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First Impressions of India

Through a voyage that was slow and long, missionary Charles William Forman keenly observed India to understand the locals, their customs, dress, behaviour and interests

First Impressions of India

The Revered Charles William Forman, after whom Forman Christian College in Lahore is named, was one of the pioneer missionaries in the Punjab. He and the Reverend John Newton, were the first missionaries to enter the Punjab in November 1849 shortly after its annexation in March 1849.

The Rev’d Charles Forman came to India as soon as he was ordained a Presbyterian minister in July 1847. Forman was inspired by other foreign missionaries who had dedicated their lives for the propagation of the Christian religion in regions afar. Forman boarded the Coromandel at Philadelphia on August 11, 1847 and sailed for India.

It took just over five months for the Rev’d Charles William Forman to travel from New York to Calcutta, at that time the seat of the British East India Company, and one of the most important cities in the world. The voyage was slow and long, but during the journey Forman became friends with a fellow Presbyterian missionary, A.A. Hodge, who returned to Princeton after a few years however. Together with Hodge, Forman also preached at the weekly services on board the ship and distributed religious tracts among the passengers — the work of the mission had already begun!

Forman’s first impression of India was recorded in his autobiographical writings published in the Forman Christian College Monthly in March 1906. In it Forman noted:

“We had seen no land since we had left New York, on the 11th of August 1847, and how different everything appeared! The plantains, the palms, the pipals, the banyans; the crows with their black heads and wings with lead-colored bodies; the huge adjutants six feet or more “from tip to tip” astriding along the streets and doing the work of scavengers, or standing on the edges of the houses, sleepily looking down on the crowds of people below. And such crowds, stretching from one side of the broad streets to the other, talking at the top of their voices; the women without shoes, but liberally supplied with ornaments about their feet and ankles, hands and wrists, their only garment one piece of white cotton cloth in which the whole body is swathed; the men the upper part of the body and head uncovered, a Brahmanical thread hanging from one shoulder and fine while cloth wound gracefully around the waist and hanging down to the feet; no one in a hurry and the business seeming to be of a very small kind; shops along the side of the street in which pan, bitalsupari, fruits, trinkets, flour, meal, pulse, etc. could be purchased by the passer-by without entering, all looking so strange and new, though really so old.”

Forman indeed arrived in India! From the above one can gather that Forman had a very keen eye for detail and from the start he endeavoured to understand the locals, their customs, dress, behaviour and interests so that he could better serve the community he had been sent to minister.

Forman also noticed the increasingly cosmopolitan character of Calcutta — then the centre of what was called the Bengal Renaissance — and observed that there lived in the city a great mix of Jews, Armenians, Parsees, Bengalis (both Hindu and Muslim) and Europeans.

While in Calcutta, Forman stayed with the great Scottish missionary Dr Alexander Duff. Dr Duff was the pioneer of English education in India. (more on Duff). In Calcutta, Forman also made acquaintance with other missionaries in the field, like Mr and Mrs Freeman (with whom he was to later travel up to their base in Allahabad), Drs. Ewart, Smith and McKay, associates of Dr Duff. Forman also met Mr. Waitbrecht and Mr. LaCroix of the Church of England, and also visited Serampore the headquarters of the Danish mission, which, after the death of its pioneering missionaries Reverends Carey, Marshman and Ward, was fast becoming but a shadow of its former glory.

While the journey to Allahabad was long, Forman was kept busy with books and the sights as “everything, the fields, forests, people, etc., the stay was very interesting.”

Meeting all these missionaries further strengthened the resolve of Forman to serve people in India. He himself stated: “It has often been a stimulus to me to remember these noble men, who must have given up bright prospects at home to spend and to be spent for Christ among people who neither appreciated them, nor made any return for the sacrifices they made for their good.”

The life and experience of these missionaries impressed upon Forman not to consider his own comforts and wishes but to serve Christ through helping humanity. This zeal then enabled Charles Forman to take yet another long journey up country to the Punjab where the American Presbyterians had set up their mission, on the borders with the Sikh Kingdom of Lahore.

Forman therefore began his long and arduous journey up country, first to Allahabad and then onwards to Agra. In 1848, the primary mode of travel was by palanquin, largely unchanged since the time of the Rev’dLowrie nearly two decades earlier. Forman noted: “The usual way of travel was by palanquins which were carried on men’s shoulders, each set of eight men carrying the conveyance six or eight miles, three or four others carrying the luggage, monotonous hum-drum singing to encourage each other. The stages were made at night and each was accomplished in about three hours, four of them constituting a night’s journey. Along the road were Government Rest Houses, Dak Bungalows built for the accommodation of European travellers at intervals of ten or twelve miles…”

While the journey to Allahabad was long, Forman was kept busy with books and the sights as “everything, the fields, forests, people, etc., the stay was very interesting.”

Forman’s description of the surrounding countryside around Calcutta is vivid. He wrote: “It is well-watered and carefully cultivated. The houses and walls are well covered with vines, which bear cucumbers, gourds, and over vegetables. After a few stages the road passes through the hills, which are off-shoots from the Himalayas. The country becomes dryer, as we recede from the Bay, and we soon come into the region where artificial irrigation is needed. The occupation of the farmers under such new conditions, the priests in and about their temples, the pilgrims on their way to or from their sacred places, were all interesting. At one place were several temples, and a spring of water so hot as to cook eggs in it.”

During his journey, Forman also passed through Benaras the Hindu sacred city, which made a great impression on him. He wrote:

“What shall I say about this great city, the Jerusalem of the Hindus. A city of temples and priests and pilgrims and so sacred that even an Englishmen dying there is sure to go to heaven, separated from the rest of the world and supported on Shiva’s trident? Of course all this does not appear to the natural eye, but is only spiritually discerned. What one really sees is a great mass of ugly houses, rudely built of bricks, on streets, crowded, dirty and crooked enough to please the most depraved taste…There are, however, multitudes of monkeys, who are regarded as sacred, and to feed them is an act of merit to be rewarded hereafter; Brahmini Bulls, too, which walk through the streets helping themselves out of the baskets which stand exposed in front of the shops; and beggars, too, some belonging to religious orders, to whom to give is very meritorious, and other begging from want, to whom to give is not so meritorious, or not at all so, as they are considered as suffering for sins in former states of existence.”

Upon reaching Agra, Forman spent the summer learning the local language, and helping the Rev’d James Wilson of the Presbyterian Mission in English preaching. In the autumn of 1848, Forman left Agra to join the Ludhiana Mission at its annual meeting at Saharanpur in October. His two hundred mile journey from Agra to Saharanpur was significant as not only was this his first trip alone — he noted of the caravansaries as “often imposing looking buildings from the outside, but about as destitute of real comforts and beauty within…” — this was the first time he began engaging with the locals in the vernacular Urdu, founding the experience very ‘encouraging.

Yaqoob Khan Bangash

Yaqoob Bangash
The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.

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