Every year on 18th September, Khasi & Jaintia Hills gets a public holiday for Unitarian Day (Gazetted as a holiday in 1908), a day when Hajom Kissor Singh Lyngdoh Nongbri led the first real Unitarian church service in his home in Jowai in 1887. Apart from the small and influential population of Khasi-Jaintia Unitarians for whom the day has historical and personal meaning others just enjoy the holiday without knowing the historical significance of the Day. Curiously apart from Khasi Jaintia Hills and Karbi Anglong in North East India, Unitarianism world wide has not been a mass movement. This intellectual, liberal mode of understanding faith has made up for its numerical insignificance by having many famous individuals subscribing to its ideas, Charles Darwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Kurt Vonnegut, Tim Berners Lee, Sylvia Plath, Thomas Jefferson. How did this most liberal of Anglo American elite faith tradition find a deep root in these faraway hills with more than 45 churches? The story of socio-religious of these hills has many plots, many secret histories, many pathways. Khasi-Pnar people encountered various different faiths which arrived in these hills, not as thankful passive recipients of good word (as most sectarian church histories do) but as argumentative, sceptical, questioning people. This scepticism meant that even when people chose puritanical presbyterianism, they did not suspend their questioning mind. Hajom Kissor Singh was one such Presbyterian, who not only rejected puritanical notions of Christianity but also on his own developed a liberal ecumenical version of faith which was sensitive both to traditional Khasi conceptions of divine as well as new theological innovations in the west. Although he is credited with founding Unitarian Church in Khasi-Jaintia Hills, he didn’t do it as ‘franchisee’ of Unitarian movement of west, but as a person who came to conclusions which were all his own, rooted in local Khasi-Pnar Tradition which found a consonance in western Unitarian thought current at the time. Although the puritanical Khasi Presbyterian abused him as “an Atheist”, and called him an “enemy of the Lord,” or the Bengali Brahmos wanted to patronise him and take over the task of interpreting Khasi Pnar ideas, Hajom Kissor Singh remained committed to his own culturally rooted journey of faith.
This account of the early days of Khasi-Pnar Unitarianism and the life and struggles of Hajom Kissor Singh was done by Rev M C Ratter of British and Foreign Unitarian Association in 1930, as part of his book To Nagroi and reprinted in 1945 in another pamphlet Khasi Calls. As a postscript H. H. Mohrmen, writes about the creative ways in which Hajom Kissor Singh and others interpreted the notion of God. Rev. Mohrmen is the pastor of the historic Jowai Unitarian church, and one of the intellectual stalwarts of contemporary Khasi-Pnar community,
Link to download Khasi Calls is at the end of this Essay
THE founding of the Khasi Unitarian Union was the result of similar Unitarian ideas developing separately in the minds of two men. The greater of these two was Hajom Kissor Singh, who, when the first Jowai Church service was celebrated on September 18th, 1887, was aged thirty-three. A man of outstanding ability and keen spiritual perception, before long his penetrating mind could not rest content with the doctrines of the orthodox Christian faith.
Accordingly he sought out and made the acquaintance of a Khasi Brahmo convert from whom he learned that there was at the time a Unitarian minister working in Calcutta. He quickly put himself in touch with this man, the Rev. C. H. A. Dall, Missionary of the American Unitarian Association, who supplied him with literature, and gave him every encouragement. Writing also to the editor of the American Unitarian Magazine, Kissor Singh enlisted the sympathy of the Rev. J. T. Sunderland, who also encouraged him.
Laying aside his Calvinism, Kissor Singh rejoiced in his newly discovered faith as one who had passed from bondage into liberty. With him conviction was action, and certainty was effort. No sooner was he himself persuaded, than he must preach the glad tidings to others. So, in a little Khasi house was born what afterwards became the Unitarian Union.
The other of these two men was the Khasi minister of the orthodox church at Nongtalang, Heh Pohlong. He also had for some time been groping his way out of the gloom of a fanatical yet nobly self-sacrificing Calvinism. He also had procured some Unitarian books, and had gathered round him a few friends, who in their own naive way were worshipping the One True God. Before long the two men discovered each other, and found that they were kindred minds with a common loyalty, even if they did not yet know very much about the implications and principles of their newly-reached conclusions. They now, each in their own way, set about preaching their Unitarian gospel. And for a time the work steadily progressed.
The beginnings were small: truly a mustard seed. The original membership of Kissor Singh’s church at Jowai was one woman and two men (this woman being the mother of two of the leading members in the present congregation). The strength of the church at Nongtalang was as small; but, as at Jowai, enduring “the mockery and slander of their fellow-Villagers without the least shame.” Whatever else can be said of it, it grew, if slowly. The leaven-or, as the orthodox said, the poison-spread.
About this time also a certain David Edwards, a Khasi worker in charge of the Raliang orthodox church, left his pastorate, as he too discovered in Unitarianism a faith to him nobler than the prevailing Calvinism. For some time he endured much hardship, as his livelihood was thus lost, but “in spite of the anxiety of his dear wife and children be went on preaching and giving them more light and understanding of the true God.” The story is told that soon after Edwards left the orthodox church, his first-born son fell seriously ill. The mother reproached the father, believing that this was a judgment upon him, saying angrily, “If your god is a truly real God, pray to him; and if our boy recovers, I will also believe.” The father prayed earnestly, and an immediate cure was granted; and so the mother and members of her family repented and joined our fellowship.
Nongtalang is twenty-four miles distant from Jowai, but, very early, Kissor Singh visited the group in this village,so bringing the two churches each nearer to the other. TheJowai cause flourished exceedingly, its thirty members becoming strong enough by 188g to build a church in the compound of Kissor Singh’s house. The joy of the young congregation overflowed when the Rev. J. T. Sunderland visited them in t8g6, which visit certainly contributed to the success that followed in the immediately succeeding years.
At this time the American Unitarian Women’s Alliance provided a grant which enabled the Union to appoint Mr. Edwards as their minister at Nongtalang, to which work he was conse crated by the Rev. J. T. Sunderland, who also-during his two weeks in the hills-visited Raliang and Nontalang.
Writing of this time in the hills he says, “A few years after Mr. Singh had begun his movement, it was my privilege to visit the hills and spend two weeks going about with him among the villages preaching, meeting with his Sunday Schools, holding religious services in homes, forming acquaintances with the people, attending a conference of all the societies, aiding in the formation of a “Khasi Hills Unitarian Union.”
American generosity in these early days printed their Khasi hymn-book, in which were over one hundred Unitarian hymns, many translated by Kissor Singh. There were also three columns of appropriate readings and two columns of prayers. This was their early compass, and right well it guided them for many years. Prior to this all hymns were in manuscript, a touching illustration of zeal triumphing over poverty.
In August 1893 the Jowai church opened a free school, under a woman teacher, who started with about twenty girls and boys. Two years later the school had grown. It was by that time staffed by four teachers controlling about sixty scholars. This school gave a free elementary training in the Khasi language, and was a great benefit to the place; and it is to be deeply regretted that it closed in 1904, when Kissor Singh was transferred from Jowai to Shillong. Without him, however, it could not continue, and no resident Western missionary of our communion, though one had been repeatedly asked for, was there to take it on.
The Jowai work flourished so greatly that in 1895 there was built on the existing church site a finer church than the structure of I 889. This site was a hillock, thirty feet high, on top of which the church stood, proudly overlooking the village. The Khasi name for this hillock was Lum-phuh-Ninh-lieh or ” White-haired mountain,” the name arising from an old superstition that if you climbed that eminence your hair would turn white. In 1916 an attempt to fire the church of Jowai failed, but in 1918 malice succeeded only too well, and it was burned to the ground. The local people subscribed, however, and a generous contribution from Dr. Carpenter and other English friends enabled them to rebuild the church.
When Kissor Singh, having left Jowai, reached Shillong in 1904, he found that Unitarianism had preceded him. In 1886 a certain Robin Roy was transferred from Jowai to Shillong, but not before he had been claimed by Kissor Singh as a convert to the Unitarian faith. So he took with him a newfound enthusiasm, and tried, as early as 1893, to establish a regular congregation there. In this he succeeded to the extent that an old woman, Ka Sian Walang, a seller of tobacco-leaves, and her daughters joined-or rather, perhaps, one should say constituted the church. At this time also Ka Hirton, the one woman member of Jowai church in its early days, visited Shillong, preaching Unitarianism to the women, determined that they should adopt the new faith. This old and enthusiastic Jowai woman succeeded to the extent that she confirmed the faith of Ka Sian Walang, who was from henceforth an unwavering member.
Some years passed, U. Robin Roy and his congregation continuing faithful despite no apparent progress, when one glad day they were able to welcome to their church U. Durga Singh, the Shillong Postmaster-General, a man of fair consequence, and a real asset to the cause. He had played with Kissor Singh as a boy, so that the old fellowship had prompted him to write for explanatory books, and thus one ,more was gathered to the struggling church. This recruit was welcomed into fellowship by the Rev. James Harwood, who also dedicated Bindro Singh.
Their first church was a thatched building, near to Ka Sian Walang’s house, but in 1896 the congregation removed to Madan Laban, and in 1897 to the present site. Just after the foundations of the present building had been laid a great earthquake shook the entire hills, damage to Shillong proper being serious and fatal. Government buildings were destroyed, three London people were killed, while the foundations of the Unitarian church were ruined. Happily it had not affected the congregation themselves; thus before the following year the church was built, and from this time served as the centre of a movement which drew to itself a number of progressive people.
Now that the Shillong church was well established, it set out to create sister churches, and establish in the faith those already existing. In the early days of U. Robin Roy’s work some tobacco traders coming to the weekly Shillong markets were in the habit of staying over-night at the house of Ka Sian Walang, returning to their village the next day; and what did she do but convert them to Unitarianism, so that by 1893 there were at least fifteen members at Laitlyngkot, who all, in 1903, moved to Mawpat, where a tin-roofed church was built, which still stands. As the village is only four miles from the Laban church, it is a common practice to hold services on alternate Sundays in the two churches.
Before 1904, when Kissor Singh was transferred from the Jaintia Hills to the Khasi Hills, the Jaintia churches, having benefited from his inspiration, were much stronger than those in the Khasi region; but his presence in Shillong so built up the movement there that henceforth it took an unquestionable lead.
One of his fint ventures after this transfer resulted in a thatched church at Tynring, which continued for some time. A new church was built in 1927, with corrugated-iron roof, but it never grew strong. The visits of the Rev. D. Edwards and Kissor Singh to Mawpdang, however, led to the conversion of three households, which seed flowered into a nicely built church in 1910. In this year there was rather a sudden break-away of members from the orthodox church at Puriang, which enabled the local Unitarian nucleus to build a straw-thatched church. At first the promise of a strong congregation seemed assured, some sixty joining from the other church, but the work soon settled down to more normal dimensions, and steady development began.
Coming to more recent times, the propaganda efforts at Shillong led to the conversion from the Khasi religion of four people at Nongthymmai, and the nucleus being effectively guided, in1922 a church was built. Perhaps one of the most intriguing developments was the Umkhrymi church, which was established because Kissor Singh, an enthusiastic sportsman, went down into this game-abounding district and, unable to forget his other enthusiasm, converted his Shikari; so was established another congregation, meeting in a light bamboo structure. The natives of this district are not Khasis but Bhois, members of a tribe whose development is still very primitive.
The work of a church must not be measured entirely in terms of increasing membership. The care of the flock within the fold may be as important as the attempt to get more of the ninety-and nine from outside. During the three decades of the twentieth century the Khasi and Jaintia churches have continued their unobtrusive work, the common work of all churches everywhere. They have dedicated the children, helped each other, and their own members, when in difficulties, sung lustily their ever-increasing collection of hymns, worshipped Sunday by Sunday, with two week-night meetings to bridge the interval (because Sundays are so far apart when one is keen) and, last grace of all, they have said Farewell to their leaders, as, one by one, they relinquished their labours and left the burden to fall on younger men. In 1897 U. Heh Pohlong, in 1906 Durgan Singh, in 1907 Robin Roy, in
1916 the wife of Kissor Singh, in 1922 the Rev. David Edwards, and in 1923 Kissor Singh himself, all leaders of the heroic days, passed singly to their rest. For over fifty years the Union has persisted, giving its members the inspiration of a religion which has not the fear of the old Khasi belief, nor the strangeness of Welsh orthodoxy; and has thus rendered a noble service, teaching a faith of joy and light: revealing- as I find it put in their first hymn-
God as our Father and Mother,
loving and merciful, quick to forgive,
and life here as but the beginning of a great adventure,
the higher reaches of which lie in the world beyond.
THE GREATNESS OF HAJOM KISSOR SINGH
“A REMARKABLE man – modest, unselfish, unknown to the world, but courageous, indomitable, and, as a pioneer of Unitarianism, great,” this memorial sentence tells the greatness of one almost unknown to our home community, yet deserving-of great fame. His work in building up the Khasi Unitarian Union has been told. Now we ask, What of the man? Only wishful that one of his spiritual sons should write what would be an inspiring and touching story.
His father, Bor Singh, was engaged by government as Sergeant of Police at Jowai, this making it clear that the family were advanced far beyond the normal Khasi home at that early time. This position would enable the father to give his sons the higher education of which they both made such exceptional use; so much so, indeed, that both rose to great eminence.
Born June 15th, 1865, the boy, Hajom, was given the education then available at the mission school, which has trained scholars up to matriculation standard. In his case there is no need to regret that he did not proceed further towards a University degree, for it is difficult to imagine that he could have achieved more than he did. Learning to read and write, acquiring the technique of self-education, what mattered the degrees? All that was essential he grasped, and, best of all, the sacred fire burned strong within.
If any of the Welsh missionaries should be tempted to regrets when they recall that he drew after him many of their own persuasion; if they should feel what a wonderful instrument he would have been for the service of God within their own Church; if they opine that Welsh sacrifice and devotion, having given his race great benefits, deserved the reward of his later service; if they are aghast that the faith to which he drew his followers was what their ardent piety must regard as nigh to blasphemy, let them be patient, realising that God’s ways are not our ways, and that when charity is in the minds of all, Kissor Singh, willbe the chief of those who proclaim the greatness of their work. It was natural that one missionary, perhaps secretly disappointed over so great a loss to their own mission, should say to me on one occasion,”These people do love to take a leading position, so he left us.” But it was not intelligent or generous. Thus Catholic narrowness explains Luther and the Reformation.
Trained in a Methodist mission school, where there is no special “Law” for religious instruction, it was natural that the cygnet amongst the ducklings should find himself moving with ease on the breast of deep waters. He was an apt pupil, especially in religious matters. God had made him for Himself, nor was he to find rest till he discovered the One True God. Imbibing from his tutors their devotion of spirit, if casting aside the letter of their belief, he loved to study the Bible, inquiring into all doctrines! He was such a pupil as delights the heart of the teacher, even.if in later life he disappoints expectations.
At fifteen years of age he was converted to the Calvinistic faith, about that time gaining a scholarship which took him from the elementary to the High Grade School. When compelled to leave school, his father’s influence had him appointed as “bugle,” but soon we find that he went out to help the survey parties then sent out by Government. From this time his rise was rapid, and also, well merited. When only twenty-two he held a responsible Government position, already “supporting his mother, brother, and wife.”
So keen was his study of religion that he was accustomed every spare moment to retire to a neighbouring wood, that in silence and with Nature he might study the Bible, or other devotional book. On a hillock near to the present church he had made for himself a quiet sanctuary, where he would always be found if not at home or in the office. One afternoon he was paid his monthly salary.
Resorting as usual to his “azure walled retreat,” be laid his pay envelope on the ground and was soon lost in study. In meditative mood he returned home, and retired to bed, only to wake about midnight remembering that his pay envelope still lay on the grass. He dressed hastily, lit a storm-lantern, and went out to recover his wages. Fortunately they were still there undisturbed ! Such absorption cannot but take a man far along the road of its interests; and Kissor Singh was no exception to the rule.
Till the age of twenty-five he remained a questioning member of the orthodox Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church, his doubts ever increasing: say rather, his vision of a noble faith becoming ever more bright. At this time a Khasi Brahmo convert told him of the Unitarian minister, the Rev. C. H. A. Dall, then working in Calcutta, to whom he wrote, obtaining with others a copy of Channing’s works. And now the great American, still speaking, called one more disciple, and one of whom he might be proud. This book, and what it showed, was indeed his vision of the burn ing bush. Henceforth his life was dedicated to the redemption of his people from the superstitious bondage which held them in slavery, and from now on his biography is the story of the Unitarian Union which he built. In 1893 he studied theology under the postal guidance of Miss Emily Sharpe, but even before this he would have called himself a “Unitarian Atheist,” accustomed to the abuse of his orthodox friends, who called him an Atheist, and an “enemy of the Lord.”
His ordinary work was that of Government surveying, which he must have carried out efficiently, as later we find him occupying almost as high a post in Government service as was open to Khasis at the time. In 1902 he was transferred from Jowai to Shillong, then engaged as Diwan (Regent) of the Khyrim State, a position of some consequence, which helped “to give him the modest wealth he acquired. This was a temporary appointment, and in 1903 he reverted to ordinary Government service, taking a post as head clerk in the Deputy Commissioner’s Office, which he held till retirement in 1922. During all this time he built the Unitarian Church, which entailed constant labour.
One or two little extras in his life illustrate his many-sidedness. He was an amateur medicine-dealer, always keeping a stock of drugs and medicines for the help of those in need. Freely he gave of his skill and substance that the suffering might be alleviated and the poor bdfed. For many years he was on the board of directors of a loca Khasi bank which paid good dividends. Then, too, he would on occasion buy a house, or land, as opportunity offered a bargain. After his transfer to Shillong, some places which were to be sold were considered demon-haunted, and therefore no Khasi would dream of buying them. Kissor Singh’s scepticism in the matter of demons, accordingly, had now a financial value! He purchased the plots quite cheaply.
Then, too, his Shillong house was built so high up one of the surrounding hill sides that no council water-supply was available. He thereupon instructed a clever engineer, U. Konjro, to erect a pump which forced the water up to a tank; and from this he was able to supply the houses in the vicinity at a nominal charge. He was no grasping money-maker, but just a natural genius, able to triumph in every situation. At this time U. Konjro established an up-to-date engineering shop, the only one in the town, and to this day he pays testimony to the help which Kissor Singh rendered by way of suggestion and advice. He was a good sportsman, thoroughly enjoying a big-game hunt.
Though in mid-career a man of modest wealth as Khasi standards go, he was never ostentatious, never attempted to “dress” his children, that their frippery might advertise parental success. Though his family was large, as is common in the hills, consisting of six sons and five daughters, his home life was quiet; he being particularly happy in his wife, who was described to me as “the mother of the Union.” In appearance Kissor Singh, like the Khasis generally, was of short stature, square features and yet of a pleasing mien. As I look on his photos I seem to see a country gardener who can raise better vegetables than “anyone else, come these twenty miles round.”
So true is it of every religious genius that it hardly requires mention-he was, as they all are, humble of spirit; with that gracious personality which readily gains the affection of others, he was loved by his many followers. Then, too, he had the power of leadership, able to inspire the young to give their generous impulsesful control. But it was always ‘Follow me,” never “Go thou.” If there was a fifteen-mile hill trek to evangelise a distant village, or a twenty-mile trek to encourage a weak congregation, Kissor Singh was leader of the party, walking all the way. He knew that a lone visit from himself was of little account, so he gathered as many as possible to form a singing party. Then when Sunday morning came, off would tramp the entire group, that a good service might be ensured. So was built up our Khasi Union.
These heroic days are a pleasant memory to the now older members, and a testimony to his influence. It is remarkable that he was able to inspire these young men to do such work even when he left them orphaned. They all, these his children born of the spirit, speak of him as would a father tell his own boy stories of the beloved and honoured parent he once knew. There is just the suggestion of awe when they refer to him that tells of his spiritual power. How often they went with him on these long treks, sharing the simple rice meals, pleased if there were any recent successes to record!
For over thirty years a total hill congregation of from two hundred to four hundred looked to him as their mitreless Bishop: he was their father-in-God, and so they revered him. During all those years he visited the sick, sympathised with the mourners, dealt gently with the wayward, encouraged the promising, dedicated the children, welcomed the converts, conducted services over the dead, led the family memorials, preached to the congregations Sunday by Sunday, catechised the inquirers as often as their enthusiasm brought them to church or house, watched over the finances and business control, and kept in touch with America and England-all this was his labour, a labour of love.
This was not achieved without opposition, ridicule, and disappointment; but we do not draw back the curtain of time that screens it now from sight; believing with Browning, that when, after long years, a life-work is reviewed, the evil fades into the good, and the weed is lost in the beauty of the distant landscape, we are content to leave such things obscure. And yet he had many disappointments, bitter hours; and, it may be, his saddest thought was that other-Western-Unitarians did not send him a teacher to help him in his work.
There is a photograph of him with some hundred of his congregation. It is a conference; and they are all in their Sunday clothes. He sits a little before them all, patient gardener that he is, with his many flowers. On either side of him are two little boys, one with a cap that is much too big for him. The photograph in his life-work gathered into a happy fellowship. One of the attractive teachings of the Catholic Church is that no priest enters heaven or hell alone. Clinging to the happier side of this, if it be as Swedenborg imagined, that we are all gathered into communities of the like-minded, then it will prove that in the Unitarian vicinage Kissor Singh will have a large and eager following.
Twilight did not bring the day of Kissor Singh’s life to a beautiful and appropriate close. It ended rather in storm and calamity, and he sank into unconsciousness without the family circle which makes the passing light. Having travelled to Calcutta over Christmas 1915 – he was distressed, there, to learn that his wife lay seriously ill. He returned immediately to Shillong, but it was only to be near her as she died in childbirth. Shortly after the infant too died. This prostrating grief did not, however, prevent his concluding arrangements that his youngest son be sent to America to train for the ministry, that he might continue his work; and it was a grief to the stricken father to part with his bright fifteen-year-old boy, though, for the sake of his education, and the future work, he let him go.
A few months after the boy had left, the distressing news came that the most promising of his daughters, sent to Calcutta for higher education, was seriously ill. She was the daughter of his affection but at that distance the father could do nothing, and illness claimed her as its victim.
While she was dying, her brother I was returning from War service in Mesopotamia, and scarcely had he been home three months when he too died. This would surely seem enough sorrow for a lifetime; but the year was not ended when a household accident led to an appalling catastrophe: his eight-year-old boy was burned to death- the oil lamp had overturned. And even yet the worst was still to come; hardly had the pierced heart ceased to bleed because of this fierce anguish than, before another year had passed, his eldest daughter was carried off by fatal illness. She had been happily married to U KonJro, thus making of the engineer a son-in-law, as well as son in the faith. Well might it be thought that Job could suffer no more, but it was not so. At this time his boy, sent to America, lost himself in that strange new world, carefully avoiding all his friends who would have done all they could to serve him. The father never heard of his boy thereafter, mourning now the loss of a prodigal where he had hoped for a worthy successor. So the fateful unseen messengers left him, prostrate ; yet, despite all, he continued his religious work. But now the leafless, stricken tree only waited the woqdman’s axe. Just after sunrise on November 13th, 1923, pneumonia preventing his giving a parting message to one of his spiritual sons, he passed into the nearer presence.
Kissor Singh was not only a man of action, but also a writer. He was aptly styled by a Welsh. missionary the “star of the Khasis.” When he commenced hiss work, the education of the Khasis in reading was but thirty years old. It was only in his father’s time that the missionaries had given the people an alphabet. In consequence there was practically no literature in the vernacular written by Khasis. Welsh zeal had translated what was necessary for elementary education, and particularly religious use; but of ordinary writing there was none. So It must be placed to his credit that very early he helped to give this people a literature. He ranks with the first pioneers who created a Khasi literary style.
He and his brother were evidently both gifted with literary power, as the brother, U. Nissor Singh, prepared a Khasi-English Dictionary (in which labour Hajom Kissor Singh helped), the first of its kind to be so full and scholarly, wherein are seven thousand two hundred Khasi words with their English equivalents. U Nissor Singh was also deputy school-inspector, and remained a member of the orthodox Church, though Kissor Singh had the joy of welcoming his father into the fellowship of the new Unitarian Union. For many years, too, Kissor Singh was coeditor of a Khasi monthly.
To describe Kissor Singh’s literary work is to describe the Unitarian service-book, which more than anything, has contributed to the permanence of the Union itself. Without this book I am confident the work would have lapsed at his death, perhaps much earlier, but it continues even yet strong in its own way. The value of this service-book is the value that attaches to all service-books : it eliminates the ignorance or idiosyncrasy of the preacher. He may say what he likes during the sermon, but during the service he must tread in the footsteps of the master mind. Particularly with the type of leader available in the remote villages, this is an inestimable blessing, for, granted they at least can read, the people have beautiful thoughts, finely expressed. Then, too, with people so illiterate or little educated as is the average Khasi congregation, it is advisable that they should be familiar with the form of worship.
The more I get to know the service-book the more I am filled with admiration for the genius of its author. It is a unique and truly great achievement, providing for nearly all occasions, and being the sure foundation on which the Union is built. There must have been behind it months-no, years-of labour, and of penetrating foresight, which realised beforehand the needs of such a movement, aiding wise erudition to choose aright. Just consider the situation. Here was a man born of a race still only rising out of animism, “a government euphemism which covers a crude demonology.” He goes to school for eleven or twelve years, and not only absorbs Christianity, but both absorbs it and casts away dogmatic accretions; then, studying all available Unitarian liturgies (and how many else I do not know), himself creates a service-book which, were it translated from its native tongue, no Western congregation need be ashamed to use, and we might indeed study with profit!
The copy which lies before me is a neatly bound, purple covered volume, four by seven inches in size, of 432 pages, clearly printed. I wish that more were available, as congregations appear to be unable to provide one for each worshipper, so that it is common to see many-even of those who are able to read- without a book. Perhaps the price, three shillings, is too high. The title-page, ornamented with a little oakleaf woodcut, reads:-
Ki Rukom Mane Lang
Ka Seng lang Mane-wei Blei Unitarian
Ri-Khasi bad Ri-Jaintia da
Hajom Kissor Singh revised de
D. Bindro Singh
The Services or manner of communal worship of that Society worshipping One God. The Khasia and Jaintia Hills Unitarian Union.
ON KHASI-PNAR UNITARIAN CONCEPT OF GOD
by H. H. Mohrmen
It is obvious from the hymns that he composed; Hajom Kissor Singh’s concept of God is that of a traditional Khasi Pnar concept, God the Creator and who is both God and Lord at the same time. Like the traditional concept, he does not differentiate one from the other.
The most common term or name by which the Khasi Pnar call God is ‘U Blei Nongbuh Nongthaw,’ God the Creator. Even though the Khasi Pnar believe in One God, they also pay obeisance to other deities like the hundreds of Nature gods and protectors (30 Ryngkaw Basa) and family deities (Blei iing), in their pantheon of Gods.
U Blei Nongthaw Nongbuh is not the only name that the Khasi Pnar uses to call God, they also have another name for God and that is ‘U Trai kynrad.’ Whether ‘U Trai Kynrad’ is Khasi translation of English ‘Lord’ which again derived from Greek word “Kyrios” is a matter of debate. Certainly in the Christian context; the using of word ‘U Trai’ connotes the New Testament concept of Lord which many times refer to the second person in the holy trinity which means Jesus Christ. This is what Christian churches assumes and would like others to believe that the name Trai that Khasi gives to their God has a Christian origin and hence a Christian meaning.
U Trai is not a post Khasi-Christian period invention, in the Khasi parlance, the term has been in use since time immemorial. Apart from using the name God, the Khasi also use the word Kynrad or U Trai Kynrad in paying obeisance to God Almighty. Incidentally the word Trai in Khasi also has the same meaning with that of the English Lord, which means owner, foundation, foothold etc.
In the context of the Pnar or the indigenous people of Jaintia hills, they use two terms when refer to God. God the creator, ‘U Blai wabuh wathoo’ which is identical to Khasi Blei Nongbuh Nongthaw and God in English and “Tre Kirot” which is equivalent to Lord. The word “Tre” in the Pnar parlance literarily means Owner, Lord, foundation, foothold or roots. “Kirot” means Caring and Compassionate and the other meaning of Kirot is bountiful and perfect. Tre Kirot literarily means bountiful Lord the caring and compassionate one.
The War Jaintia, which is a sub tribe of the Khasi, people who live in the southern slopes of Jaintia Hills, speaks a Khasi language which is quite different from the other dialect use by the other Khasi sub tribe. Infact scholars believe that the Amwi dialect spoken by the people of War Jaintia is the foundation of the whole Khasi language. And in the War Jaintia dialect there is only one word for God and that is “Prai”. There is no one word equivalent to Lord in the war Jaintia, but just “Prai u ae thia” which literarily means “U Blei Nongthaw” in Khasi and its English translation is God the Creator. Whether ‘Prai’ means both God and Lord is another question, but base on the evidence use by the War Jaintia people, ‘Prai’ which incidentally similar to both ‘Trai and Blai” in the Pnar language, connotes the same meaning.
In his Statement of belief, of H.K. Singh in the stanza 2 of the hymn number 1 in the Khasi Unitarian hymnbook describes his idea of God as
The living God is one only God
He is our real father-mother
He is filled with love and compassion
And forgive those who repent.
By calling God of being both “Father and Mother” entity; HK Singh went a step ahead the traditional concept of a male creator God, his concept of God is God beyond gender. This is the uniqueness of Khasi Unitarian theology that although generally God is referred to as male even in the Khasi matrilineal society, yet God is beyond gender. Although Khasi Pnar tend to use the prefix ‘U’ before the word God which represents the male gender of God, Khasi Pnar have no image of God and their concept of God is more of a spirit which pervades. Singh’s concept of God beyond gender and more of a formless spirit in nature is Khasi’s own concept of God.
HK Singh further elaborate his idea of God in hymn no 61 when he said,
Sing God’s praise; Lord of heaven and earth,
His wisdom unfathomable,
All creation on earth and in heaven,
Is living proof of his greatness all over.
Sing God’s praise, Lord of stars and moon,
He is filled with glory, righteousness and lights;
All things that we see,
He made thus to teach us.
Sing God’s praise, he is our mother and father;
Giver of spiritual light, He blesses us too.
He is loving, forgiving and wishes that,
We love our neighbors, do good and live courteously.
Sing God’s praise, Lord of lords, King of kings
Lord of life and death Lord of the spirit
Lord of times is also Lord of seasons,
Peace be unto us who worship him eternally.
In the hymn number 5, HK Singh says:
One true religion.
In the hymn no 22 of the Unitarian hymnal, he says,
One God, one church
One people, one mission
Love God love friends
Live a blessed life.
In Hymn number 59 he further said,
Praise the Lord vociferously,
Care giver, Keeper and benefactor
He is the greatest Lord.
With God support
Heaven and earth last forever;
by divine love and grace,
He showed us way of life.
He bestowed wisdom on us,
Lights, Spiritual consolation too;
Understanding and overall progress,
And plant love inside us.
That we may attain perfection
Peace in him we’ll find;
In love we’ll flourish forever
We’ll all live in peace with God.
Two Khasi stalwart Radhon Singh Berry and Job Solomon were contemporary of HK Singh. They were also known for their contribution to the literary field of the nascent Khasi language. RS Berry and J. Solomon had also immensely contributed to the growth of the Unitarian movement by composing hymns for the Church. Radhon Singh Berry , a Seng Khasi man who composed more than 30 hymns in the Unitarian hymnbook later became Unitarian and Job Solomon remained a Presbyterian deacon till his death. Both these men of letters emphasized in the hymns they composed in the Unitarian hymnbook the truth that Khasi Unitarian’s God is God in the traditional Khasi Pnar context.
R.S. Berry in the hymn number 43 stanza 3, says:
This is not a foreign God;
God of our own he is,
He created you the way you are;
Now he come to awake you.
Then Job Solomon in the hymn number 6 he again stressed on the idea in the stanza 5 which says,
This is our God;
God of our ancestor too,
God of the Pnars and the Khasi;
He is also Lord of the Lords.
The concept of God in the Khasi Unitarian context is God in the traditional Khasi concept a Universal and formless God. Khasi Unitarian concept of God is not God in the Judeo-Christian context -the father in heaven, God in an anthromorphical form or God in human image. The Khasi God is God in spirit and all pervading God. Hence Unitarianism in the Khasi Jaintia hills is an indigenous religion precisely because unlike other faith organization; it was not brought to these hills by a missionary, but it sprung up from its own soil. It was on the September 18, 1887 that a Khasi Christian whose search for the ultimate truth found solace in the faith in one God. Hajom Kissor Singh Nongbri faith in one God found a home in Unitarianism. The basic belief of Unitarian Church in the Khasi Jaintia hills is based on the Khasi Pnars own beliefs. Hence, Unitarian in the Khasi Jaintia hills is a like a tree which grows and spread its branches and leaves and the same time draw strength from its roots.
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