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!
- True or False: the Khristiya Bhajan has always been the predominant hymnal used in Nepali-speaking churches.
- When was the Khristiya Bhajan first published?
- Who were the prominent people in compiling and publishing the Khristiya Bhajan?
- Ron Byatt and Jonathan Lindell
- Loknath Manaen
- All of the above
- True or False: the majority of hymns contained in the Khristiya Bhajan are translated from English.
- What kinds of songs are in the Khristya Bhajan?
- Songs suitable to church liturgy, like the Lord’s Supper, Christmas, etc.
- Bhajans and Choruses, respectively
- Songs for worship, fellowship and evangelism
- All of the above
- When was the first notated edition of the Khristiya Bhajan published?
- Songs from the Khristiya Bhajan are used in
- Church services, house fellowships and prayer meetings
- Music lessons, special programming, and commercial albums
- All of the above
- Who uses the Khristiya Bhajan?
- Illiterate Christians
- Second-generation Christians
- Foreign missionaries
- All of the above
- True or False: The Khristiya Bhajan will soon become an outdated and unused collection of songs.
- 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.
- 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.
- C. All of the above. Just checking to make sure you’ve been paying attention =)
- 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...
- 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”).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.