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In Christian Nagaland, indigenous religion of pre-Christian Nagas withstands test of time

Overwhelmingly outnumbered by a growing Christian population in a predominantly Christian state, some Nagas are steadfastly holding on to the indigenous faith and practices of their forefathers

Written by Kallol Dey |
Updated: January 7, 2018 6:31:54 pm
In Nagaland pre-Christian Nagas withstand test of time Yose Chaya of Viswema Village. (Express Photo)

“Guide me through the day, show me the way as I begin another day”. Yose Chaya begins his day with this simple prayer. “God is watching over us and knows everything. We do not have to say lengthy prayers, like the Christians,” he quips. 73-year-old Chaya, the muscular physique belying his age, is one of the elders of Viswema, a southern Angami village 22 kilometres south of Kohima, bound on the west by the pristine and famed Dzukoü Valley. Contrary to popular belief that all Angami Nagas are Christians, Chaya is one of the few in Viswema who has not converted to Christianity.

The septuagenarian holds on to the indigenous religion that Nagas followed before the advent of Christianity in Nagaland. Chaya confirms there are about 50 families in his village, and more in other Angami villages, who still follow the “original” religion of the Nagas.

Nagaland is known as “the only predominantly Baptist state in the world” and more than 96 per cent of the Naga people identify themselves as Christian. Christianity came to Nagaland in the mid 19th century with the British who converted the Naga tribes from principally animist and folk religion traditions. The Rongmei and Zeliang Nagas are known to have a considerable non-Christian population, but there is a misconception that all Nagas of Nagaland have accepted Christianity. Albeit few in number, there are people like Yose Chaya who refuse to abandon the beliefs held sacred by the Naga forefathers.

In Nagaland pre-Christian Nagas withstand test of time Yose Chaya with his youngest son Vizhudi in Angami traditional attire. (Express Photo)

Chaya takes immense pride in his ancestry and holds the norms and rituals practiced by his forefathers sacred. “I am Naga, I am not British. Christianity is a religion of the British,” he asserts. Chaya contends that Nagas have existed much before the British or other ethnicities arrived in the Naga hills and practiced their own religion. “If Nagas didn’t have genna (an intricate system of beliefs and rituals or also taboo), then I say be a Christian, Hindu or Muslim. But we do have our indigenous religion, our god has given us that and we do not need to abandon what’s our own for what is others,” Chaya stresses.

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According to A. Nshoga, a Naga research scholar, “the traditional Naga religion or tribal belief is a multifaceted religion with the combination of theism, animism, supernaturalism, superstition, shamanism and lycanthropism.” The indigenous Naga religion is a belief in the existence of spirits. Every place is associated with a spirit and if there is a place there will be a spirit of that place who is supposed to be feared and propitiated.

Chaya feels it is God that has given men the rituals or beliefs and those are not man-made. “God has made the genna, we didn’t. And our great-grandfathers have passed down through generations the rituals that do us good. The written word came much later, we sustain our culture through oral tradition with the elder people telling the young what should be done for the larger good of the community.”

As a student, Chaya says, he had read from the Bible and sang hymns at school, but that doesn’t alter the truth that he is a Naga. Recalling the early days of Christianity in his village, Chaya says, “When I was a kid, there were a couple of Christians. I remember they seized the rice brew in the village. They propagated their religion by singing and preaching, while telling us that if we follow Christianity, we will “go to the sky.” But Chaya didn’t find it so convincing as he believes Nagas exist today because of the wisdom of the forefathers. “What is ours is ours. I am a Naga. I am not a Christian or a Hindu.”

Chaya and those of his ilk believe in U-kepenuopfü, the Supreme One who is creator of everything. Interestingly, the word U-kepenuopfü has female connotation. It roughly means the “female one who gave birth to us’ or ‘the one responsible for our creation.’ U-kepenuopfü as the creator spirit incorporates both male and female aspects. The indigenous religion as practiced by Chaya is grounded in the spirit world. There are different types of spirits — sky spirit and earth spirit. Then there are the house spirits, field spirits and jungle spirits. Depending on their inherent nature, spirits are good or bad. Spirits can also influence the nature or personality of a person. All things are animated and all phenomena are inhabited by spirits who are appeased through rituals and sacrifices. Men and women have their different set of rituals, like it is only the women who conduct rituals and observe fasting to appease the house spirits. The priest, usually the eldest of the community, announces the rules for the day at the dawn and anyone who did what has been prohibited is punished. Traditionally, both feasting and fasting play significant roles in the life of the Nagas. An important aspect of the old religion is that it is not considered a sin if a mistake is committed unknowingly. But it becomes a grave sin if the mistake is committed knowingly and genna is not obeyed.

In Nagaland pre-Christian Nagas withstand test of time KEMEVO BA: The sacred stone, preserved at Viswema Village, where rituals are conducted after 31-day fasting. (Express Photo)

Over the years some practices might have been lost in transition, Chaya accepts. But he is confident that the traditional religion as is being practiced now is in its originality. He is also confident that the religion of the Naga forefathers will sustain, as it is the truth.

Of Chaya’s 10 children, only three still follow the indigenous religion. Marriage is one of the reasons many Nagas accept Christianity, as the Naga society is now predominantly Christian, Chaya opines. He strongly believes that if Nagas forget the ways of the forefathers, they will fail to preserve the indigenous and ethnic Naga tradition and culture. Chaya says that it is a sin to forget one’s roots.

Church speaks

General secretary of Nagaland Baptist Churches Association, Reverend Dr. Zehlou Keyho asserts that Christianity “is not destroying Naga culture.” “Religion was embedded in our culture but just because we have come out of the traditional religion doesn’t mean we have lost our culture.” He contends that “just practising traditional religion will not save our culture.” Rev. Keyho observes that “they (followers of indigenous religion) have also come a long way in the sense that they no longer practice some of the things our forefathers did in the past.”

Rev. Keyho goes on to add that culture is what we are. “ When we talk about our culture, I would talk about the culture of honesty and sincerity, not just celebration culture,” he says referring to the feasting and drinking that mark the celebration of indigenous festivals of the Nagas. “There are good and bad things in our festivals,” he points out in the same vein. Referring to celebration of the Angami Naga festival Sekrenyi, Keyho says that as a Church leader and a Naga he sees nothing wrong in celebrating a festival like Sekrenyi but that “celebrating festivals does not only mean drinking and feasting; that is just the eating part of our culture (sic).” “Confessing Christ as the saviour is the core of Christianity. That doesn’t mean that you cannot wear your traditional shawl, or do your (traditional) dance. You just don’t worship the spirit world any more”, the Church leader says.

Going by Yose Chaya’s narrative, propagators of both Christian and Hindu religion are constantly trying to influence the followers of the indigenous Naga religion. Much has also been said and written about how right-wing Hindu organisations are apparently trying to appropriate the indigenous groups and communities as part of Hinduism.

Rev Keyho says Heraka (practised by the Zeliangrong Nagas) or other Naga traditional faiths can never be accommodated into the Hindu narrative. “Personally I feel that on the part of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) it’s a move to destroy Christianity. The traditional religion is outside of Hindu religion. It is very difficult for Naga people to become Hindus.” Rev. Keyho feels that the Hindu right-wing by “encouraging traditional religion or Heraka is one way to give the impression that Christianity is no longer thriving among the Nagas, or in the North East.”

Asked why some Nagas have refused to convert to Christianity, he speculates without being specific, “something somewhere is not working out for them maybe.” As a Church leader, Rev. Keyho wishes that one day “they (followers of indigenous religion) would leave their old practices or religion because there is nothing much into it, and embrace Christianity.”

Indigenous faith and 5th generation Christians

Eminent Naga author and poet Dr. Easterine Kire gives a better understanding about the reluctance of Nagas who follow indigenous faith to convert to Christianity. Kire says, “I was told they want to be reunited after death with their loved ones who died as non-Christians. Non-Christians believe in life after death where one meets all the near ones who have gone before.” Another reason, the author of Naga Folktales Retold says is “their dissatisfaction with the way Christians are unmindful of the strict taboos that govern Non-Christian culture.” Moreover according to the writer “some nominal Christians are considered as bad examples by non-Christians and they have no desire to become like that. The Non-Christian religion follows a strict adherence of rituals.”

Lucy Kamei, an assistant professor in the department of History, St. Joseph’s College, Jakhama (Kohima), in a piece ‘Naga culture and Christianity’ published in Nagaland local English daily Morung Express, writes: “Practices such as oblations, sacrifices, chants which were practiced by Pre-Christian Nagas are considered sinful in Christian beliefs. But I was astounded to find that some Christian churches and institutions in Nagaland even discouraged the singing of gospel songs with folk tunes in the church services.”

Dr. Easterine Kire, who is a fifth generation Angami Naga Christian says that “Nagas, particularly Angamis do not see Christianity as an alien religion as Christianity is now in the fifth generation.” Naga Christianity is highly nativised, Kire categorically states, “in the sense that it has adapted to the Naga way of understanding things and applying them.”

Youngest of the Yose Chaya’s children, Vizhudi Chaya poses with pride standing next to his father in traditional Angami attire. A Computer Science graduate, Vizhudi confesses that he respects the religion of his forefathers and wants to carry on the tradition. Asked whether he finds himself in uncomfortable position among his Christian friends, the 27-year old asserts he never has had any issues with that. He says Christianity and the indigenous faith that he follows are no different as in both teaches to be good. “I used to go with my friends to the Church thinking of converting to Christianity. But till now I have found no reason to convert because the thing behind Christianity (sic) and what I am following now is the same,” the youngest son of Yose Chaya concludes.

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