In 1965 a slightly built, rather unassuming-looking man by the name of Dom Ji from the small town of Ghotki in the northern Sindh district of Pakistan came to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In the year that followed, this man endured initial opposition and then led about ten others of his relatives to Christ.
Dom Ji is from a group of people known as Marwari Bhils, who are found extensively throughout Rajasthan in central western India and also in the south-east of Pakistan. Although Dom Ji is not actually the first Bhil to be baptized (there are baptisms from these people dating back to 1918), yet it is significant that following his conversion to Christ several thousand more Bhils have subsequently come to profess faith in Jesus Christ.
Who are these Marwari people? They are basically Hindu in religious outlook but also follow animistic practices. They are one of about thirty Hindu groups presently living in the Sindh and lower Punjab of Pakistan. They tend to live in rural areas and work as agricultural labourers and serfs for Muslim landowners. Less than two per cent of Marwari men are literate (and virtually none of the women). Poverty, ignorance and fear are mingled with strong cultural and religious traditions. These traditions are passed down orally from one generation to another. A father-in-law, for example, would never set eyes on his daughter-in-law, neither would a man sit or have his head uncovered in the presence of his wife’s father. On certain occasions several hundred men will gather for a ‘death feast’ in the vain hope of helping the spirit of the departed on in the never-ending cycle of reincarnations. Regularly, local deities like the fertility goddess Mallan are venerated. More commonly however the major Hindu gods of Krishna and Ram Chanda, who are regarded as incarnations of Vishnu, the second god of the Hindu triad, are highly honoured. The epic stories of these deities are found in the Hindu scriptures of the Rama Yana and the Bhagavad Gita and are sung during religious festivals and special gatherings. Most homes have grotesque pictures of these and other demi-gods and the more dedicated devotees build for them a small temple-house near their homes.
Gospel ministry among the Marwaris usually involves a tour of several days, visiting villages and homes sometimes out on the edge of the desert. Initial contact would not be possible to Western missionaries or even to Pakistani Christians of different ethnic background from their own, due to strong caste and tribal traditions. After contact has been established, with a Christian Marwari evangelist leading the way, then the Marwari people show themselves extremely hospitable. Sugar cane or milky tea, followed by curry and chapattis, will be served to the visitors in the special guest quarters of the community. When all have eaten, late in the evening the guests will be expected to lead in a ‘bhagti’ or worship service. Singing, which is so much a part of Hindu religious activity, is much appreciated and Christian Marwari songs, accompanied by local musical instruments, are sung. The central activity is the straightforward opening up of God’s Word. The truths of man made in the image of God, the fall of man into sin and its tragic consequences and then the work of redemption through our Lord Jesus Christ and the good news of the gospel are the main themes that are presented. Often after several preaching sessions the night’s proceedings will draw to a close in the early hours of the morning. Hearts are hungry and one recent convert called Birbal said, ‘I am not looking for material help, but please continue to come and tell us more about the Lord Jesus.’ This man was baptized in April this year and, like so many others, his whole family seem prepared of God and are being drawn to the Saviour.
The difficulties of forming a gathered church among the Marwaris may be appreciated when their illiteracy, poverty and scattered, isolated living locations are considered. There are cultural and domestic pressures to be met, such as work demands from the landlord, animals to be fed, elderly relatives to be cared for and children to be farmed out to relatives, before believers can set off on what may well be a two-day excursion to meet with other believers. Added to that is the practical difficulty that the host would feel culturally obligated to feed without charge the whole gathered congregation for the day!
Even so, here and there Marwari believers are beginning to take seriously the need to gather together regularly as a local church. In April this year the inaugural meeting of believers living in scattered villages around the little town of Head-Raj-Khan in the Bawalpur district was a time of much rejoicing. A dozen or so new Marwari believers pledged themselves before the Lord to meet, worship and serve together in the fellowship of the gospel. Even at that inaugural meeting, however, a letter was received from Hindu protagonists who were aroused by these initial faltering steps of the Dharmiki Parchar Baptist Church.
Pakistan might not be regarded as among the most responsive mission fields today, with its Islamic dominance, yet the Lord is at work among such as the Marwari Bhils and a rich harvest is being gathered for his glory.