The Sep/Oct 1993 of Himal had an article on missionaries, which referred to Capuchin priests and Kathmandu Christians who were forced to m igrate to Bettiah after Prithvi Narayan Shah’s conquest of the Valley. Theodore Riccardi, Jr. of Columbia University provides an account of that relocation in an essay written a few years back in honour of Luciano Petech, the respected historian of Nepal, Tibet and China. The photograph is by Todd Lewis.
IN 1769, the Capuchin priest, Padre Giuseppe da Rovato, led a small band of Nepali Christians to their new home in the plains of India. Most of them were Newars from Kathmandu Valley who remained loyal to their new religion and to the small group of priests who had tried, in vain as it turned out, to bring Christianity to inhospitable territory. The priests and their converts had been c aught in the web of intrigue and warfare that had beset the Nepal Valley for more than a decade. Prithvi Narayan Shah, King of Gorkha, had taken Kathmandu and Patan, and Bhadgaon was soon to fall. It was only with the greatest difficulty that he had been convinced that the Christians be allowed to go. The mission, which had begun in 1707, had come to an end. It was a failure, partly because of Rome’s inability to see the difficulties of conversion in Kathmandu and Lhasa and partly due to the political upheaval and military conquest that made it impossible for the missionaries to function.
Led through the mountains by the Italian priest, the Newar converts settled in a small village in Bihar called Chuhadi, near Bettiah, a town that had become, in the eighteenth century, a center of Roman Catholic missionary activity. Little is known of the Newar community over the next two centuries. It is said that they remained apart from the Indian population well into the nineteenth century, that they continued to speak Newari, and that they did not intermarry with other groups until much later.
Therefore, much of the community supposedly remained intact well into this century, when it finally began to blend in more and more with the local population.
In December 1978, Todd Lewis and I visited Chuhadi to see if any trace of the original Ne war community remained. Unfortunately, we arrived just before the very end. We reached Bettiah by car one afternoon a few days after Christmas. The main church, the Church of St. Rita, so dominates the town that we found it without difficulty, and it was there that we made our first inquiries. A priest directed us to the road to Chuhadi, which he said was about four miles away. The road was unpaved but in good condition and we arrived there at about four o’clock.
At first glance, Chuhadi differed little from the other villages of northern Bihar. It was thick with thatch-roof huts that sat amid plantain trees and mango groves. Its one distinguishing feature was the small chapel that stood near its centre. The head of the mission, Father Pollard, a Canadian Jesuit from Windsor, Ontario, was outside when we arrived, and he greeted us and offered us tea.
He responded readily to our questions, but he said that he knew little of the history of the Christian Newars. He confirmed that they had remained apart from the local Indian population for a long time, but that they inevitably had begun to intermarry with Indian Christians. Only two members of the community were left — an old man by the name of Eleazar, and his wife, Susannah. We could meet and talk with Eleazar, he said, but Susannah was sick and probably would not want to see anyone, particularly two strange Westerners.
After tea, towards dusk, outside the old man’s house, we met Eleazar. He was small and frail, in his late sixties, short even by Nepali standards, his appearance almost archaic, like some portrait of a Newar come to life after two hundred years. I spoke to him in Hindi, since he knew no Nepali or Newari. He spoke softly, but with great dignity. He said that he had been born in 1911. I asked him about his ancestors, and he said that they had come from Nepal. As he spoke he pointed north to the green hills that were visible in the horizon. I asked him about his family, his father and other members of his family, but he volunteered very little. The family had come from Nepal, but they had always lived in Chuhadi. Fourteen families in all had come, but none had ever returned. I asked him questions about the Newar culture and about modern Nepal, but it seemed that he had no clear idea of how Newars and their language could be distinguished from other Nepalis, and he had no knowledge of modern Nepal. His wife, Susannah, was only partly Newar, he said, and she knew less than he did about their origins.
We spoke for a few minutes about the composition of the village — very mixed, he said, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. He seemed diffident, even fearful, embarrassed by my questions, and I decided not to disturb him any further. I stopped and thanked him. I asked if we could take his picture, and he agreed without hesitation. We thanked him again and returned to the church. Father Pollard then permitted me to look at the baptismal records, but those that were available began only in the 1840s. They contained only Christian names and general occupational designations in Latin such as agricola, auriga, etc. Any original caste or ethnic status was obliterated by the name given during conversion.
Father Pollard said that we had missed meeting Mary Anna, an old Newar woman who had died just six months before our arrival. She spoke Newari and knew more than anyone about the history of the community.
We thanked the priest for his help and took our leave. The winter sun was about to set, and it was almost dark as we left. We reached Raxaul, cold and hungry, at about eleven that night, and shortly thereafter crossed the border happily into Nepal.
Had some historian or linguist visited this village during the previous two centuries, we might have learned something about the Newars of Chuhadi, their memories of the valley they had left behind, and their language. We know only that after their arrival, da Rovato and the priests who followed later tried to help them adjust to their new home. They even composed dictionaries for them in Hindi, Bhojpuri, Newari, and Italian. These and the letters back to Rome are all that remain, however. The human record is gone forever.