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After two years of nonstop labor, Mumbai’s famous Afghan War Memorial Church has been restored to its original splendor

The magnitude of the conservation and restoration task faced by the 165-year-old Afghan War Memorial Church hit Kirtida Unwalla like a sock in the face when she entered its grounds in what may be one of the farthest points of Mumbai. It was in complete disarray, as she recalls, like “remnants of a war zone.” It was 1998 at this time.

Standing inside the Grade-I historic building last Thursday with the seven consultant teams who had worked on it over the previous two years, Unwalla referred to the outcome as “a dream come true.” She said, “I had just returned from my architectural conservation training in the UK when we started.” The year was 1996. Her first conservation initiative as a professional was this one. For thirty years, Unwalla has been associated with the chapel built as a war monument for the 4,500 British troops and 12,000 camp followers who lost their lives in the first Anglo-Afghan war (1838 to 1940) and the second (1878 to 1880) conflicts. Funds are needed for a project this large, and the Church Committee, INTACH Mumbai, and “friends of the Afghan Church” provided the initial round of funding, according to her.

Priority was given to restoring the altar roof and stained glass windows during the first four stages, which ran from 1998 to 2009. Glass conservator Swati Chandgadkar, a longtime friend and colleague whom Unwalla refers to as a “partner for life,” was responsible for the main stained glass windows and the clerestory windows that line the building’s sides. Every one of the windows was ordered to be made in English glass workshops. This meant that a locally manufactured copy, created by deep etching and embossing, had to be used to fix the 700 damaged panes of pressed glass.

After that, funding was canceled. There were just not enough parishioners—roughly 20 families—to support a project of this magnitude at the church. The World Monuments Fund India (WMFI) executive director, Amita Baig, requested that Unwalla compile a report detailing the initial degree of damage to the ancient building. The World Monuments Fund India (WMFI), along with Citi India, provided the Rs 14 crore needed in 2022 to finish what had been begun.

Our eyes go up from the stunning windows to the wood-paneled teak roof, which is the focal point of attention for Christopher Elisha, a member of the Afghan Church Pastorate Committee. Grinning, the third-generation parishioner remarks, “I’m seeing the original color of these panels for the first time.” The bituminous layer inlaid in the teak wood panels had been eroded by leaks, leading to internal wood rot. New wood trusses are already emerging from the stone pillars.

The church’s 198-foot spire needed maintenance. It was constructed in 1865. It was necessary to remove the damage caused by earlier restorations. A robust three-inch steel mesh was added to the cement only as part of earlier repair work. Stone and cement just don’t mix, says Unwalla. An unusual eight bells in this church. To have them ring simultaneously, as they do today, their mechanism had to be worked out. Actually, Elisha is the one who, like his father and grandpa before him, is in charge of ringing the bells to play hymns and carols. According to Sangita Jindal, chairperson of the JSW Foundation and board member of WMFI, “The Afghan Church was built as a place of worship, but it was also a navigational landmark for ships approaching the harbor as the steeple could be seen from miles away.” “With its imposing spire and eight bells, it has distinguished itself as a significant historical and navigational landmark.”

Salts from the soil had risen around the altar, causing damage to the walls and pillars of Porbunder limestone. Over the course of two months, a clay poultice was applied and the salt was extracted. Looped iron chains extending from a pole outside the building guide water away from the façade and into a soak pit where it may safely evaporate and drain away, keeping the water from sloshing against the side of the walls during the intense monsoon.

In addition to the church’s structural repair, the artifacts within needed some TLC. Our task was to conserve these components in order to prolong their lifespan. Following that, we concentrated on restoration in order to strengthen the message that these artifacts were intended to portray. This was overseen by art conservator Anupam Sah and his team, who also looked after the restoration of the baptism font at the entrance, the memorial cross, the screens, lettering, mosaics, and metal and marble plaques, as well as the standards that were hung to honor the Bombay Native Infantry regiments.

For Unwalla, this building is a monument to human existence and life’s labor rather than just a church. We must never lose sight of the church’s original purpose. Built as a memorial to the troops who lost their lives in the Afghan War, it is a garrison church. The East India Company intended for this monument church to serve as a memorial to the warriors and heroes.

However, during all these years, the regiment names of the Indian troops who died have not been included. For this reason, an information center is being constructed inside, allowing it to disseminate its history and function as a teaching tool. “Maybe this [church] too will find its place there one day, with Mumbai’s Gothic architecture currently listed on the World Heritage List,” Baig hopes.

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