Faith endures in Satyadeep Singh’s graduate project

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Travelling to the Nepalese Himalayas, Singh tells a story of faith, caste-based discrimination, and the search for new life

In the northern Himalayas of Nepal, the village of Busapedha is home to around 20 families, belonging to two distinct social classes; the Tamang and the Dalits. Within this socio-ethnic caste system, the Tamang people sit above the Dalits, who are considered to be in the lowest category of ‘untouchables’. Caste-based discrimation has been outlawed in Nepal since 1962, yet remnants of its prejudice endure, and because of  this, many Dalits are now converting to Christianity from Hinduism, in search of a new way of life. Satyadeep Singh, a recent graduate of the Bangladesh Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, ventured to Busapedha to meet the converts.

“Nepal is one of the fastest growing Christian populations in the world,” explains Singh. ”After the 2015 earthquake (killing some 9000 people with a magnitude of 7.8), the number [of converts] has been getting higher. 60 to 80 per cent of the people converting are from lower castes, such as Dalits”. In 2018, due to the rise in Christianity, the Nepalese government made conversion a criminal offence for the next two centuries. “Many charities came from the west, distributing Bibles. There were attacks against missionaries and churches, and the conversion ban meant that you could be imprisoned,” Singh explains. The attacks against Christians gave reason to implement the ban, but many argue the assaults are a convenient excuse to outlaw conversion, slowing the growing Christian population. Six years later, Christianity has not been stamped out, but pushed underground. 

From the series Thy Kingdom Come, © Satyadeep Singh.
From the series Thy Kingdom Come, © Satyadeep Singh.

For two and a half months, Singh lived in a town close to Busapedha, travelling up to the village and meeting the Dalit families secretly practicing Christianity. The resulting work, Thy Kingdom Come, which will be on show at this year’s FORMAT Festival, follows their new lives and examines the realities of Busapedha, capturing the unspoken bonds and tensions between the community and this new faith. The project moves between documentary and staged portrait, as Singh ties the dual identities of Busapedha together; at once a Himayalan village of Tamang and Dalits, and a secret place of underground churches and hidden Bibles.

From the series Thy Kingdom Come, © Satyadeep Singh.
From the series Thy Kingdom Come, © Satyadeep Singh.

“There are many secret churches now. Mostly, people pray underground.”

From the series Thy Kingdom Come, © Satyadeep Singh.

“In Nepal, around 80 percent of people still believe in the caste system,” Singh explains. Missionaries travel to Nepal in secret, converting families despite the risks. For many Dalit people, after centuries of injustice, the promise of a new life is worth the danger. “When they convert, they also gain an education from the missionaries and they don’t believe in caste traditions anymore,” says Singh.

“There are many secret churches now. Mostly, people pray underground,” Singh says. There is a sense of privacy and silence that can be felt within the photographs, documenting a world behind closed doors. Red constantly bleeds through the work. “The colour is an important part of Hinduism, as well as Christianity. It denotes the blood of Christ, and the sacrifices he went through.” 

Freedom from discrimination, and the freedom of religion, are two fights blending together in Nepal. Singh doesn’t provide answers to these conflicts, but gives a voice to an unheard community. What will happen next, regarding conversion bans, the Dalit community, and the caste system, are all yet to be seen.

Thy Kingdom Come will be on show at the upcoming FORMAT Festival, running from March 12 to April 11 .You can find out more here.

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.