Stars of India

by Larry Hiller

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The universal language isn’t English or Esperanto. It’s spoken by the Spirit, and it’s heard wherever the gospel goes.

In a nation with more than a billion voices, which one do you listen to? In a land with more than a thousand languages and dialects, including more than a dozen official languages, which is the most important language to learn?

As the restored gospel of Jesus Christ begins to take root in India, young people there are discovering that whether their native language is Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, or whatever, they have a language in common with Latter-day Saints all over the world. And even in crowded cities like New Delhi, one special voice can stand out if you listen.

A language of the heart

Gloria Thomas, 18, of New Delhi, was introduced to the gospel by her friend Sheila. At first, Gloria didn’t think too much about the message presented by two elders from south India. But then she prayed. “I felt a very nice feeling in my heart. And I thought that this is the true church.” Now she cherishes the gift of the Holy Ghost. “Before joining the Church, I felt very alone,” she says.

Christina Massey, 20, also of New Delhi, says that when the missionaries came and talked about Jesus Christ and eternal life, “it felt so good.” Since then, she and her sister Nancy, 19, have lost their mother to cancer and find great comfort in their testimony of the plan of salvation.

Vandana and Tamanna Bahtti’s parents had joined the Church some years ago. But the girls had to make their own decision about baptism. They read the Book of Mormon and the Joseph Smith story. They prayed. And they received the witness they needed. Vandana, 20, says many people had told her not to be baptized, that the Church is not true. “I was confused,” she says. “I really prayed to God. I just remember that one week before my baptism I prayed about it, and the Spirit was so strong.”

A minority language

Christianity has been in India for hundreds of years, brought by missionaries of many different denominations. But India is the birthplace of major religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. And 13 to 15 percent of Indians are Muslim. Christians make up only about 3 percent of the total population.

It was among those few that the message of the restored Church began to take root. The Bamandla family of Hyderabad were already Christians when they first encountered the missionaries. Anita, 14, tells of how her brother first met the elders as they were looking for water for a baptism. When they came to her home and taught the family, Anita says simply, “I was very happy.”

After the elders came to the Bamandla home, the family began to have all sorts of problems. “That was Satan trying to stop us from coming to Christ,” says Anita. The branch president, the members, and the elders provided encouragement, the Spirit provided strength, and “we took baptism and we come to church regularly.” Interestingly enough, the Bamandlas had not been very active in their former church because it was so far from their home. But where the Hyderabad Fourth Branch meets is even more distant. Now, distance doesn’t keep them away.

“We are blessed very much,” Anita continues. “I can’t express the blessings. Our Father in Heaven is so good. I love my Father. I love my Jesus Christ.”

But not a foreign language

The British ruled India from the 1700s until 1947, and English is still recognized as one of the official languages of the country. It’s taught in the schools and is often the language of business and higher education. It’s also a language that frequently allows Latter-day Saints from one language region of India to communicate and share testimony with those from another area.

The language of the Spirit, on the other hand, crosses every barrier and is the native language of every open heart. Naveen Kumar, 18, had no prior religion. But one day his older brother saw two young men in white shirts pass by the family’s home. Something prompted him to call out to them. Eventually the whole family joined the Church, and now Naveen is looking forward to serving a mission.

Karthak Unni, 15, also of Hyderabad, is another who felt the Spirit. “I did not know it was the Spirit I was feeling,” he says, “but I felt so happy.” The elders who were teaching him explained those feelings to Karthak. “Whenever they came to my home I felt so happy. And whenever I read the Book of Mormon I feel really great about it.”

A language of love

In the city of Bangalore the Roshan family was introduced to the gospel through an uncle. At the time, Rakesh, 18, or “Rocky” as everyone calls him, was the only family member to be baptized. He wasn’t serious at first, but as he attended church, read the scriptures, and heard the testimonies of others, he gained a testimony of his own. After his baptism, however, Rocky became somewhat inactive and the elders began to visit the family regularly again. This led to the baptism of Rocky’s older brother, Dinesh, whose example of faithfulness and love not only led Rocky back into activity, but led their parents to the waters of baptism also.

Then there’s the powerful example of love shown in the Bangalore Second Branch, where a large part of the congregation is deaf. Using yet another language—sign language learned from welfare service missionaries—several young hearing sisters take turns interpreting the services for the deaf. But it doesn’t stop there. Many of the hearing members of the branch have taken it upon themselves to learn at least some sign language. And so, before and after meetings there are the usual happy greetings and conversations you find in any Latter-day Saint congregation. But here, many of them are silent, as the language of the Spirit overcomes physical communication barriers.

With so many people and languages and religions, India is a richly complex society. But among the Latter-day Saints there, a Church member from anywhere else in the world would feel right at home. Because we have a common language.

Photography by Larry Hiller

The “Star of India” is a famous sapphire that reflects light wonderfully.

An even brighter light—that of the gospel—is reflected in the eyes and smiles of young Latter-day Saints in India.

Studies consume most of the day, so time with other LDS youth, even if it’s just a visit to the city’s most famous market (left), is an enjoyable treat for these young women in Hyderabad …

… and for their Aaronic Priesthood counterparts (above).

In New Delhi, as elsewhere, young Latter-day Saints are often found at their favorite gathering place—the local chapel.

Though India’s long been known for beautiful fabrics (right), for spices and precious gems, her greatest natural resource is her warm, bright, ambitious people—traits that are magnified when the gospel comes into their lives.