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Like a prayer

December 20, 2009

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The Holy Trinity Church in Karachi. - Photos by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

Inner peace is what man seeks. Places of worship are meant to help man achieve that goal no matter where they exist.

There's an ear-splitting sound of horn-honking as if a flock of geese is in trouble. Private and public transport vehicles coming from Hotel Metropole leading to Zainab Market or touching Sharae Faisal from Zaibunnisa Street depict a picture of a poor man's Formula 1 race, with the only difference that the crowd here likes to take its eyes off the chase. Spare a thought for a splendid building that stands peacefully amidst all of this modern-day dissonance. It's Holy Trinity Church.

Spread across a reasonable expanse, with open spaces of small well-mowed grassy patches and a ground where children occasionally play cricket, the church area is a world unto itself. As you enter the premises through a large gate, you notice a stone residence on your left. On its upper storey resides the bishop, and a priest and his family occupy the ground floor. But it's impossible not to keep looking at the church tower. It's so unique a sight that involuntarily your feet start moving in its direction.

Don't think too much if you find your neck a bit stiff from gazing at the tower for long, because stepping into the holy place through the Romanesque entrance will hold your breath. From here begins a spiritual journey. The Baptist font, the high ceiling, the well-arranged pews, the pray area, the pulpit, the lectern (on whose one side lie musical instruments used by Urdu- and Punjabi-speaking congregations)... make palpable the spirit of solace and comfort that permeates this space.

There used to be a sloped roof made of wood, says a gentleman who works here. He shies away from publicity (hence no name) and has an extremely cultured disposition. When the white ants got to the wood, it was replaced by a cement roof in 1963, he says.

Originally it was a garrison church. It's very, very old. In 1901 and 1903 additions were made to the main building. It didn't initially have a clock or bell tower. I tell you an interesting thing. There's this septuagenarian by the name of Inayat John. Every third or fourth day he goes up the tower and winds the clock. No one has ever asked him to do so. He does it voluntarily. He even once suspended himself in a sling and repainted the dial. The clock is never ahead or behind the actual time.

Touching the walls of the building reminiscing how this piece of stonemasonry was constructed, he says Someone known used to say 'stone is a porous thing, it should be allowed to breathe'.

There are a number of plaques and tablets adorning the church walls that point to the historical importance of this structure vis-à-vis Karachi and Karachiites. One reads T J Taylor B A Head Master Grammar School Karachi 1884-1901, 1902-1905 OBiiT 14th October Erected in Token of Esteem and Respect by Pupils Past and Present 1906. Another is to the sacred memory of C.B. Rubie. Colonel Rubie was, perhaps, the same man to whom an inter-school cricket tournament, the Rubie Shield, was dedicated and regularly organised before Partition.

It was in 1855 that construction work on Trinity Church was given the final touches. At the time there were hardly any lighthouses in the region; therefore churches with tall towers were funded so that they could put up beacons on their summits. This may have been one of the reasons for making a 150-foot tower, while the nave's length is 115 feet. In 1904 its top two storeys were taken out. However, it could still be used as a signalling station in World War I.

Two men - first Bombay Engineers' Captain John Hill and then chief engineer of Scinde Railways John Brunton — took up the task of designing the building, and mainly because of the latter the Florentine Renaissance style was adopted. Made of local, buff colour Gizri stone, it's not an overly ornamented structure and catches the eye because of its simple characteristics. Trinity Church's foundation stone was laid by the erstwhile Bartle Frere.

Architect Arif Hasan says “This building is made in north Italian Romanesque style, resembling pre-Renaissance Florentine architecture. It's pretty austere and also has attributes of military architecture, particularly with reference to its tower battlements. In the 19th century what you saw was mostly the revival of Gothic designs, but very few structures were an example of Romanesque revival, and Trinity Church is one of them.

It's an important piece of construction and the historic buildings around it — Edward House, the Baloch Mess and Governor House extensions (all stone structures) — make this vicinity a special one. If you open up the church a bit, the area can become an important precinct.

The traffic outside is mad, with not even a single moment of respite. There's a helter-skelter rush to reach destinations, to meet the deadlines, to buy clothes. And yet, when you look at an aged, peaceful building in the midst of it all, life appears to be the way it should be tranquil.

mohammad.salman@dawn.com