KOTGARH, a small hamlet in the state of Himachal Pradesh, is around 10 km from Narkanda. Surrounded by the Himalayas, the town is famous for its apples and culture, but a less-known fact is that Kotgarh was one of the earliest mission stations of North India, the history of which is gathering dust in the mission archives. A visit to the place rekindled my interest in this neglected topic.
It is also a part of British history. Kotgarh was a station of the British army during the 1814 - 1816 Gurkha War. What draws more attention to this place is 180 years 180-year-old school. Gorton Mission School was established in 1843. It was named after Mr. Gorton, who was a distinguished servant in Shimla. It is one of the oldest schools in Himachal Pradesh. The school is located in the middle of the town.
Legacy to cherish The CMS church in Kotgarh stands as a symbol of the early missionary work in Himachal Pradesh. Though the town does not reflect strong Christian characteristics, the legacy is depicted in the church and the school, says Manpreet Kaur
Kotgarh, in the 19th century, was a part of the province of Punjab. Going back to the early establishments of mission centres, the Presbyterians from America led by Rev John C. Lowrie were among the early missions to establish their headquarters in Punjab at Ludhiana in 1834. But after a decade in 1844, it was the Church Missionary Society (CMS) from England that opened its centre at Kotgarh. It became a mission station along with Simla, Kangra and Dharamsala. Kotgarh was ideally situated in terms of Christianisation.
To comment on the impact it would have, Robert Clarke, a pioneer of CMS — when he came to Kotgarh after almost 40 years of its establishment — called it a mission on a hill "to give light to the whole country between China and the plains."
Kotgarh grew with references like these, and by the early 20th century, the fieldwork as described by Rev HFT Beutel comprised an area of about 2000 sq miles. In 1911, there were around seven male native Christian agents.
Kotgarh was not alien to the British establishment at the time of the ecclesiastical invasion. It had already become a station of the British army during the 1814-1816 Gurkha War. A two-storey building was erected to serve as British officers’ mess. In the coming years, the British army withdrew from Kotgarh. Some time later the missionary spirit took root. CMS at Kotgarh worked in close connection with the Berlin Ladies’ Society. Unfortunately, I couldn’t trace any literature on the latter society with regard to their activity in Kotgarh.
What draws attention when one visits the place is a church that stands in the middle of the town. Built-in 1872, the CMS church is near the Army mess. Set in the rugged mountainous site, it stands out as an example of Gothic architecture. The church, a not-so-tall building, has an apse and a tower bell. The front window has a painting of Christ. The exterior is a combination of austerity and simplicity. It was used for daily morning and evening services.
The church — now filled with mature shrubs and apple trees in its backyard — enhances the settings of what is one of the historic buildings of early mission work. Alongside the church, a school was opened and was named after Gorton, a distinguished servant in Simla. Later, it came under the mission control. The school grew gradually, and in 1886 it could boast of a substantial figure of students studying here — 13 boys and two girls.
Interestingly, some medical work was carried out at Kotgarh, too. A hospital that comprised only four beds was highly beneficial to the natives and the mission societies alike. Though the hospital was not a missionary enterprise, the latter through its "care and cure" policy spread the message of the gospel to the patients. They believed it would facilitate conversions. The mission reports do throw light on incidents that showed interest in the indigenous population towards Christianity.
For instance, a Brahmin, who brought his son for treatment, expressed a desire to learn about Christ. Similarly, a young man in government service with a small salary regularly gave one Re 1 a month as a thank offering for the benefit derived at the mission school. Such descriptions were pronounced but baptism was rare. There are no figures available that tell the exact statistics of the indigenous Christians of that time.
Kotgarh, with its picturesque location, soon became a summer retreat for the missionaries in the plains. Books written during the early 19th century have travelling experiences of missionaries on ponies. Dr Brown of Women’s Christian Medical College and Hospital from Ludhiana was a regular visitor who spent her early summer holidays here. A stay at Kotgarh for her meant time for learning a language like Urdu. Despite the Christian credentials of the place, Kotgarh witnessed a partial process in the spread of Christianity.
Towards the later decades of the 20th century, there was little impetus for mission work here. From this standpoint, ironically, when Samuel Stokes settled in this part of the country, he found his missionary image "unsatisfactory," and became a Hindu to establish a rapport with Indians.
Presently, Kotgarh does not reflect strong Christian characteristics. However, the legacy of the missionaries is depicted in the domain of the church and the school.
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