Friday, April 1, 2016

Barisal Boasts of Asia’s Second Largest Church

Subah Shaheen

The mosques of Bangladesh have, for years, fascinated both its beholders and the people who have heard about its splendor and structural brilliance. Some of the most famous mosques of the world are located in Bangladesh but the small South Asian nation is home to other awe-inspiring centers of worship as well. One of which is the Oxford Mission Church or Epiphany Church.

The Oxford Mission Church is one of the largest Christian congregational sites in the world. In fact, it is the second largest by size in Asia. Located in the south-most district of the tropical nation, this grand architectural structure can be found in Bogura road of Barisal town, Barisal. Barisal is a land of scenic beauty and thus, forms the perfect backdrop for this majestic structure. It is said that it was in fact, the beauty of that fertile region along with the simplicity of the inhabitants there that had eventually attracted the missionaries of Oxford Church, who had settled in Kolkata primarily, to travel eastward and establish another base. It was this need for a new stronghold that led to the creation of this monumental church.

The missionaries played another vital role in the establishment of Oxford Mission Epiphany church. The main design of the building was provided by them as well. Sister Edith sketched the outline of the church which was improved upon by Father Strong. The chief engineer of this majestic structure was Frederick Douglas, an Englishman who had completed his studies from Oxford’s Christ Church institution. He has been credited with the creation of this artistic structure. The church was mostly completed by 1903 and opened its doors to devotees on 26th January of that year, though secondary work on the project still continued till 1907 after substantial donations had been collected from benefactors. The church played a great role in elevating the lives of the local residents. It had a substantial impact in reducing poverty, educating locals and empowering females. Therefore, this church holds great historical significance as well and therefore, holds the status of a local heritage site.

The compound stands over 35 acres of land making it unquestionably the second largest by size in Asia. The very large Oxford Missionary Church is structured using red bricks, which gives it its predominant color of red. The building has been designed following Greek architecture and this unique masterpiece of such timeless style continues to captivate every eye which beholds its magnificence. Though the building consists of a single floor it is by height the equivalent of a five storied complex. Due to this fact, the present authorities believe it to be the largest church by height in Asia. As per the Greek norm, the building has countless, expansive corridors and archways. The number of archways is unanimously considered to be forty though no written numerical limit has been attached to the corridors. The inside has been carved with wood which provides a comfortable ambience to the devotees who regularly kneel before their lord there by walking over the smooth marble tiled floor. The chapel is very spacious and the pews accommodate a fairly large group of devotees. Though the inside of the church is serene and sophisticated many religious Christians, as well as tourists have voted the giant cross situated atop the principle altar to be the real spiritual attraction. From that high position Jesus Christ is believed to bless all those under him.

Another unique feature of the Oxford Mission church is the giant bell it houses. No other church in Asia has one of such colossal size. This artifact is quite the favorite of tourists and is rung seven whole times in a single day. The beauty of the compound is not limited to the church building. The surrounding open area is quite efficient in winning hearts as well. Inside the compound are rows of palm trees guarding the spectacular structure. A total of thirteen ponds of various sizes are scattered throughout the premises which simply add to its allure. This appeal of nature is further strengthened by the numerous plantations, especially medicinal and floral, which are grown throughout the well maintained surrounding land.

The compound has other structures as well. The church has opened schools- a primary institution, a secondary institution and one exclusively for girls, - a hospital, a library, students’ dormitories and homes for the clergymen. Hence, it is a center of great importance to non-Christians along with Christians themselves. It has become an influential part of local society and in fact, the regional swimming competition is held at one of its ponds. The primary objective behind establishing the church was to alleviate the lives of the impoverished and backward Christian community which resided there and it can be clearly seen that the church has been quite successful in realizing that dream. For over a hundred years now, the church and its members have served the local community and provided the local Christian population with spiritual guidance. To others, the Oxford Mission Church has provided a chance to behold and become mesmerized by one of the finest creations of human labor. The beauty of the church is inspirational and when one adds in the years of history behind the structure; the infinite stories that must have unfolded during its hundred plus years of existence, then one naturally becomes overwhelmed.

Keeping in mind the historical appeal tourists feel there, many antiquities have been brought into the compounds for the visitors to observe. The list includes war weapons, mementos of historical heroes, tokens of monarchs, ancient statues and coins, maps of the old civilizations, manuscripts of distinguished personalities etc. Though the church and its compounds are sufficient to fascinate visitors, due to the increasing number of tourists who visit the wondrous site, all these antiques have been collected to give the visitors, especially those from foreign countries, a treat of Bangladesh’s rich history and culture. The compounds are open to visitors and so are certain regions of the church but a permission has to be taken in advance by the authorities for a whole tour. That is to be expected as the main task of the church is praying and thus, tour times have to be scheduled to suit the praying routine. Although once governed by British authorities, the power positions are now held by Bangladeshis and currently Father Francis Pandya is responsible for Asia’s second largest church.

With all being said, a trip to this little paradise in Barisal is highly recommended to those who love art or are interested in history. Even to those who don’t fall into that category, this would be a great chance to explore a marvelous creation and see beauty at its best. So, why not try it out? Pay tribute to one of Asia’s finest architectural designs.

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