Beginning of Christianity in Manipur: A Historical Approach

Published on February 15, 2009

Beginning of Christianity in Manipur: A Historical Approach
 

By George T. Haokip


In the beginning of the 18th century, Manipur had a heterogeneous population – the Meeteis in the valley areas were the followers of ancient Meitei religion; the hill tribes of the surrounding hill areas were the practitioners of the primeval tribal religion and the Shan of Kabaw Valley in the eastern frontier were the followers of Buddhism.


Prior to the coming of Christianity, several mission societies, including the American and the Welsh mission had made an attempt to establish its mission centre in Manipur. But until the end of the 19th century, they were not allowed to enter the state, because of strong opposition from the Raja and the people. Moreover, the British official had to maintain status quo in religious matter and Mr. Maxwell, the then political agent of Manipur was fully conscious of the fact. Since the revolt of 1857, the British in India had a social policy in their relationship with the princely states that they should not interfere with anyone’s religion but maintain strict neutrality.


William Pettigrew was the first foreign missionary to land on the soil of Manipur on 6 February 1894. With the consent of Mr. A Portious, the acting political agent (as the political agent major Maxwell was on furlough), Pettigrew was able to establish a school at Imphal (at Moirangkhom), named after himself as Pettigrew Lower Primary School. After six months of working among the Meitei, he was not allowed to continue his work in the valley. This happened when the then political agent major Maxwell returned from furlough. As he found the Hindu Meiteis alarmed by Pettigrew’s work, he immediately ordered the missionary to stop working and leave Imphal.


From December 1894 till December 1895, Pettigrew searched for a suitable location for his new mission. First, he turned to the South and approached Kamkholun Singson, a Thadou Kuki chief of Senvon village, in December, 1895. But as Pettigrew and his teaching was not welcomed by the chief, the missionary proceeded towards the north-west to the Mao areas. Here too, he faced the same treatment he met in the South. Not only these, he was warned by the village authorities to leave the place as soon as possible. In his search for a suitable location, he came to Ukhrul and went as far as Paoyi to the North; and on his return from Paoyi, he came up to Shirui mountain and further to Khangkhui.

 

Having wandered through some of the neighbouring villages, he finally came back to Ukhrul and decided that it was most suitable place for his missionary work. In 1901, twelve students of the mission school including the Kukis and Nagas, established during the last decade of the 19th century at Ukhrul in the hills north and east of Imphal were baptised and in the following year (in 1902) a church was organised. This Phungyo Baptist Church became the first Baptist church in Manipur. In fact, as far as conversions are concerned, the two communities of the Nagas and the Kukis were the first to have received christianity.

 

In 1906, twenty-five new converts were added. By 1907, the Christians numbered seventy. The Ukhrul mission school was attended both by the Nagas and the Kukis as well. Among the kukis, we can mention Teba Kilong, Longkholel Kilong, Seilut Singson, Jamkithang Sitlhou, Tongngul Gangte, Helkhup Chongloi, Pakho Sitlhou, Thangneilal, Dengkho, etc. They were the first among the Kukis who got their schooling in the Ukhrul mission school, the first mission school in Manipur.


In the year 1910, Pettigrew was appointed as the superintendent of the first real census of the hill tribes of Manipur, as he had already learnt to deal with the tribes of Anals, Thadous, Tangkhuls, Mizos and others. For the second time, Pettigrew went to the south and preached the gospel for two years, i.e. from 1911 to 1912 at Senvon, Lailong, Saichang, Parbung, Songsang and at Phenjol villages. When the need for more missionaries arose, Rev. and Mrs. UM Fox came from America to Ukhrul in 1911. During the first five years of stay, Fox opened the gate for higher education.


In 1912, nine students of Ukhrul Mission School were baptized. Among them, the names of four Kukis were included viz Teba, Longkholel, Helkhup and Jamkithang. During the next few years, other Kuki students were converted. On 30 August 1913, three couples namely Lhingkhosei and his wife Chonghoi, Let’am Kipgen and his wife Chinthem, VunYaseh and his wife Phalkim were baptized by UM Fox. UM Fox also wanted to baptize the Christians of Tujangwaichong village.

 

Before he left for his country, as he was not able to reach the village, he asked them to meet him at Karong. The villagers, accordingly, came to the place accompanied by their chief Songjapao Kipgen. Seeing the Kuki chief, the missionary was delighted and on the 12 December 1914, UM Fox baptized 12 persons, including the chief at the Karong river. On this auspicious day, Rev. UM Fox declared the establishment of the Tujangwaichong Baptist Church and nominated T. Lhingkhosei Kipgen and Let’am Kipgen as church pastor and deacon respectively. Thus, Tujangwaichong Baptist Church became the second Baptist church in Manipur and the first among the kukis. It was established at Karong by declaration, due to time constraints faced by the great missionary.


In 1915, Rev. UM Fox baptized Maipak Kabui, Kachindai Kacha-Naga, Bhagirath Gurkha, Thanga Hmar, Jaison Kom-Kuki and Manjaching at Imphal. Longkholel Kilong was appointed the first evangelist among the Kukis. Through his endeavour, the Langkhong church was established. The Magui church, which is the oldest, came into existence through Nehseh, the first convert among the Thadou-Kukis. In June of the same year, as demanded by the villagers, Rev. Pettigrew established Lower Primary School in Tujangwaichong and deputed Ngulhao Thomsong as teacher (1915-1917) with the initial enrolment of 13 students.


Through the invitation of Longkholel and his co-workers, churches were established in Songphel Khollen in Tamenglong district, Tongkoi and Kachai village in Ukhrul district. Longkholel was appointed by Pettigrew as an evangelist for the west district of Manipur in 1914. He propagated the good news to every wild tribes he came across and converted many people. He had greatly influenced his family and relatives, so his whole family converted. His uncles Choison Kilong and Yampu Karong (Kilong) and their entire families along with his aunts and their families accepted Christianity and were baptized at the hands of Rev. UM Fox at Kaishamthong Baptist Church in 1915. With the help of these converted relatives and Semkhopao Haokip, they established the Mokokching Baptist church on 7 March 1917 – the fifth Baptist church in Manipur and second among the Kukis.


The growing increase in local churches and the widening on the frontier of missionary movement necessitated the formation of (what was known as) the Manipur Christian Association in November 1916, the first of its kind and its initial convention was held at Ukhrul in 1917. Meanwhile, a war broke out between the Kukis and the British, known as the “First Kuki War of Independence” on 19 December 1917. After the war was over, Pettigrew was convinced that the mission centre should be moved to a more convenient place in the valley as the Ukhrul centre was quite isolated from the rest of the state.


In consideration of the contribution made by the missionaries and the native Christians towards the global war and the Kuki Punitive Measure (KPM), the state government had granted a land for the new mission headquarters at Kangpokpi on the Imphal-Dimapur Road. In 1919, when the Pettigrew’s were on furlough, Crozier started the work of clearing and building at the new location in Kangpokpi under the direction of a Kuki Christian, Seilet (Seikholet) Singson. Before he started his mission works at Kangpokpi, Crozier first, went to some Kuki dominated areas and met the two Kuki chiefs of Sangnao (Sitlhou clan) and Santing. Crozier informed the two chiefs about his intention of establishing a mission centre.


He promised to connect their villages by road, provided the chiefs granted the needed land for the same. But, one after another, the two chiefs refused to accede to his request. So, in November 1919, the Croziers moved to the new centre and was joined later by the Pettigrew in 1920. Thus for the first time, Crozier started the first missionary dispensary and leper asylum at New Mission Station on 7 November 1919. A Middle English School and orphanage were also established.

 

The writer is a research scholar at Manipur University, India.