Mughal perception about Christianity
The first two Mughal Emperor Babur and Humayun were not able to establish themselves well in India. But Akbar laid a strong foundation of the Mughals that lasted till 1857. Akbar believed in the existence of all the religion in India and also paid equal respect.
Akbar was married to a Hindu, Muslim and Christian ladies, due to which he had great influence of all these religion. In 1582, Akbar started a new religion called “Dīn-i Ilāhī” which means “Religion of God”. It was a religion that intended to merge some the elements of all the religions of his empire, and thereby reconcile the differences that divided his subjects. The elements were primarily drawn from Islam and Hinduism, but some others were also taken from Christianity, Jainism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism.
Jesuit priest were invited by Emperor Akbar from Goa to learn more about Christianity. On 18th February 1580, a delegation of three Jesuit priests reached Agra for an audience with Emperor Akbar. Portuguese Fathers Rodolfe Aquauiua, Antoine de Monserrate and Francois Henriques had made the long and difficult journey from Goa to Agra. Basis historical accounts, Akbar’s curiosity about different religions had caused him to invite priests from Goa. The enthusiasm of the holy fathers was high as they felt Akbar himself would convert, which would open the entire country to conversion.
While the priests were received with respect by the emperor, he never converted. The emperor often held debates between the priests and indigenous religious scholars at court. Father Monserrate moved on, but the faith preached by these early Jesuits left behind its mark in Agra. Merchants and travelers from France, Portugal, Holland and Italy etc, flocked to the imperial capital. Conversion to Christianity among locals also took place, adding to the numbers.
Akbar learnt about Christianity and gave land to Jesuit fathers to build a Church in Agra. This was the first Roman Catholic Church in Agra. According to the historian RV Smith, the festival of Christmas would see the Emperor and his nobles come to the church in the morning, followed by ladies of the harem and young princes in the evening. It is in this period of religious experimentation that the first Nativity plays in India were staged, with Europeans playing a part within, often with the Emperor as the audience. The practices begun in Akbar’s reign continued in that of Jahangir. Gradually the play grew in scale and became better organized, with rehearsals taking place in an area called Phulatti.
After Akbar it was his son Jahangir who donated for further expansion of the Church. Khwaja Martins and Mirza Sikandar Junior too contributed for the expansion. The church was demolished by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1635, after he captured Jesuit Priests and agreed to release them only if they demolish the Church. The Church was rebuilt in 1636 by the permission of Emperor Shah Jahan.
The next blip in the life of the church came when Ahmad Shah Abdali’s troops ransacked the place. In 1769, however, it found another patron in the form of the European adventurer Walter Reinhardt, who helped to rebuild and extend the church. His wife, later known as Begum Samru, was probably baptized in this church.
Rapid increase in the congregation led to the construction of a new church in 1848. This building, standing close to Akbar’s church and dominating what is now a large complex of church buildings is the imposing Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. Possessing a Baroque exterior at its front, the cathedral from within resembles a magnified version of Akbar’s Church with the same curved ceiling effect, the difference between the two places of worship being the altar. The cathedral today serves as the seat of the Catholic establishment in Agra.