Dr.LalhlimpuiiPachuau remembers Sap Upa and Pu Buanga in a year of subdued celebration
It was like any other cold day in the January of 1894 when two British missionaries Rev. F.W. Savidge (Sap Upa) and Rev. J.H. Lorrain (Pu Buanga) arrived in Mizoram. They were sent by the Arthington Aborigines Mission to work among people who had not heard anything about Jesus.
After a long and arduous journey, to finally reach their destination was already an accomplishment in itself even before they began their work. At that point, tired and weary from their journey in country boats on the rugged river Tlawng, it might have been inconceivable how that day – January 11 – would go down in the history of the Mizos and how their works would change the course of the Mizo society.
Upon their arrival in Aizawl, the duo settled in Mac Donald Hill and they were the first settled missionaries. Prior to Lorrain and Savidge, Khasi hills-based Welsh missionary Rev. William Williams had come to Mizoram in 1891. He stayed only for a short while with the intention of returning but that dream was never realised as he died the following year.
Lorrain and Savidge’s first mission in Mizoram included learning the Mizo language, which had no written form. Once they mastered it, they developed a Roman script and started teaching some young men and from there, it rapidly made its way among women and children too. Education was part of the core of their mission and it went hand in hand with the process of proselytization and providing healthcare. Their educational enterprise was so successful that within just a span of a little more than 100 years, Mizoram with 91.33% literacy rate, is the third most literate state in India and both Aizawl and Serchhip districts have the highest literacy rate in India. The traditional religion of the Mizos also quickly gave way to the newly-introduced religion and currently about 87% of the population profess to be Christians and the traditional religion is in oblivion.
The traditional belief system of the Mizos was deeply embedded in and around the thick forests where they dwelt with close affinity with the belief systems of their neighbouring hill tribes and intertwined with nature; the trees, the rivers, the hills and the heavenly bodies. They believed in the existence of benevolent and evil spirits and their health and wealth was dependent on appeasing the spirits, whom they thought had power over their daily lives. They believed in life after death and the soul moved on to either MitthiKhua (village of the death) or Pialral (beyond Pial River), a place where work ceased, and could be entered only by the lucky few who performed the traditional thangchhuah feast. All these beliefs quickly gave way to the new religion and a new social order grew on the ruins of the past.
The first half of the 20th century saw enormous social transformations among the Mizos – the old giving way to the new. Among the numerous reasons contributing to that change, the missionary enterprise was one of the most dynamic and its effects were felt way beyond religious realms. Therefore, January 11 is monumental for the Mizos in that it marked the day when the seed for change was sowed and since 1989, the day is declared a public holiday by the government of Mizoram. The grandest celebration so far was held on 11 January 1994, the centenary year of the introduction of the gospel to the Mizos. Many surviving British missionaries and their families returned to Mizoram to attend the celebrations. Every church had their own thanksgiving programme and the day was marked with great jubilation with feasts everywhere. In the subsequent years, celebration of the missionary day has toned down but it has been one of the most important days in the church calendar of the Mizos.
There has been no such celebration in 2021, an exception. If it were like other years, there would be church services to mark the special day, some churches would organise feasts in the evening and choirs would be heard in various localities across the state. But this year, choirs were silent, feasts were out of question and not even church services could be held. The odd quietness of Christmas and New Year celebrations due to the pandemic continued on this Missionary Day, with a spirit of reflection and introspection all across Mizoram. Though the pandemic did not allow for a celebration of the day in person, the jubilant spirit made its presence in the virtual world. Unlike other years, young people took to social media at a larger scale and one saw numerous posts about the first missionaries to Mizoram and also others who had come to Mizoram at a later stage. Many people posted verses from the Bible and wrote prayers of thanksgiving.
What one couldn’t help but notice – among the young people, there seemed to be a renewed excitement to acknowledge Missionary Day and what it entails for the Mizo society in modern times. Aizawl streets witnessed big bold banners with photographs of the pioneer missionaries and some churches and the memorials of the pioneer missionaries at Mac Donald Hill, Aizawl witnessed a small prayer meeting. Mizo missionaries who are working within Mizoram and other parts of the world are also remembered and encouraged.
The missionary enterprise was not without criticisms, but it has equipped the Mizo society to navigate the modern world in countless ways, for which the Mizos are grateful. Though a century has passed since the missionaries set foot on the soil of Mizoram, Missionary Day is replayed and remembered with gratitude every year by Mizos across the world.