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Friday June 22 2018

Looking Back: Panjab Village Church

An account by a Church of Scotland minister of worship in an Indian church, published in June 1938

Our Panjab Village Church

FIRST IMPRESSIONS                                                                                                        by THE REV. ROBERT KINLOCH, B.D.

AT last the long-wished-for day had come – the day upon which my wife and I were to make our first acquaintance with an Indian village church. Through the fields we wended our way at what seemed to us the rather unusual hour of nine o’clock.

As we drew nearer to the church we were a little surprised at the roughness of the exterior: we felt that exposed red brick and rough mud plaster, peeling in some places, might look old but could never look venerable. Going inside we were still more struck by the plainness of our church. The pews were more useful than ornamental; there were no pillars and little architecturally to relieve the eye; the pulpit was small and simple.

Together we occupied a rear seat, our aim being simply to remain as inconspicuous as possible since we knew that in this service we would have to be very largely spectators. If our aim was to escape notice we certainly failed, for soon the eyes of all in the church were turned upon us. At first we thought this was merely due to the natural curiosity of the people to view new arrivals. But as we looked down the church we observed that all the men were seated on one side and all the women and children on the other side. In sitting beside my wife on the women’s side I had unwittingly done what is “just not done” in our village church.

The gaily coloured chadars or head-dress of the women and schoolgirls made a very pleasing sight; the men were for the most part dressed in dhotis or sheets wound round their bodies, though a few wore European clothes. But it was not the dress which commanded our attention, nor yet the unusual spectacle in church of women with infants in their arms. What interested us most was that men and women alike, quite naturally and without any awkwardness, first bowed or knelt in prayer before taking their seats. This little act struck the keynote of our service; we felt at once that we were amidst a people to whom religion was something real.

When the Indian pastor, dressed in long white robe, had taken his place he had not before him a large congregation. The reason for this we quickly discovered. People arrived in ones and twos, a process which to our amazement continued through the service.

As the service was wholly in Urdu, it was impossible for us to follow what was being said. This, however, did not prove so great a handicap as we had feared; for in the order of service we soon began to recognise close resemblances to our own Scottish service; and some of the hymns were but the old familiar tunes to new words.

But when we came to a distinctively Indian tune, it was quite a different matter; now we felt how sad was the lot of the uninitiated. These are all in the minor key, with strange melodic sequences, and they depend almost entirely for their effect upon rhythm, which is beat out on a tabla – a small drum struck with the hand. Strange as this music seemed to Western ears, it was evident from the heartiness of the singing that this was the medium through which the Indian could best express his praise of God. Few hymn books were used, for the very sufficient reason that few of the congregation (excluding the schoolgirls) could read.

Being for the most part unable to read, they were naturally altogether dependent on the spoken voice. It may have been this fact as much as the eloquence of the preacher which accounted for their behaviour during sermon-time. Certain it is that not even the greatest preachers of the Scottish Church ever had a more attentive audience.

The service drew to its close, and the congregation moved slowly out into the open air, there to stand in little groups hailing each other and chatting gaily. And now we were to have what will long linger sweetly in our memories of that Panjab village church – the welcome from the people with whom we had made our abode. True, it was in a language of smiles and nods and handshakes; but something had been achieved which words could ill express. We were friends, for we were one through Him who had come to be Friend of all.

The Rev Robert Clarke Hutton Kinloch, who hailed from Kincardine-on-Forth, served in the Punjab from 1937-1945 and then in Egypt until 1949. On his return to Scotland, he ministered in Crosshouse until 1960 and then Wanlockhead and Leadhills. He died in 1975.

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