To travel to India twice in one year is a remarkable opportunity. This spring I traveled with my father, a cousin and sister-in-law and now in the fall I will be going again on my own. I’ve sandwiched other trips in between as part of my research. In particular two weeks in July to Germany and London. Everything else throughout the year has been the far less glamorous task of writing. It has been difficult to set aside my community work and other interests to focus on writing. I’m hoping to finish up the Biography of Ferdinand Hahn, my great great grandfather, so that I can go on to write a novel based on the life of his wife, Doris.
I visited Ranchi, Jharkhand and the surrounding areas, for the first time, the place where my grandmother and great grandmother were born, where Ferdinand and Doris lived much of their lives as Gossner Missionaries. It was good to see the fruit of my ancestor’s labors: the church, the town council, the seminary, the schools, the hospitals, the grammar books, even some of the trees that had been planted in their time. I enjoyed sitting in the lobby of the guest house, to attempt to read the local Hindi Newspapers, only to be interrupted by a stream of people, mostly Adivasi Christians, who kindly carried on cheerful conversation, greeting me with smiles, “Yesu Sahay!” (Praise to Jesus) and a shake of the hand.
I look forward to hearing these joyful songs of greetings again:
It has been rewarding learning about the scope of my great great grandfather’s influence in his forty-two years of his work in this part of India. Even more rewarding has been how the work and the spirit in which the work had been done is carried on by a vibrant, self-sustaining church of committed Adivasi Christians. Those aware of their history are grateful for the legacy passed on to them by my great-great grandfather, my para-dada as they taught me to say in Hindi.
While I had grown up in India I had never been among the Adivasi. Their hospitality and cultural expressions of kindness were poured out on us. Everywhere we were greeted with flowers and song or dance in the Sarda, Kurukh or Munda languages. After the song we would be sprinkled with water from a Sal-tree branch dipped in water. Then a woman would come with a lota (bowl) and tali (plate). Each one of us would extend our hands over the plate as water was poured over them. Then another woman would come and dry our hands with a towel. In the Adivasi villages it used to be a feet washing ceremony, but with the introduction of shoes, it has turned into a hand washing ceremony for guests. In many cases a piece of cloth would also be given to us as special visitors. This would be either a traditional tribal cloth, usually white with red needlework, or a wool shawl. I ended up returning with a full suite case full of these lovely gifts. I noticed in one home they had a trunk full of cloth, expressly for the purpose of having gifts to bestow on visitors. Likely many of these cloths would circulate around the community.
The song and the dance was another central feature of their culture. I have recently met someone in Madison, Wisconsin, who is from Ranchi and wondered why his neighbors sang songs together at least twice every day. He could not distinguish that they were different songs, due to the common rhythm and tonality of the music. I noticed that the hymns sung in the church on Sunday were actually common German hymn tunes, but the way they were sung I felt they sounded more like the Adivasi traditional songs than a melody composed by Brahms or Sibelius.
When I heard the singing in the church I imagined some German missionary of old standing before the congregation swinging in the air trying to maintain, in vain, the European rhythm and the three-part harmony. Actually I read that the Adivasi have a particularly keen ear for western music and in those days would present quite remarkable choral concerts for visiting western dignitaries. But today, having made old German hymns their own, they delight in singing their Adivasi bhajans (hymns written in local dialects) and songs.
The Ranchi Christ Church is a remarkable building that was built in 1855. It is a tall cathedral in red clay. Today there are five services held every Sunday that are almost all full to overflowing. The interior is designed much like it was by the Germans 150 years ago. The old chandelier that once held candles is in disuse. The preacher’s pulpit, common to the old Lutheran churches, is high above the congregational seats. Where the choir now sits used to be where the missionaries sat and the large cloth punka (fan) is still strung above, though also in disuse. The wooden church pews seated 700 congregants.
It was in this church where Ferdinand and Doris were married on December 8, 1871. Twenty-five years later, their oldest daughter, my great grandmother, Louise Nottrott, would also be married there. My grandmother, Marie Feierabend married twenty-five years later on the same date, but in the United States. As much as she tried, she could not make it to Ranchi to have the wedding there. A few months later she arrived in Orissa, just south of Ranchi, to start her missionary life with her husband Herman. So twenty-five years after that, when my parents were to be married, they had a lot of pressure to make the wedding date December 8th, but my dad had to start Medical School in St Louis and they didn’t want to wait, so they got married in October in Wisconsin. In honor of this family tradition I will see what kind of celebration I can have while I am there to commemorate December 8th in the big Red Church.
There are many important commemorative dates that will be celebrated while I am there visiting this time. Mission Day is an opportunity for the Adivasi church to recognize its roots and to celebrate the spirit that continues to inspire the work that the early missionaries started. As I blog about my travels I plan to describe more about these various celebrations. The anniversary of the 1908 Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, a core legislation that favored Adivasi rights. The anniversary of the creation of the state of Jharkhand and birthday of Birsa Munda, the great Adivasi freedom fighter, who Ferdinand knew. The anniversary of the Bethesda School and the Church newspaper all having started in the times of Doris and Ferdinand.
My writing project shifted focus over this past year. Initially I set out only to write a novel about a missionary woman, based on the life of my great great grandmother, Doris Hahn. During my trip to India this last spring I recognized that a biography about her husband, Ferdinand Hahn, would be of interest to the people in India who were impacted by him. I discovered I had two stories that I wanted to write. A biography would feature the legacy that I share with the Adivasi Christians of India who I never had been acquainted with before this year. The story of the woman behind the man then can be a compelling sequel.
As I continue to blog about my travels and adventures in writing, there is yet another story to tell about those who benefited from Ferdinand and Doris Hahn’s legacy. This of course would include their direct descendants. Over the past few years I have had the great privilege to meet several distant cousins. In fact, one of the trips this year was to New Orleans to meet the descendants of Louis Voss, Doris’ brother. I was struck by the fact that some of these newly discovered distant cousins had actually met the relatives that I have only read about in my research. At the very least they knew the generation that followed Doris and Ferdinand. They had grown up with family stories and documents that had over the span of time and geography disappeared from my immediate family’s memory.
Doris (nee Voss) and Ferdinand Hahn were German missionaries to British India from 1868-1915. I found it interesting that these various distant cousins knew stories of India either direct stories from family who had lived there or through stories from the circular family letters. The circular letter would travel to family living around the world; each member of the family would add news and send the letter on to the next family member. Intriguing details about India, such as snakes in the bathroom or the little water cup they carried with them always, were mysterious abstractions to those who had no connection to India.
On the other hand, my immediate family—my father, mother and siblings—had a connection to India but not any memory of those first generation of missionaries to India. My father, now 91 years old, had spent most of his life also as a missionary in India. He continued following the missionary heritage, as did his mother and grandmother, all descending from Doris and Ferdinand.
We grew up with a connection to India and missions, but we knew nothing of Doris and Ferdinand Hahn, even though Ferdinand was buried where we went to school in the foothills of the Himalayas. Making the connection with this past helps us understand a little better the importance of India, missions, and Germany in shaping our individual identity.
My family was not alone in benefiting from this missionary legacy. What I had found out through research was further confirmed when I visited the place where Ferdinand Hahn had devoted his life’s work that had impacted the Adivasi’s of Chotanagpur. The Adivasi are the indigenous people of India that make up about 8 percent of the population. Most reside in the north east part of India. One region in particular just south of the Ganges and west of Kolkatta is what was once called Chotanagpur. The region now includes the newly formed state of Jharkhand and parts of West Bengal, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha. The Adivasi have over several centuries been marginalized and discriminated against. Their unique culture set them outside of India’s stratified social structure. Despite attempts to repress and remove them from their ancestral lands, the cultural identity of the Adivasi has remained strong. Nearly half of them have adopted Christianity or continue with their Sarna religion that believes in one God and a spirit world. Ferdinand Hahn is one of a handful of German-speaking missionaries who are known for helping the people preserve their language, cultural identity, and rights to their land.
I now have one more month before I leave for my second trip to Ranchi. I look forward to visiting the Gossner Theological College that is building a Research and Resource Center for Adivasi Studies that is dedicated to Ferdinand Hahn. I enjoyed last time being part of several interesting discussions about the impact Ferdinand Hahn had on Adivasi and Christian culture and history. I will enjoy continuing in that discourse with ministers, professors, teachers, social workers, advocates, and ordinary people.
I will be staying again at the Guest House of the Human Resource Development Center (HRDC). I only hope that somehow I will have the opportunity to write in this environment. Here in the US it is very difficult to get a real sense of the life and culture there. Even though Ranchi (and the other towns in the surrounding area) is now a bustling metropolis, one can get a sense of the place. To see the palm trees that surround the compound that were planted a hundred years ago by the missionaries, or to feel the warm breeze of the changing season from winter to summer, or to smell the sweet sour smell of a stagnant pond or the waft of a spicy curry being cooked over a charcoal fire. Some things have not changed over the past century.