It’s a Sunday morning, a day of rest and prayer for many of the Nagas. A society once primitive and animilistic in beliefs went a slow change with the coming of Christian missionaries. I don’t know when it started but today most of the population is Christian. I have read articles laying claim that Nagas live in a Christian state, not a secular one. On Sunday morning, one can see men, women and entire families turning up on time for the morning service at their local churches. Orangkong, a little village a couple of kilometers from Longleng, is no exception.
I don’t know anything about this village. I have some time to kill. So I start out on a long walk from Longleng. I see this church set on a hill and walk towards the hill. As I enter Orangkong, I get stares from people. Some men question my purpose. Frankly I am just wandering around and enjoying the fresh air and the brisk morning. Such an explanation sounds less convincing. I need something more concrete.
‘I am going to see the church,’ I tell them, adding, ‘I am a tourist.’
‘Where are you from?’
‘I’m from Bangalore but last night I stayed at Longleng. I’ve come to see the Road Show.’
This puts them at ease. Strangers in a strange place make a strange sight. Wandering alone attracts attention. The best way to deal with enquiries is to respect them. Answers must be plain and truthful.
An old man with a Bible accompanies me to the church. He understands Hindi. Two young women doing laundry in front of their house laugh and giggle when I pass them. A few words are exchanged with the old man as the translator. When I reach the church it is still early. Service will start at nine. At the church I am having to explain once more who I am, my purpose and where I live. I am invited for a cup of tea at a stall in front of the church. I settle for a glass of water instead. There are some machettes lying in one corner. I handle one of them. It weighs about two kilos.
I sit right at the back. The bell is rung for many minutes. The sound goes out across the village and to the farther hills. Slowly men and women start filling up the church. The men are seated in the left pews while the women occupy the central and right pews. Youths are seated in some of the front rows. The men are mostly wrapped in red shawls with thin bands of whites and blacks. It is quiet a sight to see the pews filled with such bright colour. Some of the older men have a funny crop on their heads. Some men wear modern day safety pins for earrings! This is fashion for you in a Naga village. The atmosphere is unlike any other service I have attended elsewhere. I am witnessing something special. I am part of a gathering that’s local, remote and culturally distinct.
The service starts with some youths leading the group in songs and hymns. Singing is plain without any accompaniment of instruments. It is a strange beginning. There appears to be no leader and no welcome message. While the singing goes on, more and more villagers walk into the church. It has a capacity of about 400 and by quarter past nine, the congregation is 150 strong. Women outnumber the men in the ratio of 3:1. No one brings a single machette inside the church. Instead people come in with their own books of prayer. Those who don’t, I can only assume that they are not literate. I am pretty sure that villagers come for this Sunday service without fail. It is to most folks a religious ritual but I wonder if it simply a social habit to some.
The pastor is a young man who leads the group in prayer. It is only in a cultured society that education is respected, that older folks listen patiently to a younger pastor. Readings from the Bible are done by volunteers. A little cloth bag is passed around as contributions are collected. A kid stares at me all through the service with interest. When I stare back, he clings on to his mother’s shawl and huddles close. The adults are more discreet. They know I am here and there is an open question playing on everyone’s mind – who am I?
The pastor launches into a long sermon. It bores me but I sit through it patiently. I am actually not listening to his words. He speaks in the local tongue and I don’t understand a word of it. ‘Politically, socially and religiously’ he says at times and those are the only English words he uses for the entire hour. At times the pastor calls on the congregation to pray. Eyes are closed. Each one utters a loud individual prayer. This jumbled murmur pervades the church air.
I walk out with the others as the congregation disperses. I request permission from a couple of old men to snap their pictures. They are shy. They do not agree to be photographed. An old woman with large framed glasses is tottering down the slope. She views my requests with amusement and launches into a beautiful toothless smile. I make my way back to Longleng.