Naharlagun, Arunachal Pradesh: On a recent Sunday, in a prayer hall near Itanagar, a tribal service began winding down. Singing and clapping suddenly gave way to meditation. Priestess and healer Chigam Karlo sprinkled holy water from the altar on everyone’s head as they watched incense sticks burn out. Kneeling over every devotee in queue, she chanted incantations to heal broken or dislocated bones or tied talismans made of straw to their wrists and said a prayer for good health.
Many tribals come to this room in an apartment building for weekly prayer. Dressed mostly in modern clothes, they pray to the spirit of the sun and the moon, pictures of which sit on a low altar, surrounded by flowers, incense and Buddhist bells. “We love coming here. We sing, we meditate, we pray. It connects us to our culture,” said Jirpok Zirdo, a member of the Galo tribe and a member of the “Donyi-Polo”, or sun and moon, movement sweeping through the state.
For most of its history, this state shunned organized religion or such prayer meetings. But about four years ago, tribals—attracted to the idea of a merciful god, regular community prayers and healing without sacrifice—began converting to Christianity in large numbers. Alarmed, tribal priests and leaders realized that reformation was the only way to stem the outflow and protect tribal beliefs.
But not everyone welcomes change; traditionalists believe the new movement is destroying the essence of tribal animism. Reformists say there is no choice and if the culture is to survive, everyone will have to recognize that the old ways of worship did not connect modern people with their gods. “Our religion demanded too many animal sacrifices, which were too expensive, people always needed a priest to connect with spirits, and our women were not given due respect,” said Tony Koyu, one of the founders and former president of the Indigenous Faith and Cultural Society of Arunachal Pradesh, or IFCSAP, that formalized Donyi-Polism into a religion.
Koyu said that instead of clinging harder to tribal religion and beliefs, as the traditionalists would like, they began to borrow ideas from Christianity: prayer meetings on Sundays, reduced stress on sacrifices and a hierarchy of religious authority. The movement has also borrowed ideas of bhajans, aartis, and meditation from Hinduism and used Buddhism’s stress on non-violence to reduce the importance of animal sacrifices.
“Those propagators (Christian missionaries) were very well-equipped with money, books. They constructed houses, schools and hospitals and gave free education and medical care. Our people were influenced. We had to choose wisely,” Koyu said.
In response, the Donyi-Polists began campaigning hard, Koyu said. “We did not have a public relations machine like them, but we made audio CDs, composed songs, mantras and sent them to the villages. What we are trying to tell the people is that a person who deserts his religion is like a rootless tree that has no identity and is bound to perish,” he said. “Why go to Christianity? We can reform the way we worship.”
It has worked. The movement that began with a handful of people in 2001 has not only reduced conversions but also brought converts back into the fold.
“Every few months, we organize mass re-conversion ceremonies. We have a ritual puja to purify them (converts). To return, they (converts) have to apologize for going to the enemy, say our prayers and are welcomed back into the fold,” said Naba Apam, the current IFCSAP president.
He says he has returned from Pasighat, where he says a few thousand people were reconverted to animism in its new avatar of Donyi-Poloism.
It was not an easy transition, conceded Apam.
Traditionally, rituals were more of crisis management. Community prayers were held twice a year when everyone feasted together after offering sacrifices of meat and beer to the spirits. The meat usually comes from mithun, an animal that looks like a cross between a cow and a yak that cost between Rs15, 000 and Rs30,000.
Moji Riba, a documentary filmmaker and journalism professor at Itanagar University who has made two documentaries on tribal religion, said, “When someone falls sick, tribals call a priest who tells them to sacrifice one mithun. If the sick man becomes sicker, they offer more mithuns. Few can bear the burden of constant demand to appease gods with sacrifices. It does not occur to them to take the sick man to a doctor,” he said.
There is no consistent connection with god and it left a spiritual emptiness in people, said Jarjum Ete, chairperson of the state women’s commission. And this constant need for a middleman was a problem, said Moji Riba. “The logic was simple. What you cannot explain in nature, assign to the spirits and offer sacrifices to please them. So, rituals were key and to do them, you needed mediator.”
That is why tribals found Christianity so appealing, he explained, “It brought God into their personal space, removed the middleman, like Amway. The whole concept of afterlife with rewards was a carrot-and-stick approach that they found very appealing.”
For women, the attraction was the space provided. “Tribal men are loving but not the best of companions. So, for them, the church is a space, a mental space where they could go to legitimately to share and think and do things together with other women that they could not otherwise have done. It gave them space and dignity,” said Riba.
But as Donyi-Poloism gathers more followers, the purists of tribal animism believe that the new movement has lost the essence of their religion. “Donyi-Poloism has stopped all those rituals and sacrifices that have been done for generations. We never worshipped an idol, but now we have an image of the sun and the moon. We never had temples. Now we do. These are alien ideas, not tribal beliefs. So in a way, this is a different kind of conversion,” said R. Kebang, a tribal nebo or priest.
The conflict with the Christians has brought in anti-conversion Hindu organizations such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad, or VHP, who have resorted to promoting tribal animism as a form of Hinduism, said Ete. “The priests here do not really understand the politics. The government does not give them much support so they go to whoever will give them support against the Christians,” he said.
The Christian missionaries say they don’t understand what the panic is about as they are not engaging active conversions. Bishop John Thomas Kattrukudiyil, who heads up 20 parishes of western Arunachal Pradesh, says the missionaries focused on the hill tribes of the North-East “because you sell your product where there is a market. However, we have never used any inducements, coercions or bribes.”
The issue of conversions has also degenerated into a numbers game here because few official records are available; census numbers are not reliable because “people declare their religion based on who is asking,” said Koyu. “If it is the government, they want to hold on to their scheduled tribe status, so they call themselves animists. If it is a missionary, they say Christian because they value the free aid and houses. They may even go to church, but when someone falls sick, they rush to offer a mithun as sacrifice.”
In the chaos, it is hard to tell who believes in what but according to the bishop, the state with a population of around 1 million has about 100,000 Catholics, apart from those who have converted to other denominations such as Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian and Anglican.
“That is one-tenth of the population,” thunders Apam, denouncing the number as “false. It is not this high at all. Don’t believe them.”
Yet it is hard to know whom to believe, or if anyone at all. The government is not officially involved with the movement and Apam says they get no support from anywhere. The missionaries say they are not actively converting anymore, but the number of Christians continues to rise.
In the North-East, where states such as Nagaland and Mizoram have large numbers of Christians, the hill tribes of Arunachal Pradesh have offered a unique sort of resistance to the missionaries. And as the state becomes more involved with the rest of the country, the tribals are also debating who they really are, what their tribal identity means to them—and what about it remains off-limits to change.
This is the fifth in a series of articles on Arunachal Pradesh.
Next: How India’s Tibet policy of gagging protests in western Arunachal Pradesh is stirring more unrest among local Tibetans.