Nagaland is often referred to as the Christian State as more than 80 per cent of its population identify as Christians and the State is home to some 1,708 churches. Nagaland reportedly has the largest community of Baptist Christians in the world. The religion is closely intertwined with almost every aspect of Naga society.
In December 2022, Nagaland celebrated the 150th year of the advent of Christianity in the land. A book of graphic non-fiction titled 1872, by Talilula, a Dimapur-based researcher, writer, and educator, tells the story. With illustrations by artist Tetsong, 1872 animates the people and places associated with the event that would change Naga history.
A momentous event
But there is more to the book than the oft-repeated and well-known narrative involving American missionary Edward Winter Clark (1830-1913), who baptised 15 converts from the Ao Naga village of Molungkimong in a pond on December 22, 1872. The book highlights the lesser-known Indian figures of the momentous event—Supongmeren Tzudir of Molungkimong, the Assamese evangelist Godhula Brown, and other villagers from Molungkimong—who also played a key role.
Speaking to Frontline via email, Talilula said: “Missionaries like Clark have attained heroic status in Nagaland; it is commendable the way his legacy has been so well preserved in tangible forms such as monoliths, museums that contain his artefacts, village gates and educational institutions that have been established in his name as well as various publications that address his life and work. But I haven’t seen a similar scale of effort and investment in preserving the legacy of people like Supongmeren and Godhula.”
Godhula Brown was a converted Christian from Assam’s Sibsagar district, which is bordered by the Naga Hills. He got acquainted with Supongmeren and his companions from Molungkimong village when they started venturing into Sibsagar in search of resources after a deadly epidemic ravaged their village.
“Godhula is relatively more well-known than Supongmeren in both the Assamese and Naga Baptist Christian circles, primarily because Godhula appears more in missionary writings than Supongmeren, who is mostly unnamed or referenced as his ‘Naga companion’,” Talilula said.
“He was the first person to be ordained from Sibsagar Baptist Church in Assam, and what we can gather from Clark’s writings is that he shared a close yet tumultuous relationship with Godhula. They did not always see eye to eye, and later on, trust issues cropped up between Clark and Godhula. Unfortunately, we don’t have Godhula’s side of the story to get the full, unbiased picture,” she added.
What helped Talilula in her extensive research was the fact that she hails from Molungkimong. “I am privy to certain information and details about the events that perhaps other people won’t be aware of, such as the names of people, places, concepts, or the first hymns (their backstories) which were composed in collaboration with my ancestors. So, these are little details that have been inserted into the book,” she said.
Indeed, one of the attractions of the book is its pages recording the first hymns in Ao Naga, complete with piano scores, taken from Godhula Brown’s Naga Hymns (1879). Godhula had picked up the Ao language from Supongmeren, who also taught him and Clark words from his native Chungli Ao dialect.
One of the hymns, which was adopted from a folk song sung by Molungkimong villagers called “O Zangkee”, has a line: “We are all created by the one true God Lungkitsungba.” Talilula mentions in the footnotes that Lungkitsungba is a powerful deity of the indigenous Ao pantheon and his name was retained in the original composition of the hymn to help new converts feel at home. Lungkitsungba was later substituted by Yisu Khrista, which is Jesus Christ in Ao.
1872 is full of interesting details. Supongmeren, for instance, is shown as wearing a kurta-like garment along with a shawl after his baptism, while his fellow villagers are bare-bodied beneath their shawls. Talilula explains this in the preface by saying that missionary accounts mention the newly-converted Nagas as covering up their “nakedness” with this kind of clothing, which marked them out as “civilised” or “modern”.
The book also shows the Naga villagers smoking pipes, which was intriguing. Did the British, who had pillaged some Naga villages, introduce pipes, or were they there earlier? Talilula said: “Smoking tobacco pipes was a part of traditional Naga life before the advent of colonial rule or Baptist Christianity. According to our elders, in the early days of Christianity, when Godhula was engaged in evangelical work in Molungkimong, he insisted that the villagers leave their tobacco pipes and spears and other weaponry outside the thatched chapel when they came to pray. Even those who had not converted but came to the chapel to listen to his sermons out of curiosity started following this etiquette.”
1872 is published by Kohima-based indie bookseller and publisher, PenThrill Publication House, which has also represented some of Talilula’s earlier books like Raconteurs from the Hills (2014) and Trailblazer: A Biography (2017), which she co-wrote.
Talilula’s doctoral topic was the Christianisation of an Ao Naga comic tradition and its transformation as a prototype of the emerging theatre scene in contemporary Nagaland. Her interests include indigenous folklore and religion, performance aesthetics and graphic storytelling.