Church of St John in the Wilderness, Mcleodganj, HP
As the British furthered their command into India, circa 1849-1850, Dharamsala and Mcleodganj were annexed into their rule. Subsequently, both establishments became cantonments for the army. British civilians and army wives, seeking relief from the summer heat, also moved to these cooler hill stations bringing a new population of Christian followers. A church was a logical need. By 1852, the grey stone structure was dedicated to St John (1 of 12 apostles of Jesus) complete with bell tower and spire. Sun tries to peek through the thick branches shading most of the grassy sloped grounds. Moss flourishes, clinging to the tree trunks and road markers. The main road hauling tourists from Dharamsala along the last few kilometers to Mcleodganj climbs past a church in such a furious pace that the saying “if you blink you’ll miss it” rings true. Stopping to park a vehicle, one quickly realizes there is no place to go but pulling to the side and praying to the Lords above that one of the commonly seen, rapidly moving HPTDC buses doesn’t bring trouble. A shared stone footpath and drainage bed leads travelers down from the road above; a remnant of the engineers who, even in the mid 1800′s, had the foresight to plan for the famous monsoons of India, as well as the trace amounts of snow here. This is Church of St John in the Wilderness located at Forsyth Gunj, a densely forested area between the popular hill stations of Dharamsala and Mcleodganj.
Wider, lower and chunkier looking than most British churches (of similar size) across the country, the floor-plan does follow the same formulaic path of its siblings. Belgian stained glass windows donated by Lady Elgin, wife of Lord Elgin, are the building’s highlight. However, Mother Nature hasn’t strayed from punishing the dark, ominous, and almost eerie edifice. The 1905 earthquake flattened many historical monuments nearby. Thankfully St John’s suffered marginally losing only the bell tower and spire. Nowadays rusting metal sheets have long since replaced the original shingled roof bringing a look of disrepair.
Today, visitors can walk the grounds where a cemetery with Lord Elgin’s memorial resides. Lord Viceroy Elgin was on holiday in Dharamsala, 1863, when he passed. Long forgotten, weathered headstones dot the churchyard much like the random rocks strewn about, a solemn area few others take the time to venture toward.
Doors to the church are open on Sundays with no entry fee.
A stark difference from the crowded western tourist destination it precedes, Church of St John in the Wilderness morphs as a chameleon into the natural surroundings of the Himachal deodar forest. More than 150 years of weather, earthquakes and governmental changes have added character and a sense of peace for those visitors who can appreciate the past before plunging headfirst into the crowded, over-exuberant mentality of Mcleodganj.