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Photo essay

Postcards from Khasi hills: How the people made Christianity their own

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Postcards from Khasi hills: How the people made Christianity their own

Praying before baptism at Domkohmen Church, 2015. 

Praying before baptism at Domkohmen Church, 2015.  | Photo Credit: Tarun Bhartiya

Images that mix politics, history and discomfort to document how the Khasi people made Christianity, a “foreign faith”, their own.

Hynniewtrep. Seven huts. The Khasis, a matrilineal community in India’s north-eastern region, believe they originated from seven families who remained on earth when the tree connecting heaven and earth was cut down. Khasis call their land Ki Hynñiewtrep.

Sunday service at Nongsawlia Presbyterian Church, Sohra, Khasi Hills. Sohra, the Khasi name for Cherrapunjee, was one of the first administrative establishments of the East India Company in the hills, while the Nongsawlia Church is its oldest Christian church.
Sunday service at Nongsawlia Presbyterian Church, Sohra, Khasi Hills. Sohra, the Khasi name for Cherrapunjee, was one of the first administrative establishments of the East India Company in the hills, while the Nongsawlia Church is its oldest Christian church. | Photo Credit: Tarun Bhartiya

They have their own Niam or faith community, rooted in their land, clan and family.

A Presbyterian church under construction in Domkohmen in 2015.
A Presbyterian church under construction in Domkohmen in 2015. | Photo Credit: Tarun Bhartiya

June 22 is a recently sanctioned State holiday commemorating a long dead Welshman. On this day in 1841, a Welsh miller’s son arrived in Cherrapunjee. He wrote home: “When you receive this you can venture to tell all our friends at home that we have arrived safely at Cherrapoonjee... My address will be Revd T.J. Missionary, Cherrapoonjee, Cassia Hills, Bengal”.

The first four translations of the Bible in Khasi Serampore College Library, 2015. The first translation of the Bible into Khasi was done in 1819 by William Carey, a Baptist missionary based in Serampore, Bengal. Helped by Khasi students in Calcutta, this translation used the Bengali script and did not catch on amongst the Khasis. Carey was inspired to translate the Bible into Khasi after his first native convert, Krishna Pal, managed to baptise two Khasis in 1800.
The first four translations of the Bible in Khasi Serampore College Library, 2015. The first translation of the Bible into Khasi was done in 1819 by William Carey, a Baptist missionary based in Serampore, Bengal. Helped by Khasi students in Calcutta, this translation used the Bengali script and did not catch on amongst the Khasis. Carey was inspired to translate the Bible into Khasi after his first native convert, Krishna Pal, managed to baptise two Khasis in 1800. | Photo Credit: Tarun Bhartiya

Reverend Thomas Jones would baptise nobody. And would translate only a part of the Gospel. Instead, they say he taught the locals how to brew alcohol, use a saw, purify lime. Then he got involved in defending the Khasis from exploitation by the East India company. He was thrown out of the church and his missionary licence cancelled. Driven out of the Khasi-Jaintia hills, Jones died a lonely death in Calcutta.

Deep in prayer at the church in Domkohmen, in 2017.
Deep in prayer at the church in Domkohmen, in 2017. | Photo Credit: Tarun Bhartiya

The faith TJ brought would sweep through north-eastern India, nativising itself. But not without indigenous challenges and reworkings.

Lambok Toi, Khasi Evangelist, Revival Service, Shillong, 2006. Revival is one the of the most awaited events in many protestant Christian denominations. Seen as mass reawakening of faith with attendant miraculous events, the 1906 revival in Khasi Hills was the key event for evangelization.
Lambok Toi, Khasi Evangelist, Revival Service, Shillong, 2006. Revival is one the of the most awaited events in many protestant Christian denominations. Seen as mass reawakening of faith with attendant miraculous events, the 1906 revival in Khasi Hills was the key event for evangelization. | Photo Credit: Tarun Bhartiya

But being a Christian (or for that matter Muslim) in India these days is not a joke. India is being remade. Once celebrated as a great pluralist success of decolonised nation-building, many of its postcolonial benchmarks such as secularism and religious freedom are being reworked, erased, made redundant in an authoritarian imagination of a monochromatic decolonised Hindu India. State after State legislates laws that criminalise “foreign” faiths.

The headquarters of the Seng Khasi Movement on Seng Kut Snem, their founding day, in Shillong. On November 23, 1899, 16 young Khasi men came together to form the Khasi Young Men’s Association in the Brahmo Samaj Hall, Mawkhar. Renamed Seng Khasi in 1901, the organisation has defended Khasi culture and beliefs against the colonial and Christian evangelical challenge. In postcolonial India, the Seng Khasi movement has resisted the incorporation of the Khasi faith into larger religious identities, including Hinduism. The rooster, their symbol, is considered a messenger between heaven and the earth, the one who brings the message of light.
The headquarters of the Seng Khasi Movement on Seng Kut Snem, their founding day, in Shillong. On November 23, 1899, 16 young Khasi men came together to form the Khasi Young Men’s Association in the Brahmo Samaj Hall, Mawkhar. Renamed Seng Khasi in 1901, the organisation has defended Khasi culture and beliefs against the colonial and Christian evangelical challenge. In postcolonial India, the Seng Khasi movement has resisted the incorporation of the Khasi faith into larger religious identities, including Hinduism. The rooster, their symbol, is considered a messenger between heaven and the earth, the one who brings the message of light. | Photo Credit: Tarun Bhartiya

For the minuscule indigenous populations of the north-east, where Christianity is the primary mode of its faith community, mainland India seems increasingly foreign. A land whose masters can once again hound Reverend TJ out of their imagination.

Open-air Sunday service for the annual Synod in Kynshi village, in 2017. Presbyterianism is an actively democratic faith, and the faithful from all the local churches get together every year to debate policies and accounts.
Open-air Sunday service for the annual Synod in Kynshi village, in 2017. Presbyterianism is an actively democratic faith, and the faithful from all the local churches get together every year to debate policies and accounts. | Photo Credit: Tarun Bhartiya

In 2006-07, Meghalaya’s Khasi-Jaintia hills were abuzz with stories of “revival” among Presbyterian Christians, an “event” that showed non-believers that the word of God was real. Signs and wonders swept through the hills. I started making images of this phenomenon.

Reverend Makdoh leaves for Sunday service in the Khasi Hills, in 2017.
Reverend Makdoh leaves for Sunday service in the Khasi Hills, in 2017. | Photo Credit: Tarun Bhartiya

My initial curiosity was about the transcendence of belief. Then slowly I started thinking about the material manifestation of Christianity in these hills. About the changing public-political discourse around faith, religion and national identity and my own private curiosity about faith.

A Khasi choir. Although Christian missionaries did not encourage the use of musical instruments and emphasised vocals instead, Khasi choirs experimented freely with indigenous tunes and instruments.
A Khasi choir. Although Christian missionaries did not encourage the use of musical instruments and emphasised vocals instead, Khasi choirs experimented freely with indigenous tunes and instruments. | Photo Credit: Tarun Bhartiya

In the Hinduised notion of faith, conversion is seen as an encounter between ignorant people and powerful missionaries. In the Khasi hills, however, converting to Christianity was a difficult proposition. Converts risked breaking traditional kinship and family ties. And even when they converted, they did not automatically accept the Western Christian world view. They wanted to be Christians on their own terms. The Hindu right, which finds Christian missions foreign and destructive of local tribal culture, is equally complicit in imposing Hindu ideas over indigenous traditions. About 25 per cent of Khasis still follow Niam Tynrai. And Niam Tynrai is not Hinduism.

Books for sale outside a church in Kynshi, in 2016.
Books for sale outside a church in Kynshi, in 2016. | Photo Credit: Tarun Bhartiya

So how does one locate the signs and meanings of this transformative encounter between Gwalia and Khasia? Through biographies? A chronology of events? Through resistance to the majoritarian impulses of the Indian nation state? Or through the circulation of picture postcards which the Welsh Calvinist-Methodist working-class missionaries were fond of?

‘Gwalia in Khasia’ tells the story of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists' Mission to the Khasi Hills between 1841–1969.
‘Gwalia in Khasia’ tells the story of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists' Mission to the Khasi Hills between 1841–1969. | Photo Credit: Tarun Bhartiya

In the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Archives at Aberystwyth, I had seen picture postcards made by Welsh missionaries about their work in Khasi Hills. I decided to display my photographs as postcards, mixing them with politics, history and discomfort, for an exhibition titled “Imagining the Nation State”, supported by Chennai Photo Biennale, Diffusion-Welsh International Festival of Photography, and a book project supported by India Foundation for the Arts. The images locate the signs and meanings of a transformative encounter, where the Khasis made a ‘foreign faith’ their own.

The sanctification of rice (U Khaw pynheh rngiew) and blessing of water (Ka um ksiar ka um rupa), the annual ceremony of the Niam Tynrai or the old faith, at Lum Sohpetbneng Hill.
The sanctification of rice (U Khaw pynheh rngiew) and blessing of water (Ka um ksiar ka um rupa), the annual ceremony of the Niam Tynrai or the old faith, at Lum Sohpetbneng Hill. | Photo Credit: Tarun Bhartiya

Niam/Faith/Hynñiewtrep. 100 picture postcards. 100 memories. 100 ephemeral ways of thinking about faith, colonialism and history. The photos selected here are from that exhibition.

Reverend Kyrsoibor Pyrtuh, pastor of the Khasi Presbyterian Church, leading the protest against the AFSPA in Meghalaya in 2016. Many younger church leaders have been active in secular movements for human rights and justice even when the church itself has been conservative about such issues.
Reverend Kyrsoibor Pyrtuh, pastor of the Khasi Presbyterian Church, leading the protest against the AFSPA in Meghalaya in 2016. Many younger church leaders have been active in secular movements for human rights and justice even when the church itself has been conservative about such issues. | Photo Credit: Tarun Bhartiya

Tarun Bhartiya is a documentary imagemaker, Hindi poet, and political activist based in Shillong. He is a founder member of Raiot Collective.