Harking Back: Jesuit missions to Lahore and the first wooden church

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn May 8, 2016

As you walk from Lahore’s Paniwala Talaab (the British-built waterworks) towards Tibbi Bazaar past the mysterious grave of ‘nau-gazza’ (nine-yarder), you reach the Tibbi crossing. At the eastern corner is a church. This is the site of Lahore’s oldest church.

In the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar (1556-1605), Lahore was the capital of the Mughal Empire, and it was in this period that the city reached its cultural zenith. People of every faith came to Lahore and it was here that the experimental ‘faith’- the ‘Din-e-Elahi’- crystallised. Every Friday evening the emperor would listen to the discourses of the leaders of all the known faiths, and he would invite questions as he would question himself. It was in this time period that the very first Christians came to Lahore. It goes without saying that other Christians might have passed through Lahore, but the first missionaries came to Lahore in the year 1580 AD.

Before I dwell on the first Christians, let me describe the first church. It was built of wood and was erected in 1591 by the Jesuits priests Father Edward Leitao, Father Christopher de Vega and Brother Stephen Ribero. One Portuguese source tells us of five other Christian converts of Lahore helping them to erect this small wooden church, and when the first cross rose on the church at this point, there was a mild protest by both Hindu and Muslim priests of old Lahore. The emperor had at that time not permitted them to build a church, so the Jesuits were summoned and asked to explain. In those days building a place of worship needed permission from the emperor. On listening to their point of view, he ordered that the cross be placed inside the small room and not on the roof. The Jesuits complied.

So it was that a small one-room wooden church came up. This structure was burnt down on the orders of Emperor Shah Jehan in the closing days of his rule. During the 40-year reign of Maharajah Ranjit Singh (1799-1839), permission to rebuild the church was denied, though in his last years he allowed them this facility provided the size of the church remained the same and was built of wood not stone. So it was that the church at this point opposite Ali Park and within sight of the Lahore Fort came up for a second time. Once the British took over, initially in 1846, and fully in 1849, Christians gathered and rebuilt it in stone. Of recent it has been redone in gaudy tiles, though on a visit I discovered that the ‘caretaker’ had no clue to its historic importance.

Now let me return to the reign of Emperor Akbar and his experiments with religions. The very first Christians to come to the subcontinent were Portuguese traders, and because of their knowledge of coastal India, the first missionary to land here was Francis Xavier on the 6th of May, 1542. The first Christian College of St. Paul had already been set up in 1541 by traders in Goa. So it was that the very first missionary school in the subcontinent came about. The first Jesuits to meet the emperor were Fathers Anthony Vaz and Peter Dias.

Because of this meeting Akbar in 1576 sent an ambassador named Abdullah of Lahore to Lisbon. He was accompanied by an Armenian Christian named Dominic Perez, who was connected to another Armenian Christian lady of royalty named Mariam Zaman. She was to marry the emperor, convert to Islam and build a beautiful mosque opposite the fort’s eastern entrance, which is still known as the Mosque of Mariam Zamani. It was in its days Lahore’s finest because neither the Badshahi Mosque nor that of Wazir Khan had come up. It still remains among the three most beautiful mosques of Lahore.

The Jesuits in Goa had come with the mission of trying to convert the Muslims of the subcontinent to Christianity, and so it was that the very first Jesuit mission came to Lahore in 1580 to meet the emperor. Let me quote two lines from their record, the original written by Father Anthony Monserrate today lies in Lisbon, but has been translated into English in 1867. The line says: “… the curious ignorance of local customs must be uprooted.” And then it says that in the court of Akbar the “foolish worship of the Sun is also permitted.” It seems the leaders of the Parsi faith were very much there in the court of Lahore.

But the central objective of the Jesuits was to “convert the emperor”, a mission in which they failed. But what the emperor did allow was a translation of the Holy Bible, a copy of which still exists in the library of the Lahore Fort by the name of ‘Dastan-e-Masih”, a work undertaken by the grandson of Francis Xavier, which was completed in 1606.

We all know that Akbar had married Mariam Zamani Begum. Mariam’s sister, Lady Juliana was the doctor of the royal harem in the Lahore Fort. Juliana was given in marriage, a decision approved by Akbar, to Prince Jean Philipe de Bourbon of Navarre of the royal house of France. Akbar had an adopted son, Mirza Zulqarnain, son of Mirza Iskandar an Armenian and bodyguard at Akbar’s court. Mirza Zulqarnain was the founder of the Jesuit College at Agra. At one stage he was made the Governor of Lahore, but in order to dispel the notion that the Armenians were all powerful in Akbar’s Lahore court, he was sent to Bengal as the Governor.

After Akbar’s death, both Emperor Jahangir and later Emperor Shah Jehan appreciated his administrative ability and respected him immensely. In his old age he was sent to Tibet by Shah Jehan to set up a Jesuit mission there. In Portuguese accounts Mirza Zulqarnain is often referred to as an Apostle, a second St. Paul. But by the time the British came, this title was not used again.

The support within the Lahore court of the Jesuit cause came in the shape of a second mission to Lahore led by Father Leitao, who built Lahore’s first church. This mission stayed in Lahore for a whole year at a small house in Tehsil Bazaar. That building at the end of a narrow lane still stands.

After the Jesuits had analysed their first two missions to Lahore, a third one was constituted in 1594 and was led by Father Jerome Xavier, grandson of Francis Xavier, and comprised Father Manuel Penheiro and Brother Bento de Goes. They managed to get the emperor to permit them to open the first Christian school in Lahore, whose location is not known. It would not be a surprise if the wooden church at Tibbi Chowk was where it started operating. The history of the Jesuits and Lahore remains largely unexplored, but is an important chapter in the way various beliefs unfolded since the days of the now unknown ‘Din-e-Elahi”.


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