Kashmir’s Christian Heroines

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In the name of God and for the spread of the Gospel, these women left their homes on Europe and got education and modern medicine to Kashmir. Though they did not succeed in converting Kashmir, they fought prejudice, racism, and tyranny during their stints in the Valley. Of the three women profiled in this write-up, Irene Eleanora Verita Petrie died (1864 – 1897) in Leh, Fanny Butler (1850-1889) is buried in Srinagar and Mrs Robert Clark (1825 – 1900) physically fought Maharaja who disliked British presence in Srinagar especially for a purpose that benefitted the commoners

After Christian missionaries started the basic health facilities in Srinagar soon after the British sold Kashmir to Gulab Singh, the people would ferry the sick in houseboats. This photograph is from 1872.

Mrs Robert Clark’s (Elizabeth Mary Browne) opinion of Kashmir, after a short experience of place and people, was the same as that of almost every other missionary – everywhere dirt, and people who minded it not. “We have been brought up in it,” they would say, “and so we do not mind it; but if anyone comes from the country, it makes him ill.”

The Kashmiri people, too, were not of a sort to invite affection. Their Afghan and Sikh neighbours used to say, “Kick a Kashmiri first, then speak to him.” However, Mr and Mrs Clark determined to try what could be done, and they made for the capital, Srinagar. There they found a house and hoped to be allowed to settle down.

Mrs Clark In 1864

The Maharajah of Kashmir, however, was of a different opinion. He did not want a Christian mission. And though he dared not openly assault an Englishman, he was entirely minded to turn him out. He gave secret instructions to the police, who in their turn gave the word to the mob; and when the Clarks’ boats arrived they were pelted and not permitted to land. An Afghan disciple who went about foraging discovered another house at another landing, and in the early dawn of the following morning, the Clarks rowed there rapidly and took possession. They were soon discovered by the mob and for a while, the worst was threatened. The house was besieged by a howling mob of men and boys. Stones were thrown, and breaches were made in the walls of the stable and compound. The authorities carefully kept away.

Mrs Robert Clark facing a howling mob set by Maharaja of Kashmir against her family.

The crisis was barely averted by the gallantry of a Frenchman, a Monsieur Gosselin, a shawl merchant who lived across the river. He, seeing the tumult, came over armed only with his whip, and being known by the people, reached the house, and obtained a parley. At one moment it looked as though he would be flung over the bridge into the flooded river, but courage prevailed and the cowardly people let him through.

Mr Clark managed to take advantage of the division to reach the Wazeer and demand justice. Dr Martyn Clark, who was then a child, says that he has a clear remembrance of his mother that day of terrors. “She watched the howling mob with an amused smile, and so interested her children in the doings of the crowd that they forgot to be terrified.” While the frantic populace beat against the house like a tide, and filled the air with their roaring and vile threatening, “hooting as only Kashmiris can,” she faced them all with an untroubled brow. Surely a mother to be proud of.

Finally, Mr Clark got some sort of justice from the Wazeer, and the people were dispersed. But it was only when some of the English officials made common cause with the Clarks, and gave it out that they would defend the house with their bodies, that any peace was assured. Nor was Mrs Clark at all disposed to yield to violence.

When her husband put it to her whether she would go or stay, representing the danger they were in, she replied that “she was not afraid either for herself or the children, but was confident that God could and would protect them, and that at any risk they ought to remain.” They did so, and proceeded to open a dispensary.

Mrs Clark started as the doctor to the city. Crowds came to consult her. Patients became friends. Timid people who thought that her medicines were made up of the hairs of dead Sahibs, and had a magical effect to compel the swallower to become a Christian, changed their minds, and sought healing too. Things began to look quite encouraging. Mr Clark gained a footing as a teacher. Even the Dewan came to consult the Memsahib about his health. But in the end, the unyielding opposition of the Maharajah prevailed, and they had to return once more to Peshawar.

Rev Robert Clark

Before this happened, every sort of attempt was made, on any possible legal pretence, to oust the missionaries from their house. On one such occasion, a native officer and a Baboo were sent by the Wazeer to bid them quit. As Mr Clark was away, they walked straight into Mrs Clark’s room, without any introduction, and called out loudly and insultingly whether she intended to obey orders and go? “Well, what does she say? Are they going or not going?” Mrs Clark said not one word; hut rose and left the room, and sent a servant to request them to leave.

The Memsahib was always quite equal to such an emergency, and was not to be browbeaten. The Kashmir doors, however, were not quite yet to remain open to the Christian teacher.

Fanny J Butler, 1888

Miss Butler was the first fully qualified lady doctor who went from Great Britain to work in India. She dedicated herself to the women of Indian in 1880. Fanny Butler, known to a large circle of devoted young friends as Aunt

Fanny J Butler, a Christian missionary nun, who died in Srinagar and is resting in the Christian cemetery in Sheighbagh

Fan, was one of those girls who come early under deep religious impressions, and who conceive highly of their duty to the Saviour of the world. At the age of fifteen, she began to dream of her life-work for Christ. Her imagination even then pictured herself as a missionary somewhere’ in the foreign field.

In 1880 she was accepted by the Indian Female Normal School and Instruction Society, which afterwards became the two distinct societies of the Church of England Zenana Society and the ZBMM. She began her work at Jabalpur and then at Bhagalpur, in the Central Provinces of India, where she practised dispensary work, and learned how to deal with the thousands of out-patients who seek the help of the medical missionary.

Eight years later, in 1888, Miss Butler was invited to commence work in Kashmir. She loved the Bhagalpur people, and they were enthusiastic about her. “Ah, Doctor Miss-Sahiba, but will anyone who comes next love us as you have done?” So her poor friends asked, and besought her to stay. But she was “under authority,” and the word had gone forth that Kashmir was to be her destination; so she went, and was associated with Miss Hull in her work at Srinagar (Srinuggar). There she opened a dispensary and was soon immersed in medical work.

Miss Hull gives a charming picture of Miss Fanny Butler in a pamphlet, Itineration in the Villages of Kashmir, “We see her on horseback, then on foot, preferring to walk rather than trust to her bolting pony. Very weak and tired, as the trouble grew upon her which ended in her death; but always sweet and hopeful. Always ready for more work, too.”

Miss Hull thus describes a morning at a village: “The gospel address is listened to attentively, and the prayer interspersed with many an assent; and then all come, one by one, to be examined and prescribed for by Miss Butler.

The eye cases are passed on to Miss Werthmuller, and Miss Edgely makes up the medicine. Plenty and more than plenty, for all to do. The struggle to get first to the front grows painful as the day advances, somewhat as it must have been at the Pool of Bethseda when the waters trembled at the angel’s touch. And now the day wanes. Some eighty sick women have been soothed and helped. We sit down by our lantern to our evening meal.”

And so on, day after day. “Again the crowds gather and clamour, noisy, dirty …. The noise ceases for a while at the sight of my yellow Kashmir gospel … and again the sad crowd of unwashed humanity tries to crush forward to the little table where Miss Butler is getting ready for them.”

“Dear Kashmir women,” asks Miss Hull, “why won’t you wash?”

“We have been so oppressed, we don’t care to be clean,” is the dispirited reply. They crowd round Miss Hull, though she declares, “I am not the great Doctor Miss-Sahiba.” They throng the dispensary door.

Mrs Bishop, describing Miss Butler’s work, says: “It was a terrible sight to see the way in which the women pressed upon her at the dispensary door, which was kept by two men outside, and another inside. The crush was so great as sometimes to over-power the men, and precipitate the women bodily into the consulting room.

The evil odour, the heat, the insanitary condition in which Miss Butler did her noble work of healing and telling of the Healer of souls were, I believe, the cause of the sacrifice of her life.”

She died on October 26th, 1889, quite worn out, but in great peace, and was buried on the 28th at Srinagar. Her servants asked the honour of bearing her to her grave. “We have eaten her salt,” they said, “and no other arms must carry her.”

 Irene Petrie in 1894

Even at the best time of the year, when Nature’s smile is sweetest, those who go down among the people know that all is not fair in Kashmir. The visitor to the capital city, Srinagar, will probably at once decide that it is well named “the City of the Sun.” It lies with thickly clustered brown houses about the pretty river Jhelum. Its many bridges span the water and make warm reflections.

Irene Petrie who worked tirelessly in Srinagar as a Christian missionary nun and eventually died in Leh

It suggested Venice to Irene Petrie when she first arrived and saw the swift boats plying to and fro along the narrow waterways. A dilapidated and dirty Venice it appeared to her that first sunshiny day; and dirtier still she found it when she went among the closely-packed houses to seek out the sequestered women who were to be her pupils and her charge.

“Surely,” she said, “Kashmir must be the dirtiest city in the world and most of the houses look as if they could not survive the next flood or earthquake.” It is said that things are improving but in 1894 they were as bad as they could be, and Irene wished that “an army of health missionaries would follow in the wake of the Gospel missionaries and teach practically that cleanliness is next to godliness.”

“You do not require eyes,” writes one familiar with Kashmir, “when approaching the habitation of a Kashmiri.”

The organ of smell is quite enough. It requires a strong stomach to carry one unconcerned all day among such houses as these. Imagine mire of the foulest kind, so deep that in places a lady must be carried over on some one’s back. This crossed, not without splashing and befoulment, the teacher enters the tumbledown house where unwashed people move serenely among things unwashed.

The early summer or late spring visitor, as has been said, sees Kashmir at its sunny best, but the resident tells of “the burning heat in summer, the deadly stench in autumn, and the bitter cold in winter.” Irene arrived just before winter, and shortly afterwards the roads were choked with snow, and long icicles hung pendant from all roofs. When February came, they found themselves snowed up. The court was filled with snow.

Ice formed over all water. They had to fill their kettles with chips split from an ice-block. It was difficult to get about at all. When at last the snow began to melt in early spring, the roads became quagmires of bottomless mud, in which the horses sank to their girths. The ladies expected all this, and did not allow such trifles to keep them from their work; but Irene says, “I believe we must be the muddiest missionaries in the world!”

The Mission Hospital in Srinagar. A photograph taken early twentieth century

It may be interesting to give a short account of this mission to the Kashmiri. In 1865 Dr Elmslie opened a dispensary at Srinagar. About three-quarters of the people are Mohammedans, and intensely conservative of their customs. Dr Elmslie encountered great opposition but persevered during five years. His work was then taken up by Dr Storrs, Mr Clark, and the Rev TV French. Dr Elmslie rejoined them in 1872, but died shortly afterwards from overwork and exhaustion. It was his widow who became so close and dear a friend of Miss Charlotte Tucker (ALOE) at Amritsar. Ten years later Dr Arthur Neve went out, a man of great resolution and talent. He was joined in 1886 by his younger brother, Dr Ernest Neve, who had had a distinguished career at Edinburgh University, and obtained the highest honours. These two men have raised a lasting monument of disinterested devotion in the splendid hospital and native church which were built by their efforts, and which now present so conspicuous an object at Srinagar. Several ladies, as Miss Newnham, of Edinburgh, Miss Neve, and Miss Hull joined the staff, which was increased by the coming of Miss Petrie in 1894.

By that time the position of the missionaries was well assured, but work was not on that account an easy matter. The people were deeply prejudiced. As Dr Neve says: “To eat with a Christian is a terrible sin; to become a Christian is to become a hated outcast; even the little children know this.” The women, too, had become abject through long contempt. They had grown so accustomed to regard themselves as negligible that it seemed absurd to them to try to form an opinion or to get an understanding. They had sunk into a rut and did not care to be lifted out of it. Indeed, they mostly seemed incapable of conceiving that anything could become different to what it was. Life in the zenanas is unutterably dull and eventless. Intrigue is the only excitement. The very desire to know anything has been starved out of the apathetic women who dwell in those dingy habitations. The Indian census of 1891 gives only one literate Hindu woman out of two hundred and forty-four, and only one Mohammedan woman out of two hundred and ninety-eight.

To such women as these Irene Petrie came as a bright and wonderful visitor out of the unknown.

 The Nikki Mem

She was known as the Niki Mem, the Little Lady, whose visits made a pleasant interlude in a dreary day. She describes an ordinary visit thus: “The teacher sits down on chair, charpai, or floor, as the case may be, and reading or knitting is produced. Then when all the pupils are gathered round and inclined to listen, when babies within, and cocks and hens and pariah dogs without are quiet, books and work are laid down, the Bible is opened… ‘Miss-Sahib, sing!’ is a constant request, and quite a chorus joins in the Christian hymns, we have set to the quaint native airs.”

That setting of hymns to native airs would have been a thoroughly congenial task to one whose ready musical gift made her everywhere useful and acceptable. She had pupils of all kinds: some were ladies of high degree as the fashionable wife of a native official, “arrayed in a gorgeous costume, green, blue and gold, with a fine, scarlet double chaddar; another, a Mohammedan lady, “wearing a coronet of jewels and a single cotton garment, and dying by inches of rheumatism brought on by sitting on a damp Floor” again, the family of a rich shawl merchant, “the ladies all squatting together in one small, stuffy room, keeping strict purdah” (ie, curtained off from the world). Besides these were two rival wives of a wealthy Mohammedan.

“The second wife sat smoking her hookah, and defiantly uttering bitter arguments against Christianity.” And others of the same class. But she also went a great deal among the poor. There was an old woman who had burned herself badly with her kangre, or fire-basket, which the women carry under their clothes for winter warmth.

There was “a fever-stricken woman, whose bed was on the bare ground,” but whose children were keen to learn, and would beg for extra lessons. And plenty more of that sort also.

It may seem to some people as though continuous work of this monotonous kind must have soon palled upon a highly educated girl, accustomed to such excitements as life in London society could provide for her. But there is no doubt that Irene found in it what satisfied her, and that she loved her “dear brownies” very unaffectedly. When she got back to Srinagar, after a furlough home to England, it was with a glad leap that the heart clinched itself to its work again. “As I scrambled up our ladder to the top of the bund,” she says, “I heard dear Miss Hull’s voice, and a minute later I was in her arms in the pretty drawing-room, looking cosier and nicer than ever. . . · . I found that the dear brownies had even a bigger slice of my heart than I had thought when in England. It is delightful to get to work again in this dear place.”

Irene Petrie was not permitted, in the Providence of God, to do more than offer her young womanhood to India. Her singularly beautiful career was brought to a sudden close during a holiday journey in Little Tibet. When the summer vacation of 1896 came round, she planned with a few adventurous ladies to penetrate as far as Leh, the capital of Ladakh.

Things were going thus pleasantly, and everybody was looking forward to a safe arrival at Leh, when suddenly Irene fell ill. It seemed at the moment to be an ordinary fever, but was, in fact, the first symptom of what proved to be typhoid. Soon she could not sit her pony and was carried on a bedstead borrowed from the nearest village. So she was brought by stages into Leh. All that was possible was done for her, both by Dr Neve and Dr Graham the State surgeon at Leh; but nothing availed, and at the last she quickly sank. Just before the end she began to sing. Then, as one of the watchers by her bedside says, “She fell asleep like a tired child.” They could scarcely believe that she was dead, as she lay there, “with a lovely flush on her cheek, looking so beautiful that it was hard not to believe that she would presently awaken as from happy dreams.”

Most appropriately her coffin was made from a harp-case, which one of the ladies at Leh offered for the purpose. In it she, who was the soul of music, was laid to rest in the little Christian cemetery outside the walls of Leh.

 (These passages were excerpted from Missionary Heroines in India, a book by E C DAWSON and seemingly was published early twentieth century from England.)

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