Falling in love with Ukhrul’s folks: Pastor Thangneo Haokip

Ever since I was a little child, I’ve often heard my grandparents say ‘Tangkhuls have reaped the fruits of accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ, and becoming the first Christian community of Manipur.’ They said that Shri Rishang Keishing was a good example. This was like a usual phrase to my ear. I didn’t know what it meant by then.

Later, as I grew, I become more associated with them at high school and college. But I still didn’t know what the phrase exactly meant. It was until I joined a Theological college in 2008 that the real picture of the phrase I comprehended.

There came a time when as trainees we had to go for practical tour in and around Ukhrul town. It was in the year 2009, if I am not wrong. It was then that I had a first glimpse of Ukhrul town from few kilometres away. I went like “whoa”! Could this be another Darjeeling? The climate is exactly of my type. The people were friendly and amazing. I didn’t see women taking gutkhas or pans. Just few men could be seen doing it.

In comparison with others, the people are highly civilized. I also had a chance of visiting the first church of Manipur, the Phungyo Baptist Church, which was constructed and established when Reverend William Pettigrew baptised and converted twelve Tangkhuls to Protestant Christian Baptist faith in 1909.

Moving on, our team visited many churches such as Hungphung, Khangkhui, Ngaingaa, Lunghar and few more. What amazed me that day was the amazing Somdal and Tuinem village which I viewed from some kilometres away. I wished I’d gone there. I still wish to visit it someday. On such a hill slopes lies the wonderful houses and buildings. Not one house was a kaccha house. The church could be seen standing tall at the top of the hill or village.

How does one expect to build such pacca houses with bricks and stones on such topography? It is incredible. Had ours been a developed country like USA or Switzerland, I wouldn’t be amazed. But in this developing country, and in a poor state like ours, it is amazing to see tribals or hill people to be in such an advanced stage. The people are friendly and caring; one amazing thing that made me ponder was the respect and treatment they meted out to a church workers (or, pastor).

They have deep regards for pastors. This was what my grandparents exactly meant, and I could understand it since the day I visited them.

I then became a pastor in April 2014. My first posting was in Kamjong district (formerly Ukhrul district), the place I’d always loved. I was responsible to take care of few churches around this area. I was stationed at Chassad village, but spent most of my times visiting remote churches. There I had the real opportunity of interacting with the people from 2014 through 2016.

Here, I want to share some of the positive qualities of the Tangkhul’s society. Once, I and my team (deacons) were stopped by some womenfolk near Kamjong. They were a NISA bandh group. After frisking some bags, it was my turn.

It was then that one of my team members softly tells them (in Tangkhul dialect) that I was their pastor. The moment those women folks realised I was a pastor, they were very sorry and beg for forgiveness. To them, to disrespect a church worker is to ‘disrespect God’ and a disgrace to the society. This is practical in every religion.

But I find something extraordinary in them. Their humbleness impressed me a lot and I was taken aback. Travel in a bus, standing. The moment they realise you are a pastor, they will stood up right away and offer you their seat.

After travelling and walking exhaustively, enter their house for a glass of water, they will try to let your stomach fill as much as they can, not thinking much for themselves. They have a big heart in a sense. This is something which is rare these days.

Every month I had to travel up and down from Chassad to Imphal at least once. On the way from Imphal to Chassad it is usual to take lunch at Litan Sareikhong. On this occasion, twice, I shared a seat with elderly Tangkhul men.

After chatting for quite some time on the bus, they found out who I was. Immediately, they offered me lunch at Litan Sareikhong. Their compulsion out of concern was hard to refuse. This kind of care and concern for a church worker is inherent in them.

Then I thought that this could be the reason as to why the first Christian community of Manipur is always different from others in terms of socio-politico-economy. Visit any Tangkhul village, one can find how different they are.

They have deep reverend for God. One of the men (I mentioned above) told me that they share as much as possible as they can so that God gives as much as He wills. This kind of attitude and mentality may have come from the experiences of accepting Christianity.

During those three years of my stay, I also came across NSCN boys few times. I was ignored most of the time. Once I met them at a river in a thick jungle. They politely asked me for a soap which I didn’t have.

Once on the way from Maokot to Chassad, I met them again. This time their captain was a little bit harsh. He seemed to be under intoxication. But the moment he realised who I was, his attitude changed. He then left me. His body guard, a young boy, however, felt sorry for their captain’s attitude and behaviour.

I was surprised to see such well-behaved boys. They meant no harm. So my movement along those jungles was very enjoyable. Scaling those thick jungles along the Indo-Myanmar boundary was not scary at all. Then I thought, “Oh, the value of accepting the gospel.”

However, men are not perfect. Once I was travelling toward Ukhrul from Imphal to visit a friend. I was seated with an elderly man. He also learned I was a pastor. On the journey, we discussed a lot regarding the church ministry, the situation in Manipur, and much more.

I then shared the experiences I have with the Tangkhuls, their respect for pastors, the blessings of becoming the first Christian, etc. The man nodded his head, and said that the Tangkhuls are indeed the first to receive the gospel. This has changed their society.

Before the coming of Christianity, according to him, the Tangkhuls were head hunters. Inter-village feuds were common. And the coming of Missionary William Pettigrew united the whole Tangkhul community into one, thus was abolished the head hunting culture.

God has bestowed blessings upon the Tangkhul’s society much more than any other hill community. “But, you know pastor” he said, “We the first Christian Community seem to have misused our God given wisdom. We have lost hundreds and hundreds of young lives for things that are not eternal. We love the earth so much as if we can carry them to heaven when we die.” (He was citing the unfortunate Phangrei incident in which 3 youths lost their lives in June 30, 2012).

“When it comes to land issue, there is no mercy,” he said. He said he was not against sovereignty or whatsoever, but to inculcate love for others is a must do. He also smile at me and said that you (Kukis) think you are one of the lost tribe of Israel, but the Tangkhuls are more likely (than the Kukis) due to the fact that the Israelites were first chosen by God to spread the gospel of Jesus.

In the same way, the Tangkhuls are chosen first so that the gospel may be spread. “But what we do is in the contrary”, he said.

Brief Thoughts: First, I find that nothing is perfect. That, no men are perfect. However, we can do lots of great things together. Indeed, I feel the Tangkhuls were chosen first so that the gospel of love may spread through them. I think that man was right.

This society has surpassed all other hill societies in all walks of life. Especially when I compare it with my community, I can see the hand of God blessing them. For instance, most of my community people still live in kaccha houses and are financially poor who thrives on daily wages.

God must be really pleased upon the society for accepting the gospel and sharing them to others as well. A Kuki pastor, I knew very well, told me that his parents were converted to Christianity by a Tangkhul missionary. He owed much thanks to this community for sharing the gospel to their parents.

We generally compare the Tangkhul community to that of the Sikh community in the sense that cent percent of the people are economically sound. So, what I feel is that the first Christian community (of Manipur), who are much more blessed than others, can do great things like take part in solving tribal crisis in a more Christian way.

In other words, they can cultivate a broader hearts since the larger amount of blessings, I feel, have been bestowed upon them. Upholding the weaker people/society, making peace in times of crisis, etc. can be some good activities. Manipur can be a peaceful state. We can all live peacefully in this tiny state, no matter what we are or where we belong to.

Why am I so particular about the Tangkhul society? Don’t get me wrong. I am not sarcastic here nor am I trying to be negative. But I feel that God has a plan and purpose and duty for this community, which is why He chose them to be the first Christian community (like the Israel nation), and also blessed them in a more special way.

We are eagerly waiting for the day when Christians of Manipur come together in peace, join hands and pray for the peace of the land.

This article was first published in The Sangai Express on April 24, 2020
Pastor Thangneo Haokip. Views are personal.

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