Impact of Christianity and Western culture among Vaiphei Tribe :: Part 1

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Advantages and disadvantages of impact of Christianity and Western culture among the Kukis with special reference to the Vaiphei tribe in Manipur
– Part 1 –

Dr Henna Vaiphei *

Vaipheis are one of the recognised tribes of Manipur belonging to the Chin-Kuki-Mizo group. Vaipheis have well defined customs, cultures and traditions transient down from their ancestors. However, there are tremendous changes in the socio-cultural and religious life of the Vaipheis following conversion to Christianity. The coming of Christianity is in fact a blessing for the whole tribes of Manipur in general and for the Vaipheis in particular.

Christianity is not only a religion, but a foundation of all developments to enter modernisation for the Vaipheis. The Vaipheis believe that it is Christianity which led the Vaipheis to the present stage and if Christianity had not been arrived in Manipur, they will be much behind to the present stage. Christianity not only transformed religion, but mostly the socio-cultural life of the Vaipheis.

In spite of such numerous positive impacts of Christianity and western culture, the value of old cultures, customs and traditions is seen declining relentlessly. The author is very much concerned about the degrading value of the old cultural norms which posed a grave threat to the dignity and integrity of the Vauiphei community. This paper is an attempt to explore the advantages and disadvantages of the influences and impact of Christianity and western culture in the Vaiphei society with a view to bring a compromising solution.

Religious Life : When Christianity made its foray in the tribal areas of North East India, most of the tribes began to abandon their old faith and embraced Christianity. The Vaipheis too, abandoned their old primordial religion or belief and accepted Christianity. As the Vaipheis were people who offered sacrifices to the demons or the evil spirits, they did not face difficulties in accepting the Christian faith.

Every converts to Christian religion are assumed to have been set free from the oppressive hands of the evil spirits. The Vaipheis regarded Christianity as their own religion and are distancing themselves from anything that has connection with their traditional religion.

In the old belief system of the Vaipheis, superstition, big trees, rocks, dense forest, and other unnatural places were regarded as the abode of evil spirits. The coming of Christianity upturned the whole situation. After converting to Christianity the Vaipheis have realized the futility of offering ritual sacrifices to demons and evil spirits for seeking blessing and good health.

 Thazing Lap 2013 - 'An Autum Festival of the Vaiphei' at Kulbung Veng, Salam Patong Village :: 27 September 2013

The Vaipheis were the first to convert into Christianity in Southern Manipur and Chin Hills of Myanmar. Pu Pausuan Suantak and Pi Khamchin, were the first converted Christians in Chin-Hills of Myanmar and they were converted on 10 July 1904 and Pu Thuamhang and Pi Dimkhanching were converted into Christianity on 25 July 1904. All of them were from Khuasak, a Vaiphei village in Siyin region of Chin-Hills.

Under their initiative and help of English missionaries, the first Church in Chin-Hills was established at the same village Khuasak on 12 February 1906. According to Pu Khualchin Chief of Namphalong, Christianity was spreading to the entire Chin Hills from Khuasak. Thus the Vaipheis were pioneering in Christianity in Chin-Hills of Myanmar. From Khuasak the Vaipheis founded a mission called Siyin Baptist Regional Association (SBRA) a mission for all the Vaipheis in Chin-Hills, Myanmar.

In the southern- hills of Manipur, the Vaipheis were the first converted Christians. Pu Thangkai and Pu Lungpau the first Christians, in the southern-hills of Manipur, were converted in 1910 by an English missionary Watkin Roberts. With the conversion of Pu Thangkai and Pu Lungpau, “Thadou-Kuki Pioneer Mission” was formed in 1910 under the initiative of Watkin Roberts.

Within a short time, many Vaipheis were converted into Christianity and Churches were established in their inhabited areas under the initiative of Pu Thangkai and Pu Lungpau. By the year 1912, the first three Churches were established at Maite, Bualtang and Chongkhozou villages.

Watkin Roberts changed the name of his pioneer mission into North East India General Mission (NEIGM) in 1919. Subsequently, there was internal crisis amongst the English missionaries and Watkin Roberts was forced to resign and H.H. Coleman was made the General Superintendent of NEIGM. In 1928, Roberts started a new mission called Indo-Burma Pioneer Mission (IBPM). This created a state of confusion for the newly converted Christians in the Southern-hills of Manipur. Some converted Christians supported the pioneer mission, IBPM and the rest of them stick to NEIGM.

Amidst of such confusion, majority of the Vaiphei Christians remained in NEIGM until its segmentation into community based Churches in 1951 under the supervision of Royal C. Paddok. On 3rd March 1953, during the assembly of NEIGM at Saikot village, the Vaipheis were given approval by Royal C. Paddok to form their own mission separately. Thus the Vaipheis established a mission called, Manipur Christian Organisation (MCO) in 1953.

Later on Christian Mission Institutions mushroomed in the inhabited areas of the Vaipheis in Manipur such as EOC (Evangelical Organisation Churches) a new name of MCO, KSP (Khuga Sadar Presbytery), RCG (Revival Church of God), Full Gospel Churches (FGC), UPC (United Pentiscotal Churches), VBA (Vaiphei Baptist Association), VCC (Vaiphei Christian Churches), etc. Today, all the Vaipheis throughout North East India and Chin-Hills of Myanmar became Christians. And only few elders of the Vaipheis remembered the ritual rites of worshipping different gods of the past.

Economic Life: Like many other hill tribes of the North East India, agriculture is the main stay of the Vaipheis that mostly depends on the monsoon. In the past, the Vaipheis were leading a miserable pitiful life not better than the nomadic people. Their life was purely depended on the success and failure of agriculture. Scarcity of food often occurred due to failure of monsoon and devastation of crops caused by wild animals and wind. At the time of famine, they depended on bamboo shoots, wild fruits and edible roots available in the forest for their survival.

There was no education and barter system was practiced in their society. Infertility of land is another reason of scarcity of food causing mass migration. The Chief despotic nature is another major factor of migration from one to another village. Today, migration culture is blamed by many as a major factor of economic instability and reluctance of construction grand house in the villages.

In spite of all these drawbacks, the economy of the Vaipheis is improving gradually with the onset of Christianity and modernisation. Before conversion to Christianity, the economy of the Vaipheis was purely depend on their agriculture products. There was no surplus and the source of their income was very limited.

Today, many of the Vaipheis left their traditional profession of farming and started earning from different sources such as Government jobs, private jobs, contract works, shops, business etc. Comparing to the past, the recent economic status of the Vaipheis is very much improving and even some are able to send their wards outside India for education.

Socio-cultural life : Before the advent of Christianity, the Vaipheis were strong believers of cultural ethics and taboos which subjugated their right to freedom of movement in their activities. The influence of western culture is greatly seen in their customs, traditions, social and moral behaviour, their love and respect for others.

These days a person loves to live in freedom and does not want to bind by the custom and culture which he feels a threat to his freedom. Christianity removed the culture of head-hunting by which the Vaipheis were proud of it. In the past, a man who was able to take head of enemy was highly respected in the society. Christianity also prohibited the practice of brewing rice-beer called Zu, which was the most important culture in the past. Before, every house-hold brewed wine and was drank freely by the young and old.

Wine occupied an important place in every occasion and festival, without it no act of happiness or sorrow was completed. But today, it is replaced by tea and instead of wine, tea is used everywhere in every occasion. Drinking wine is not completely eradicated but the number of users is very less today.

The nature of funeral system is completely transformed in the Christian era in the Vaiphei society. In the past, the dead body was tied with a pillar in a sitting posture and the villagers used to dance in front of it as a symbol of love and respect. Besides, some items of food are kept over the grave in a plate for the soul of the deceased to eat for at least seven days counting from the date when the dead body was buried. These practices are no more seen in the Christian era.

Taboos which were strictly observed in the past became no more relevant. For instance, the day of accidental dead was observed for several years in the past, which is no more considered important today. Such taboos which restricted the freedom and movement of individuals are no longer followed.

Today, the Vaipheis no more considered the implication of taboos relevant and thus taboos have disappeared. Christianity also affected the institution of chieftainship maintained by the Vaipheis. The chiefs are not as powerful as before and the privileges enjoyed by the chiefs such as paddy tax, meat tax etc, in the past are no more relevant. The chief has no more power or right to expel any one from his village as he likes.

The practice of cultural festivities such as, Bu Ai, Sa Ai, Gallu Ai and Lawm zunek etc., is no more seen today. However, these cultural festivities are not against the ethics of Christianity, it is modernisation which set aside these festivities irrelevant.

Besides, many games like, Kangkap, Suktumkhaw, Sialkal, Lut hiai hiai etc. are no longer seen today. Lawm (the Institution of joint labour working in the field) and Sawm (the institution of dormitory) which were the most important institutions in the primitive Vaipheis society has become extinct.

The judgment of justice like immersing in water due to lack of evidence, to find out the guilty is no longer practised. The use of traditional ornaments like bracelets, bilkam (Ivory or steel earring), amber necklace and hair pin made of bamboo etc. are outdated.

Further the uses of traditional musical instruments like; Gawsem, Pengkul, Theile, Tingtang, Pheiphit, Dingdung, and Dakpi etc. are declining and hard to find. In the past, both man and woman had long hair and ornaments and today men no longer use ornaments and do not keep their hair long.

Traditional shawls, Puanthe, Puanpi and Lelpi (Precious basket made of cane) are disappearing. The important role of Thiempu (priest) and the nature of performing ritual rites remain only in theory. The practice of helping the poor and needy like widows disables, caring the elders with love and respect and rendering selfless community service have been declining with the passage of time.

To be continued ….


* Dr Henna Vaiphei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is from C-15, Zone-III, National Games Village
This article was webcasted on 15th August, 2019.