Saturday, April 13, 2024

Sadhu Sundar Singh and his visit to the Khasi Hills


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By Kyrsoibor Pyrtuh

It was hundred years ago, in 1924 when Sadhu Sundar Singh, the Indian Christian mystic embarked on a pilgrimage to the land of Hynñiewtrep. Primarily, his visit was to bear witness to the Christian Gospel and share his personal experiences with Jesus amidst his fellow Christians in the Khasi Hills. In this article, I must thank these individuals, Babu Horju Roy Khongwir, Capt H.Lyngdoh, Babu Joel Gatphoh, Babu Kubur Singh and Rai Sahit D.Ropmay, who had taken pains to record the visit. They also translated, compiled and published Sandhu Sundar Singh’s sermons which were delivered in different Churches and Assembly meetings across the Khasi Hills in 1924.
To mark the Centenary year of Sadhu Sundar Singh’s sojourn in the Khasi Hills, I am writing this brief account about the Indian Christian Mystic based on records which are available. However, it is also interesting to note that Sandhu Sundar Singh added to the list of many great Indians who had visited and made these hills their homes (even for a short period), including Rabindranath Tagore, the bard of Bengal, who first visited these hills in 1919, Subhas Chandra Bose, founder of Indian National Army, who visited Shillong in 1927 and during his Presidentship of Indian National Congress in 1938. Also, C.V Raman, India’s Nobel laureate who had acquired the Rao Bhavan in Kench’s Trace in the 1920s and had made Shillong his home.
Shillong and Khasi Hills in 1920s
In the 1920s the Khasi Hills was an integral part of the British colonial rule and for administrative purposes the region was brought under the Assam Province. As per the decadal census published in 1921, the population of Khasis and Syntengs (as per Census column of 1921) in Assam was 124, 053 (one lakh twenty-four thousand and fifty-three). There was a significant growth of Christian Population and in ten years the number had almost doubled. By 1924, the year of Sadhu Sundar Singh’s visit, the numbers of Methodist Presbyterian adherents alone stood at 37, 693 (thirty-seven thousand and six hundred and ninety-three). This period witnessed a remarkable transformation in the region’s religious landscape, with Christianity becoming a prominent faith. Christianity had taken deep roots via institutions like schools, hospitals and congregations et al, which facilitated the growth and domination in all aspects.
According to K D Saha, “when Assam was ceded to the British Territory via Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826, the administration felt it necessary to connect Sylhet with the Brahmaputra Valley across the Khasi and Jaintia Hills….In 1826 David Scott, the agent of the British for the North East Frontier of Bengal undertook the construction of a road through the K& J Hills. Further in 1862, a committee was formed to search for a locality better suited climatically to the need of a large and important station. Amongst the various places in view, the Committee recommended the high plateau of Shillong (now known as Upper Shillong) for the Civil Staton and Ïewduh (the present town) for the invalid European troops and the lines of Regiments. Subsequently, in 1863 an agreement was entered into between the British Government and Mile Sing, the Syiem of Mylliem. Under this Agreement, the Syiem ceded the Raij Lands known as the Shillong lands, Nongkseh land and Shillong-Laban land. Besides, some private lands were also purchased.
The real expansion of the town (Shillong) took place since 1874 and it must be remembered that in 1874, by the proclamation dated 6th February and 12th September, Assam was carved out of Bengal and became a separate Province under a Chief Commissioner and in effect Shillong was chosen as the seat of the new administration. Therefore, as the Capital of the new Province, Shillong became the home of diverse communities who have converged into the town as officials/babus in Government services and those who were driven by economic compulsions and in search of livelihoods. Apart from the Khasi populace, the wide range of settlers’ communities are reflected in the decadal Census data. These data shown in both numbers and percentage the population distribution across linguistic communities, which include the Assamese, Bengalees, Biharis, Nepalese, Rajasthani, Punjabi etc.
Among the earliest settlers, the Mazhabi or Dalit Sikhs need special mention as the oldest and vital community which catered to the basic needs of the new Capital. They were regarded as the sweepers of Shillong. Although the records about the first immigration of sweepers of Shillong are scant, their early presence in Khasi Hills and Shillong in particular, can be traced to colonial rule. In his article “Sweepers of Shillong”, published by the Anthropological Survey of India in 1979, Jayanta Sarkar presented the data on immigration pattern of the sweepers who were employed in Shillong Municipality and Shillong Cantonment Board. The pattern clearly shows that the majority of sweepers of Shillong had immigrated from two districts of Punjab, namely, Amritsar and Gurdaspur. Their misfortune of being the anawim and people who belong to scavenging community are haunting them to this day. As Himadri Banerjee pungently remarked, “…they lived in slums and in spite of their long ties with the region, they are despised as undesirable and foreigners…” Against this backdrop, one reads and re-reads Sadhu Sundar Singh’s new-found faith and his mystical experience with Jesus Christ.
Sadhu Sundar Singh
in Khasi Hills
There was no record to indicate that Sandhu Sundar Singh had met or preached to the Punjabi community of Shillong then, even though he was kept at the residence in Mawkhar, (which is a stone’s throw away from sweepers line at Them Ïew Mawlong), during his sojourn in Khasi Hills. But it can also be deduced that he must have been aware of their presence as these sweepers were employed to provide services to residents of Shillong Municipality, including Mawkhar and Laban localities etc.
The visit of Sadhu Sundar Singh began with the correspondences between him and Babu Joab Solomon, the elder of Mawkhar Presbyterian Church, Shillong. In his response to the letter from Joab Solomon dated June 26, 1923, Sadhu Sundar Singh keenly intended to visit the region in the following calendar year. He wrote, “Dear brother in the Lord, many thanks for your letter. I am quite well by the grace of our Lord. God willing, I shall try to visit Shillong next year. Please give my best compliments and Khristian love to all Khristian brothers sisters in Assam and tell them that I hope to see them some time next year…”
According to available records, Sandhu Sundar Singh arrived in March 1924 and delivered his first sermon at Mawkhar, Shillong on March 7. In 1968, Babu Wilson Reade narrated from his memory the reception given by the Mawkhar Presbyterian Church when Sadhu Sundar Singh first arrived in Khasi Hills and the Church building which was two times bigger than the numbers of members then, was filled to the brim as people came to attend and listen to Sadhu’s preaching. I was told that the family of Babu Joab Solomon at Mawkhar, Shillong, extended the hospitality to the Sadhu while he was in Shillong.
Besides, Sadhu Sundar Singh travelled to other places in the Khasi Hills, and he preached in the following Churches and special services, (a) at Mawkhar Church Shillong on March 7,8,9 (b) at Laitkynsew Church on the March 10 (c) at Sohra on March 11 (d) at Shillong on March 12 (e) at the Assembly meetings of the Presbyterian Church held in Mairang from March 14- 16 (f) at Laitumkhrah Church on the March 18 and (g) at Mawphlang Church on March 19.
Sadhu Sundar Singh was an influential Indian Christian mystic, known for his spiritual teachings and dedication to spreading the message of love and unity. Born in 1889 in Punjab, he was raised as a Sikh but converted to Christianity later in his life. It was quoted, “the Sadhu acknowledged the Holy Spirit made him a Christian, but it was his mother who made him a Sadhu…and openly confessed that if he could not find his mother (who died a pious Sikh) in Heaven, he would not stay there but would rather ask the Lord to send him to the place where he could find her.” (Sadhu Sundar Singh: The Apostol of Bleeding Feet, NCCI Review Vol 109, 1989).
His life was marked by numerous spiritual experiences and a deep understanding of various religious traditions. His sermons were profound, practical and simple whereby the common people could easily connect. The illustrations in the sermons were drawn from his lived experience. The Himalayas were his friends and he found solace in the glaciers, and the icy caves provided him a space to commune with his Lord.
Prayer was central to his life and mission. He preached that to attain abundant life was to be able to fight back, to stand up and live a life of victory against the odds. He was an ardent seeker of truth and inner peace.


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