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How Khasi Christians in Meghalaya are making the Church their own

In Meghalaya, Khasi Christians have been trying to bridge the divide between the Church and their local culture. The Church is embracing native rituals slowly. But other challenges remain.

india Updated: Feb 06, 2017 11:47 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Brothers Kit (above right) and Ador Shangpliang (who plays the traditional duitara) of the prominent Shillong-based band Summersalt. Kit’s wife Pysnsuklin is the band’s vocalist. Summersalt has played for the Bollywood film Rock On 2.
Brothers Kit (above right) and Ador Shangpliang (who plays the traditional duitara) of the prominent Shillong-based band Summersalt. Kit’s wife Pysnsuklin is the band’s vocalist. Summersalt has played for the Bollywood film Rock On 2. (Ajay Aggarwal / HT Photo)

“Just suppose the world only had Germans,” says Kit Shangpliang, a musician in his home, as evening comes too early to Shillong. The sun casts its last long rays; the cross atop the nearby church gleams. “Or that forests were only full of pine trees. Or just elephants.”

Shangpliang’s point is this: The Bible talks of Nations worshipping God so the Church must make space for all its People. “There’s a reason why God made Khasis,” Shangpliang says. “So that Khasis could be Khasis in the Church. Christianity is not linked to any one culture.” And he certainly belongs to a rich one.

A statue of Thomas Jones in one of Shillong’s oldest Presbyterian churches. Jones established the Nongsawlia Presbyterian Church, the first in the northeast, in 1848. He also translated the Bible into Khasi. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT Photo)

Christ stepped into the Khasi-Jaintia foothills in 1813 (Meghalaya was born in 1972) via the Baptists. But the first church was set up by the Presbyterians (Shangpliang belongs to this church.) It gave the Khasis tools to handle modernity — a script, a printing press, schools. In their pre-Christian past, however, lies the clay that has built the Khasi soul, as Niam Khasis (Khasis who didn’t become Christians) take pains to underline. In this past are the myths and metaphors: a rooster as a hero; deities linked to hills and rivers and abstract ideas; and a clan’s ancestors as the biggest gods of them all. All these stories, told and re-told, have made the Khasis a ‘people’ with a distinct identity. But there are challenges.

According to Open Door, a British monitoring body, Christianity was a “high-risk activity” in India in 2016. Its report says “a church was burnt down or a cleric beaten, on average, 10 times a week in India,” a threefold increase over the previous year. This grim scenario is, however, certainly not true of Meghalaya, one of India’s Christian-majority states. In India’s northeast, Christianity first came to Meghalaya; the other Christian-dominated states are Nagaland and Mizoram. But Meghalaya has never had a history of religious persecution. So, it should have been full of happy Christians. But is it?

Nagaland and Mizoram, according to filmmaker Tarun Bhartiya, are nearly 90% Christian. But Meghalaya, he says, has a substantial non-Christian population. Bhartiya, along with co-director Mark Swer, is completing one of the films in a trilogy on religious experiences in the Khasi-Jaintia Hills. “The recent push for indigenisation or a Khasi cultural assertion among Christian Khasis is arising out of a split in Khasi society,” Bhartiya says. “There is an indirect pressure on Christian Khasis (70%) from its small but influential non-Christian population (30%)”

“Fourth and fifth-generation Christians have begun to ask ‘Inside the Church, where is the Khasiness?’” says Bhartiya. The new challenge is faithlessness. “A young person might not want to be of any faith,” he adds. “S/he might be interested in being Khasi in terms of culture — music, dance and attire — but not interested in Christian rituals.”

In this scenario, is indigenisation the game everyone wants to play in order to hold the town?

The late Father Sngi (R), a Catholic preacher and a great champion of integrating the faith of the church with the pre-Christian faith of the Khasis. He wore traditional Khasi clothes. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT Photo)

Read: Are women really equal in Meghalaya?

Family quarrel

Since the 1990s, the Welsh-origin Presbyterian church, which has more than six lakh Khasi-Jaintia people, has been alive to the questions thrown at it by young Khasis, both clergy and lay people. What we are now seeing is an argument for indigeneity, not a quarrel. The question that is being increasingly heard in Church corridors is: why won’t the Church put its faith in local culture?

In some areas, the church has course-corrected; in others it has not. It seems touchy, for example, about the arrangement of sound — what can be heard or not inside the church. Not long ago, the Khasi drum and the Khasi Dui-tara, a string instrument, were out. They have come to be used more and more now in para-church (secondary church) events or Synod meetings but not during the main service. The church organ — which Annie Thomas, a missionary, had set down in the wilds to weep out ‘The Passions of Christ’ in C Minor to startled neo-converts in the 19th century — still rules.

In recent times, the Presbyterian Church has not only let in what it disallowed in the past. It also tries to fund it (Bhartiya’s film was initially backed by the church but it withdrew on the question of women pastors, an issue that has not yet been settled among Presbyterians.). EW Kharsonoh, director of the Synod Institute of Music, also recalls being asked to present a spiritual number in a preaching campaign in the ’80s. “I sang a devotional song in a Khasi melody. Church elders told me ‘this is the first and last time, never do this..’ And I never did,” he says. The Institute was later funded by the Presbyterian Church. “Students learn the Khasi drum and Dui-tara. When they learn, they play, and no pastor is now telling them not to…,” Kharsonoh says.

Pastor Kyrsoibor Pyrtuh in Shillong, Meghalaya. “The Sangh Parivar is trying to penetrate into organisations like the Seng Khasi,” he says. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT Photo)

Of the people

Individual pastors have also taken the lead in adding local colour to church ceremonies but they do draw a line. The Catholics are more liberal about indigenisation as that has been their policy for integration and expansion. The Presbyterians, who were a child of the Reformation and came out of the Catholic Church, adopt a more sparse and non-ritualistic Christianity.

PBM Basaiawmoit, a Presbyterian with a wicked sense of humour, says this February, youth choirs “played Khasi music in church events. They could have played Carnatic music if they wanted to…. But no rooster is going to be sacrificed in the name of Christ. The only sacrifice we recognise is Christ’s.”

Archbishop of Shillong, Dominic Jala, a Catholic, differs with the Presbyterians about the extent to which his church will allow indigenisation — many Catholic priests like the late Father Sngi wore the turban; the church grotto accommodates monoliths dedicated to ancestors. He, however, agrees with Presbyterians on one point. “What many Khasis mean by ‘sacrifice’ is actually divination rites,” he says. That is, seeking answers to life’s questions by occult practices.

Basaiawmoit’s uncle Sheksingh Wahlang, a first-generation convert in the ’50s, identifies as Khasi and Christian. “Both these identities are valuable,” he says. “I left my old faith as it was expensive. Each time my parents fell ill, I had to give eggs to the priest or sacrifice a rooster.” The Presbyterian church seemed like a good option when too many chickens had to be spent to revive the ill-health of his parents.

“But we (Presbyterians) don’t do things just to get into the good books of the people,” says Basaiawmoit. “Unlike Catholics, we don’t keep building bridges between pre-Christian rituals and Christian ones during births, marriages, funerals”. In other words: no calling Jesus a Rooster and asking Him to scratch the path for dead souls to pass through the house and have mourners throw betel nuts in the dead man’s grave.

Presbyterian Pastor Zambolis Sawkmie is a Bible translator. The Bible was updated in the “Khasi Common Language” in 2016. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT Photo)

If the Catholic Church is seen to be taking five steps towards the people, the Presbyterian Church also wants to be seen taking at least two. A recent milestone was the December 2016 release of the Bible in the Khasi Common Language, informs Pastor Zambolis Sakmie, a Bible translator. The new version uses the phrase “ïathiahshongkha (the sleeping together of a married couple)” to convey that Adam and Eve were getting hot and heavy. The earlier version used the euphemism “ithuh”, meaning “know”— as in Adam getting to know Eve.

Many among the church also want to shed the tag of being ‘sahib missionaries’. Pastor Kyrsoibor Pyrtuh sees in the back-to-the-roots movement, a potential for research into past histories even if they are problematic. “It should not just be about song and dance.... Otherwise vested interests might hijack it,” he says.

Shillong-based filmmaker Tarun Bhartiya (above), (Photo courtesy: Tarun Bhartiya)

Read: Ethnic Khasi collection to debut at London Fashion Week

‘The Originals’

Critics of the Church see these initiatives as strategy and not as a policy of integration with local culture and sentiments. They say the Church has not so much included Khasi culture as it has expanded the definition of what that culture can be. The Seng Khasis are one such indirect pressure group. Since the ’80s, this socio-cultural movement started positioning itself as a saviour of Khasi indigeneity against ‘western influence’. The target was obvious.

“There was a crack in the door and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) walked right in,” says Bhartiya. “There have been RSS marches in the city in the past two years. Many Niam Khasis started gravitating towards its Banvasi Kalyan initiatives, which claim Khasis as Hindus. A dangerous appropriation which many other Niam Khasis oppose.” This appropriation by the RSS seems to be a natural corollary to the Niam Khasi assertion of being the ‘original Khasis’, an identity they can demarcate only by their distance from Christianity and branding the latter as having “turned away”.

“We are pucca Khasi…they are ulta Khasi,” says Khasimon, a Niam Khasi who was vice-president of the BJP’s women’s wing in Meghalaya in 2007. She says missionaries are not really indigenising but “copying” their traditions. The push for indigeneity among Khasi Christians therefore rests in this uneasy space where they feel pushed to articulate their belonging to the wider social fabric of the clan-based Khasi system and, yet, maintain their difference as Christians.

“Our prayers, our songs, our dances and even our klong (gourd) is being adopted. They even use the klong for their baptism,” says Khasimon. “It’s copy, copy, copy!”

Try telling that to the gourd growing in Kit Shangpliang’s garden.