased over time. For a period in his life, Jahangir also wore a locket with a picture of Jesus, and sometimes even attended the mass. Khwaja Martins and Mirza Sikandar Junior, who were two eminent Catholics also generously donated towards the Church and its maintenance.
In 1632 things changed as Shah Jahan assumed the throne, as he declared a war on the Portuguese and defeated them in 1634. Shah Jahan bought over 4000 prisoners of war along with Jesuit fathers and all of them were prosecuted. In 1635, Shah Jahan released the Jesuit fathers on the condition that they pull down the Church. However, in 1636 Shah Jahan allowed the Jesuits to rebuild the Church with the leftover materials, and on 8th September 1636, the first Holy Mass was celebrated in this reconstructed Church. But the problems for the Church were not over as in 1758, the Persian invasion under Ahmad Shah Abdali took place shattered the Mughal supremacy, and during the siege of Agra, the Church was ransacked by the Persians.
In 1769 Walter Reinhardt, then Commander of Agra Fort helped Father Wendel S.J. to rebuild the Church and make an extension. In 1835 Bishop Pezzoni with the generous aid from Sir John Baptist Filose extended the Church westward. Over the years many historic events took place at the Church. Such as in 1610 when three royal princesses, who were the nieces of Emperor Jahangir came to the church to be baptized by Rev. Fr. Corsi, S.J. and Fr. Xavier S.J. Today this historical church stands in the shadow of the much grander Church of Immaculate Conception, also known as St Peter’s Church. It also stands as a testament to the idea of Secularism which has a strong fabric under the Mughal rule but losing its integrity in today’s day and age.
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