Saturday, December 7, 2013

How Much Do You Know About The "Khristiya Bhajan"?

Each Saturday, Nepali Christians can be seen carrying their personal copies of Bibles and hymnals to church. Some Bible covers even have a pocket on the outside specifically made to fit the pocket-sized publication of the hymnal. No matter what church you go to—non-denominational, denominational, a branch of one of the flagship Nepali churches, or, in my church’s case, non-denominational turned denominational (yes, I am Nepali charismatic Anglican)—in many cases, the same songs are sung. For foreigners who come and attend, the hymnal is perhaps the only reason that they persevere in learning their Nepali letters—so they can sing on Saturday with the congregation!

But how much do people know about the Khristiya Bhajan—the hymnal that stays continually in print, and is utilized in church services, house fellowships, prayer meetings, and even impromptu get-togethers between Nepali Christians? Where did it come from? Who put the collection together? Who translated they hymns and choruses from English? Who are the composers of the original Nepali bhajans and choruses? When was it first published? How has it become so popular and cross denominational lines and geographic space in Nepal?

Below, I’ve put together a small quiz, based on my MA research, and more recent research questions I’ve been asking people. Test your own knowledge about this ubiquitous Nepali hymnal!

  1. True or False: the Khristiya Bhajan has always been the predominant hymnal used in Nepali-speaking churches.
    1. True
    2. False
  2. When was the Khristiya Bhajan first published?
    1. 1975
    2. 1980
    3. 1985
  3. Who were the prominent people in compiling and publishing the Khristiya Bhajan?
    1. Ron Byatt and Jonathan Lindell
    2. Loknath Manaen
    3. All of the above   
  4. True or False: the majority of hymns contained in the Khristiya Bhajan are translated from English.
    1. True
    2. False
  5. What kinds of songs are in the Khristya Bhajan?
    1. Songs suitable to church liturgy, like the Lord’s Supper, Christmas, etc.
    2. Bhajans and Choruses, respectively
    3. Songs for worship, fellowship and evangelism
    4. All of the above
  6. When was the first notated edition of the Khristiya Bhajan published?
    1. 1980
    2. 1987
    3. 1997
  7. Songs from the Khristiya Bhajan are used in
    1. Church services, house fellowships and prayer meetings
    2. Music lessons, special programming, and commercial albums
    3. All of the above
  8. Who uses the Khristiya Bhajan?
    1. Illiterate Christians
    2. Second-generation Christians
    3. Foreign missionaries
    4. All of the above
  9. True or False: The Khristiya Bhajan will soon become an outdated and unused collection of songs.
    1. True
    2. False


  1. False: The Khristiya Bhajan has been the primary hymnal used in churches in Nepal, but there were Nepali speaking churches in Darjeeling/Kalimpong as far back as the 1870s and several song collections that preceded the Khristiya Bhajan. The primary song collection used in the Darjeeling congregations was the Git Sangraha. This songbook contained songs in Hindi and Nepali (I’m told that this remains the song collection still used in the Darjeeling/Kalimpong area, but I have yet to make a visit to the area for research purposes to see/ask about this). Copies of the Git Sangraha were brought with Nepali Christians when they moved from Darjeeling to Nepal, but other song collections soon made their appearances. One was called the Mashiha Git Sangraha, which was the first all-Nepali collection of hymns sponsored by The Nepal Border Fellowship and compiled by Australian missionary Rita Skilbeck in 1955. This lyrics-only compilation was printed in India, but became widely used in Nepal. Ron Byatt, a missionary with the United Mission to Nepal (UMN) who arrived in 1957, also put together a small booklet entitled Lo, Hami Sabai Prarthana Garau, which contained twenty original Nepali bhajans, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Beatitudes. This was printed in Kathmandu in 1959 and became very popular for village evangelism. Local churches in Nepal also produced new song materials, and there came to exist a growing body of original songs throughout Nepal, but there was no easy way to gather and reproduce these materials for distribution. Several groups recognized the need for a hymnal entirely in the Nepali language that would be acceptable for use in churches all over Nepal, but it took a while for a project to get traction.

In 1959, the Literature and Literacy Committee of UMN, chaired by a man named Jonathan Lindell, commissioned Ron Byatt and Sunhang Sodemba—also members of the committee—to collect and compile songs for an all-Nepali hymnal that could be used in churches all over Nepal. Ron Byatt began collecting songs for a hymnbook while he was stationed in Amp Pipal. Sodemba had a huge repertoire of Nepali and Hindi songs “in his head” (Ron Byatt, p.c.) and was thus a major source for songs. But Byatt also literally went all over Nepal making field recordings of songs for about eight years, fitting this work in-and-around his other responsibilities. First he used a second-hand tape recorder made by Boosey &Hawkes, which weighed fifteen pounds and were powered by two 67.5-volt batteries, but then he obtained a smaller (and better) Phillips recorder which was powered by AA batteries (which were easily obtained in Kathmandu) and which only weighed about eight pounds (after hearing thing, and walking and traveling around Western Nepal carrying my own gear, I'm so thankful for my Zoom H2 recorder--which is about the size of my hand--with its SD card and AA rechargeable batteries!). Byatt would ask pastors which hymnal they were using, if any, and would collect the songs they were using. Sometimes these were scribbled down in pencil, but usually, he had to record them from the composers themselves. One of his informants was Nepali evangelist Daud Masih, who was part of the Gaine, an untouchable caste of traveling minstrels (for more on the Gaine, see book here). According to Byatt, Daud sat with Byatt and sang almost a hundred songs from memory—which took two days for him to sing! Daud would sing his original compositions as he walked all over Nepal (with a lame leg!) spreading the Gospel. In addition to collecting songs from all over Nepal, and counterparts in Darjeeling (this included Birendra Rongong, brother to Rajendra Rongong, who was a well known musician in the Darjeeling churches), Byatt translated English hymns into Nepali (or chose existing Nepali translations) to fill “gaps” he saw in hymnody. The resulting work was the Nepali Bhajan Sangraha, and Roy Hagen, who at the time was producing Christian literature out of Darjeeling, printed it in India in 1967. This collection included 450 bhajans (no choruses), the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed and the Ten Commandments. Additionally, this work included a line of staff notation (of just the main melody) for each song, hand-written by Byatt. There would be at least two re-printings of this work during the 1970s.

  1. C. 1980. By 1978, reprints of the Nepali Bhajan Sangraha had run out, and the newly formed Hymnbook Revision Committee—headed by Jonathan Lindell and with representatives from NEB (Nepal Evangelistic Band, later renamed International Nepal Fellowship) and NCF (Nepal Christian Fellowship)—decided that Byatt should undertake a thorough revision of the Nepali Bhajan Sangraha. It was at this point that Byatt met Loknath Manaen—who had moved to Kathmandu from Darjeeling in 1977 to head the newly formed Nepal Bible Society and work on revisions to the Nepali Bible—who invited Byatt to make his home in Kathmandu his base for revision work. From December 1978 to January 1979, Byatt visited Nepali-speaking churches in India (Darjeeling, Ghum, Kurseong, Kalimpong and Algarah) and Nepal (Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Patan, Butwal, Tansen and Pokhara), recording 300 new hymns and choruses. Some of these songs were taken, with permission, from existing hymnals put together by El Shaddai and Pentecostal congregations, but the vast majority were original songs. Byatt used a recording machine made by Sony this time, which lay flat and had 5-inch reels, and was by far the easiest recorder (of the three) that he had used. Loknath helped Byatt choose 150 of these new songs for inclusion in the new hymnal, while at the same time removing 100 of the less-used hymns from the existing Nepali Bhajan Sangraha. Byatt saw this as a revised and expanded version of the Nepali Bhajan Sangraha, but Lindell wanted a new name for it. The consequent edition—which contained 468 hymns and 34 choruses—was named Khristiya Bhajan.

  1. C. All of the above. Just checking to make sure you’ve been paying attention =) 

  1. False. A quick look the indexes indicates that there are about 180 hymns (out of 752 bhajans currently included in my 2010 Khristiya Bhajan) translated from English. For the choruses, this might be a different story. However, I think the majority of songs people actually sing in church services are the original Nepali songs. From the practice of my own Nepali church, I can say that, while there are some translated songs that we frequently sing (“There Shall Be Showers of Blessing,” “King of My Life,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “I Know Not Why”), there are some that we sing very Nepali style (“This World is Not My Home,” and “Must I Go Empty-Handed” are sung to the same folk tune), and many of the choruses people don’t realize are translated from English, or even Hindi (I have also heard chorus 1 sung in Hindi and Urdu; in which language it was originally written I don’t’ know). Personally, growing up, I did not know that the bhajan “King of my Life” or the chorus “When the Spirit of the Lord Comes Upon Me” were originally English songs; it wasn’t till I started doing research for my MA that I discovered these things! All this to say that, just because something is translated or did not originate in your immediate culture doesn’t mean you can’t make it your own. I would also argue that there’s a long tradition of translating within Western hymnody, so translating worship songs from other languages into Nepali is not without its forerunners. Ok, I'll stop there; these thoughts are getting beyond the scope of a blog post...

  1. D. All of the above. The Khristiya Bhajan is physically separated into two sections, the front portion being bhajans—strophic songs (verses, a refrain)—and the back portion being choruses (shorter, more repetitive songs that might not necessarily be strophic in form). Over the years, some songs have switched categories. For example, chorus 111 used to be “herana hera shristiko sundartaa,” but this song is now bhajan 502 and chorus 111 is now “parmeswarko choko bedimaa”; bhajan 505 used to be in the chorus section and I still by default refer to it as my favorite chorus. Now, some Khristiya Bhajans have a section of children’s songs at the back as well.

Certain songs are sung during church calendric events. For example, bhajan 102, “stuti hos, prabuko jayjaykaar” (written by Birendra Rongong) is the default Communion bhajan at my church, and there is a whole host of Nepali Christmas carols that get paraded out for two to three weeks leading up to Christmas at church services and “karol keldai” (playing carols) sessions. Most of these have a very folk feel to them, and use the ubiquitous jhyaure rhythm, thus conducive to dancing.

Interestingly, when I was doing my MA research, all these different taxonomies came up in interviews and conversations, but the most interesting one was the categorization of songs for worship, songs for fellowship, and songs for evangelism. I chose to use this taxonomy to organize a portion of my thesis, because I thought it best reflected the activities and relationships of the Nepali Church at large. I’m still completely fascinated by all the songs that unashamedly address non-believers and tell them, as straight-forward but lovingly as possible, that they’re straight up sinners (bhajan 108, with the line “Nepali, paapi manlaai pakhaali, Yeshuko chheumaa jau.” This was a song frequently sung during the Patan 2011 Easter rally in which I participated as we marched from Lagankhel to Patan Durbar, around to Pulchowk, and ended at Jawalekhel—which, having grown up in Patan, I couldn’t help but notice was the same route as Rato Machendranath’s chariot, but we went the opposite direction) and that the whole dharma-kharma thing is vain (bhajan 237, with the line “dharma ra karma saabaai bhyertha chhan, yo timi bujha lau”).  

  1. C. 1997. Byatt desired that a line of notation be included for each of the songs in the Khristiya Bhajan as had been done in the Nepali Bhajan Sangraha, however, Lindell overruled the idea and the resulting Khristiya Bhajan was published as a lyrics-only work. As a result, it included new songs that which nobody knew the melody to. However, this did not stop Nepali Christians from singing them. They would fit the words to tunes they already knew, or make up new tunes for the songs. This meant that each individual congregation often had their own way of singing certain songs. While this allowed room for much creativity (for example, the Appalachian hymn “This World Is Not My Home” is often sung to a common folk tune, and I have heard bhajan 72 sung in a dark minor key as well as a bright major key!), the obviously frustrating factor was when churches from different locations in Nepal got together for conferences or other events, they couldn’t actually sing together! So a notated edition had two objectives: to standardize the songs so people could sing together, and preserve these melodies for posterity.

Several projects were started and stopped—mostly geared toward how specific churches in Kathmandu sang the songs—but the idea to begin a project that was more inclusive of all congregations was begun by an Australian couple attending Patan Koinonia Church at the time, the Lewises. Owen Lewis was a doctor at Patan Hospital who also played the violin; while on the worship team for Koinonia, he and the worship leader, Kiran Pradhan, began notating the melodies so he could learn them. They got the idea to sent copies of the Khristiya Bhajan along with blank cassettes to various composers whose work they knew was included in the collection (unlike Western hymnbooks, the Khristiya Bhajan did not include the names of composers). They sent these all over the Kathmandu Valley, as well as to Darjeeling, Sikkim, Silguri, and even Scotland (where Birendra Rongong had settled with his Scottish wife), so that composers could record a performance of their own compositions. When the cassettes were returned (some were, some weren’t) the songs could then be notated. This work was continued by a number of missionaries after the Lewises left, but was completed by Karen Knisely, Miriam Ramse, and Nagendra Pradhan. Knisely did most of the notation, Ramse was bookkeeper, editor and organizer of the acquired materials, and Pradhan—whose own song and those of other musical family members were included in the Khristiya Bhajan—searched for original composers and obtained recordings of these works from them, many of whom he already knew from his family’s connections.

The final production had a lead sheet or “fake book” format, with a line of melody and guitar chords over it.  This was first published in 1997. While this notated version of the Khristiya Bhajan was well received, it was largely an experiment; how it would be put to use by the Nepali Christians had yet to be seen.

  1. C. All of the above. The Khristiya Bhajan is the primary song collection used for all Christian gatherings—be it the main weekly service, children’s fellowships, house prayer meetings, or inter-church conferences and programs.

In contrast to Western hymnals, which contain notated four-part harmony and it is very often assumed that many members of a congregation will be music-literate—able to sight-read their desired part—the notated hymnal is used in Nepal primarily by musicians, not congregants. The history and use of various kinds of music notation in Nepal is beyond the scope of this post, but leave it to say that notating music is not part of any folk music tradition in Nepal, and is only something that has been brought in through the creation of popular music genres in Nepal (for this, see works by Henderson, Greene, Weisethaunet, and Stirr), and has become a more frequent skill with the increased popularity of Western music. However, most Nepali musicians I know do not play with the notated Khristiya Bhajan open in front of them; rather, they will use it to learn new songs, or to refresh their memories. Additionally, many bands will include songs from the Khristiya Bhajan on their albums, with the idea to help people learn these songs, and use them in concert programs—these are songs people are familiar with, and many are conducive to adding extended intros or outros, an electric guitar solo, or other common popular music elements, creating medleys of several different songs, or using another portion of a song as a bridge within a song. I know several music teachers who use the Khristiya Bhajan as a teaching tool. Most of their students are Christian, and they are familiar with this repertoire of songs, and so it’s used as a too for teaching.

  1. D. All of the above. This probably goes without saying. I find it fascinating that, for many foreign missionaries, the Khristiya Bhajan is often the only material written in Nepali that they frequently use. And while this work is notated and the lyrics are printed, a large number of Nepali Christians remain illiterate. They memorize these songs, they sit in in their memories, and often these become tools that teach them about their faith. Second-generation Christians and Christian youth, while they certainly use more than just the Khristiya Bhajan—giving an overview of their activities is certainly beyond the scope of this blog post; suffice it to say that they use a number of resources ranging from Western worship leaders such as Hillsong, Paul Baloche, and Chris Tomlin to Christian songs that fall into categories of worship songs and translations and more commercial music in Hindi, to Nepali Christian commercial music—are still very familiar with its contents and it serves as a common denominator in song choice for larger gatherings.

  1. B. False. Obviously, this is my own opinion, and only time will tell, but the fact that the Khristiya Bhajan has become the most widely used song collection in Nepali evangelical churches all over Nepal (I carry the same hymnal to village and city Assembly of God churches, Gyaneshwar churches, my now-Anglican church, and Beth Shalom churches), and its very common to see people carting both “pocket sized” Bibles and (lyrics only) Khristiya Bhajans to and from church services, house fellowships, and the like (some new Bible covers have a pocket sewn to fit the small 3 by 5 inch Khristiya Bhajan), and that this hymn collection remains in print, says an awful lot.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How Much Do You Know About Nepali Christian Worship Forms?

This is the first blog post in a series of three concerning Nepali Christian worship forms, traditions, and resources that revolve around song. When I was writing my MA thesis, I realized that I forgot to ask the "obvious" questions, some of which are listed below (having grown up in the Nepali Church, I did not think to ask these while conducting MA research because it would be like a fish noticing for the first time that he's in water!). I've been asking these obvious questions to number of church leaders (when I'm not out in Dang chasing down information on Tharu repertoire) and I've compiled some of their answers below. I hope this is informative for people who are in and out of the Nepali Church alike.  

Nepali church services have certain expected characteristics: people leave their shoes outside the door, sit on the floor, and men and women (usually) sit on separate sides. Women cover their heads during prayer. Prayer time is characterized by everyone praying out loud and together. And an inordinate amount of time is spent singing songs (to the expense of the sermon, in some people’s opinions). 

But how did these forms come about? Why are they important to Nepali Christians now? Or is this just the imitative form that people now use? Below, I’ve put together a small quiz, based on my research questions. See how much you know about Nepali Christian worship forms before reading the answers!

  1. Why do Nepali churches meet on Saturday instead of Sunday?
    1. They’re all Seventh Day Adventists
    2. Saturday is the weekly government holiday, so its just easier to meet on Saturday
    3. Both A and B
  2. Why does everyone sit on the floor (as opposed to pews or chairs) during church services?
    1. Nepalis hate chairs
    2. Its just more natural
    3. The Nepali government imposes a high import tax on wooden pews
  3. Why do men and women sit separately during Nepali church services?
    1. Its culturally appropriate in South Asia
    2. It’s a Scottish Presbyterian thing that has carried over into church practices today
    3. Both A and B
  4. What is stuti prashansha?
    1. Solemn times of prayer where everyone takes turns praying out loud
    2. Rambunctious charismatic expressions that involves singing, clapping, shouting, crying, and generally making a “joyful noise unto the Lord”?
    3. A time where worshippers are to praise God for who He is, not bring their own problems and prayer requests to Him
    4. B and C only  
  5. True or false: stuti prashansha has always been a defining characteristic of Nepali Christian worship.
    1. True
    2. False
  6. Why do women cover their heads during prayer, and during stuti prashansha?
    1. Its culturally appropriate in South Asia
    2. Nepali Christians take the Apostle Paul’s instructions concerning women covering their heads very seriously
    3. Both A and B

Here are the answers:

  1. B. Saturday is the weekly government holiday, so it’s just easier to meet on Saturday. According to Rajendra Rongong, one of the founding members of Gyaneshwar Church and pastor of the Dhobighat branch, they did originally have their weekly meetings on early Sunday morning, at about 8AM. However, it was difficult to get off work, or go to church then go to work. They started scheduling sacraments, like the Lord’s Supper, on Saturdays when more people could attend, and they finally floated the idea to have the main church services on Saturdays by NCF (Nepal Church Fellowship) in 1960, and the idea stuck. So Nepali churches have services on Saturdays instead of Sundays because of practical reasons, not theological reasons. However, many Nepali churches have begun to hold English language services on Sundays.

  1. B. Its just more natural. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Nepalis hate chairs—the ubiquitous plastic chair is evidence that, yes, Nepalis do occasionally prefer a chair—however, for long periods of time, sitting on the floor is generally preferred. The Nepali churches in Kalimpong and other areas of Darjeeling have wooden pews, so sitting on the floor was not a carry over from Nepali church practice in India. According to Rongong, one thing they decided upon coming to Nepal was to practice the local culture, so they observed how people entered their places of worship—their temples—and they would follow suite. They found that they took off their shoes (and there are practical reasons too), and sat on floors, they decided to do that too (additionally, leaving shoes outside the door to keep the floor cleaner is also a habit seen in houses and offices, and generally people sit on the floor on mats in more rural areas as well). On a more amusing note: Loknath Manaen—who headed the Nepal Bible Society from 1977 to 1994, and was also co-editor and publisher of the original Khristiya Bhajan—recalled that, when he moved to Nepal from Darjeeling in the 1970s, one of the Nepali leaders who came to his new office was amazed to find tables and chairs present!

  1. C. Both A and B. According to Karthak, Rongong and Manaen, in Kalimpong and Darjeeling everyone sat in pews in the Presbyterian churches. However, men and women did sit on separate sides. This will require a little more research on my part, but it seems that the Church of Scotland historically had men and women sit on separate sides. I have to remember that this was the norm in some early North American churches as well. Additionally, it may just be a Hindu cultural thing to separate the sexes. When they moved to Nepal, Karthak and others felt that continuing to separate the sexes was a good thing because it was just more awkward to have men and women sitting together on the floor.

However, within South Asian society, men and women tend to separate in public, and the default is to do things along the lines of separating the sexes. There is noticeably more mixing now than when my family was here in the 1990s—men and women will go on motorcycles together, for example, or guys and girls will walk home from school or work together (and even hold hands in public!)—but this has not always been the norm. Rongong related a funny story: when his family moved from Darjeeling to Kathmandu, their new neighbors were high caste and highly educated Brahmins. Once, when Rongong and his wife went out shopping, the Brahmin women starred at them and exclaimed, “ah mai ni!—look at the husband and wife walking together!” Rongong commented that usually, at that time in Nepal the wife would not go with the husband at all; and even if she did go, she walked behind the husband (this is something I distinctly remember seeing growing up in Nepal during the 1990s as well). Rongong also commented that there was even a time in Nepali churches when men were hesitant to lay hands on women when praying for them. Now that has changed.

Still, there are times where people seem to default to gender separation. When I attend the English language service at Putalisadak, even though everyone sits in plastic chairs, invariably the men (usually from the theological college) will sit on the left side, and the women who attend will sit on the right.

  1. D. B and C only. Robert Karthak described stuti prashansha (literally “praise and adoration” though more commonly referred to as “praise and worship” in English by Nepali Christians) as a time where people speak in tongues, cry, fall down as if felled, jump around, cry out, and generally have expressions of “free worship.” While these outward forms exist, the expressed objective of this time as verbalized in my Nepali church, and as I’ve heard verbalized in other church services, is that this is a time to praise God for Who He Is, and thank Him for what He has done—not to bring requests or problems and the like to Him; leave that for another time.

Interestingly, during this time in my own church, the choruses sung are generally English language choruses (translated into Nepali and present in the Khristiya Bhajan) from the 1980s and 1990s (many of these were translated by Samuel Karthak for use in Gyaneshwar churches and because they become so popular, they were included in newer editions of the Khristiya Bhajan during the 1990s). I don’t know the year or writers of most of these songs, but some of the more popular ones in my church “From the Rising of the Sun,” “Jesus, Your Name is Like Honey,” “Hosanna, Hosanna in the Highest”, “My Strength is in You,” and we always end with “Come Let Us Worship and Bow Down” (written by Dave Doherty, 1980—according to the women on my church’s worship team, because it has the words “ghuDaa Tekau” or “to bend the knee” people know to kneel and that they’re ending stuti prashansha). All these songs fit the objective of adoration.

  1. False. Here’s how Robert Karthak, the founding pastor of Gyaneshwar Church, explained it to me: the founding members of Gyaneshwar all came originally from Kalimpong, in Darjeeling, where they had been raised in the Scottish Presbyterian Church. Their worship forms were very formal—lots of prayer, and while singing bhajans was done, people did so sitting down. Generally, more expressive forms of worship were dubbed “Pentecostal” and not encouraged. In fact, the MacFarlane Memorial Church in Kalimpong—where the first Nepali conversions happened in schools established by the Scottish Presbyterians—split during the 1930s when Pentecostal preachers came to the area from India, and a Pentecostal church came out of it (this will be an area of further research; right now I’m just going off of interviews and how Karthak remembers these things). Hence, in general, there was a bad feeling towards charismatic forms of worship.

However, in 1966, Karthak recounted that during a prayer meeting held at Green Pastures Hospital in Pokhara, with doctors, nurses, missionaries and patients in attendance, the Holy Spirit was poured out on the gathering, and for the first time in Nepal, speaking in tongues, crying, falling as if felled, occurred during a worship time. It spread to churches from there. Karthak didn’t make it clear who was at this meeting, but he did say that when they experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they had a different and new experience of freedom. He points to this meeting as the genesis of this charismatic form of worship in Nepali churches. This is an area where I need to ask more questions.

However, other leaders I have talked to feel that this is just a spread of a worship form—while Gyaneshwar might be self-proclaimed “charismatic” and have a doctrinal foundation for this form of worship, other Nepali churches see Gyaneshwar as the model for church in Nepal and merely imitate the forms that they see and experience there. From the numerous churches I’ve attended, both in and out of Kathmandu, I can say that “stuti prashansha” is a characteristic of the Nepali Church in general, whether denominational, non-denominational, or self-proclaimed charismatic or not. When I interviewed the senior pastor at Patan Church—which was originally a branch church of Gyaneshwar—he emphasized that the church is not charismatic (while Gyaneshwar, however, is); however, in my experience their church services are no less serious or reserved than the Gyaneshwar services I have attended. Other leaders I have talked to attribute these charismatic forms to foreign Christian influence and teaching, not originating in Nepal—one informant markedly remembers a visiting pastor of European origin chastising the Nepali worshippers for sitting down while singing instead of standing up! During the 1990s, I do remember several inter-church fellowships where speaking in tongues and the like were discussed, and it has been a debated subject in Nepali churches in general.

I think its fair to say that all of the above is true to some degree. Karthak went on in the interview to attach this outpouring of the Holy Spirit with the humanly unexplainable exponential growth of the Nepali church under persecution during the Panchayat era. He marked the 1970s as an especially hard era with only approximately 15,000 believers in the whole country; but when 1980 came with additional outpouring of the Holy Spirit, within sixteen years the numbers grown to 185,000 believers, so by 1996, he estimates that there were 200,000 believers in the country. Since that time till today, he estimates that the church has grown at least four times over, but with a possible number of up to 1.5 million.

The numbers are hard to gauge—according to Rongong, the 2011 census numbers are botched and do not reflect the actual number of Christians in the country, because the government does not want to admit that the numbers are that high—it would mean that there are more Christians than Muslims in Nepal (Muslims also being the antithesis of the Hindu state, see Sijapati year here for more details). However, bad census taking also has an effect. One former Fulbright scholar recalls that, when the census taker came to a particular remote hill village in which she was conducting research, he simply went to the village headman and got all the baseline information from him instead of going house-to-house to collect information like he should have. Census takers also assume that a person’s religion is Hindu. One of the church leaders I talked to in Tikapur told me that the census taker simply ticked the “Hindu” box on the paper without asking him what his religion was; this church leader then went on to grossly rebuke the census taker for not doing his job right! As in the case of many, one of my friend’s fathers does not know that she has taken baptism, so when the census taker would have come to her house, and spoken to the father about the composition of his family, all of them would have been recorded as Hindu.

All this to say, while the origins, doctrine, and form of stuti prashansha are rather muddy and debated, the way people attach it to the numerical growth of the church in Nepal, and that fact that it can be found in almost any Nepali church, is significant.

  1. C. Both A and B. Rongong commented that a woman covering her head is part of South Asian culture. He commented that, in older Hindu culture, when a woman is talking to her father-in-law or brother-in-laws, she has to cover her head; this can cause embarrassment when she is caught unawares. He also pointed out that many female prime ministers in South Asia will cover their heads when publically speaking. Concerning the Nepali Church though, he commented that this teaching seems to go woman-to-woman—he has never preached on it himself at his church—and that the conviction of the Holy Spirit makes a difference; otherwise, it’s a mere ritual. When I talked to women in my own church, they appealed to both the 1 Corinthians 11 passage, as well as the fact that it’s a mark of respect in their own culture.

While it is culturally appropriate in South Asia, and the doctrinal admonitions in 1 Corinthians 11 are taken seriously by some Nepali Christians, two of my interviewees told me about a historical incident that happened in the mission church in Kalimpong. In 1947, there was a split in the mission church as a result of preachers of El Shaddai coming from India. A revival of sorts happened in the church—while there were new converts who were baptized, many people had been “born Christian,” taking infant baptism, identifying as Christian but carrying on with their lives without the mark of the Holy Spirit’s power or transformation. An El Shaddai preacher named Jordan Khan came to Kalimpong from mainland India, and from his preaching there were a number of people who were convinced that they were all sinners and had to confess Christ and be born again—Robert Karthak was one of many who were baptized again, and in his interview, he did mention this as a turning point in his own life. However, because El Shaddai was in strong opposition to what was called the mission church, a number of people left the mission church and became members of El Shaddai. Those remaining in the mission church, while perhaps agreeing with some of El Shaddai’s doctrine, did not want to be associated with them, so avoided outward forms associated with El Shaddai. This included women covering their heads (apparently, El Shaddai women cover their heads, do not wear jewelry or ornaments, or speak in church services). Loknath, who only moved to Nepal in the late 1970s, still remembers in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no practice of covering the head in the Darjeeling churches.

In my own memory, the fact that Nepali women covered their heads during prayer and during times of stuti prashansha was something that stood out to me only after my family returned to the States in the first time in 1996, where I noticed that the women members of our Southern Baptist church did not cover their heads. While people debate about how prevalent it is, to me, it is a characteristic that stands out. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

"Auntie--are you going to carry dhan too?"

Coming downstairs, I intercepted Sabita. She had a hasya (sickle) in her hand, and a water bottle in the other. She was on her way out to cut the dhan—rice—now ready for harvest in the fields behind the house. “Can I cut dhan too?” I asked. Sabita laughed, “Randinus, bahini! [Oh, stop!] Its not necessary.” I said that I didn’t want to do my own work (which would consist of reading newspaper articles in Nepali on various Tharu songs and dances I was researching, written by a local cultural activist), and, while I knew that the work was hard, it would be a new experience for me. Sabita relinquished.

Upon arrival to the field, where “Banja” (nephew) and Kuntul were sitting, Banja gave his aunt an easily read look: “What?! Auntie is going to cut dhan? You have GOT to be kidding me!!!” He gave me more "you crazy white woman" looks in those two days than he ever had before. Sabita handed me a hasya—the blade between five and seven inches in length—and I asked her, “So…how do I do this?” As she sharpened her hasya on a rock, she replied, “Aba sikae dinchu [Now, I will teach you].”

The dhan was planted in clumps. Sabita showed me how to grasp a clump with my left hand, and cut close to the ground with the hasya—ripping the blade toward me. I was to lay this clump behind me, in rows, to dry in the sun. The four of us worked side-by-side in the paddy, cutting from south to north, laying the dhan behind us. I cut steadily on my haunches, cutting two or three clumps then laying them behind me. Banja cut madly for a few seconds, rested for a minute or two, then began cutting madly again. I made sure I got out of his way when he came too close to me, keeping my hands and fingers away from his blade. Sabita bent at her waist and cut steadily. Kuntul let everyone know she hated the work by cutting a few bunches, then decidedly sitting down on the edge of the paddy.

After a while, I was able to pick up my pace of cutting—I learned what force to use and how many bunches I could hold in my hand before I had to lay them down behind me—and Sabita asked, if I had ever cut dhan before? I said no, this was my first time. Even so, I did not cut more than she or Banja—but I cut more than Kuntul, which isn’t much to boast of.

During this time, Banja and Sabita were talking about the upcoming Constitutional Assembly election. Sabita asked if I had elections in my country? I said yes, we did. I asked her which political party her family was members of? I knew that there were three main parties in Nepal— Nepali Congress (considered conservative; in Tharu communities, many large land owners are members of this party), the Communist Party Nepal-United Marxist Leninists (CPN-UML, considered the moderate party), and the Communist Party Nepal-Maoists (CPN-Maoists, considered more extremist, of which there are several branches and smaller factions from inside fighting)—in addition to numerous smaller ones (some of which have banded together and are commonly referred to in news sources as “the 33-party coalition”). Sabita said that they voted for sun (surya—each party has their own symbol, which voters both literate and non-literate can recognize on a ballot), which Banja clarified as the UML (“em-el-a” in Nepali). Sabita asked me what political parties we had in the States? I said there were two big ones, and a few smaller ones, but they have no influence (prabhav parena).

While we were thus talking, a green Pajero showed up bouncing along on the pot-holed dirt road on the other end of a field, decorated with flags and blaring Salikram Chaudhary’s song “timro maya le”—a commercial song consisting of original Nepali words set to a traditional Tharu melody commonly sung at Maghi. Sabita turned to me with a smirk on her face to let me know that Salikram—a member of their village—was running in the election! Somebody was talking over the loudspeaker bound to the top of the Pajero, but none of us understood what was being said. I later learned from one of Salikram’s coworkers (he works for an NGO that focuses on “Tharu cultural empowerment”) that Salikram is running as a candidate from a smaller, local party. This particular coworker didn’t see any hope to Salikram’s actual election, but Salikram wanted to start a political career, and this was a good stepping-stone for publicity at least.

So this is how you campaign in Nepal—if you’re a composer/singer, blare your own music and ride around in a Pajero on the village road while people are in the rice fields cutting their dhan, asking them to vote for you!

Sabita asked me several times if I was done cutting dhan, or suggesting that I should go eat my morning meal, or take a bath, or something like that, but I worked with them till noon—about two and a half hours—until we all went back to the house to eat. I placated her by doing my own work and taking a bath in the afternoon, instead of going back out to the field to work with them.

A few days later, Sabita commented that she might need to call upon the help of their lower field workers to carry the dhan back to the house for threshing and winnowing. She and Banja could cut it all by themselves, but when it came to carrying it, it would take all week with just the two of them. I offered to help. Sabita laughed. “Oh bahini, pardaina, pardaina [its not necessary]!” she said. But I persisted. So she handed me a rope, and I pulled my newly washed doppota (scarf) off the drying line as we walked out to the field together. Banja was standing there with his large stick planted in the ground, and two ropes in his hands. “Auntie—tapaai pani dhan bhoknuhunchha? [Auntie—are you going to carry dhan too?]” he asked, surprisingly without sarcasm in his voice. I replied that I would try [koshish garchhu].

Sabita piled stalks of dhan together, laying them in alternating directions until a large square was created. This she bound with her rope, and with the help of Banja, lifted to balance on her head. This she carried back to the front yard.

Banja bound two large, messy bundles of dhan together. Stabbing one with his stick, he then lifted it with much grunting and groaning to stab the other. Letting the stick balance on his shoulders, he carried his burden to the front yard. Later, I asked him why he didn’t carry it on his head like his aunt? He shook his head vigorously. “I don’t know how to carry heavy burdens on my head! We carry burdens on a stick across our shoulders.”

This gendered way of carrying burdens was evident in watching the neighbors carry dhan back to their homes. Across the fields, everyone looked like walking haystacks in one shape or form—the women carrying large bundles on their heads; the men barely seen between two bouncing bales balanced on a stick across their shoulders.

I carried my burden on my head, as a woman should. It took a few tries to figure out how to carry it properly. I soon learned to carry it on the crown of my head; that way, my arms would just be there to balance my load and not actually carry any of its weight. My neck and shoulder muscles did not burn when I had my burden properly balanced. It took more than a few tries to figure out how much I could actually carry. After returning from one trip, Banja commented, “That burden was too heavy for you, wasn’t it Auntie?” He must have seen me almost tip into the irrigation canal as I walked one foot in front of the other across the plough laid over the ditch to reach the road.

The neighbors made comments about me to Sabita as they came back and forth from the fields, which amounted to, “She knows how to carry dhan?” “Oh, you have an extra worker in your field today!” all made in good faith—the neighbors knew me. Sabita smiled and replied, “she knows how to carry a little!” And a little I did carry—the small pile in the front yard that took me all day to create was bound into sheaves to thresh and winnow by hand the next morning. At the end of the first day, Sabita told me I should carry a little more the next day. I took this as evidence that I did not completely fail in carrying dhan, at least in her eyes.

The next morning consisted of arranging the piles of dhan we had carried the day before into a haystack. Pointing to the neighbor’s haystack, Banja commented to me that our haystack needed to look like that one—talk about keeping up with your neighbors; their haystack was already half as tall as their house!

The haystack by 4PM on the second day of carrying dhan. It was doubled by the end of the day. 

While cutting and carrying dhan was a new experience for me, thus rather exciting, I know full well that its hard, hard work for my host family. During that week, Sabita was up at 4:30 every morning, and went to bed around 8:30 or 9 at night—otherwise, as she commented to me later, her work will not get finished; in addition to her regular housework, she had harvest work to do. Each night she went to bed with her muscles sore; at one point, she told me she felt like a sick person. Banja (Sabita’s not sure how hold he is; I estimate that he’s at least fifteen) would sleep until his aunt called for him to get up—usually seven o’clock—and try and get a nap in the afternoons until she called him to come spin the fan so she could winnow the dhan. He told me he “felt lazy” (alchi laagyo) after carrying dhan all day; I replied that he was probably just tired (takaai laagyo). This is their livelihood. Its what they eat for the coming year. The hope is that the rice harvest is enough to feed the family and to sell so that they can pay for things they cannot make—like petrol for the motorcycle, or school for the boys, or emergency medical bills.