History of the Church in Nepal

Features Issue 49 Aug, 2010
Text by Ivan Sada / Photo: Rajbhai Suwal,ECS Media

Disbelief and amazement were not only seen on the faces of  the natives of America when they saw Christopher Columbus for the first time in 1492. It was also seen on the faces of the inhabitants of the closed Kathmandu valley when they saw Portuguese Jesuit Father Juan Cabral in the spring of 1628, almost two centuries later. The only difference was that Christopher Columbus had to use force in the new land but Father Juan Cabral was received graciously by the king of that era, King Lakshminarasimha Malla and was presented a Tamra Patra; a copper plate, allowing him to preach Christianity. This fact became the first recorded alliance and visit of a Christian foreigner in Nepal.

In the year 1661, Pratap Malla, the then King of Kathmandu received Albert d’Orville and Johann Grueber – a Belgian and an Austrian with open arms into the valley. They were visiting Kathmandu from the imperial Chinese Observatory in Peking via Lhasa. He granted them permission to preach the new religion, but without waiting for permission for a permanent stay, they left for Agra, the headquarters of the Tibet-Hindustan Mission in India.

The first attempt to a more permanent presence in Nepal was undertaken on 14th March 1703, when six Capuchin Fathers traveled from Rome. Only two arrived in Kathmandu on 21st February 1707 to open a mission in Tibet, which would include a section of north India and the whole of what is now  Nepal. The first part of their work was beset with many difficulties; illness, lack of man power and resources. After reorganizing, they arrived and settled in Kathmandu in the middle of a cold winter in 1715. Over the next fifty-four years, the Capuchin Fathers toiled and extended their services to the people of Bhaktapur and Patan, and were in constant touch with the kings of Gorkha and Tanahun. On 24th March 1760, Father Tranquillius blessed a small new church situated in Wotu Tole in Kathmandu under the title of the Assumption of Our Lady.

During the conquest of the three kingdoms of the valley by King Prithvi Narayan Shah (1744 – 1769), Jayaprakash Malla of Kathmandu sought the help of the East India Company in his fight against him. Suspicion fell on the Capuchins for having been involved in the scheme and it worsened after the invasion. This became untenable and thus on 4th Feburary 1769, they left the valley along with a small group of religious refugees and found their way to Bettiah, India. They consisted of fifty-seven Newari Christian converts. They were perhaps the first small community of Nepali ethnic Christians in Nepal, an outcome of the earlier work in Tibet by the Jesuit and then the Capuchin Fathers, who were forced out to India in order to retain their religious convictions. A few Capuchin Fathers returned around 1794 and among them was Father Joseph of St. Marcello who stayed in the country until his death in 1810. Then on, Nepal was devoid of any resident Christian mission or national presence until the mid-20th century, otherwise an era known as a “Closed” period for approximately 150 years.

According to her thesis “The history of the Expansion of Protestant Christianity among the Nepali Diaspora” by Dr. Cindy Perry, the history of the protestant Christian church among theNepalis started while Nepal was still a “Closed” country, among a migrated diaspora community across the eastern border in Darjeeling, then a part of British India. As territorial expansion continued at the helm of King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the cost side in human terms rose significantly. Economic pressure, oppressive land and labor policies and the ensuing rampant rural indebtedness; which threatened the survival of villagers, were some of the causes of migration. The cost of Nepal-Tibet war (1787-1793) and the Anglo-Nepal war (1814-1816) added to the wound of the people. The increased costs were reflected in an increased tax burden on the peasantry. This was not only the cause of migration but also because of the expansion of British power in India, their unquenchable thirst for labor and the opening up of new sparsely populated lands. Migration of Nepalis, which had been led by military conquest, was then led onward by the recruitment of them into a foreign army, a form of labor-export. They were not only recruited as soldiers but to feed the development needs of British India: for the new tea plantation industry in Darjeeling and Assam, mining projects, construction of roads and railways and for factories in burgeoning urban centers. In the face of growing economic and land pressures within Nepal, the promise of land was one of the strongest pulls, together with various wage earning opportunities. Thousands of Nepali were drawn eastward, first into Darjeeling and Sikkim, on to the southern reaches of Bhutan, into Assam and throughout North-East India and even on to Burma. By 1900 there were over a quarter million Nepali emigrants in India.

In the midst of this growing external migrant population of Nepali ethnics, came the beginnings of a vibrant Nepali Christian church. While Nepal observed “closed door” policy to the outside world, including Christianity, in British India there was relative religious freedom and Christian missions were welcomed. The Church of Scotland’s move to Darjeeling, and henceforth Sikkim and the Dooars, each of which had an expanding Nepali population, heralded the beginnings of the modern-day Nepali church – a church which started in and expanded throughout the diaspora, and extended from there back into the homeland.

Nepal was not an inviting place during the first half of the 20th century because of its walls of snow on the north and its malaria infested border on the south. The few travelers from outside were profoundly affected by the people they met and the conditions in which they lived. There were neither schools nor medical care. Ordinary people, close to 95% of the 13 million in 1954, survived at subsistence level and life expectancy was less than forty years. In the late 1940s, an enthusiastic science teacher and noted ornithologist at Woodstock School in India, Dr. Robert Fleming, requested permission from the Government of Nepal to enter the country to study the birds of the Himalayas. Permission was granted and on October 31, 1949, Bob Fleming and Dr. Carl Taylor visited Butwal, Tansen, Baglung, Tukuche and Pokhara and in1951, after King Tribhuvan regained power, Bob returned. For six weeks medical clinics were held in Tansen as urged by influential Nepalis who assisted the bird expedition. Permission was given to Bob Fleming to open a hospital in Tansen and women’s welfare clinics at various sites in the valley. Knowing that the response could not be theirs alone, an invitation was quickly extended to Christian missions working along the border of Nepal, and in doing so invited them to join and work together in a united way in Nepal. And thus in 1954, the United Mission to Nepal was founded.

Around the same period in 1949, Father Marshall Moran, S.J., then principal of St Xavier’s school in Patna and a member of the Senate of Patna University, visited Nepal to supervise the annual examinations at the Trichandra College and met with Mohan S.J.B. Rana, who raised the possibility of opening a school in Nepal similar to the one in Patna. Though the government was overthrown, formal invitation and approval came from the new government under King Tribhuvan. A school at Godavri was established in 1950 with sixty-five students and in 1954 St. Xavier’s at Jawalakhel was officially open.

In the meantime, Nepali Christians in northeast India, prepared and prayed for the “doors of Nepal to be opened” so that the Gorkhali people could hear the Gospel of Christ. These Christians were poised for martyrdom for Christ, and ready at any time to immigrate to Nepal to help develop the country and to build the church. Many had forefathers who tried to immigrate to Nepal earlier but had been barred from doing so because they were Christians and among them Padre Ganga Prasad Pradhan is mentionable, who was engaged by the British and Foreign Bible Society as their official Nepali Bible translator in 1894. His wish to immigrate in 1914 into Kathmandu with 40 members of his family was denied. But as the gates of Nepal opened to the outside world in early 1950s, the return of indigenous Christians to Nepal from India led to the establishment of the church in Nepal.

Numerous diverse strands came together to initiate a unique movement of God’s work in Nepal. Education with social service, bird expeditions linked with medical care, a vision and call to those working along the border of Nepal in India, and the return of indigenous Christians to Nepal to share the Gospel of Christ are some mentionable history. They were united by the desire to live among and assist the people of Nepal.

More than half a century has passed after the initiation of Christians in the country. Nepalis who were part of the migration of Christianity in Nepal as cooks, gardeners, carpenters, medical personnel, teachers, liaison workers etc have become leaders in the government and education sector, medical institutions, mass media and other community service work. They have established themselves as part of the modern day Nepali society and Christianity has become an addition to the already colorful religious culture of Nepal.

References: Nepali Around the World by Cindy L. Perry, and A Brief History of the Nepal Catholic Church