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A History of the Church of England in India
Since the Early Days of the East India Company

By Eyre Chatterton
Bishop of Nagpur

London: SPCK, 1924.

Chapter XXVI. The Diocese of Assam, 1915. The Country of the Tea Gardens


1. Herbert Pakenham Walsh, D.D., consecrated 1915.

THE Diocese of Assam was carved out of the Diocese of Calcutta in 1915. The project had been debated for a good many years, and was at one time abandoned on the grounds of the comparative smallness of the number of Church people (then about 1600 Europeans and 3000 Indians) and the fewness of the Clergy (five Europeans and four Indian) to serve under the Bishop.

There was also the difficulty that the capital of the province, Shillong, was ministered to by a Government Chaplain of the Calcutta Diocese, the only one in the proposed diocese, and that under Government rules he could not serve under a Missionary Bishop. But the immense distances, the extremely bad communications, and the very scattered nature of the work, English and Indian alike, made Episcopal supervision from Calcutta extremely difficult, and indeed, with the growing provincial work of that Metropolitan See, almost impossible. Bishop Lefroy, therefore, pushed forward the endowment scheme, and his statesmanship got over the difficulty about the Shillong Chaplaincy, not by leaving the capital of Assam outside the diocese, as had been actually proposed (!), but by arranging that the Chaplain there, while departmentally under the Bishop of Calcutta, should be spiritually under the Bishop of Assam. He also very wisely arranged that the port of Chittagong and that division of Bengal should be included in the diocese, an arrangement which it is thought will some day be imitated by the State, since Chittagong is the natural port of Assam, and the head-quarters of its principal railway system.

Assam Diocese consists of an inverted triangle, whose base, some five hundred miles in length, runs east and west along the wall of the Himalayas, flanking the mighty Brahmaputra river, which is in many places seven miles wide; the southern apex being at Cox Bazaar, below Chittagong, where India touches Burma. The western Bide of the triangle, also five hundred miles in length, after crossing the Brahmaputra valley, skirts the western wall of the Garo Hills, crosses the south of the great Surma river, whose basin runs up in a ramification of rivers to Sylhet and Silchar, and finally terminates along the coastline at Cox Bazaar. The third line, on the east side, about six hundred and fifty miles in length, runs from Sadiya, the frontier station, where the Himalayas meet the Patkoi Hills, south-east through the Naga and the Lushai Hills to Cox Bazaar. The Garo Hills of which we have spoken, are the most westerly of a great block of hills (Garo, Khasi, Jaintia, and Naga) which divide the two great rivers Brahmaputra and Surma. The hill-station capital of Assam, Shillong, is pleasantly situated at a height of 5000 feet in the Khasi Hills, at the inconvenient distance of sixty-three miles from the nearest railway station.

It will thus be seen that the diocese includes two great river valleys, separated from each other by a great block of mountains. The two valleys swarm with an Assamese and Bengali population respectively, and in both of them are found the great tea estates which have made the name of Assam known throughout the world. The tea planters have imported labour from all parts of India, and so these plains are filled with representatives of scores of races, speaking a medley of languages, and shaking down eventually into what is called "Garden bat," a mixture of Hindi and Assamese. The hills are inhabited by tribe after tribe of sturdy Mongolian mountaineers, some still "head-hunters," others, through the splendid pioneer missionary work of the American Baptist and Welsh Presbyterian MethodistMissions, largely Christian and somewhat advanced in civilisation. The number of Asiatic languages spoken in Assam is seventy-eight main and fifty-eight subsidiary languages (the latter spoken only by small groups). The scenery is glorious, alike in the hills and in the plains, and owing to the heavy rainfall the country is verdant and the vegetation luxuriant all the year round. Cherrapunjee hi the Khasi Hills has the greatest average rain-fall in the world, viz. six hundred inches.

In recent years coal and oil have been developed in parts of Assam, but apart from these industries, and tea, the country is purely agricultural, and vast stretches are still unredeemed jungle and forest. Steamers ply along the great rivers, and a line of railway traverses each of the great valleys and pierces through the mountains between; but apart from this the only communications are unmetalled roads, which become quagmires in the long rainy season. It will be seen at once that there are no large towns, and few large centres of population. The so-called capital, Shillong, is a small hill-station, and the little Church there, which serves as a pro-Cathedral, holds a hundred and thirty people, and is as large as any in the diocese. The English planters are very scattered, and usually have no Churches, and very infrequent services, each Chaplain having an enormous parish, involving many thousands of miles of travelling each year. The Indian Christians are equally scattered in small villages, where they build their simple Chapels, and receive teaching from a Catechist, while an Indian Priest visits them once every month or two.

The climate in the rains is steamy, enervating, and malarial, and it is very hard to maintain an English staff. The whole European staff of six has been wiped out twice during the seven years since the first Bishop came. The Indian staff has been augmented in the same time from four to nine, and is now adequate. The European staff needs similar augmenting, but it was first necessary to secure a living wage for those engaged, which has been done owing to the increasing support from the planting community. One name stands out pre-eminently in the Church history of Assam before the diocese was formed, that is, the Rev. Sydney Endle, who laboured for forty-three years (1864-1907) on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, and who was revered and beloved by the planters. He has left behind him two large Indian Churches, one of Mundas and Orauns at Solabari, near Tezpur, and one of Kacharis at Bengbari in the Mangal-daye district. Endle was a great authority on the Kachari language and people, among whom he was a pioneer missionary. Nelson Cosserat and Hugh Millett did splendid work among Indians at Dibrugarh and English at Chittagong respectively, and their deaths in the early years of the diocese were a great blow to the work, as they alone of the English staff had any length of experience in Assam.

The Kachari work suffered heavily after Endle's death, partly through the devastation caused by the fatal disease Kala-azar, which sweeps that district, and partly through there being no successor with a knowledge of the language to carry on the work. The diocese being launched in the stormy days of the Great War, made it impossible for men or money to be procured for this and other crying needs, but there is at last hope of the Kachari work receiving the attention it so sorely needs.

Up to 1922 there was no medical work and no woman worker in the diocese. In that year a nurse was sent out by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, for child and mother welfare among the Christian villages. Educational work has been similarly backward. But the same year saw the establishment of a Vocational School at Jaipur, the work of the school centring round farming and allied industries. A Deaconess has offered for this work, and it is hoped that soon a boys' and girls' school will be adequately staffed and equipped. It is also proposed to develop a Training Institution for Catechists, a supreme need of the diocese.

Another project which is slowly maturing is a hostel at Shillong for Anglo-Indian boys of our Church, who are attending the Roman Catholic School there as boarders, and who consequently get no religious teaching or worship.

The Indian Christians in the diocese are mostly immigrant Kols from Chota-Nagpur, who come here for the tea-garden work. They have, for the most part, now left the gardens, and become land-holders in Assam. A few scattered Khasi and Mikai congregations in the hills and Santali immigrants in the plains contribute the remainder of the Indian Christian flock, which numbers about 5500 and speaks eight languages. The European adherents of the Church of England number about 1500.

(This chapter has been written by the first Bishop of Assam.)

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