Life in Nagaland Before Baptists Arrived
There has been an attempt to claim that the religion of the Nagas was inherently biblical before the arrival of Christian missionaries. “The Konyak Nagas recognized ‘a deity of highly personal character associated with the sky more than the earth’ who ‘stood above all others.’”1 “The Naga also had prophets who arose among them from time to time.
An author named Phyveyi Dozo, himself a Chakesany Naga, describes one prophet, a woman named Khamhinatulu, believed to have lived in the 1600’s. Dozo claims that Naga culture featured amazingly biblical customs such as the erection of memorial stones at special places, ‘first fruit’ offerings, blood offerings, holy animal offerings, eating unleavened bread, ear boring, keeping sacred fore’ burning continuously, special regard for the number seven, harvest feast, and the blowing of trumpets after harvest!”2
Although many of these practices of the Nagas seem strikingly similar to the biblical customs of Israel in the Old Testament, a closer like will reveal otherwise.
He (Edwin Winter Clark) was told that an enormous rock, standing vertically and alone and in which dwelt a mighty influential spirit, was up there, and no one must pass that way. Clark kept to the ridge, and to the amazement of his attendants walked back and forth unharmed before the sacred boulder.”3
This encounter the missionaries had with the “sacred boulder” would indicate that the memorial stones of the Nagas represented something entirely contrary to the memorial stones of God’s people in the Old Testament.
There were many religious practices or the Nagas that served as a “dynamic equivalent” or cultural key to prepare the way for the missionaries. “The Ao’s define sin as ‘unclean,’ ‘foul,’ a ‘stain,’ a ‘spot’ and greatly abhor anything they denominate sin. They live in great dread and fear of it, and cleansing of sin is costly in sacrifice and time. Atonement for sin among the Ao’s costs something, and no strong argument is required to convince them of personal sin and the need of salavation.”4
Among the Ao tribe there was a folklore story about a tree of life. Two boys went fishing and began to boil their catch. They used a leaf from a nearby tree to stop the hole in their bamboo pot. The fish were revived after being put into a boiling pot of water.
To find what caused this unusual happening the boys used a different type of leaf as a stopper and boiled the fish. After the fish were boiled the other type of leaf was replaced. When the boiled fish were put back onto the pan they were revived. Soon the tribe of boys began to flourish due to the leaves that heal. Another tribe was angry and killed all of that tribe except one small boy. The boy did not know the secret of the healing and thus the “tree of life” was lost.
Religious festivals and celebrations played a major role. Some of the occasions for religious festivals were; change of season, worship to Deity, secure good crops, worship and sacrifice at sowing time, demon worship to avert calamity, worship of mountains, worship the village, worship at the skull tree and others. “These worship rituals are a process of cleansing before god, making things worthy, asking god to bless them again, asking god to take away these intrusions (curses), from the community.”5
“The Naga animism has had a great influence both on social cohesion and on the development of the individual’s character.”6
This tribal animism may at first glance appear to say that the early missionaries would have difficulty bringing the message of Christ to a people of this religion. According to Mrs. Clark this was not the case. “Religiously, these hill people south of Assam. Not being grounded in the old systematized religions of the East, and having no caste, are far more ready to accept the simple story of Jesus of Nazareth.”7
The location and climate of Nagaland has played a role in the social life before a Baptist witness. Nagaland is located in the Mountain region on the coast of Burma. The area produces the highest rainfall in the world. “This heavy precipitation upon an extremely fertile soil causes excessive vegetable growth and decay, and induces, as would be expected much malaria fever.”8
To the Naga before a Baptist witness there was a strong social tie to the family, clan and village. “The Naga social unit was not the tribe but the village. Each village was inhabited by two or more clans, each usually occupying its own area. Each village was responsible for its own economic, social, religious, and political needs.
In those days there were no inter-tribal organizations to cope with the needs of the tribe as a whole. Thus in such a society it was necessary to train and teach the young people within the village community itself. In the Naga society two institutions were mainly responsible for indigenous Naga education: the family and the morung”9 The “morung” was a type of dormitory the single males lived in with the primary purpose of defense.
One of the most striking social characteristics to the western mind was the practice of headhunting. According to Alva Bowers Nagaland was “the paradise of the head-hunters.”10 “They were dubbed by the Assames, ‘head cutters’.”11 “Men were dubbed women or cows until they had contributed to the village skull house.”12 Although the Naga villages were known for their headhunting practices thee was no known case of cannibalism. Some felt that the aspect of “head cutting” among the Nagas has been overemphasized. “The positive remarks wee always left behind or ignored by the missionary and other writers of the nags. They in fact over-emphasized the negative aspects and painted the Nagas as the Head Hunters of northeast, India.”13
The taking of a head was representative of courage. “To the Nagas there is nothing more glorious than bravery and success in battle, which meant the bringing of an enemies head back to the village.”14 It is because of these savage practices that the British would later encourage missionaries to work among the Nagas in hopes of bringing them under British rule.
Song was an important aspect of Naga culture. “Naga people used to communicate through the medium of song. Often in disputes they would even dialogue and fight with songs.”15 “Singing and dancing were essential qualifications which a Naga boy or girl had to acquire.”16 The boys were kept busy with sports and dancing to keep alert and fit. To be alert and fit had more than recreational value in the early Naga culture. “The young warriors slept with their battle-axes for pillows and their spears close at hand.”17
Security was always on the mind of the Naga. They did not want to risk their head being taken by a nearby tribe. Women and children in groups brought wood from the jungles and water from the springs far down the hillsides, never going singly, as the lower springs were favorite lurking places for enemies seeking human heads.”18 It was not uncommon that weaker villages were ravaged by stronger simply for heads.”19
“Opium smoking (introduced by the British to weaken the Naga militarily) sapped Naga initiative.”20 Rice beer was also a common staple among the Nagas and its excess would cause drunkenness.
To the Ao’s of Nagaland there were important social implications from the “Chunglizmti” which means six stones. The belief is that the six Ao tribes originated from the six stones. “Because a tribe member came from one particular stone this meant that he could not marry in his own clan. The tribe held that one was brother and sister who came from that stone and for this reason must seek marriage in an outside tribe (clan).”21 When it was time for a couple to be married it was a time of festival and celebration for the Naga people.
The social life of the Nagas before the missionaries was intertwined with the religious life. The religious festivals had a profound impact on both the religious and social areas of life and it is difficult to divide out the effects of the two. As we will see it is just this type of problem that faced the missionary upon arrival in Nagaland.
Baptist Arrive in Nagaland
Change in religious life
The first American Baptist missionary to arrive went to Assam by the year 1836. Rev. Bronson arrived in Assam but did not reach Nagaland himself. “There was a burden and constant intercession for the Nagas. He wrote a letter to headquarters, ‘O God, pity these perishing tribes and dispose the board of missions to send them help’.”22
The first Naga Christian was baptized on September 12, 1847. He was named Hubi and died of cholera within a month of his baptism. He was baptized by Godhula Brown in Sibsagor. The second Baptist Christian also baptized by Brown was Longjaglepzueck an Ao. He too died before he could carry the gospel to his people.
Bronson’s prayer would not be answered until 33 years later in the form of Edwin W. Clark and his wife. “They sailed from Boston on October 20, 1868 in Bark Pearel via Cape of Good Hope under the Missionary Union as Missionaries and Printers. They arrived in Sibsagar in March 1869 and relieved William Ward who had long need of furlough.”23.
During their stay at Sibsagar the Clarks had opportunity of meeting some Nagas roaming in search of food. Like Bronson the Clarks developed a burden for the Nagas and wrote the Home Mission Board in 1871. “Tribe upon tribe of Nagas are accessible to the Gospel. It is certainly painful for us at Sibsagar to be unable to lift our eyes without seeing these hills and thinking of them who have no knowledge of Christ.”24
Clark sent an evangelist to penetrate the Naga Hills. The evangelist came down with nine others and they were baptized by Clark on November 11, 1872. Clark was at this time not permitted to enter Nagaland by the British Government and his own mission board was hesitant to approve his plan to entered the Naga Hills December 23, 1872. That very day Clark organized the first Baptist Church of Nagaland.
It was an important day in Naga history when the first Baptist Church was formed. It is no wonder Clark knew his calling would henceforth be with the Nagas. “’I believe I have found my life-work,’ exclaimed Mr. Clark, as he entered the old press bungalow on his return from his twelve days’ absence in the wilds of barbarism.”25
The glorious moment for Clark was not without troubles. The village became divided over the new religion. Some felt that Clark could not be trusted because he had the same white face as the British military. The Nagas were opposed to anything that would promote alliance with the encroaching British power. Clark was determined to dedicate himself to the people and trust the Lord alone for protection. Clark was able to keep his head through the difficult opposition.
Clark concentrated on developing a good knowledge the language, their character and medicine. These skills proved helpful in soul winning and opened doors in many homes. Clark also would encourage the Nagas to pray for the sick and the recovery of a sick person would lead to a renunciation of animistic sacrifice.
“In 1894 Mulong became the center of missions to further the evangelization of the Naga tribes. Mulong is the first Christian village in Nagaland. Then in a later year Clark moved his mission center to Impur which is presently known as Ao Baptist Arogo Mungdang.”26
In the Ao culture every act of worship was accompanied by a gift. It was not difficult to convince the people to contribute to the Lord’s work.
In the schools the Bible was the textbook. The Naga would excel in the area of prayer. “A Naga prayer meeting is a prayer meeting indeed. The Nagas came to pray, and they do what they come for. There are no long, killing pauses. All kneel during prayer and at the end join in a hearty A-men.”27
In 1905 Clark saw a record one hundred and ninety baptisms. The work was truly blessed of God but Clark saw that better days were yet ahead. “Thirty years ago I took up residence in these Naga hills in a village where some work had been done by a native evangelist. Save at this place, over all these ranges of hills hunt the black pall of heathen, barbaric darkness. Now from some twenty of the fifty or more villages crowning the mountain crests floats the glorious banner of Christ, held by his Naga disciples. The softening twilight of Christianity is here. Soon the broad daylight with its transforming power will reveal a Christianized people.”28
Chang in Social Life
In the year 1835 Major Jenkin, Commissioner General of Assam wanted to explore and map out the native hills known as Nagaland. He knew the difficulty involved in this because of their headhunting practices. Assam became part of India under the British Government in 1826. To fulfill his dream of making Nagaland part of India he used the plan of first Christianizing them to pacify their warlike tendencies. The response for missionaries came fro the American Baptists from the invitation of the English Baptists.
The Nagas were well aware that to accept Christianity would mean drastic changes in their social life. “Adherents of the old, cruel faith were quick to see that the gospel of peace and love would rapidly empty their skull houses and put to rout most of the old customs handed down from forefathers, for whom they held the greatest reverence. The missionaries presence and his teaching had spread like wildfire from mountain peak to peak and everywhere was fostered the suspicious spirit.”29
The Nagas saw the important benefits that Christianity would bring including education and economic benefits, sanitation, but not all were willing to extend open arms to the new missionaries.
In many ways the Nagas have been compared with the Indians of North America. As the Nagas would value a trophy of a head so the American Indian would value a scalp.
There were other practices that would by today’s standards be considered unclean that the first missionaries encountered. The eating of dogs’ flesh and dead animals was problem faced by the early missionaries. The Nagas were also not in the practice of burying their dead.
The early missionaries attacked the vices as part of their work. “Every form of demon worship, open or suspected, was attacked—Sunday-breaking, rice beer drinking, licentiousness, and all social vices.”30 What has caused problems for some is the missionaries’ attack on all social vices. Some have claimed that these early missionaries lacked anthropological insight and understanding of the culture. The missionaries may have confused western culture and tradition with biblical Christianity in some cases. In asking the Naga to reject animism there was a requirement placed on the Christian to give up much of his culture. Even if these early pioneer missionaries did make mistakes discerning between animism and culture much of what took place among the Nagas was positive.
Christianity was of major importance as far as integrating the once warring Naga tribes as can be seen from the British military report. “An American Baptist Missionary, The Reverend Clark, has for some years past settled in the Naga village of Molar Kay, south of Amguri, and his labours are apparently bearing fruit in leading to the settlements of blood feuds, and a desire on the part of those villages which have come under his influence to live at peace with their neighbors.”31
It must be noted that it was Christianity that brought an end to the practice of headhunting. Although the results were dramatic they were not always immediate in the early days of mission efforts. “In short the government did not get the hoped for benefit of tribal pacification that was the primary motive behind the early support of missionary efforts.32
The missionaries attacked certain cultural practices among the Nagas such as wearing of ornaments and the abolishment of Naga folk music. The arrival of missionaries also meant the arrival of a written language. Thomas Bronson prepared a spelling book and simple catechism. “These were the first books written in any Naga language.”33
Life in Nagaland After Baptists Came
Clark’s vision for Nagaland came true. We can see the broad daylight of a Christianized people from the growth statistics:34
________________ ____________ _______________ __________________
Year Net growth Rate of Growth Native Preachers
1890-1900 307 409% 12
from 1900 to 1910 246 195% 90
1910-1920 3,697 328% 100
1920-1930 12,749 264% 250
1930-1940 18,738 107% 250
1940-1950 41,233 114% 145
1950-1960 4,173 5% 140
____________ ____________ ___________ ______________
It should be noted that during this period (1890-1960), that the number of foreign missionaries was never above ten. “By 1980 the Naga population was 572,742 and the Baptist population was 185,987 according to the Baptist Atlas; Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1980.”35
It is not surprising that today with such a high church membership to discover that the Nagas face a unique set of difficulties as compared with the past. There is an increasing need for leadership. There are one thousand churches and in some of these churches there is no pastor. There is also a problem keeping the young people involved in church.
Today Nagaland is known for its church movement. Nagaland is still growing spiritually in reaching out to people who need the message of Jesus Christ. The main denomination of Nagaland today is the American Baptists. There are some other denominations, but they are only the minority. Nagaland is virtually closed to the Muslim faith. “Only Punjab, Orissa and Nagaland did they (Muslims) constitute less than two percent of the population in the 1980’s.”36
The American Baptist denomination in Nagaland is in some ways different than that in the United States. They are more charismatic orientated, practice laying on of hands of the sick and hold healing services. The evangelical zeal has continued with the Nagas and they hope to send out 10,000 missionaries by the year 2000.
Rapid westernization has occurred since the coming of the missionaries. The cinema has a big effect on the Naga culture. The young people seek to copy the westernized movie stars. The Nagas were once a people of virtually classless society and now the rich and poor classes have emerged.
There are some Naga folklore that are still held on to in today’s Christian community. In the Ao tribes one is not allowed to marry in his or her own tribe. The folklore that one is a brother created from the same stone has still remained within the Ao culture.
The Nagaland today is not the same Nagaland of 1836. There may be some negative side effects in the culture from the transformation of a savage people to a Christian state, but there has been a glorious transformation of a people.
“If anyone be in Christ he is a new Creation,
behold old things have passed away the new has come.”
1 Herman G. Tegenfeldt, A century of Growth: The Kachin Baptist Church of Burma (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1974) page 44.
2 Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts (Ventura: Regal Books, 1981) page 87.
3 M. M. Clark, A corner of India (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907) page 59
4Ibid. Page 59-60
5David Meren Jamir, A Study on Nagaland, A Theology of Justice in Cross-Cultural Mission ((Lombard, Il: Bethany Theological Seminary, 1986), page 25.
6 Takatemjen, Utilizing the Morung to Revitalize Naga Christian Youth (Yavatmal, Maharashtra: Union Biblical Seminary, 1976) page 14.
7 Clark, A corner of India, page 57
8 Ibid. Page 2
9 Takatemjen, Utilizing the Morung, page 5.
10 A. C. Bowers, Under Headhunters’ Eyes (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1929), Page 195.
11 Clark, A Corner in India, page 1
12 Ibid, page 47.
13 Jamir, A Study on Nagaland, page 12
14 Ibid, page 12.
15 Ibid, Page 11.
16 Takatemjen, Utilizing the Morung, page 8
17 Clark, A Corner of India, page 41.
18 Ibid., page 46
19 Ibid., page 77
20 Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts, page 88
21 Interview with Louis Ao.
22 Jamir, Study on Nagaland page 15
23 Kijung L. Ao, Nokinketer Muncgchen (Impur: Nagaland, Ao Baptist Arogo Mungdang, 1972.
24 Jamir, A Study on Nagaland, page 15
25 Clark, A Corner in India, page 15
26 Jamir, A Study on Nagaland, page 18
27 Clark, A Corner in India, page 132
28 Ibid., page 168
29 Ibid., page 17
30 Ibid., page 139
31 F. S. Downs, Christianity in North East India (Delhi, Ispeck: 1976, page 81)
32 Ibid., page 82
33 F. S. Downs, The Mighty works of God. A Brief History of the Council of Baptist Churches in Northeast India: Mission Period 1836-1950 (Panbazar, Gauhati, Christian Liturature Centre, 1975) page 22
34 Tegenfelt, A Century of Growth, page 296
35 Joseph Puthenpurakal, Baptist Missions in Nagaland (Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1984) page 255
36 Richard F. Nyop, India: A Country Study (Washington, D.C.: United States Government, 1985) page 134
Ao, Kijung L Nokinketer Muncgchen. Impur: Nagaland, Ao Baptist Arogo Mungdang, 1972.
Bowers, A. D, Under Head-Hunters’ Eyes. Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1929
Clark, M. M. A Corner in India. Philadelphia, American Baptist Publication Society, 1907.
Downs, F. S. Christianity in North East India. Delhi, Ispeck: 1976
Downs, F. S. The Mighty works of God. A Brief History of the Council of Baptist Churches in Northeast India: Mission Period 1836-1950 Panbazar, Gauhati, Christian Liturature Centre, 1975
Nyrop, Richard F. India: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: United States Government, 1985
Puthenpurakal, Joseph. Baptist Missions in Nagaland. Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1984
Richardson, Don. Eternity in Their Hearts Ventura, Regal Books 1981
Tegenfelt, A Century of Growth: The Kachon Baptist Church of Burma, Pasadena, William Carey Library, 1974
Jamir, A Study on Nagaland, A Theological Justice in Cross-Cultural Mission. Lombard, Il: Bethany Theological Seminary, 1986
Takatemjen, Utilizing the Morung to Revitalize Naga Christian Youth. Yaratmal, Maharashtra Union Biblical Seminary, 1976