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Friday June 14 2019

Looking Back: Church of the Forest Tribes

The Very Rev John Graham writes of a 1939 conference of Indian Christians



FOR a number of years an annual gathering of Christians has been held at Mahakalguri, the central station of the Church of Scotland Guilds. The great majority of the 5000 Christians of this area belong to the Mech or Boro tribe which appears to be of Mongolian origin, in all probability having come centuries ago from the direction of China. Now they inhabit the Bengal and Assam Duars, the tract running along the foot of the Eastern Himalayas, ceded to British India in 1865 by Bhutan. “Duars” means “doors,” the gates through which entrance is gained into Bhutan.

To me the Conference was full of deep interest. It was my privilege to have a part in the founding of the Mission in the Eastern Duars, and to baptise the earliest Mech converts nearly fifty years ago. Ever since then I have been in contact with them. This led to the invitation to me to preside at their annual conference this year, the year of my Indian Jubilee.

Kalimpong is 160 miles from Mahakalguri. When I was in the habit of visiting the Duars, which I did regularly for the first nine years of my life in India, it took me three weeks for the return journey. Then there was no railway, few bridges, poor roads; everything was done on pony-back. On my journey on the present occasion, which was accomplished comfortably in a day, I was met by the Rev. George McLaren, the present missionary. When we arrived at the local bazaar, we found Mrs McLaren awaiting us along with a gathering of hundreds of the Conference delegates, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and school children, a brass band and three elephants. I was made to climb on to the foremost elephant, and we started off to the Mission House, a mile and a quarter away. We were entertained every now and again by selections from the band and gun-firing as we met fresh bands who came to join us.

Next morning there was revealed a large encampment to accommodate 1000 guests, consisting of long rows of bamboo sheds. The largest and central building was a pandal or hall capable of holding 1200 people closely packed, the men and women sitting on straw in close rows on opposite sides of the hall.

Opening Proceedings

The programme filled two large pages with the list of subjects, speakers and functions. Prayer-meetings were held night and morning. A series of addresses was delivered on the subject of my Jubilee and two children presented me with garlands and specimens of the cloth woven by Mechi women.

Girl Guides, Scouts, Cubs, and Football

The first afternoon was devoted to a delightful exhibition by the Girl Guides, Scouts and Cubs, followed by a football match between a Mechi team and eight European tea-planters, assisted by three of their Indian employees. The Mechis undoubtedly played the more successful game. The Europeans were at a disadvantage with their boots on the dry slippery grass, and their opponents, who played barefoot, were faster.

Communion and Post-Communion Services

On the Sunday I was privileged to dispense Communion to a crowded church of reverent people. The post-Communion service was held in the afternoon in the pandal with over 1000 present. The local Pastor presided and took the early part of the service. My address dwelt on the life and character of the first Mech Christians.

The Church Collection

The collection was not forgotten! It was taken in big open plates and bags nailed to long sticks, as in Scotland not so long ago.

During the week each housewife had put aside daily a handful of rice, and this was brought in a pot or kerchief. Two elders stood before the congregation with gunny bags embroidered with crosses. Into these bags the women poured their rice, and then kneeling down offered a prayer of dedication.

Subjects of the Conference

The subjects dealt with during the Conference were varied. They included “Religion and the Community,” “Love is Gain,” “Christian Family Life,” “From Death to Life,” “Christ and Womanhood,” and “Duties of Youth.”

One of the most delightful meetings was a closing one for music and prayer. On the upper verandah of the Mission House was a piano played by Mrs. McLaren, accompanied by Mr. McLaren with the violin. Beneath was a large company with sweet voices. The moon was full. We sang “God be with you till we meet again,” in Mech, to the old familiar tune. The Pastor led in prayer. With the Benediction and a final word of farewell we parted.

The Very Rev John Anderson Graham, who had been Moderator of the General Assembly in 1931, was around 77 years old and celebrating his 50th year in India when this article was written. He is most famous for founding Dr Graham's Homes in Kalimpong, which currently teach around 1500 students, including rescued street children. He died in 1942 in Kalimpong.

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