by Elouise Corwin
“Good morning, Auntie. We’ve come to dress you up. And please, won’t you have your husband take a picture?” Four Oriental-looking young women stood at the door of the old British bungalow.
"Good morning, Auntie. We’ve come to dress you up. And please, won’t you have your husband take a picture?" Four Oriental-looking young women stood at the door of the old British bungalow. Only one wore an Indian sari, but all were Indian nationals. In a few minutes I was being wound into a lovely length of crisply soft silk. Then the corners were carefully tied together on each shoulder. In India? Orientals? These young women were tribals from North-East India: from Meghalaya, Assam, Nagaland. They were studying at Union Biblical Seminary in Central India. Their spirit of loving friendliness drew me into their world. A click of the camera caught that spirit.
Fourteen months later in Shillong, Meghalaya, three gentle Khasi young women hired a photographer to take a picture of my companion and myself, wound in lengths of silk tied at the shoulders. They were new friends, with the same desire to remember us as one of them.
Who are these tribal peoples, these Orientals with Indian passports? They are not aboriginals. They haven’t always been in India. Before Indian Independence (1947) the entire North-East area was known as Assam. But they are not all Assamese. An upto-date map of India shows five states and two territories that make up the North-East: Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. Shillong, the capitol of Assam under colonial rule, is now the capitol of Meghalaya. Located in the Khasi Hills, it is mostly Khasi tribespeople who walk the streets of Shillong.
The Khasis know that "they came from somewhere else. Theories about that "somewhere" differ, but most anthropologists agree that they belong to the Mongoloid family. Their language is related to the Mon-Khymer group of Burma and the Malay Peninsula.1 Physical characteristics and dress bear this out. Matrilinear customs among the Khasis have affinities with people in Sumatra, Cambodia and parts of Thailand. They are one of the earliest groups to have migrated to Assam, and it may have been from the upper Mekong River area. As far back as the fifth and sixth centuries, Japanese and Chinese historians alluded to Khasi politics and culture.2
Today the Westerner who walks the streets of Shillong, brushing against Khasi shawls, receiving soft looks and friendly glances, is shaken. Strangers should be feared, or rebuffed, or ignored. But they aren’t. The smiles are quick. The atmosphere is somehow welcoming. The city looks and feels like some Shangri-La: remote, beautiful, idyllic. The visitor marvels at such acceptance and desires to know more.
There is further cause for wonder. This Shangri-La is 50 percent Christian. It would be difficult to look in any direction without seeing a church in Shillong. The sun rises to the sound of church bells. Hymns sung in harmony fill the night air. Buildings that somehow blend Gothic and eastern design are filled with believers. Most Khasi churches have from 800 to 2000 members. Churches that accommodate tribals from other language groups have as many as eight services on a Sunday.
What events have shaped these people of the Khasi Hills? Why have they, unlike their neighbors in Moslem Bangladesh to the South or Hindu India to the West, chosen to follow Christ?
The year is 1833. The place is a British prison in Dacca. In a small cell the great Khasi chief Tirot Singh waits for death. He had held out against the British for over four years.
Tirot Singh’s struggle began when a treaty with the Khasis granted the British Government the right to build a road through Khasi territory in 1826. In 1829 there was a Khasi uprising. The account of those years leading to the capture of Tirot Singh reads like the pages of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee: treaties negotiated, protection promised, obligations incurred, proud chiefdoms limited, taxes imposed, treaties broken, villages and resources confiscated, massacres and treacheries. David Scott (d. 1831) was Agent to the Governor-General and administered the North East Frontier Area. Scott’s own sense of justice produced admiration and respect for Tirot Singh’s noble qualities and character. And one of Scott’s close friends was Tirot Singh’s mother. When her own son planned to massacre all aliens in his area, she warned Scott of the danger. Dressed as a Khasi peasant, Scott escaped. In spite of valiant and clever guerrilla warfare, one by one the Khasi chiefs signed away rights to their lands. During the years of fighting the countryside changed – fields were left uncultivated I livestock scattered, homes were deserted.3
The eminent Khasi historian, Hamlet Bareh writes movingly of Tirot Singh’s demise:
The Company started fresh operations against all elements of opposition. Tirot Singh was left alone and confined himself to a secret place. With tears in his eyes and remorse in his soul, he was recollecting the glorious time when he drew so many patriots and when the whole country followed to his banner. But now his camp was broken and his loving comrades and allies, impelled by necessity, had fallen on evil days. He resigned himself to his fate and saw the necessity of making another truce with the Company….Tirot Singh was placed under detention, receiving a sentence of life imprisonment.
It was a bolt from the blue to all his country men. Loud mourning was heard at the sudden capture of this great hero. The land of songs became the land of tears. An odious cloud set its doom over the hills and mountains, over the gigantic scenery and the wild charming horizon. Yes, the veil of night spread over the human hearts; enslavement was its consequence.
The Company reversed its previous decision and he was treated as a political prisoner….[Then] the Government recalled Tirot Singh and promised to give him a limited sovereignty under the Company, but he refused saying: ‘I choose…to die in this prison like a king rather than to go back to my beloved country and sit on the throne of Nongkhlaw like, a slave. The blood of my forefathers is still running hot in my withered veins, and here I must stay till the end.’….Tirot Singh cast his eyes in the direction of the Khasi Hills but he saw them no more. They had vanished from his eyes though fresh in his mind.4
The emotion of this crisis in Khasi history is portrayed in the dramatization of Tirot Singh’s life: "I am fed up with these muddy waters of the plains . . . How suffocating is the atmosphere of this prison – my lungs are decayed with its pressure. Oh! If I can drink once again those rock-crystal fountains at Nongkhlaw, if I can only breathe again the invigorating air of my native land, life would become sweet again. But…can I go back to my dearest country only to see my people trampled under the feet of foreigners … I have a feeling that the sun of my life is about to set…I still see my hut under whose roof I have been brought up …This soul of mine shall fly from the iron rods of this prison cell like a wild bird that flies from its cage…promise me that you shall not forget to carry my bones home and to lay them down to rest with the bones of my forefathers…at Nongkhlaw."5
What could ever heal the wounds inflicted on the land and hearts of the Khasi people? Who could restore songs to the land of tears and bring light through the dark veil of enslavement?
Just twenty-one years before Tirot Singh was thrust into that cell in Dacca the first missionary went to the Khasi Hills. "Krishna Chandra Pal, a Bengali disciple of William Carey of the Serampore (Baptist) mission, and the first Protestant convert in India, baptised on 28 December 1800, was the first convert to arrive here. ‘The first Hindu convert thus became the first missionary to the Khasis.’"6 Around 1813 Pal baptized seven Khasis in the presence of a large gathering that included eight Khasi chiefs. Pal was in the area only eight months, and he never returned. But Carey in Calcutta undertook to translate the New Testament into Khasi, using the Bengali script. In a letter dated December 11, 1813, Carey wrote: "This week we have obtained a person to assist in the translation of the scriptures into the Khasi language, and I believe the only one in the whole nation who can read and write." A later letter reads: "By 1817 a few Khasi St. Mathews had been distributed to those Khasis living nearest to Bengal, and who could read the Bengali Script."7 In 1832 Carey sent a missionary named Alexander Lish to work among the Khasi, but progress was slow and the area was abandoned by the Baptists in 1838.
To the Welsh Presbyterians goes the honor of having begun the first sustained missionary effort in the Khasi Hills. The peaceful isolation of the Khasi people had been broken by British soldiers. Now through that jagged opening walked the Rev. Thomas Jones and his wife on June 22, 1841. They settled in Cherrapunjee, the British Headquarters of the District. Two years later the Rev. William Lewis and his wife, with Dr. Owen Richards, joined the mission compound. By 1846 two Khasi men were baptized and by 1850 the first Christian marriage took place. Within that first decade there were nineteen converts baptized.
Just at the time missionaries arrived, and unrelated to British military action, Khasi society was beginning to disintegrate.
Faltering cultural identity had led to mental instability and unhappy homes. The Khasis were experiencing the psychological trauma of suspicion, depression and anxiety. Natarajan tells us that people were often cheated in the name of religion. Some had begun to question indigenous religious practices, but there was no answer to their problems and doubts. The elaborate and expensive cults and rituals could not be explained satisfactorily by the Khasi priests.8
It could not, however, have been easy for them. They were persecuted in numerous ways. They were excommunicated by the tribe, they lost their rights of inheritance and sometimes were denied funeral rites. "Yet faith in the new religion remained unshaken. After the initial culture-shock inevitable in such a situation, Christianity alone of the other new religions with which the Khasis came in contact took roots in the soil."10 Meerworth wrote that "the Khasis have more readily adopted and assimilated Christianity and European civilization than any other tribe in India.
The list of accomplishments during those early years is a tribute to the missionary pioneers of the nineteenth century who, without benefit of today’s anthropological insights, opened entire cultures to the modern world without destroying the best of what they found. Natarajan comments on this by saying that "with the advent of Christianity and western education, transformation in social life became inevitable. The Christian converts abandoned their former religious rites, beliefs and rituals accepting Christian teachings and observing Christian ways…but they still preserve their laws of inheritance, their household usages and observe the age-old Khasi cultural and political Customs."12
The present friendliness to Westerners and appreciation of missionaries on the part of the Khasi people reveal much of the character of Thomas Jones and those who followed him. Building on the sporadic missionary work that had been done before 1841, Jones began slowly. Working with two Khasi men who had studied under a Baptist missionary earlier, he abandoned the Bengali script and adapted the Roman alphabet to the Khasi spoken language. His results were so admirable that today Thomas Jones is known as the father of Khasi literature. He prepared textbooks and began the first schools.
Mrs. Lewis began educating the women. Later the Presbyterians passed a rule that no convert should be admitted into the church without first learning to read, with the exception of those far too old to learn.13 In 1971 the percentage of literacy in the United Khasi and Jainta Hills District was 40 percent (44 percent for men, 35 percent for women). In India the rate is about 40 percent for men, but only about 8 percent for women. "The importance and significance of the education imparted by the missionaries in the Khasi Hills can hardly be overestimated or overemphasized. If the historical accident of the Welsh Presbyterians had not occurred, the clock of progress in the educational field in Khasi Hills would be behind by more than a century and the quality would have been far different and obviously far less too."14
Other areas of life were also affected. The headquarters of the Welsh Presbyterians shifted from Cherrapunjee to Shillong in 1919. To this day the hospital established there is one of the best in the entire North-East region of India. The mission set up dispensaries and trained doctors and nurses. Western musicology was introduced via translated Welsh hymns.- Using these as a base, Khasi music itself has been enriched. Today Khasi Christians sing hymns as though they had grown up in the hills of Wales. The choir is an important part of the church service and many hours are given to practice during the week. Workers in the fields, Christian and non-Christian, sing as they labor, having been directly influenced by Christian music.
The organizational structure of the Presbyterian churches developed leadership among the Khasi. Therefore, it was easy for the local leaders "to take over the entire work of the church, when the Welsh missionaries left after Independence. It may be added that persons trained by the missionaries were also found efficient in their work in government offices."15 The type of education brought by the Welsh Presbyterians not only encouraged discipline, self-reliance, cleanliness, personality- building, but also leadership in every sphere of Khasi society – professional, religious and political.16 Today both Ministers of Parliament representing the government of Meghalaya to the Delhi government are Christian.
Nutrition and diet, health and hygiene, living conditions, attitudes toward witchcraft and sorcery, attitudes toward women and childbirth – all have been changed. Except for some German Catholic Fathers, the early missionaries did not interfere with the matricentered marriage system. Yet customs and ceremonies were simplified and some feel that marriages have been stabilized. Natarajan says that "Christian women…had a greater air of dignity or self-respect about them than the non-Christian women. They began to nurture new ideas about patterns of child-care and about housekeeping too. An eye for utility and beauty, a keen sense of aesthetics was developed, unlike the rigid criterion of sheer utility to which the women clung in the earlier days."17
Khasi economy also underwent many changes. David Scott, the agent to the Governor-General, had introduced the cultivation of potatoes, pears, beets and cabbage. These crops changed the diet as well as the economy. Superior livestock was also introduced.
Missionaries taught carpentry, tailoring, baking and printing. Vocational training, as well as academic, was part of the missionaries’ program. Methods of agriculture were brought up to date.
The work of missionaries around the world has come under criticism by secular scholars. Those who worked among the Khasis have not escaped. Some have said that one drawback is the existence of factions among the people due to differing religious approaches and ideologies. Another is the feeling among some Christians of " distinctness and not being a part of the Indian cultural mainstream.18 But Natara)an qualifies these statements by saying that the cause of these differences was the content of western education imparted by the missionaries, and it was without any conscious efforts on the part of the teachers to alienate the tribals from the neighboring peoples. She also sees these differences as having a binding effect on the society. In addition, she believes that the Khasis have been enriched in many ways, especially if one compares their society to that of people in other remote areas where no missionary work has been undertaken.
In summarizing the impact of the missionary on Khasi society, Natarajan writes:
"Missionary work, mainly Christian, has wrought beneficial changes in Khasi society. Education, improved health, dispelling of ignorance and unfounded superstitions and fears, inculcation of rationality of outlook, and economic changes have resulted. Training of local people in the organizational work of the church, imparted by Christian missionaries, has contributed vastly to improvement of standards of efficiency among the Khasis. Christianity has introduced rationality, austerity and simplicity in Khasi religious beliefs….The will of the Khasi people to retain their unique society…is a proof of the stamina. and competence of the Khasis….While greater empires in the East and West have throughout the ages come and gone, they still maintain in their hills the freedom of their small republics, based on the ancient ways and tenents of their race."19
I had not read Dr. Natarajan’s words before visiting the Khasi people in January, 1978, but as we moved among them I wrote down my impressions and sent them off in a letter to my children:
They are a very clean, industrious people, with great pride in their cultural heritage and their own abilities. English is the official state language and some spoke it beautifully. All were beautiful people. We appreciated the scope of their thinking and the way they have carried on the work of the Welsh Presbyterians: hospitals, schools, colleges and a seminary. These people are administrators, honest, selfless. The missionaries were ordered out of this area about four years ago by the Delhi Government, but they are remembered with great love and reverence by the Khasis. Because they are Christian and because they value education, work, cleanliness, they are the leaders of Meghalaya. This was our first impression and it was confirmed over and over by the Khasis as they talked with us.
Why was I privileged to go to the Khasi Hills? I’m not Welsh. A widening, however, of our involvement with tribal students at Union Biblical Seminary extended to Meghalaya. Warm Khasi Christians included our team in their jubilee Celebration of the conversion of a princess. The celebration was held in Smit Village, the place to which Princess Pletimai had been exiled upon becoming a Christian fifty years ago. We met outdoors, in freezing wind and cold. We who had come from so far to celebrate with them were moved as we watched Christian families gather. They came walking from beyond the nearby hills. They came by bus, packed inside and clinging on the roof. They came by taxis hired for the day. Some came in their own cars. Wrapped in woolen shawls tied like capes, they seated themselves in orderly rows on the grass. The banners on the platform where we sat were whipped and torn by the biting wind. And still they came. By 2 p.m. 6000 men, women and children were seated on the hillside.
My husband had heard the story of Tirot Singh and he wove it into his message: "God made man in his image. All are equal and all are free. But our freedom was gained at a high cost: the death of Jesus Christ. Tirot Singh paid a dear price by dying in a prison in Dacca to set the Khasi people free. Every one of you knows of his determination to die as a king rather than rule as a slave. So Jesus too died the death of a criminal to set his followers free from that which bound them. " My husband reminded his Khasi hearers of the life of Pletimai Syiem who, rejected by her family and clan, came to this village as a new Christian. Pletimai lived a life of prayer and faith, but not one villager came to Christ in her lifetime. Thirteen years passed before the first family, remembering Pletimai’s life and teaching, forsook the tribal religion for Christ.
Following that afternoon service, we were honored by an invitation to have tea at Pletimai’s descendents’ home, right next to the headquarters of the tribal religion. There Khamtimai Syiem, Pletimai’s granddaughter, came out to greet us. After tea she shyly and firmly told of her decision that very afternoon to walk in the path of her grandmother and become a Christian. For Pletimai that path had meant the loss of children, husband and throne. For Khamtimai it meant no loss, no persecution. But it did mean a new movement to Christ in Smit Village. Thirty-two people, including Kharntimai, have been baptized there since the Jubilee.
"Ku Blei." "Ku Blei." "God bless you." "God bless you." Warm Khasi hands grasped our cold ones as precious older believers, bright young people, loving children pressed close to bid us farewell that night on the hillside. " Ku Blei. " " Ku Blei. " The legacy Welsh Presbyterian missionaries left in the Khasi Hills has become part of our inheritance too.
1. Hamlet Bareh et al., Tribal Awakening: A Group Study, Edited by M.M. Thomas and R.W. Taylor. (Social Concerns Series No. 11; Bangalore City: Christian Institute For The Study Of Religion and Society, 1965), p. 7.
2. Nalini Natarajan, The Missionary Among The Khasis (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1977), p. 14. I first saw Dr. (Mrs.) Natarajan’s book in the local bazaar in Shillong. She was educated in Bombay but later did social work and teaching in the NorthEast region of India. I was told by Presbyterian pastors in Shillong that she is not a Christian. Perhaps because she is an Indian from the Hindu plains her evaluations seem all the more valid.
3. Hamlet Bareh, The History And Culture Of The Khasi People (Calcutta: Naba Mudran Private Limited, 1967), p. 152.
4. Ibid., pp. 159-161.
5. Ibid., p. 161 (Citing V.G. Bareh, Ka Drama U Tirot Singh, 1956, p. 74.)
6. Natarajan, p. 60, quoting The History Of Our Foreign Mission by John Hughes Morris, (1930) p. 24.
7. Bareh, op. cit., The History And Culture Of The Khasi People, p. 397.
8. Natarajan, op. cit., p. 93.
9. Ibid. p. 93, citing H. Bareh, A Short History Of Khasi Literature, (1962) p. 20.
10. Ibid. p. 94.
11. Ibid. p. 94, citing A. M. Meerworth, Monograph On Khasis: The Andamanese, Nicobarese and Hill Tribes Of Assam (1919) p. 4 2.
12. Ibid. p. 95.
13. Ibid. p. 120.
14. Ibid. p. 121.
15. Ibid. p. 71.
16. Ibid. p. 117.
17. Ibid. p. 98.
18. Ibid. pp. 152-153.
19. Ibid. pp. 151-152 and p. 156 citing N.K. Bose, Cultural Anthropology (1963) p. 58.
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