Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Remembering Atmaram, Nidhi and Godhula

Samudra Gupta Kashyap
While the Christmas spirit still rents the air, it is the most opportune time to recall the contributions of 3 Assamese persons who had accepted Christianity and had made certain very significant contributions. The first name is that of Atmaram Shorma – whose story is very intriguing indeed. Though scholars have found very little detailed information about him, the fact remains that Shorma, who hailed from a village near Kaliabor, was returning from a pilgrimage from the Jagannath Temple in Puri, when he somehow landed up at the Serampore Mission near Kolkata. He came into contact with William Carey, a British missionary who had set up, among other things a college and a printing press there, and was soon drawn into it, with a letter that Carey wrote to a person in Edinburg in December 1803 saying -“An Assamese Brahmin was Baptised at Serampore late in 1803 (while returning from a visit to the temple of Jagannath in Orissa.”
While Carey published ‘Dharmapustak’ – the first Assamese Bible – in 1813, it is strongly believed to be largely the contribution of Atmaram Shorma that led to its publication. As pointed out by Dr Satish Chandra Bhattacharyya, 16 years after its publication, Anundaram Dhekial Phookan, in a book written under the pen-name ‘A Native’ said – “The whole of the Bible was translated and published in the Assamese language by the Serampore Missionaries with the aid of Atmaram Shorma, an Assamese pundit, in the year 1813.” While not much more is known about Atmaram Shorma, Debendra Nath Bezbarua is stated to have written that Atmaram had written 2 to 4 books while in Serampore, “but have disappeared because those never got printed.”
Dr Satyendra Nath Sarma had identified Sakmuthi village near Kaliabor as Atmaram Shorma’s birthplace, and that his family, like most other families, had fled in different directions during the Burmese invasion. Gunabhiram Barua, in his biography of Anundaram Dhekial Phookun, is stated to have mentioned that “an Assamese Brahmin called Atmaram has been staying at Serampore much before the Burmese invasion” and that he had married there and had a few children and that he was a printing master (“chapakhanar pandit”) and that William Carey had printed the first Assamese Bible with his help. But then, as Dr Bhattacharyya has said, nothing is available about where and when Atmaram was born, why did he take to Christianity after having visited the Jagannath Temple, when did he pass away and so on. What is however praiseworthy is that the people of Kaliabor have taken pride in the fact that Atmaram Shorma belonged to that area, and that exactly is the reason why a rock memorial and a park has been set up at Hatbor in his memory.
The next name is that of Nidhiram Keot. Born in a village near Gohpur in 1823, Nidhir somehow landed up at Sadiya, and became a student in the school that the American Baptist Missionaries had set up there. He picked up the letters well and then moved with the Mission to Jaipur (near Namrup) after Ranuwa Gohain and his 500-strong Khamti army had raided the British post of Sadiya in January 1839, killing Colonel Adam White and 80 soldiers. Nidhi also worked as an apprentice in the Mission Press with Brown, when he decided to accept Christianity. Impressed by his work and belief, Brown baptised him near the Burhidihing River at Jaipur and gave him a new name – Nidhi Levi Farwell. A prolific writer and poet, Nidhi had such a command over his mother tongue that he translated the Bible into Assamese after putting it on record that the earlier one done Carey and Atmaram Shorma was full of Sanskrit and Bengali words. Nidhi altogether translated 4 books of the Bible, composed and translated a number of hymns in Assamese, published as Khristiyo Dharmageet.
He was also part of Brown’s team that produced Orunodoi from January 1846 from Sivasagar, and wrote a number of stories, poems, essays, news reports and hymns in it. He is also credited with authoring Bharatiya Dandabighi Ain, the first Assamese law book in 1865. While Dr Maheswar Neog described him as “the chief introducer of prose style” in Assamese, Nilmoni Phukan referred to him as a “prolific writer and efficient translator.” Nidhi, who had married Eliza Nasimoni Ward in 1851 after his first wife Thuku Abi – she was the first Assamese Christian girl – had died in 1851, passed away on January 28, 1873, with Aziz-ul Haque, well-known author and Guwahati Baptist Church Pastor often pointing at the inscription on his tombstone, which reads; “A writer, preacher, poet and translator; he showed uncommon ability and great fidelity.”
The third is yet another interesting Assamese, who was born to an Ahom family near Sivasagar by the name Gendhela Barua, and upon embracing Christianity, became known as Godhula Rufus Brown. Said to have been an unruly boy, Gendhela was reportedly expelled from school on disciplinary grounds. He then he joined as a soldier under the British, during which he learnt the English language. Having quit the regiment, Gendhela was converted and baptised in the Sivasagar Church in 1860, and assumed the name Godhula Rufus Brown, adopting the surname of Nathan Brown. He then became a full-timer with the Baptist Mission in Sivasagar, and worked as an evangelist and teacher with William Ward. Unlike Atmaram Shorma and Nidhi Levi Farwell, Godhula Brown was not much interested in literary activities. But then what he achieved for the Baptist Mission is hugely significant.
Having failed to win over the Singphos and Khamtis in Sadiya, the Baptist Mission, on shifting to Sivasagar, began setting its eyes on the Nagas. Though two Nagas – namely Aklong Konyak and Amlai Konyak of Namsang – had been baptised by Brown in Sivasagar in 1855, the two had serious trouble on return to their village, because the village elders feared that the new religion they were carrying would create confusion and turn the village ‘upside down.” Thus the two were exterminated for the sake of “peace and order.”
It was in March 1869 that Dr. Edward Winter Clark, another American missionary had arrived in Sivasagar, and it was through Godhula that he baptised Subongmeren, an Ao Naga from village Dekahaimong or Molungyimsen in early 1871 by Dr Clark in Sivasagar. Though Dr Clark is credited to be the pioneer in introducing Christianity among the Nagas, it was in reality Godhula Brown, who along with his wife Lucy risked his life and volunteered to make the first venture into the Naga Hills in October 1871. The villagers of Molungyimsen however suspected him of being a British spy and the village council decided to send him off and even “get him out of the way” until Godhula returned to Sivasagar in November 1872, bringing with him 9 Nagas who were willing to embrace the new religion. The rest is history.
Before I conclude, let me quote from what my friend Monalisa Changkija, Editor of Nagaland Page had said in the course of a lecture in Guwahati in 2015: “I feel we have not given adequate attention to the role of religion and education as bridges between the Assamese-Naga chasms. Whatever may have been said and written about the advent of the American Baptist Missionaries into the Ao country in 1872, the conversions thereafter, and the introduction of modern education, it is historically established that all these may not have been possible at that point of time without an Assamese man named Godhula Rufus Brown – Godhula Barua – who, unfortunately, history seemed to have forgotten.” Interestingly, Monalisa’s maternal grandfather John Arthur Baruah was a great grandson of Godhula Brown.
(Courtesy: AT)