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EM Exclusive, Nagaland

Costly collateral as Ao indigenous religion nears extinction

By Imrongkumba Aier Updated: Aug 25, 2019 10:28 pm
One of the last of a dying breed, Meyawati Walling, a practitioner of the old Ao religion, poses for a picture inside his daughter’s residence in Mokokchung town. (EM Images)

Imrongkumba Aier

Mokokchung, Aug. 25 (EMN): In the Christian-majority state of Nagaland, few indigenous tribal religions of pre-Christianity days have withstood the passage of time. However, the Ao Naga indigenous religion is on the verge of extinction.

Being overwhelmed and outnumbered by a growing population in a predominantly Christian society has led to the (natural) decline of the old religion. Along with it, many valuable ancient traditions, customs and moral values have also disappeared during the transition.

Despite the rapid transformation brought about by the advent of Christianity, westernisation and education, there still are a few people in Longkhum village who refuse to abandon the beliefs held sacred by their ancestors.

Eastern Mirror had an opportunity to meet Meyawati Walling, a ‘Limafur/Limapur’ (people who still believe in the old Ao religion) from Longkhum village who has not converted to Christianity till date.

“There is only one Creator of all beings. I pray to the Creator to grant me truth, to help me remember, and for the well-being of all. That’s my simple prayer every day,” said the 93-year-old man.

Walling is now looked after by his daughter, who was the first in the family to convert to Christianity.

He, along with two others, is the last of those who still follow the old religion in Longkhum.

It is quite rare to find a Limapur in Ao area these days; and once those few are gone, the old religion held sacred by the forebears will be lost, perhaps for ever.

Records state that after Rev. EW Clark, the American Baptist missionary, first set foot on Ao soil in 1872, Christianity spread like wildfire across Ao villages. But it would be a misconception to believe that all Aos had accepted Christianity.

The advent of Christianity has had tremendous influence on the Ao society—likewise across Naga societies—and the introduction of western education to the Naga people revolutionised their understanding of the world outside.

However, it has also disturbed and shaken the people’s traditional way of life, its age-old religion; and brought a total change of culture, and western outlook.

“Christianity penetrated Longkhum; churches were established in different Ao villages and many have converted, even my family members are Christians today. Albeit few in number, we refuse to abandon the beliefs held sacred by our ancestors and uphold the principle of truth,” said Walling.

“We were farmers then, my fellow Limapurs practised and observed ‘anempong’ (sanctification), festivals, ceremonies, offerings to the ‘God of Field’ for abundant harvest and other gods for their blessing,” he said.

“But old age has caught up with me. I cannot practise and perform those sacred rituals anymore, but I still observe the sacred occasions,” he added.

According to Imolemba Jamir, who is well versed in Ao ethos, “the traditional Ao religion or tribal belief is based on a multifaceted religion or polytheistic.”

‘They believe in supreme-beings like Lijaba (the Creator), Meyutsungba (God of Judgement after death), Anungtsungba (God of Sky), Tiayaer Tsungrem and other gods associated with places, forest, stone and nature around them,’ he said.

Jamir also added that ceremonies were performed to appease the different gods who were supposed to be feared and propitiated. He also said that public ceremonies, and household or private ceremonies, were observed throughout the year with proper offerings for good harvest; and to cure illness and sickness if it befell upon them.

Jamir also asserted that during the era of Limapur, the society was purely agrarian based on self-reliance and self-sustenance.

Sashikaba Kichutzar, an associate professor at Eastern Theological College in Jorhat, also admitted that the advent of Christianity in Ao area led to the decay of traditional religion and practices associated with it. He also added there was clear antagonism between the new converts to Christianity and those who followed the old religion.

The old religion and its traditional practices and ethos are two different sides; the socio-cultural values and ethics learned at Arju or bachelor’s dormitory and Tsuki or girls dormitory were discouraged by the missionaries and social changes were brought based on this indigenous concept, he said.

He also said that traditional shawls, attires, ornaments were destroyed or burned because the new religion frowned upon those items. However, communitarian ethos were preserved, he added.

Walling also asserted that when Christianity spread, “we practiced our old religion as usual and whenever they persuaded us to convert, we simply replied that we won’t follow the new religion but live like before.”

“If we work hard God blesses us, and His blessing is absent if we do not work hard; our core religion is based on living an honest life; we live and eat through our hard work,” he said.

Lanusashi Longkumer, a professor at Nagaland University in Lumami, argued that it is wrong to define the old religion as animism. “Because Nagas had a religion and Limapur itself denotes that Nagas had a concept of God: a creator, a supreme-being and the controller of our destiny,” he said.

He also asserted that the Ao belief system in supreme-beings is very geographical because people living in a specific area give exceptional importance to some particular gods.

The professor also observed that with the advent of Christianity, new values and religion were introduced with western concepts and perspectives.

“When sophisticated advanced people came and introduced the new religion, new values and education came along with it; our perspective started changing very drastically. And when our perspective changes, everything else change,” he opined.

He also observed that the introduction of Christianity had resulted in nullifying the existing indigenous religion, and replaced it with a new concept of God.

“Maybe Nagas found the indigenous religion to be primitive, inadequate and started finding fouls in the existing religion and blindly followed the new religion,” he reasoned.

“The contradiction is that, to some extent we were rustic folks and our worldly view was very simple, therefore, before we could realise that Aos had a religion we discarded it. In future, we may come to regret it,” he said.

The professor also lamented the dwindling number of Limapurs. He observed that Limapur is part of the Ao cultural heritage, and with its disappearance, sooner or later a part of Ao culture will also vanish.

He further said that Limapur was a religion that came very close to nature where men could understand and communicate with it, and a perfect co-existence was established with nature.

“Today with the disappearance of the Ao indigenous religion, the understanding and connection with nature comes indirectly rather than the direct link which was there during the times of Limapur,” he said.

Longkumer also asserted that the part of culture which has already disappeared will not come back. “At the most what we can do is documentation—meaning it will not be a practice but history for the next generation.”

He also lamented that Nagas have embraced the new religion without understanding its core values.

“Our understanding of the new religion is very shallow that it has become more of a culture, a way of life. We fail to embrace the essence of salvation in our heart and superficially, we say ‘I am Christian.’ But we are neither here nor there, that is the dilemma we are facing today,” the professor observed.

By Imrongkumba Aier Updated: Aug 25, 2019 10:28:01 pm
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