Project Canterbury

India and Oxford
Fifty Years of the Oxford Mission to Calcutta

London: SPCK, [n.d., but 1933]

Chapter V. The District

East Bengal is a vast country: let us designate by the name "The District" a tiny, quite arbitrarily bounded little bit of it, some fifty miles each way, in which the Oxford Mission works. [Circling round longitude 900 E. and latitude 33°" N. on an average a hundred miles east of Calcutta, in the Government districts of Bakarganj, Faridpur, and Khulna. Barisal is the capital of Bakarganj district, and the largest town of these parts.]

The Baptists have the honour here, as in so many parts of Bengal, of being the first apostles of Christianity. It is almost a hundred years since the first missionary, by name Sylvester Bareiro, came to Barisal, a journey at that time of some weeks in a country boat, but now performed by steamer and train in seventeen hours. In the year 1840 he came into touch, in a village some twenty-two miles north of Barisal, with a little band of Hindus who for years had been seeking after God; through his agency they at last reached the goal of their search, and on May 4,1845, eight of them were baptized, the first-fruits of these parts.

At that date the peasants of East Bengal were little more than serfs, terribly oppressed by their landlords. This new religion might bring salvation in a world to come, it might, too, bring a Sahib protector in this world, a champion against their landlords, a social uplifter. It was worth trying. Within two years the missionary baptized three hundred and fifteen; whereupon the Baptist Society sent down some of their number from Serampore to view the work and to strengthen the worker's hands. Instead of the latter, however, they deemed it necessary to remove him from his post and appoint another in his place. But the missionary stoutly asserted his innocence of the charges brought against him and, backed by the Government Chaplain of Dacca, joined the Church of England, taking the bulk of his converts with him. Thus from the very start Christianity was divided into two somewhat bitterly (a bitterness now, happily, of the far past) opposed forces called respectively Chitans (sprinklers) and Dubits (dippers), names in common use to-day, supplemented many years later, only after Christianity had got a firm hold, by a third body denoted Kathliks.

The new Baptist missionary, John Chamberlain Page, was a man of great zeal and vigour: he was the real hero of early Christian days, the true apostle of these parts. And, as he believed it was his duty to protect his converts and to be a social bulwark to them against oppression, there was a rush of several thousands into the Church. There were, indeed, periodic rushes of hundreds back again, through the pressure of Christian discipline, but on the whole there was a steady increase in numbers, and a strong and keen Christian community began to be built up.

The Chitan missionary, starting as a free-lance, in time became recognized by the Bishop and supported by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and finally was ordained deacon. For many years he lived in the villages among his flock, which never increased as did the Dubits; but when old age overtook him he settled down, a kindly, ineffectual old man, at Barisal, with his village converts unshepherded, and finally died in 1881. The Church authorities in Calcutta seemed to think that the whole Mission had come to an end, and abandoned the work. For thirteen years, however, some hung on, refusing to be dipped, on which terms alone the Baptists would take them; and in 1894, augmented by a large number of Baptists who were dissatisfied at the lack of pastoral supervision in their body, persuaded the Bishop to shepherd them again, which he did by calling in the Oxford Mission.

How many of those who came were genuine members of the old Anglican Mission, and how many were disgruntled Baptists? And again, How many came for real spiritual motives and how many in the hope of worldly gain? These are questions to which widely different answers have been given. Suffice it to say that after some three or four years' testing, goings in and comings out, the number who settled down under Anglican shepherding was about twelve hundred.

As a vague guess it may be estimated that there are from two to two and a half million people in "The District," of whom now some twenty to twenty-five thousand are Christians; of these, probably nearly three-quarters are Baptist, and the rest pretty equally Anglican and Roman. This is by far the most Christian part of East Bengal. And even in "The District" the Christians are chiefly congregated in certain areas, and large portions are still totally unevangelized.

Before going on to describe the present activities of the Church, let us first look a little at the country. All this section of East Bengal is in the delta built up through many ages by the alluvial mud brought down by the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. The dry winter and early spring see the rivers confined to their channels; but come the south wind to bank up the sea, the heat to melt the Himalayan snows, and our full-measured rains from June to September, and the water overtops the containing banks and spreads over the whole land. Once out of the swirl of the current it is able to drop its silt, and speedily does so, thus raising chiefly the land close at hand, and producing a country, flatter than my hand indeed, but still comparatively high near the larger rivers, and sinking down between to low-lying undrained swamps, a difference of as much as six or eight feet. So we have two clearly defined types of land: one, the high banks of the rivers and larger streams, dry all the winter, spring and summer, and only submerged at the height of the rains; the other, the swamps in between, low and undrained, submerged all the rains in deep water, and only drying up some time in the spring.

For man to live in this country land must be raised above high-water level, and this is done by excavating tanks--that is, ponds--and using the mud dug out to raise the homestead. On a high river bank, maybe, no more than 10 per cent, of a piece of land need be turned into water to raise the rest, but in the swamps this figure will go up even 70 per cent. This means that each man's homestead will usually be in a raised corner of his own field. Non-existent, therefore, are the clearly defined, congested, and possibly walled village, the village street and shops, the meeting-place, the village sentiment and corporate life, that are so strong in almost every other part of India. It is this, probably, and our locomotive difficulties that differentiate East Bengal from the rest of India more than anything else. A village tends to be a mere collection of houses scattered equally all over the "parish" (to borrow a term from the English countryside), and man, very regardless of his neighbours, outside of corporate discipline, does that which is right in his own eyes. Not that the land is sparsely inhabited. The swamps hold seven or eight hundred to the square mile, and the river banks over a thousand: an almost entirely rural population.

Rice is our staple crop and our food. Of the many subsidiary crops, jute is perhaps the most worthy of mention. Fish, too, is the daily food of most people on most days, and a good trade is done in it with Calcutta and our more local towns. No railway enters the district, though one spans the hundred miles from Calcutta to Khulna on our western boundary, and all the larger rivers have a very efficient steamer service. There are a fair number of roads in the higher parts, but in all these swamps there is only one real road, the process of its making resulting, of course, in a large canal by its side. Otherwise in the dry weather the fields can be walked across, though in many parts the innumerable cross waterways and ditches make this a rather amphibious occupation. Though rice must be sown on dry land, yet once it has well germinated it continues its growth in the water, and as that increases, the length of the rice-stalk concurrently increases so as to keep the green blade tips showing above. Until it is in the ear no damage is done by boats going through it, so the rains are the one easy time of swamp locomotion, when we can punt in a straight course across the fields from house to house. There remain the times intermediate between the wet and the dry seasons, when wading through mud and water is a necessary part of all our journeys. All our civilization and our habits are coloured by our slow locomotion, and it makes pastoral work among these scattered Christians much more difficult. A church and a school can only serve an area with a very small radius.

How, then, should the Oxford Mission tackle this task laid upon it of shepherding and teaching these little groups of ignorant Christians scattered in many villages in this waterlogged country? The ground-work, which has not changed from its inception, was to divide the villages into eight "parishes," each with a reader in charge, and schoolmasters under him in various numbers according to the extent of the parish and the number of hamlets in it containing Christians. Over these have been two English priests, at first living in Calcutta and making periodic excursions to the district. This could only be a temporary measure; a closer contact was needed. So in 1900 a life of continuous touring was started, with headquarters first at Barisal, on the south-east edge of the district, and after 1906 at Jobarpar, right in the centre of the swamp parishes. In 1904 two Sisters also began to tour at the same time as the priest, and in 1915 two more came to make a permanent settlement at Jobarpar. Since that date, therefore, one priest has permanently resided there (except when shortage of numbers has made him to be nonexistent), and the remaining seven parishes have shared the other priest.

Jobarpar is not a widespread parish; all its six hundred Christians live within three miles of the church, and the work there is conducted on a centralizing principle--that is, one offering of the Holy Eucharist on Sundays for the whole parish at the parish church, though Evensong is said in several hamlets. But this principle could not be carried further. The wading times are lengthy, as Jobarpar is in the middle of the swamp, and in them it is really impossible for the outlying people, especially the women, to get to the parish church. Their best time is in the rains, when they can come in boats. The schools are run on a central plan too, with "boardings" in the church compound for boys and girls; these house the Christian children of the parish, except those whose homes are close by, until they are able to pass the entrance examination into our Barisal schools. Jobarpar is a very central place for the bulk of our Christians, but it has not developed yet into their "cathedral city," though we hope that some day it may do so. In two ways, however, it serves other parishes. One is through a dispensary with doctor, still Hindu, and Christian compounders, where all may come from far and near for healing. The other is that the priest here holds monthly meetings for the readers and teachers from the other parishes, at which they may receive some instruction and have an opportunity of communion between the infrequent visits of a priest to their own parishes. A typical reader-run parish will contain probably some three hundred Christians within a seven or eight mile radius. At headquarters there will be a church and school and also a rest-house for the priest and one for the Sisters, besides of course, houses for reader and teacher. At one or two outlying villages there may be a church and school, or school with an altar in an alcove, a house for a teacher, and quite possibly a "Box and Cox" rest-house. One parish, indeed, is forty miles long, with some twelve little groups of one or two families of Christians all down the banks of a river. For this there has to be a second reader living permanently in a boat, and touring among these outposts. A reader's task will be to conduct services both daily and on Sundays, to look after and in some way to train the workers under him, to visit the sick, to try to settle quarrels (and what a continuous and onerous job that is in this country!), to teach people for baptism and confirmation, and generally to set a Christian standard in his parish. Three or four times in the year the priest, with the travelling Sisters, will descend upon the parish. If it is a river parish, or a swamp parish in the rains, then their boats may come right up to the church compound, otherwise the boats will have to be left in the nearest river and the rest-houses occupied. The days of their visit will be days of high activity. The preparatory teaching given by the reader must be tested and supplemented, and those ready admitted to baptism or their first confession, or passed for confirmation if the Bishop's visit be near. The schools must be inspected, families visited, the Sacraments administered, the parish affairs looked into, and things left in abeyance settled. The better the reader is doing his work--and very faithfully indeed many do it--the more there will be for the priest to do on his arrival. If it is a large parish centre the visit may last ten days or a fortnight, or it may be three days at a smaller place with its chapel-of-ease, or just one night with an isolated Mass in the verandah of the house next morning. And then three months more of lay ministrations until the priest's round has come full circle again.

1931 saw the first step in the ending of this system, hitherto the best that could be devised, when a reader was made a priest, and so one parish in addition to Jobarpar received a resident ministry. We look forward to the time when all the other parishes will have readers become priests of their own, and equally we hope that by that time at least as many new parishes will be forming and clamouring in their turn for priestly ministrations. For these thirty-five years we have been so occupied with the pastoral care of the Christians that we have had but little thought for the non-Christians. The starting of an indigenous ministry with one ex-reader priest and the hope of more is surely a call to us to lift up our eyes once again to the vast number of Hindus and Muslims all around.

Two-thirds of the inhabitants of East Bengal are Muslims and one-third Hindus. The few parts of "The District" in which Christians are in bulk are the only areas in East Bengal in which Hindus predominate. The first movement was entirely among them, and practically all the Christians are of Hindu peasant ancestry. The high-caste Hindus in these parts do not live scattered in all villages, but are congregated in a few selected areas. The bulk of the villages are inhabited only by cultivators, either Namasudra or Muslim. The Namasudra is the low-caste Hindu who is really the aboriginal of the country, and whose religion is at base a kind of animism smeared over with and received into Hinduism. Though no doubt their religion is at root idolatrous, yet idols do not play a large part in their worship: these, when they occur, will usually be found to belong to some high-caste Hindus, or to have been adopted from them. In some parts many are Haribhaktas, devotees of Hari (Vishnu); their delight is with drum and cymbal to work themselves up into a state of religious intoxication and to shout "Hari bol" (say Hari) until they are barking like a dog. This is to them the religious state, and in these ways and by pietistic talk they live up to the saying, so common in England, that the Indian is incurably religious. Otherwise they seem to have very material minds.

In many places Hindus and Muslims live side by side in comparative amity, but they are two entirely different communities, and there is very little intercourse between them. Unless there is some communal dispute to arouse ill-feeling, each party keeps itself very much to itself. Beyond the fact that some Muslim children attend our village schools, we have really no contact with Muslim society, and it has made no mark upon the Christian Church.

The new convert has taken his Namasudra civilization with him and carried it en bloc into the Christian Church. In these villages the Christians' mode of life, social customs, ways of regarding and of expressing religion, are but very little different from those of the Namasudra. All these, then, have one by one to be brought to the touchstone of Christianity, and allowed to remain, or be modified or rejected, according as they pass or fail to pass that test. And so as we look around we widen our view of the first call upon us, which was to shepherd some untaught village Christians, and see our task to be that of building up the Catholic Church in East Bengal life; of taking these two civilizations, the Hindu and the Muslim, and welding them into one under the banner of Christ. Is not this a task worthy of the doing, and one in which we can claim your prayers and your help?

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