This pilot project aims to locate and survey for the first time endangered and privately held ecclesiastical documents in Mizoram, India. Dating from the 1890s, the earliest missionary documents in the region capture the exceptionally rapid transition of a Mizo hill people fundamentally transformed, from an oral society following traditional animistic religious practices to an overwhelmingly Christian and literate society. This pilot project thus follows the thick webs of ecclesiastical connections in Mizoram, working outwards from a base in the source-rich southern village of Serkawn to survey, and in some cases digitise, records in this historically restricted and monsoon-ravaged frontier region of India.
Just over a century ago, Christian missionaries in Mizoram, the state at the southernmost tip of India’s easternmost frontier, were shocked at how quickly “mildew covered their books.” Cherrapunji, which today markets itself as the wettest place on the planet, was indeed only two hundred kilometers to their northwest. Meanwhile, the missionaries’ shock was recorded in writing—something alien to the non-literate Mizos amongst whom they worked. Today the mildew is still just as active in a Mizoram just as wet, and the preservation of the region's earliest written historical documents has become all the more urgent.
Hill people like the Mizos are often relegated to the footnotes of India’s history. Entire books on the history of the subcontinent have been written with scant sentences reserved for the ‘tribals’ populating India’s seven northeastern states. Only recently is scholarly attention turning to this diverse region. Until now, historians have generally produced ‘armchair histories’ of Mizoram, contentedly pulling their material from earlier works by British colonial political officers.
This pilot project would open up a new line of approach to Mizoram's history. It holds that missionary documents provide the best opportunity to reconstruct the history of once non-literate peoples like the Mizos. This project thus aims to locate and survey privately held ecclesiastical documents, in the conviction that through the location, dissemination, and then careful reading (often against the grain) of such early missionary sources, historians might begin to position Mizos as three-dimensional participants in history rather than as objects of it. The Mizos are unique among India’s peoples for the speed and extent of their Christianisation. In 1901, nearly all Mizos followed their traditional religious practices; in 1961, nearly all were Christian, and today Mizoram is India’s second most literate state. The region’s earliest written sources thus document the exceptionally rapid transition of a society uniquely and fundamentally transformed. History is lost as these sources are lost.
We know that many of these sources are privately held in Serkawn, Lunglei - a village in Mizoram’s south. Here, pioneer missionary JH Lorrain's diary is a key target. This single, bound volume is one of the rarest and richest sources of early Mizo history. In it, Lorrain confides unguarded observations on the Mizo world buzzing around him. Serkawn is also home to the Rev. Pu CL Hminga, custodian of the earliest missionaries’ stereoscopic slides. If preserved through digitisation and dissemination, these would provide scholars an unprecedented glimpse into late-nineteenth-century Mizo life. Equally precious sources are currently extant. News of this project inspired Pu Hminga to direct us up his dirt road to a Mizo centenarian's home. Having kept a daily journal in Mizo for much of his early life, this elderly diarist may have here not only an historical source of crucial import, but also a potential counter-balance to missionary sources. Such a potential lead demonstrates the type of received intelligence that this pilot project acts on, and also why initially we can have strategic methodologies but not concrete itineraries. From a Serkawn base, we work outwards, following the thick webs of interpersonal ecclesiastical connections in Mizoram, and expanding our geographic scope organically, as new leads turn up new people with new sources.
The inaccessibility of Mizoram - until only recently a Restricted Area of India - makes the dissemination of the project's report (and the results of any follow-up digitisation project) all the more important. The project would seek out both English and Mizo ‘pre-modern’ sources (1870s to 1930s) and would begin in mid-September of 2011, when Mizoram begins to dry off after the monsoon, and when village roads again become passable.
This project's main objectives will be:
Read this article written by co-applicant Kyle Jackson on the project.