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Reading the Bible along the Ganges

John Chamberlain, the missionary who distributed the Bible at the Ardh Kumbh Mela

Illustration by Jayachandran/ Mint
Illustration by Jayachandran/ Mint

It is 200 years ago, the month of May in 1817. The Doab burns under a sizzling midsummer sun. Some villagers are gathered under a tree, just outside Delhi. They have a book with them. Or do they have books? Word reaches a young man named Anund Messeh, a Christian convert, recently baptized. He rushes to the tree and is astonished to find that the books are copies of the New Testament. He engages the villagers in a conversation about baptism and sacrament.

He then reports to his superiors and there is much excitement in missionary circles about this seemingly miraculous encounter. Then, gradually, holes begin to appear in Messeh’s overenthusiastic narrative. But that’s another story.

How did the books get there? We turn the pages of history. It is now April 1814. An Ardh Kumbh Mela is taking place in Haridwar. Among the millions camped in the temple town for the fortnight is a Protestant missionary named John Chamberlain, who is giving away books.

He would later write: “I took all the books I had for distribution: but amongst the immense multitudes assembled there, all were very few indeed; ten times the number might have been sent abroad with ease: for days we had but one Gospel of Matthew in Hindee, and not one in Bengalee left. … Had I had some Pushtoo and Persian Gospels, I should have been able to have sent some into Persia and Candahar."

Who was John Chamberlain? He was something of a loose cannon, having arrived at the legendary mission of Serampore in 1802, full of good intentions. Chamberlain had a facility with languages and a gift for music. But this did not impress his superior William Carey, who found him not amenable to mission discipline. He was frequently dispatched on punishment postings, such as in Behrampore in 1808, where he got into trouble for preaching among European soldiers.

We turn the pages again. It is now the winter of 1810-11. Chamberlain, along with an alcoholic fellow missionary, is on a boat. They sail up the river to Patna, then to Munger, where “upwards of thirty books and one hundred tracts were given away".

On 25 April 1811 in Allahabad, Chamberlain “stood by the side of the river, and preached to hundreds of people, giving away tracts and parts of the New Testament". By the time the group reached Agra, the tracts had been exhausted and Chamberlain sent for more: “I hope you will send me the remainder of the Hindoostanee New Testament; and if you could get a few more of the Persian Gospels, they would be very acceptable, as the Mussulmans and many Hindoos read nothing but Persian."

The rustle of more pages turning. It is March 1813. Chamberlain has reached Sirdhana variously by horse, elephant, buggy and palanquin. Sirdhana is the seat of the colourful Begum Sumroo, an ally of the British, a former nautch girl who married a European mercenary and became a Roman Catholic. It is during his sojourn in Sirdhana that Chamberlain meets a keen young man named Paramanand, who is eager to be initiated into Christianity. They instantly take to each other and work on translating the Pentateuch and New Testament into Braj Bhasha.

The following year, Chamberlain finds himself in Haridwar and the Bibles he distributes resurface three years later under a tree outside Delhi. But what language were they in? From the evidence we have, they may have been part of a Hindi edition of the New Testament of which 4,000 copies were printed in 1812 in Serampore. Or they might have been the Punjabi edition printed the previous year. In June 1813, he had specifically asked for some copies of the Punjabi Gospel: “(S)hould I live till next February, I shall probably attend her Highness to Hurdwar, where multitudes of those people assemble ... Multitudes of the Sikhs attend there. I hope you will send me a supply of Punjabee testaments to distribute among them."

A last turn of the pages—Anund Messeh, formerly Parmanand, stands under a tree talking excitedly with the villagers, at least some of whom were at Haridwar, accepting the gift of books. They themselves were Sadhs, a Satnami sect, and received much ethnographic attention in the following decades. They lived in five nearby villages and met every year at a general assembly. Their 1817 meeting has since passed into history, with reams written about the significance of their encounter with Messeh. But such writing is often untroubled by the question of what the books were and how they fell into the hands of the Sadhs.

And with that we come to the end of the natural life of this column, or if you like, its endpapers. Endpapers wishes its readers envoi (which originally was a short stanza ending a long poem or ballad). But don’t worry, we are not about to break into song!

This is the last of the Endpapers series on obscure books and forgotten writers.

Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and is director, Jadavpur University Press.

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