Abide With Me: Story behind Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite hymn dropped from today’s Beating Retreat ceremony

A day after relocating the Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate to the national war memorial, the government decided to drop ‘Abide with Me’, the Christian hymn that marks the conclusion of the Beating Retreat ceremony on January 29 — at the end of Republic Day festivities.

The hymn which was Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite has been replaced by the patriotic song, ‘Mere Watan Ke Logon’, penned in Hindi by Kavi Pradeep, composed by C Ramchanadra and sung by Lata Mangeshkar – commemorating soldiers who died during the war with China in 1962 — will replace the iconic tune. This is believed to be an effort at ‘Indianisation’ of colonial traditions that are still a part of the Indian Army.

What is the hymn about?

‘Abide with me’ was written by Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte. There is no clear evidence on when he actually wrote the hymn.

According to reports Lyte probably wrote the hymn in 1820 while visiting an old friend William Augustus Le Hunte who was on his deathbed. As Lyte sat beside Hunte, the latter kept repeating the phrase “abide with me…”

He later recalled the hymn in 1847 during an illness which eventually led to his death. The hymn is based on Luke 24:29 from the Bible, in which the disciples asked Jesus to abide with them.

The lyrics of ‘Abide With Me’ were paired with various hymn tunes, however, in 1861, the editorial board of Hymns Ancient and Modern felt that the words needed something better and requested William Henry Monk, who then composed the tune ‘Eventide’.

Besides Mahatma Gandhi, the hymn, which is popular across Christian denominations, was also said to have been a favourite of King George V and Alfred Lord Tennyson. It was played wedding of Queen Elizabeth II and also during the sinking of the Titanic.

The hymn is also sung at various military services in Australia and New Zealand, and in Remembrance Day services in Canada and the United Kingdom as well.

Since 1927, the first and last verses of the hymn are traditionally sung at the FA Cup Final and also at the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final since 1929.

Since when is it being played at the Beating Retreat ceremony?

The tune has been played at the Beating the Retreat ceremony every year since 1950 by the Massed Bands of the security forces. After the tune is played, the Indian flag is brought down at dusk to mark the end of the Republic Day celebrations.

The Beating Retreat, which marks the end of the Republic Day celebrations is performed every year on January 29 with military bands performing on Rajpath as the sun sets over Raisina Hill.

Over the last few years, Indian compositions have made their way into the military bands that earlier mostly played British tunes.

Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson’s appeal

Mahatma Gandhi first heard the piece played by Mysore Palace Band, and could not forget its tenderness and serenity.

According to a post by The Examiner, Gandhi’s great-grandson Tushar said that the hymn “symbolises the syncretic culture of our nation where all religions were included and given an equal status and respect.”

He further urged Indians to take it upon themselves to perform, recite or play, the hymn as a tribute to the Father of the Nation.

He also requested churches to play the hymn on January 30th, the day Bapu was martyred in 1948.

“My Appeal to the Church is to sing ‘Abide With Me’ in as many Churches as possible all over India on 30th January this year, as a tribute to Mohandas Gandhi and as an affirmation of the inclusive and tolerant culture of India and our secular belief of equal respect to all religions,” he was quoted saying.