What is Mizo Christianity?

Mizo Christianity
Dawrpui Prebyterian Church Aizawl 
photo by @sylviarinrini

Initially, Christianity in Mizoram was heavily influenced by British Protestant Christianity, and indigenous expression was limited. However, after independence and the departure of missionaries, Mizo Christianity experienced a revolution in the form of localizing Christianity to accommodate indigenous Mizo expression.

- Ruata Lungchuang 

Mizoram located in Northeast India bordered by Burma to the east, Bangladesh to the west, and the Indian states of Manipur, Assam and Tripura to the North. with an elevation ranging from 10 meters to 2000 meters, most of Mizoram is mountainous and lies within the Purvanchal range which is a sub-mountain system of the Himalayas. This is why Mizoram is sometimes referred to as the land of the Highlanders, and Mizo themselves refer to their land as Zoram or you guessed it, Mizoram, which means land of the Mizos or land of the Highland people depending on how literally you want to translate it. 

The vast majority of Mizos practice what scholars refer to as 'Mizo Christianity,' which is also practised by many individuals within the Mizo cultural sphere of influence. Southern Manipur, Chin State, eastern Bangladesh, central Assam, eastern Arunachal Pradesh, and other places. Yet the traditions and beliefs associated with Mizo Christianity are unexpectedly prevalent in northeast India. If you are familiar with Mizo Christianity, you may be familiar with the Christian hymnal drum, ritual dance, September prayers, and other practices that emerge in various shapes and forms among Christians in northeast India.

So, what exactly is Mizo Christianity? What sets it apart from other Christian traditions? And where did its distinct concepts and practices originate? Mizoram became Christian in the late nineteenth century. This is notable since it came later than other Christian traditions in northeast India, such as Naga Christianity in Nagaland and Khasi Christianity in Meghalaya. In the mid-nineteenth century, Christianity was fully established in Nagaland and Meghalaya. The gospel was brought to Mizoram by missionaries from Wales and the Khasi Hills, thus, early Mizo Christians based much of their traditions and beliefs on the Khasi strand of Christianity and Welsh Christianity.

Before Christianity, Mizo people practised a variety of native religions known collectively as Sakhua, in which spirits known as Huai were believed to inhabit the Mizo landscape. Meanwhile, the Mizo people's principal objects of worship were diverse entities known as Sa and Khua, which they believed inhabited the sky or a dimension apart from the human realm. Pathian, Khuanu, Khawzing, and other tribe-specific deities were among the most popular. Yet, Mizo pre-Christian tradition does not involve extensive worship of these divine entities; rather, Mizo daily religious life centres around engagement with the Huai spirits through intricate rites and practices. Although scholars and modern practitioners of the Mizo indigenous religion refer to this religion as Sakhua, this era of Mizo religion is poorly understood because there are few records about the practice and most sources about this religion come from Christian missionaries, who were often prejudiced and presented the religion from a critical point of view, and thus are not always entirely reliable to present an accurate picture.

Christianity officially arrived in Mizoram in the  1890s. During this time, the British Empire was finally able to occupy the entire Lushai Hills, which is now Mizoram. Traditional Mizo religious rituals were viewed as a barrier to British rule and order. The British authorities saw the need for western formal education in the region as essential. Christian missionaries provided the remedy. The pioneers were from Arthington Aborigines Mission in London, who visited Lushai Hills in 1894, the year remembered in Mizoram as the "advent of the gospel."

Although the Arthington mission was of an English Baptist school and the first two missionaries were of the Baptist Church, the first church in Mizoram was, however, a Presbyterian Church. It was established in Aizawl in 1897 (which eventually became the capital city) by the Calvinistic Methodist Church of Wales. For this reason, Christianity in Mizoram is largely dominated by Welsh Christianity, particularly that of the Presbyterians, at least in theology. 

Then, the Baptist Church soon followed, setting its headquarters at Lunglei. Other denominations soon arrived, including Catholic, Salvation Army, United Pentecostal Church, Seventh-day Adventists and others. Half a century later, the Mizos by and large, were Christians.

When Christianity first arrived in Mizoram, missionaries were determined to build a European-style Christianity in the region. Several Mizo religious traditions were prohibited, including the use of the Khuang drum, which is an integral aspect of Mizo religious and community life. Mizo traditions were seen by Europeans as incompatible with their rigid British-centric view of Christianity. Consequently, until the mid-twentieth century, Mizo Christianity was centred on British Protestant Christianity, with very limited room for Indigenous expression. Being in control of administration prior to India's independence further solidified British hegemony, particularly that of Welsh Christianity inside Mizoram. However, with independence and the missionaries departing Mizoram with government orders following the insurrection, Mizo Christianity saw drastic changes in its policies and even beliefs. Following the end of WWII, a number of indigenous denominations formed, and by the 1960s, Mizo Christianity had undergone a revolution in the form of localizing Christianity to accommodate indigenous Mizo expression.

The Church in Mizoram initially tried to put a stop to these activities, labelling radical new customs like the use of Khuang drums for worship and the practice of dancing in worship as innovations and condemning them. This, however, backfired, with many abandoning the established church and founding other churches that embrace these activities. Soon, the church was ultimately forced to incorporate these distinctive Mizo customs into its theology and traditions. The Mizoram Presbyterian Church made accommodations, and other smaller congregations soon followed. And by the 2020s, Mizo Christianity has become quite distinct from its form in the early twentieth century, and the church is on its path to becoming even more distinct from its progenitor, Western Christianity.

Theology and practice are two areas where Mizo Christianity differs from mainstream Western Christianity. Mizo Christianity began as Calvinistic, thanks to its mother church, the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist church. Today, even the Presbyterian Church in Mizoram has distanced itself from rigid Calvinism, insisting on theology and interpretation distinct from Calvinism or other Reformed churches.

Mizo Christianity appears to be evangelical, but it contains many charismatic elements, and it is theologically diverse, with each Mizo church clinging to its own interpretation of the Bible. One thing Mizo churches have in common is their emphasis on the Old Testament and their fascination with the concept of a covenant or agreement between God and his people. Although Jesus is the centre of Mizo Christianity, Mizo Christians place a strong focus on morals, regulations, and the concept of ethnic identity related to a God. This is a direct influence of Mizo traditional belief, which places a high value on the ritual sacrifice of appeasement and the concept of each tribe having its own gods in the character of Sa. Consequently, Mizo Christianity has placed a high value on God and his people, and Israel has played a key role since its inception.

Israel and its people have become such a focal point in many Mizo Christian traditions that some Mizos believe they have a genetic tie to the Israelites. Contemporary Mizo Jewish sects, such as the Bnei Menashe and various smaller Christian denominations with an emphasis on Mizo israelism, arose from this theology of the Mizo people's relationship with Israel.

The significant belief in Zawlneis is another key component of Mizo Christianity. Zawlnei is a religious institution within the Mizo indigenous religion made up of men and women who were Sakhua priests. These unique individuals had large followings and were revered for their religious teachings, similar to the Rabbi of the Second Temple Judaism or the current Gurus of Hinduism. The biblical prophets were given the designation Zawlnei after translating the term into Mizo as the already existing Zawlnei. As a result, the old testament, with its various Zawlneis, resonated more with the Mizos than the new testament, which mostly lacked prophets and a story centred on a certain nation. The Zawlnei institution still exists in Mizoram today in the form of a Christian independent institution, with numerous religious teachers claiming to be Zalwneis and operating outside of Mainstream churches.

Modern Mizo Zawlneis, like their predecessors, foretell and connect with the spirit, which has now been appropriated as the Holy Spirit. Contemporary Zalwneis also engage in additional rituals that are condemned by the mainstream Mizo church, and they frequently mix Mizo ethnic nationalism with Christianity. Notwithstanding the Mizo church's efforts to suppress the Zawlnei institution. Zawlneis have successfully assimilated into Mizo Christianity and have large followings. Zawlneis in Mizoram are possibly the most followed and venerated group of men and women after Jesus, with many of the spots where they are supposed to have received their initial enlightenment and burials being turned into pilgrimage sites. Currently, most Zawlneis serve outside of the church, but the church, as it gets more regional, is gradually moving towards tolerance of the Zawlneis, and some self-professed Zawlneis have been awarded positions of ministry by the church.

Another religious institution peculiar to Mizo Christianity is the Shaman institution known in Mizo as the Bawlpu and now appropriated as "Tawngtai dam thei" which translates to " One who heals with prayer". Even during the pre-Christian era. The Bawlpus were not religious leaders or authorities like the Zawlneis, but were medicine men and oracles. While the biblical prophets were translated as Zawlnei in Mizo, assuring their continued survival, the lack of Bawlpu-like institutions in the Old Testament led to the institution's extinction, at least by name. Nonetheless, the Bawlpu or shaman institution lives on in Mizo Christianity under a different name. With no biblical equivalents, the Balwpus just reemerged with a Christian-sounding name, "Tawngtai dam thei" and continue to work within Mizo society as alternative medicine men and astrologers. Tawngtai dam theis, like the Zawlneis, have put on a Christian mask and invoke the Christian God for their expertise and powers. Mizos seek alternative medicine and supernatural healing from Tawngtai dam thei. Like Shamans in other cultures, they arre sought for missing person searches, advice on future plans, and all types of daily problems; the Tawngtai dam thei is believed to hold these answers. Unlike the Zawlneis, and like their Bawlpu forefathers, Tawngtai dam thei are not theological leaders and generally do not preach theology.

The concentration on eschatology is another theological characteristic of Mizo Christianity. The apocalyptic book of revelations is the most referenced and treasured book in the New Testament among the Mizo. Within Mizo Christianity, both the church and the Zawlnei institution value eschatology. Despite the fact that there is no relationship between eschatological and pre-Christian Mizo religion or any interest in the subject of that religion, eschatology is the most researched and extended theology in Mizo Christianity. The growth of interest in eschatology within Mizo Christianity is intriguing because it has no direct relationship with Mizo pre-Christian beliefs.

It is quite possible that commitment to the subject stemmed from Mizoam's turbulent political past in the mid-twentieth century when Mizoram was battling for independence. The Mizos refer to this bleak period of suffering and despair as the "Rambuai" which means “Troubled times”. There is a distinct literary genre known as "Rambuai literature." In Mizoram, those that were written between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s during the Rambuai era. The literature of this age reflects the sadness and suffering of the people, with most of the subjects being gloomy and depressing. And, like any other subject, religious works from this period reflect on the world's agony, with the believers of the time believing that the end of the world was approaching. Interestingly, the period coincided with the Mizo religious awakening of the 1960s, with many unique Mizo Christian beliefs and teachings developing during this period of looming battles and catastrophic agony. In this respect, an interest or concentration in Eschatology is a unique characteristic of Mizo Christianity that arose not from Mizo pre-Christian theology but rather from modern Mizo history.

The major theme in Mizo churches and religious activity is eschatology. The mainstream Mizo church preaches it as a warning sign and a cautionary tale of the dangers of not believing in God, whereas the more extreme camp teaches its practitioners to avoid anything perceived as worldly, including UID cards, which a Mizo minority sees as the beginning of the mark of the beast as described in the book of Revelation.

We have addressed some theological aspects of Mizo Christianity in this part; in the next segment, we will look at the distinctive practices that make up Mizo Christianity. I hope you enjoyed his little study of Mizo Christian theology. ALSO READ : The ancient Mizo religion of Khua worship
The Mizos

The Mizos is a one-man team news blog, that brings you news and stories from Mizoram, Northeast India and the rest of the World.

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