Christian conversion in colonial era was never an outcome of intellectual appeal; rather, it was an appeal to a new social-economic system that empowers people towards cultural re-invention, thereby syncing with the western ways of life. Although Christian missionaries failed in other Hindu dominated areas of India during the British Imperialistic regime, they had striking success in many tribal regions of North-East India, including the present state of Manipur. One major success was among the Tangkhul tribe, where conversion from their primal religion to Christianity became their manifested step towards forming “new life and culture” in the lines of the Western countries. For the Tangkhuls, the Christian faith was ‘allowed’ to be propagated based on social allegiance between the Scottish Missionary, William Pettigrew (1869-1943), and the Hunphun (Ukhrul Headquarter) Chief Raihao (1830-1905). The first phase of Christianity was marked by individual assent as the main form towards conversion to new Christian faith. There was no forced conversion of the surrounding weaker villages or chiefs, since the Hunphun Chief Raihao himself never converted to Christianity (or more so because there was no such compulsion to adhere to another powerful village’s customs). Although conversion to Christianity started as an individual and personal conviction at the outset, following Christianity has now become a public act involving the entire society. In many ways, following Christianity has become a binding custom among the contemporary Tangkhuls. “Identification with the Church” is now the distinguishing feature of the Tangkhul community, forming a conformed custom to organize society.
Conversion to Christianity involved undergoing the ceremony of baptism that allows them to be accepted inside the Christian fold. Many were still struggling to learn rudimentary alphabets, and their convictions to convert to Christianity got manifested through oral sermons of Pettigrew. The first Christian conversion happened in 1901, when 12 Tangkhuls converted to Christianity, thereby receiving their baptism at Ngayira Spring Pond (Ngayira Rakhong). They include: Hollei Rumthao, Sangmayang Kashung, Ramkaiphang Samrar, Leishisan Shaiza, Maninglum Kashung, Mangaleng Shaiza, Sakhayang Awungashi Shimray, Shangam Kasar, Kaphungkui Chiphang, Haora Mahongnao, Mashokring Kasomhung, and Thiksha Shokchui Kapai. Their conversion has been regarded as the birth of Christianity and the birth of Phungyo Baptist Church at Ukhrul Headquarter. For these early converts, motive towards conversion come in various forms, including personal conviction; convinced through the demonstrations of spiritual power; the need to change their social status; and improvement of professional and economic positions. Change of heart among these converts however remain doubtful, since many of them were reported to have continued to follow their old traditional culture. Among the prominent culture followed by the converts, maintenance of mohawk hairstyle (Hao Kuiret), brewing and drinking rice beer (Khor), attending traditional-educational schools (Longshim), and participating in the death ritual ceremony (Kathi Kasham) remained popular. The western missionaries were against such culture, making the early Tangkhul Christian Converts to forgo this unique and prized culture, and follow the ethics and customs manifested in the Western-Christian norms. By 1915, Pettigrew had made a rapid headway among the Tangkhuls where conversions were growing at a rapid rate. He reported that there was no organized Church in Manipur, except the one at Ukhrul (Phungyo Baptist Church), during this time, attesting that Phungyo Baptist Church was the first Christian Church of Manipur.
Through Pettigrew’s wife, Alice Goreham Pettigrew’s efforts and prayers, many women were also inducted into Christian faith after the first ten women were baptized in 1910. They include Sanamla Ragui, Mahongai Rumthao, Horngaila/ Harngaila Singnaisui, Lanotla Samrar, Charoni Ngakang, Ngalew Ngakang, Kasuni Ngakang, Shareila Muirung, Lasengla Kasomwoshi, and Mikngaola Shingnaisui. Alice’s service of 27 years as Mission Middle School Headmistress, and her efforts of many years to spread western education, empowerment among women, and Christianity culminated towards establishing the Women Society of Phungyo Baptist Church on 31st August, 1917. The rise in Christian population also led to the establishment of Christian Endeavour or CE (for Youth) by William Pettigrew on 7th July, 1910. Christian youth leaders and young people are seen as launching and fulfilling the much needed reforms in terms of the younger generations becoming more active in the church, and emphasizing that they are the wave of the future. Through reforms, they find sense of political power in their religious activities, and in channeling innate power among the youngsters.
Since Protestant Reformation in 1517, the Christian Protestant Sect has always yield to the growth of many other forms and norms of worshiping. Within the Baptist Protestant Sect, Manipur saw different form of worshiping through the “rise of revivalism” among the Kukis first, when they witnessed it in Mizoram in 1922, and introduced it to Tongkoi Church at Sadar Hills (Manipur). Four Tangkhul men who are attributed to have introduced revivalism activity among the Tangkhuls reportedly saw it in Tongkoi Church. These men – Ruichumhao Rungsung, Ninghei Luikham, Miksha Kashung Shimray, and Thisan Luikham introduced it at Somdal Baptist Church and at Phungyo Baptist Church in 1923.
The spread of education and religion made many Tangkhul villages to start building churches, including Phungyo Baptist Church. The church, which is the social unit centre of the Christians was deemed vital to be constructed by the church members. The first Phungyo Baptist Church building in particular was constructed with mud walls (fixed with fodder), and tin roofs (constructed between 1927-1934). The church building remained in good structural form, until it was left in ruins by the air raid of the British Allied Force in search of Japanese Axis Force during the Second World War. The church was re-constructed and rebuilt only after the Japanese left Ukhrul by October, 1944. The present (standing) Phungyo Baptist Church was constructed from 1959 onward. Inaugurated on 7th February, 1977 by Kanrei Shaiza, the church was constructed with the help of various people, including the church members, and 33 Indian Army Engineers who helped raised the steeple. Women, the main workforce of Tangkhul society, gave their labour vehemently in this construction, in terms of carrying stones, fetching water, and grinding stones (for sand) with mortar and pestle until the completion of the church.
Since the initial conversion from 1901, the church has always been considered as a unifying unit of the Tangkhul society, and the church leaders have always been the recognized lot among the community, trusting them for moral and leadership guidance. However, in modern contemporary Tangkhul Christian society, questions regarding their true Christian grit remain debatable. The power hungry leaders’ quest for recognition and economic gain has made the Tangkhul Baptist churches to become highly divisive in nature. Church leaders are now propagandistic, opportunistic, and power hungry in nature, bringing in schismatic actions that have disfigured the annals of progressive Tangkhul spiritual growth. The followers in the meantime blindly follow the leaders’ intolerant, unpleasant, radical, deceitful, and hypocritical activities. Since Christianity is now the defining culture of the Tangkhuls, the community should scrutinize and stand for progressive reformation seeking to affect the present and future in ways that shape people, institutions, and events along the lines of ultimate values.