Betty Ann and I Go To A Hindu Festival
By James E. McEldowney
The Prodigal Returns Stories - Table of Contents Village Christians Celebrate Easter

The Nerbudda River Godess
"May I go with you to the mela?" Betty Ann asked as I was putting my things together. A mela is a religious festival where there are big crowds who come not only to worship but to see friends, and buy what they need from roadside merchants. "Can I go too?" Philip asked. " No," I replied, "I can take only one. The going will be tough. We'd better let Betty Ann go this time,"

The mela was to be held at Tiwari Ghat, along the Nerbudda River. I didn't have a car then so we had to go by train. It would take us to the nearest railway station. The students would have to walk from there and Betty and I would go on my bicycle. Just then Hari, one of my students, came. "The gospel team is ready. We have packed our bedding and food. I came to get the gospel booklets and the musical instruments," he reported. "Have the students bring all their things to my office," I replied, "Betty Ann is going with us. We will see you there with our bedding and food very soon."

What a pile of things we had to take. (I have put the list as a postscript at the close of this story) It was good there were eight students going. They would help carry the things.

Betty Ann and I arrived at the office pushing my bicycle. We would need that, also. Then I said, "Here comes the cart and coolies to take our luggage to the railway station. Betty Ann and I will come on my bicycle."

Let me ask my readers a question. You wouldn't have to go to all that bother when you attended a religious camp in America, would you? But our students were prepared for a little hardship and before we left the office they began to feel the thrill of going to a mela and were ready to get going.

It took some doing to get all our things on the train but we managed. After the train started the students began to sing Christian songs. The train was crowded and the people liked what they heard. Ours was the fourth station and when the train stopped [++Page 85] the students hurriedly took the things off the train. Right there was Rev. R. V. Nath who was to be our leader. He had brought two ox-carts to take our things to the mela.

After the carts were loaded and the students set off on foot Rev. Nath and I were ready for the three mile trip on our bicycles. "I hope I don't fall off," Betty Ann said, as she sat on the bicycle frame in front of me. It was none too comfortable for the roads were rough, but she was a good sport and after all she was having fun. "Look, Daddy, look at the deer." Betty Ann said, as we came to some open fields. Off in the distance a herd of deer was grazing. Now and then one of them would bounce high in the air, apparently to see if there were any signs of danger. A mile further on, Rev. Nath suddenly stopped and said, "Let me get out my gun. I see some deer crossing the road ahead of us." I really didn't want him to shoot at them so I rode a little distance ahead. By the time he got his gun out and loaded it the deer had started off across the fields. I breathed a sigh of relief.

We went farther and soon we saw the mela spread out before us. "I didn't expect to see such a big crowd," Betty Ann said. "They're expecting two hundred thousand," Rev. Nath answered. As we came to the edge of the crowd we had to get off our bicycles and walk. It was more like a circus. People were packed together on the roadway. The road was lined with merchants who had spread out their goods to sell - cloth, farm tools, cooking vessels, and many other things. Among them were little tea shops crowded with people drinking tea and eating food offered them.

At last we came to a Guest House right on the edge of the river. "I have reserved part of the Guest House for all of the gospel team," Rev. Nath, told us. There wasn't much room in it but with the crowd swirling all around, it was a quiet little spot and we were thankful for it. The luggage and the students soon arrived and before long we had settled in.

It didn't take the students long before they got out the little hand pumped organ and Indian drums and the gospel booklets. They went to the edge of the Guest House yard and began singing and offering the booklets for sale. They were telling the story of Jesus in song. A crowd gathered to listen. Many in the crowd were farmers from villages near-by, and among them were boys and girls and mothers carrying their babies on their hips. Now and then one of them bought one of the booklets. Then Betty Ann and I wandered off into the crowd to see what a mela is like.

Down along the river, men, women, and children were bathing in the river, as part of their religious worship. The river was considered sacred and they were told it would wash their sins away. "Their worship is different than ours," I explained to Betty Ann. When we worship everyone worships together. All of us sing or pray or listen to the sermon together. But among the Hindus, although [++Page 68] there are great crowds at the mela, each person, or sometimes a single family performs their religious ceremony by themselves." Betty Ann soon learned what I meant. A little further on we came to a crowd stopped in front of the image of the river goddess. The crowd was tightly packed together. "See, each one is making his or her own offering. First one person bows and places his or her offering of food or money on the platform in front of the goddess and utters a prayer. Then another person comes up and does the same thing. They do not do their worship as a group."

As we walked on we came to the area where there were many ox- carts. Betty Ann was taking it all in and I said, "See how families are sitting near their carts. Some are cooking food over their little fire and others are just talking together. They are here to enjoy the mela and everyone seems happy and full of fun." Then we went back to the Guest House for the night.

We were wakened the next morning by women in little family groups returning from the river. They had been there to bathe and as they came back they sang songs to the goddess. They sang so sweetly I can still remember how lovely it sounded in the morning air.

We had a busy day ahead of us. We had been asked to show the moving picture, The King of Kings, to that great crowd. It is a famous film that tells the story of Jesus. There was lots to do to get ready. We had to put up the field screen so the people could see the film. Then we had to get the electric generator filled with gasoline and ready. We had to stretch the long electric wires from the generator to the projector. The projector would be right in the center of the crowd. The film was in English but hardly any of the crowd knew English, so as they watched the pictures, Rev. Nath was going to tell the story in Hindi, the people's language. That meant that we had to have an amplifier and loud speakers so they could hear.

We wanted the film showing to please the people. While we were only a little group of Christians in a great crows of Hindu worshippers we were pleased that they had invited us to show the story of Jesus.

That night I started the electric generator. It made quite a noise and a crowd of people came to see what it was. And then I turned on an electric light far off near the projector. People who had never seen electric lights could not understand how that was possible. Then I turned off the light and the pictures came on the screen.

They estimated that about ten thousand sat closely together on the ground to see the film. What amazed me was that some sat in front of the screen and some sat behind it for the pictures showed through the screen. When the scene of the crucifixion was shown [++Page 87] the crowd was definitely more quiet, but only for a moment, for when Jesus arose from the dead and came out of the tomb the crowd shouted for joy. What a thrilling experience it was to show the film to them.

The next day, Rev. Nath said, "Tonight we will show the film in a village about five miles from here." We loaded all the things in the carts and late that afternoon we arrived in the village. The students had walked, and Betty Ann and I rode my bicycle. Again the students sang as the crowd gathered and we showed the film. So we went from village to village for a whole week. We had about run out of food and all of us were a little weary when we reached the railway station to return to Jabalpur.

Betty Ann was busy telling Philip and Barbara all the things she had seen and heard, and I should add smelled, for the aroma of Indian food hung over the mela, mixed as it was with the odor rising from a vast crowd pressed together. To the students I said, "Thank you for all you did to make our trip a success," In a day or two we had settled back into our college routines but the adventure lives on as a happy memory, long years later.

The list of things we took with us.
The electric generator. It was in a heavy box. (There were no electric lights at Tiwari Ghat.) Gasoline for the generator, long extension cords, the projector and films, an amplifier and loud speakers, a record player and records, a hand organ and drums, and a supply of gospel booklets, the field screen and ropes, flashlight, first aid kit and medicine, cooking pots and food and a prima stove for cooking and boiling the water for drinking, and bedding for each of us. We would be sleeping on the ground for a number of nights. [by James E. McEldowney, Spring 1997]

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