To be called ‘Brother’ is a very special privilege - especially when you are an alien in a foreign land. It is a sign that you are part the family. Everything that happens to you, affects the locals and when you finally bid farewell, it is like the departing of one of their own.
In the summer of 1970, the small town of Kotagiri, nestled deep in the Nilgiris hills of Tamil Nadu, bid one such goodbye. Dr. Paton, fondly known as Chinnannan was no more.
Ernest Forrester Paton was born to religiously devout parents in Alloa, Scotland. After his primary schooling, he moved to Cambridge to complete his secondary school and graduation. It was at King’s College that he became active in the Student Christian movement and devoted his life to missions. During his final year in medical college, he met Dr. S. Jesudasan, an Indian doctor who was completing his FRCS at the Mission Hospital. Ernest too had desired to serve God in India as a doctor. The two got acquainted quickly and their visions converged. After finishing their studies, the duo moved to India.
Despite initial setbacks, they decided to set up their base in Tirupattur in Tamil Nadu and serve the local community. After much consultation and prayer, they established the Christukula Ashram in 1921.
The word Christukula means “the family of Christ”. This ashram family grew considerably in the years that followed. It attracted members from various nationalities, languages, economic and educational backgrounds. A core team was always committed to the ashram while those who volunteered stayed for a year or two. A hospital with state-of-the-art facilities was set up at the ashram to cater to poor villagers and all the services were made available to them free of cost. A school too was set up and run by volunteers at the ashram, many of whom were once students there themselves.
At the ashram, the members believed in the importance of prayer, community worship and devotion in Christian life. They deeply desired to live a fruitful life through obedience to God’s Word. To this end, they united for prayer at least four times daily. The ashram members also lived very simple lives and Dr. Paton and Dr. Jesudasan led by example. They gave up all their money to build more schools and ashrams. They used their professional expertise to improve the general health in the area.
As the attempt to live out the gospel in an Indian way gained acceptance, leaders like Mahatma Gandhi encouraged the initiative. Very soon the concept of Christian ashrams spread across the country.
Ernest’s life took an important turn in 1930 when he joined the Civil Disobedience campaign against the British Raj. He believed that his Christian faith compelled him to voice out against political injustice. Very soon he became a controversial figure in the eyes of the government. In February 1932, he was arrested on charges of picketing and beaten up by the police during a Madras demonstration. In 1934, Gandhiji himself came to Tirupattur and visited the ashram.
Dr. Paton truly embraced the Indian spirit and had the utmost respect for everything local. He changed his attire and adopted an Indian way of living. In the five decades he spent in India, he got the common man and the revolutionaries, the activists and the government officials, to take a keen interest in the Gospel.
He truly was a disciple who followed the footsteps of Christ and a brother who valued the life of others more than his own.