I arrived in Amritsar late on Sunday evening after a six hour train journey to from Delhi. I was there to join in celebrations markings the Diocese of Amritsar 60th Anniversary and see something of the interfaith work supported by World Mission Council.
The diocese is huge and covers three states – Amritsar District in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. Only a handful from Kashmir were able to come as the state was under curfew to curb unrest following the hanging on 9 February of Afzal Guru who was convicted of leading the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2002. Kashmir is the only Muslim majority state in India and remains volatile.
Bishop P K Samantroy has been bishop since 2000 and is currently Vice Moderator of the Church of North India Synod. He had arranged for four days of celebrations, two in rural areas and two in Amritsar that would demonstrate and celebrate the diverse cultures in his diocese.
Christian woman celebrating at Ajnali Christian qawwali singing
On Monday 11 and Tuesday 12 February celebrations were in rural Punjab. Choirs sang, a youth group performed Christian qawwali (Sufi devotional singing), there were speeches and prayers of thanksgiving and simple fellowship meals were enjoyed by thousands. We stopped at Taran Taran and Gharialya before a big celebration attended by 2,500 at Ajnali.
Community lunch, traditional village food Girls’ Choir at Ajnali
The following day we met with Christian communities in three different villages before the main event of the day at Khem Karan. It was particularly moving to be in the procession of about 1,000 Christians as we walked through the streets and bazaars in Khem Karan. Although there were people from different faiths, they were all Dalits and many Sikh and Christian families have intermarried.
Procession through Amritsar
Outside the Gurdwara the Sikh community gave us tea and biscuits and a short time later the Hindu community gave everyone, cold drinks – for over a thousand people! We gathered at one of the churches, hard more speeches, prayed, sang and enjoyed more simple but delicious Punjabi vegetarian food. Bishop Samantroy told me that the costs of all these events were paid for by the villagers, a remarkable feat of fundraising and hospitality.
On Wednesday we were back in Amritsar where over 2,000 people attended a “World Peace Convention” hosted by the diocese. Representatives from Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Ahmadi Muslim and Tibetan Buddhist communities shared their own faiths’ understanding of peace and its importance and urged all to act to achieve this, not just to say fine words. This message was underlined by the Governor of Punjab Shri Shivraj Patil who was Chief Guest at the event.
Interfaith World Peace Convention
On Thursday the finale began with a 30 minute procession through the streets of Amritsar from St Paul’s Church to Alexandra School led by a traditional music group from Himachal with horns and drums. After the Thanksgiving Service guests planted saplings in the Diamond Jubilee Garden and then witnessed the inauguration of the Ditt Memorial Hall, named for the Choora from Sialkot who was the first Christian convert in Punjab in the 19th century. Chooras were so marginalised that they were not allowed to have family or surnames. It speaks of the beauty of the Gospel that a man who could have only one name now has a memorial hall named after him, a hall that will be used by the Diocese of Amritsar for meetings, training and ministerial formation.
Processing through the bazaar in Khem Karan
After a community lunch we enjoyed an exuberant qawwali competition and a scintillating cultural programme that featured energetic Bhangra dancing from Punjab, folk dancing from Himachal and classical dance from Orissa.
Church meeting, Khem Karan
Sixty years is a significant age in Indian culture and the celebrations were well marked over four wonderful, enjoyable days. Here’s to the next 60!