Buddhism beliefs

Between tribal, Christian and Buddhist beliefs, the communities of Arunachal Pradesh try to protect their origins and their practices

As the number of Christian adherents continues to grow and there is a resurgence among indigenous believers in the tribal faith, Christian leaders believe there is room for both groups.

It was a humid April afternoon. The sun had been beating down on us relentlessly for three days and it seemed like we were going from winter to summer in a flash, skipping a mild spring. I was inside the office of the Arunachal Pradesh Church Council for Christian Renewal in Itanagar, where its president, Tai Ete, half-stood to greet me with a “praise the Lord”. Spectacled and dressed in a taango (the traditional sleeveless shirt of the Galo tribe), he was surrounded by members of his church organization.

Ete said he became a Christian in 1993, leaving behind his ancestral animist faith now called Donyi-Poloism. When I asked him how old he was when he converted, he said, “I was quite mature. Like most of the indigenous peoples of Arunachal Pradesh, Ete was not brought up to Christianity and only converted later in life. Unlike the states of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland in the northeast, where Christianity has been around for over a hundred years, the religion was only introduced relatively recently in Arunachal Pradesh.

Young monks in Tawang

Toko Teki, president of the Arunachal Christian Forum, said the state’s first church was established in Rayang village, present-day Eastern Siang district, in 1957. But members of the indigenous tribes had already began to convert as early as 1920 when two men, Dugyon Lego, an Adi, and Tamik Dabi, a Galo, were baptized at Jorhat in Assam. Teki is from the Nyishi tribe and a “born Christian”. His father was converted in 1962 by the religious leaders of the English Christian John Firth High School in Lakhimpur in Assam, which is in the foothills of the Papum Pare district in Arunachal Pradesh.

Numbers game

From humble beginnings, the number of Christians of various faiths in Arunachal Pradesh has grown to 30.26%, according to the 2011 census. Next are 29.04% Hindus and 26.2% “other religions”. “. A significant population (11.77%) of the 13.84 lakhs declared themselves to be Buddhists. These numbers are, however, data points, and do not always represent actual numbers and certainly do not carry with them the perceived fears among the state’s tribal population.

Since October of last year, Arunachal Pradesh has been embroiled in religious controversy. Christian organizations have claimed that the Tawang District administration was blocking the construction of a building only because it was a church and not a Buddhist monastery. In Tawang and the adjacent West Kameng district, the majority of the indigenous Monpa people adhere to various sects of Tibetan Buddhism. While the state has seen a large population of indigenous communities convert to Christianity, the area, known as “Mon,” remains a Buddhist stronghold. The problem arose when the administration ordered a halt to construction of a church at the district headquarters.

There followed a series of allegations launched between the Arunachal Christian Forum, the Arunachal Christian Revival Church Council and the Indigenous Faith and Cultural Society of Arunachal Pradesh (IFCSAP), which spearheaded the renaissance. ancient tribal beliefs and religious systems. IFCSAP alleged that the church in question flouted regulatory building standards, while Christian organizations denied it and claimed they were being unfairly targeted.

Monpa women in Tawang

IFCSAP argued that since the people of Tawang are mostly Buddhists, there was no need to build another church when three already existed. Christian organizations, on the other hand, have said the church should serve the spiritual needs of Christians from other parts of the state working in the district. Ete argued that similarly, why should there be Buddhist monasteries in Itanagar, an area mainly populated by Nyishi who was never a Buddhist.

Last November, Christians from across Arunachal gathered to voice their opposition to the Tawang District Administration’s decision. Later that month, the BJP state government formed a three-member committee of MPs to investigate the case and submit its report.

Tribal patterns

At the height of the debate, Teki told reporters that Christian organizations would not organize any protests until the committee’s report was released. “We think the committee will work honestly, but if we think the report is biased, we will decide on new measures,” he said on that balmy April afternoon. Ete and others in her congregation are waiting to hear what the report has to say.

Around the time the debate began last year, various state units of the Janajati Suraksha Manch (or Tribal Protection Forum) began to persuade administrative leaders to write letters to the Center to suppress the status of listed tribe (ST) of people who have become Christians. But Ete, dressed in his off-white taango with blue tribal patterns, questioned the motive of those seeking to remove the ST status of converted tribal peoples.

Buddhist prayer flags at mountain pass near Tawang

The people of the Galo tribe, like Ete, trace their genealogical origin back to Abotani. Other tribes that fall under the broad Tani classification, including the Adi, Apatani, Nyishi and Tagin, and Mishings of Assam, also trace their mythical origins to the same Abotani. In October last year, in Pasighat town, an Adi tribe state government official told me that he was an Adi because he came from the Abotani lineage. “Now if an Adi has become a Christian and starts to refer to Jesus Christ as ‘father’, how can he still be an Adi,” he asked. The assertion being that the word ‘abo’ literally means father and ‘tani’ means man, and that if Christians say ‘abo Jesu’ they are no longer tribal and should not avail themselves of the intended tribal status.

Ete and Teki were quick to dismiss the allegations. “My identity as a Galo person cannot be deleted,” Ete said, as those around him nodded in agreement. He said that as Galo he was drawing his lineage from Abotani but his creator was someone else. “I was born tribal and will remain so,” Teki said, adding that Abotani is not a religious leader but rather a “biological ancestor”. “Our culture is in our clothes, the language we speak, the way we greet our guests. Ours is a culture of love. The Tani tribes have never been under the reign of a king. We are a free-spirited, martial race. This is what gives us our identity, ”he said, adding,“ I may be a Christian, but I will always be identified as a member of my Toko clan.

Contradictory points of view

An oft-repeated argument against Christian conversion in the state is that some of the religion’s core beliefs run counter to traditional tribal cultural rituals, such as animal sacrifices performed to please the various animist spirits which many have claimed. many tribes, inhabit the world around them. In the Christian worldview, Jesus died on the cross to suffer for all the sins of mankind and no further sacrifice is required.

Tai Ete, Chairman of the Board of the Church of Christian Renewal of Arunachal Pradesh

Tai Ete, President of the Council of the Church of Christian Renewal of Arunachal Pradesh | Photo credit: JOHN DARI

Teki is the first to admit that some Christian beliefs run counter to his traditional Nyishi customs, especially when ritual sacrifices to appease spirits are essential. He, Ete and many other Christians do not participate in such rituals.

But as leaders of Christian organizations, they publicly state that they do not discourage anyone from participating in tribal festivals where the sacrifice of a mithun (a cattle) is essential.

Even if they can tell, over the years there has been a dilution of traditional festivals. In 2017, during a big celebration of the Nyokum festival of the Nyishi tribe, many objected that a mithun was not sacrificed and that other animals were sacrificed at the sacred bamboo altar. Three years later, at another celebration of Nyokum, concerns were expressed at a celebration where no animals were sacrificed. Such changes to ancient rituals are often met with disgust among supporters of animist religions, who repeat the line that “loss of culture is loss of identity”.

This is a saying often echoed by members of organizations that have direct or indirect support from right-wing Hindu organizations such as the RSS and VHP or other state-specific surrogate organizations that present Hinduism as the very religion of a state like Arunachal Pradesh. , which always consisted of independent villages, chiefs and councils, and was never really under the sway of an outside power.

Space for all

While religious conversion can lead to changes in certain practices, it is not always seen as a bad thing. Veteran politician James Lowangcha Wanglat, a Catholic from the Nocte tribe (classified by the Indian Constitution as a Naga tribe), has said that headhunting among the Naga tribes “was once their heart and soul” but is a practice that has since declined. “With the headhunt, the young man grew into an adult and became eligible to marry a woman of high status. It was a customary ritual. Even women did not hesitate to take up arms and join men in battles to protect the honor of their tribe. Practices such as head hunting ended after areas of Naga came under Indian administration and long before Christian missionaries first entered Tirap district in 1979 – as did tattooing. , headhunting dances, sacrifices, worship of the dead and many other indigenous religious practices, ”he said. underline.

Performers at a Buddhist festival in Tawang

Performers at a Buddhist Festival in Tawang | Photo credit: Jambey Dondu

Cultures and cultural practices often change over time. “(Earlier) our tradition and our culture was to kill or be killed. Today it is about compassion, kindness, love and doing business. Indigenous religious beliefs therefore changed. I believe that a static culture is a dead culture. Great culture is always vibrant, ”he said.

As the number of Christian adherents continues to grow and there is a resurgence among indigenous believers in the tribal faith, Christian leaders believe there is room for both groups. Teki admits that the state will never be 100% Christian, nor will it be 100% indigenous faith. “Whatever followers of the indigenous faith do, they should continue to do it peacefully,” he said. Wanglat was “optimistic that Arunachal Pradesh will sail in religious harmony”. The quadruple lawmaker said: “Religious leaders must respect and give everyone a space to grow. ”

(This article is supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center as part of its “Finding an Old Religion in a New India” series.)

The writer is an Itanagar-based journalist and blogger who writes about the North East.