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Visit to Patna 2006 by the Ashbourne group

The visit to the Diocese of Patna in February 2006 was a great success. The group visited Delhi and stayed at the CNI headquarters there which has guest rooms. We met some members of the "Messengers of Peace" group who had visited Derbyshire in 2005. They were making a CD of some of their songs and we have brought copies back. Contact Christopher Harrison if you would like one. Karen Neal, our nurse, visited St Stephen's hospital and was given help and information for her ten week stay at St Luke's hospital, Hiranpur. We then travelled by overnight train to Patna where we were met by Bishop Philip Marandih and staff from Christ Church school. The school normally has its Sports Day in October but had moved it to February especially for us!! That was typical of what we were to experience throughout our stay.

Then it was off to Bhagalpur where the Bishop lives. Bhagalpur is a bustling city at the eastern end of Bihar, the poorest state in India. Very different from our first few days in Delhi. The streets are crowded with cars (not many), auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, cycles, cows, goats, dogs and people. All sharing the road. There didn't seem to be any pavements, the roadside stalls came right to the edge of the road. There didn't seem to be any traffic rules either except perhaps one, "if you see a space its yours" How they managed to avoid accidents we will never know.

Our first visit from Bhagalpur was to St John's school, Taljhari which is the school where we have set up a scheme to sponsor board and lodging for girls from the surrounding villages. A wonderful welcome with garlands and the pupils dancing and singing. We saw one of the local villages as well as the school. It is a very poor area with a substantial number of orphans. Then on to Barhawa and St Thomas's school with another fantastic welcome. The next day took us to St Luke's hospital Hiranpur. We had financed the re-roofing of part of the hospital that leaked badly during the monsoon season. Karen was to return there for a further 10 week stay helping and advising the nursing staff. Much more is still needed there but we were encouraged to meet three new, young doctors who had recently been appointed. We left Hiranpur to return to Bhagalpur.

Saturday saw the Diocesan fete. The Bishop had been training 20 catechists who were soon to be sent to outlying villages and the fete was to raise money for bicycles for them. We were besieged by children wanting our autographs and to talk. . Two young men in particular wanted to know why we had come to Bihar and implored us to tell everyone about Bihar and how poor it is. The fete was a great success with sufficient money raised for the bicycles and enough to purchase some vestments for them as well. Church on Sunday and then Karen left for her stay in Hiranpur.

Monday and Tuesday saw more school visits together with visits to a weaving project and a sewing project. Part of our brief is to look for opportunities for volunteers such as Karen and to prepare a booklet on our return. Wednesday sees the departure of three of our group and then more school and hospital visits for the remaining three. The schools vary from large ex-mission stations to tiny, cramped primary schools in the centre of Bhagalpur. All could do with help in one form or other. But all gave us a warm welcome and we were impressed by the cheerfulness and confidence of the children. These Christian run schools charge fees and the majority of the pupils are Hindus. Nonetheless we were greeted with hymns and prayers. The differing faiths live together with remarkable tolerance.

All to soon our visit to the Patna Diocese was over and we returned to Delhi to meet a friend who worked with the CNI Diocesan Board of Health as an AIDS project worker. After a spot of sightseeing including the Taj Mahal we left for her family home in Lhudiana in the Punjab. This was predominantly a Presbyterian area beforwe the formation of CNI and the Sunday service there was markedly different from Patna. CNI seems to have m,anaged to encompass much of the traditions of the founding churches. Its service book allows considerable scope for local interpretation. Punjab is one of the richer states of India. Travel there was much easier, the roads were good in marked contrast to our experiences in Bihar where we averaged about 20 km per hour travelling by road. We had a trip to Amritsar and the Golden Temple, calling in on the way at Suranussi, the school from which we had received a visit by the dance group Sahgaman a few years previously. The day finished with tea with the Bishop of Amritsar who was keen for a link to be re-established with his diocese.

At this stage Sheena was taken ill with severe gastroenteritis and admitted to the Christian Medical College(CMC) hospital. We had intended to visit the hospital as one member of the Methodist Church congregation, Joan Constable, and her late husband Guy had been there in the 1960s. Dr Guy had been the Principal of the college and Joan still knew several people there who we were to visit. These people turned out to be very senior indeed, hospital director, college principal, professor of dentistry etc. Sheena received very good care indeed and was discharged just in time to take tea with the Moderator of CNI and Bishop of Chandigarh, the Rt. Rev. Joel Mal.

And so to Delhi and home. A wonderful and humbling experience, the local people have so little but they went to great trouble to make us welcome and we received presents galore. Their hospitality was mind blowing, especially given their circumstances.