The Ao Nagas are a major Naga ethnic group native to the Mokokchung District of Nagaland, Northeast India. Lijaba is no less than a God to the inhabitants of Ao land, revisiting at different Anthropomorphic times as a messiah and a wisdom sage. He is the harbinger of the governing system, arts, crafts, and the visible and invisible mysteries in the Ao land. Anthropologist and writer Tiatemsu Longkumer discusses the influence of Lijaba on Ao land and how the Christian missionaries and colonial administrators presented Lijaba as metamorphosed Jesus, both of whom preached the Bible while pervading the American & Ao Christianity, respectively, with only difference in period and continents.
When Lijaba, the “earth designer,” (Lijaba depicted as the “creator” is a Christian philosophical influence of colonial administrators, missionaries, and later vigorously propounded by Ao Christian theologians) was designing the Ao land, it became rugged because of the urgency to finish the task due to an emergency situation. Aos became the custodian of a section of the rough terrain that Lijaba has designed, and Lijaba visited the Aos in anthropomorphic form from time to time. Lijaba, in its own stipulated time, bestowed different kinds of wisdom and knowledge to the Aos through interactions with them by embodying itself in several physical features. Through Lijaba, the Aos also learned the governing system, arts, crafts, and the visible and invisible reality mystery. The Aos revered Lijaba by constructing a place for him beside every household and celebrated an elaborate festival in the name of Lijaba called Lijabamong once a year. Owing to the impartation of the creative nature of Lijaba coupled with its anthropomorphic characteristic, the Ao society continued to flourish and sustain itself.
Even though Lijaba was continuously interacting with the Ao Nagas, nonetheless, there came a time when the Ao society became stagnant and unable to progress with the change in time. Lijaba’s creativity was no longer recognised and readily accepted by the Aos because they became complacent in their already learned knowledge and erstwhile practices. One night, Lijaba walked the earth as a homeless older man moving from door to door asking for shelter. After going to many doors, he was invited in by two impecunious sisters. Consequently, Lijaba abundantly blessed the two sisters’ households, including their paddy fields. Lijaba, having confirmed the degrading complacency of the Aos, decided to enact his second creative act. This time Lijaba wanted to redesign the Ao society, for which he needed a brush to stroke the Ao mind. Thus, Lijaba walked the earth again not only as a stranger but also as a messenger.
It was the year 1872 when the stranger-messenger Godhula and E. W. Clark stepped into the Ao territory. They talked about a man named Jesus Christ who walked the earth and did similar things to what Lijaba did. But can Jesus Christ be Lijaba? Did Jesus wash Lijaba’s feet, or did Lijaba wash Jesus’ feet? I don’t know, but one thing is for sure that the message of Jesus Christ was not strange/foreign to the Ao ears. The only thing weird was the messenger, and the only thing different in the message was the brush (the Bible) by which the message was being painted. But still, Jesus Christ cannot be Lijaba. Then, who metamorphized? Was it Jesus Christ or Lijaba? Both metamorphised. The Jesus Christ that reached the Aos was no longer a Jew; the Jewish identity of Jesus Christ was stripped away by the American messenger. Only the stories in the Bible about Jesus remained, but it was interpreted through an American cultural lens. Consequently, when the American Jesus Christ reached the Ao territory, he was gradually metamorphosed and the Bible was slowly interpreted through the Ao cultural lens giving rise to Ao/Naga Jesus Christ. A story is told about a meeting between a Jewish Rabbi and an Ao Christian. A short excerpt of the story goes like this: The Jewish Rabbi asked the Ao Christian, “So, you believe that Jesus Christ is God?”
The Ao Christian replied, “No, Jesus is God’s Son, and God is God.” To that, the Rabbi said, “But you believe in Trinity, right?” The Ao Christian replied, “We don’t have that word in Ao dialect. I don’t know what it means” (The Jewish Rabbi unsuccessfully tried to explain the concept of Trinity for a pretty long time). Again, the Rabbi asked, “But I hope you know about the different messianic visions in its historical narrative, right?” To that, the Ao Christian said, “I just know only one true messiah, that is Jesus Christ.” By this time, the Rabbi sensed a significant barrier between the two, so he asked, “Can you recall some important events in Jewish history?” The Ao Christian replied, “I know a lot about it since I’ve read the Bible,” and began talking about the events in the Bible and the significance of Jesus Christ. Having noticed the Ao Christian’s shallow understanding of Jewish history and sensing that the conversation was going nowhere, the Rabbi asked the Ao Christian, “So, what do you think of Jesus Christ?” The Ao Christian went on explaining how believing in Jesus is believing in the true God and how we get salvation and better life from the teaching of Jesus and so on. Lastly, the Rabbi said, “Your Jesus Christ seems very familiar to me but at the same time very alien. I guess your Jesus was born and raised in Southern America and lived the latter part of his life in Nagaland.” The message of Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, never reached Nagaland. But what about the Bible? Jesus, like Lijaba never wrote anything. So, was it Lijaba all along? No! it was the American Jesus who took the shape of Ao Jesus when it eached Nagaland because Lijaba needed the brush (Bible) to paint the Ao society. Thus, Lijaba has also metamorphosised into Ao Jesus and now speaks to us through the Bible. Our forebearers never told us that Lijaba had left us; they only talked about the works of Lijaba – today also, we are doing the same. People may call Lijaba by different names, but indeed! Lijaba is still with us.
Some Christians say that Jesus Christ takes the shape of the culture wherever it is embedded. It sounds very accurate for at least the Jesus Christ of Nagaland. This Christmas, like the two sisters, let us invite Lijaba into our homes through decorations, merrymaking, praying, and reading the Bible. On “Easter Week,” let us remember the ultimate decision of Lijaba to metamorphosize itself to take on a new identity.
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A PhD. Scholar in the Dept. of Anthropology at the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, Tiatemsu Longkumar, is currently working on The Anthropology of Religion. Anthropology, Philosophy, and Religious Studies excite him immensely, leading to podcasting on them. Tiatemsu is an esteemed host in the “New Books Network” — a podcast on Anthropology and Religion. He is passionate about reading and writing too.