|Text and Context in Dialogue|
Grace and greed: The making and marring of the Tamang movement to Christ,
The most significant story in the Nepali church of the last 20 years is undoubtedly the movement to Christ of a large number of people belonging to the Tamang community. This story has not yet been properly documented and it is hoped that this article may encourage someone to do just that. The main storyline will be sketched here, but the burden of this article is to examine the movement in its social, cultural, economic, and political context, and attempt to draw out lessons for church and mission today.
The Tamang people live mostly in the hill districts surrounding the Kathmandu Valley although communities of Tamang can be found as far away as Nepal's eastern and western borders. Speaking a pair of related Tibeto-Burman languages, they are thought to have originated from Tibet and migrated into their present heartland many centuries ago. Today they constitute one of the indigenous or janjati communities attempting to wrest a measure of political representation from the dominant elites. Tamang villages are characteristically inhabited by up to 4,000 people who scratch a living from the hillsides between about 1,500 to 3,000 meters above sea level.
In the 18th century, the Tamang people were forcibly included in Prithvi Narayan Shah's new nation state of Nepal. Later, under the Ranas civil code (Muluki Ain) of 1854 they were classified as "enslavable alcohol drinkers". The anthropologist David Holmberg reports that British army recruiters were prejudiced against Tamangs because of their custom of eating carrion beef. So Tamang villages never had the steady return of experienced lahures with their regular pensions. Tamangs are not, however, considered untouchable. In fact, a small hamlet of Untouchable Kami Ironworkers is often found on the edge of many a Tamang village. The presence of the Kami is tolerated because of the service they provide in the crafting of agricultural implements etc. These Untouchable communities are usually poorer even than the Tamangs as they are very often landless and have even less access to political power.
Notwithstanding this ascendancy over local Kami, the Tamang proximity to the capital meant that they were more thoroughly subjugated by the new rulers than were other Bodic peoples, such as the Magar and Limbu. Nevertheless, until recent times, Tamang communities enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy from central government. Holmberg, who lived in a Tamang village he calls Tamdungsa reports that, up to the time of his research in the 1970s, villagers "remained suspicious of administrative outsiders, and when they had to deal with the administration they continued to do so through local headmen who carried influence". The centrality of the village headman (the Pradhan Panch of the Panchayat regime) in Tamang life seems to have been very significant.
"Villagers not only understand the language of their village headmen, they are linked to them in overlapping ties of social affinity; headmen remain as mediators between villagers and the state as in the past".
The police rarely visited Tamang villages and most disputes were settled locally without recourse to the district courts. Up to the time of Holmberg's stay in Tamdungsa, local headmen settled the majority of conflicts with other senior arbitrators. Against this political background a localised society and ritual system developed, culturally and religiously autonomous from the dominant Parbatiya (Brahman/Chhetri) population. This system, with its array of ritual practitioners is the focus of Holmberg's study.
Right up to at least the 19th century the Tamang perspective of their communities was expressed in terms of their relation to the wider Tibetan Buddhist world to the north. As they came increasingly under the control of the Nepalese state, however, their world became more and more oriented towards the centralising authority of the Parbatiya monarchy in Kathmandu. This change in orientation and the lack of access to political and economic power caused Tamang communities to turn in on themselves, and create an insular society based very much on the village.
Fundamental to Tamang life is a system of exchange or balanced reciprocity. In this way, then, the gift of a wife from one clan to another must be reciprocated by an equivalent gift in the other direction. The Tamang social order is constructed of numbers of clans that together constitute unnamed locally exogamous groupings, i.e. groups within which it is not permitted to marry. Traditionally it was considered preferable to marry a cross-cousin (i.e. the child of one's mother's brother or father's sister). This usually happened locally so that social life was encompassed within a small area. Or, as Holmberg observes, this "... results for the most part ... in intensive alliances among a small set of patriclans residing in neighbouring villages". Tamang society then is very different from Rajput and Brahman castes in north India and the Nepalese Tarai, which tend to intermarry over long distances. Close social ties are, for the most part, restricted within the village, or at the most between neighbouring villages.
Tamangs invoke an endless number of beings from local deities to pan-Hindu gods such as Shiva, and malicious shades or demons. Although Hindu deities such as Shiva have been worshipped by the Tamangs this must not be understood as a recent layer that is gaining ascendancy over local tribal deities. As Holmberg observes,
"One of the dynamics of Tamang cosmology is its inclusiveness. Tamang practitioners attempt to incorporate all beings in their ritual attentions to make sure that none is left out...".
Tamang religion can be neatly analysed under the complementary rites of the three main ritual practitioners. The lambus are sacrificers "who on behalf of ... sponsors maintain an equilibrium with divine and malevolent agents through sacrifices or consecrated offerings". The main sacrifices are performed either communally or by the household in parallel with other households. All such sacrifices are linked to the agricultural cycle. Other sacrifices are made to the gods of the locality and household gods at life-cycle rituals and at the time of illness or misfortune. These propitiatory sacrifices are supplemented by the exorcism of malevolent beings such as the Nakhle Mhang when they are thought to have caused trouble or be particularly threatening. Holmberg points out that the local gods are like local people: "Divinities are like headmen or kings and harmful agents are like the lowly untouchables of village society in that the former are wanted but reluctant guests, the latter uninvited but persistent presences". In the Tamang world-view, sacrifices work to bring back an order in which deities are dominant and evil spirits are banished to the margins. It is not only ritual acts that make sacrifices effective, but also words. The correct words uttered in the correct way are considered to have great magical power. So the lambu is also a master of an oral ritual tradition, which is employed along with the sacrifice to bring order back to the Tamang world.
Bombos have a different role to play in Tamang ritual tradition. They are special mediators who carry out their work by means of soundings in which the bombo carries and tosses about unwanted divine or demonic beings in order to negate their influence. Tamangs call bombos in various contexts including at times when they cannot successfully treat an ailment.
The third main type of ritual practitioner is the lama. Although of a Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Tamang lamas do not enter monasteries and become celibate monks. The appropriation of disposable income by the state meant that the support of a monastic community was impossible. Tamang lamas, then, marry, build a house, and farm their fields like any householder, although they try to avoid ploughing. They are accorded the highest respect in the village along with the headman. Because of its isolation from Tibetan Buddhist power centres to the north, Tamang Buddhism remained for a long time isolated from the "rationalising and universalising orientations of greater monastic Buddhism". This pattern has begun to reverse itself in recent years, however, with the increased contact with other Buddhist populations such as those of the Yelmho of Helambu, and Theravada and Tibetan Buddhists in the Kathmandu Valley.
Lamas derive their ritual authority from the printed word. It is not the understanding of the texts that gives such authority. They acquire it through initiation. Consequently, it is not the meaning of the texts that conveys power but merely the correct technique in invocation and chanting. The chanting of ritual texts and mantras is thought to re-impose order in the world where it has been corrupted. Lamas are called to perform at life-cycle rituals such as that of birth purification. The most important context in which lamas exercise their role is the memorial death feast (gral). Lamas are the directors of the death feasts. In their recitation of sacred texts, the lamas erase the demerit of the dead, and enable the person's spirit to pass over to the realm of the Buddhas. It is believed, then, that without the ritual efforts of the lama, a proper rebirth is not possible; the soul of the dead becomes a shade or evil spirit. Death rituals are "the only essential Buddhist rites for Tamang villagers and, given their prominence are the primary vehicle whereby Buddhist ideology takes accessible form". Through the death ritual, then, the lama conveys the important doctrines and values of Buddhism to the society.
Among Tibeto-Burman-speaking peoples in the Himalaya, death rites occupy the most important place in social and ritual life, in stark contrast to the emphasis on marriage in the Hindu context. They are events of social affirmation at a time in which the society seems to be threatened by death. Every household of the village and many of neighbouring villages participate in an individual's death rites. Each person has a significant role to play and if he does not fulfil that role, the very social order is threatened. Death rites, moreover, have legal significance. Those who sponsor memorial death feasts acquire the property, in particular land, from the dead man's estate.
Without the income from army pensions and with little access to political power and business, the economic condition of the Tamang people has largely grown increasingly marginal. In the hills immediately surrounding the Valley, Tamangs, as others, have more access to city markets. Those further away, however, do not have such access and are consequently in a more precarious economic position. In villages such as those in the southern reaches of Lalitpur district many live in desperate poverty. Literacy also is very low; one observer estimates that today only 20% of Tamangs can read.
Along with other communities, however, the Tamangs have experienced great changes in recent decades, especially since the restoration of democracy in 1990. The Roman Catholic sociologist, Blandine Ripart, who conducted fieldwork among the Tamangs in the late 1990s, asserts that the changes can be understood largely in terms of the effects of globalisation. From the 1980s, various agricultural innovations based on the Asian Green Revolution enabled a series of improvements to the life of the subsistence farmer. According to Ripart, there was an important increase in agricultural production. The organisation of agricultural work has also changed with the traditional mutual aid groups being replaced by wage earning. The introduction of party politics with its competition for votes has broken village insularity and set up new alliances that transcend traditional loyalties.
Large numbers of Tamang men have always migrated, especially during the winter months, to earn cash in north India and Bhutan. Traditionally, reports Ripart, the money earned during the migration for work was always used to buy the missing cereals for the family back home. Only a few rich people had surplus cash, which they had to spend on religious ceremonies. Social prestige, therefore, was earned through these many offerings.
Since 1990, however, migration to economies further afield, such as those of the Persian Gulf and SE Asia, have enabled many Tamangs to purchase the wide range of consumer goods that are now available in the city: sunglasses, radios, jeans, plastic buckets, torches, etc. Such consumer goods have become more important than participation in communal feasts and the like. These migrations, then, are playing an important role in social change. Through them the Tamangs are increasingly integrated into the global labour economy and market. New values have emerged with modern conceptions of waste and profit. The Tamangs have also become aware that their religion, like every aspect of their culture, is just one of a number of options in the modern world. Furthermore, the importance of individual choice has grown with the spread of democratic notions and party politics.
Another factor that led to an acceleration of change in the Tamang community in the 1990's was that the first generation of school-educated children reached adulthood. Ripart states that,
"These 'educated youth', aged between 15 and 30, able to read and write, contrary to the other villagers, learned references and values that are different from their elders. The discovery of scientific topics rationalized their knowledge. Learning the national languageŅ NepaleseŅand references to a common culture and history spread in the books, 'nepalized' these young Tamangs. They became more and more alienated from the Tamang culture and often reject it".
Furthermore, the introduction of western biomedicine, largely through mission hospitals and primary health projects, gave rise to an increased scepticism towards traditional healing techniques and their practitioners. The effect of all this was that the cost and efficacy of the traditional rituals and the value of those who performed them was increasingly called into question.
These transformations in Tamang life have had a huge impact on the way Tamang society relates to its environment, the outside world, and its own traditional social and religious system. Superficially it might seem that ritual life in a Tamang village has not changed. Yet, as Holmberg asserts in his introduction to the South Asian edition of his book, "the meaning of and attitudes towards these practices have transformed as experience of villagers has been decentered from local space and society".
Tamang orientation within space is not the restricted, insular, locally encompassed construction it once was. There can be few Tamangs today who have not visited the greater Kathmandu metropolis. The area of Sohra Kuti to the north of Thamel is virtually a Tamang neighbourhood. Any Tamang wanting to visit the city has a cousin or uncle he can stay with. Furthermore, in the city he will meet foreigners and watch television and have his mind opened up to a whole world of experience that his parents never dreamed of.
As people reorient their world they come to see traditional practices in a new light. Holmberg states that, "The shamanic and the sacrificial although still active local practices are now looked upon ... by those with external experience and education as village practices in direct contrast to that which is developed". Buddhism, however, retains a measure of prestige within the ritual tradition. Gompos and stupas are still constructed by those with disposable cash. This is most plainly seen in the way death is treated. "Memorial death feasts remain the most extensive of local social rites and now in the relative demise of village coherence play as important a ritual role as ever in the definition of local society". Moreover, in recent years a stronger adherence to Buddhism has developed among some sectors of Tamang society that see it as a way to emphasise their difference from the dominant Hindu elite and increase Tamang ethno-political influence.
The movement of Tamangs to Christ can be traced back to two significant events in the 1960s (not the '70s as Ripart reports). In the one, the arrival of two missionary Bible translators to Nuwakot district in the mid-1960s, led to their language helper and co-translator accepting Christ (see accompanying story). Through him others in his and neighbouring villages began to turn to Christ and form churches.
Two other men in Dhading district also came to Christ at this time through the ministry of one of the leading pastors of the time (now deceased). Some years ago, as we sat together on the veranda of his home, one of these men told me his story:
"I used to be a village lama in the hills of Dhading. I held a very respected position. Then my wife became sick. I tried everything I could think of to heal her but she did not get well. Then one day I found a Gospel of John and was impressed with its message. Soon after, Christians from a nearby village came to visit me. They were being persecuted so they asked me if they could stay in my village. Through these people I heard the gospel and soon trusted Christ myself. They also prayed in Jesus' name for my wife and she was healed. Further persecution forced these believers to settle at Lamoghoda. I came to Lamoghoda some time later and established a church here."
The other man also migrated and later pastored thousands of Tamang believers in the district of Nawal Parasi. Others migrated as far away as Kanchanpur in the Far West of Nepal.
Conversion to Christ continued in such a pattern for several years. But things had changed by the late 1980s with a great movement to Christ in the upper reaches of Dhading district, in the valley of the Ankhu Khola (this had begun at least as early as 1985 as reported by visiting outsiders). In May 1990 I was informed by the leader at Lamoghoda that 20,000 Tamangs had trusted Christ (Ripart comes up with the same estimate). It would appear that this turning was largely a spontaneous movement rather than an intentional plan by any outsiders. Although based in Lamoghoda, this leader would take regular trips to visit these villages several days walk away, carrying only his Bible and his umbrella.
It wasn't long before news of this great turning began to attract much attention in distant quarters. During the 1990s, certain leaders of powerfully connected churches in the capital began to woo these Tamang congregations to join their denomination. These men approached many of the pastors with, it is said, offers of up to Rs 50,000 to construct a church building if they would join their network. A number of the congregations took up the offer.
Some time later certain missionaries arrived offering the very same churches much larger incentives to leave the first denomination and affiliate to their own. Huge buildings were constructed. (It is said that one building is fully carpeted and equipped with a western-style drum kit. A huge cross surmounts the building and, though it was designed to accommodate 300, only 30 or so participate in regular worship.)
The introduction of all this foreign money (it would seem that neither the Nepali denominations nor the missionaries were using locally raised funds) had a dramatic impact on several of the churches. Some local pastors who till then had lived on a subsistence income simply absconded with the cash and built a house for themselves in the district centre. A number of competent and educated men fell, leaving fellowships in their villages impoverished rather than prosperous. Their place in the leadership of the local assemblies has been taken by other men less able leaving the majority of believers with no trained ministry at all.
One key leader estimates that there are 50,000 Tamang Christians in 140 churches situated from Nuwakot to Kanchanpur. (He acknowledges, however, that a church survey may include people twice as two separate denominations may claim their allegiance.) The vast majority of the Christians are affiliated to evangelical Protestant churches although there is also a small Roman Catholic movement centred on the Dhading village of Tipling.
Tamang Christian leaders appreciate that there is a great dearth of Bible teaching in the churches. It was recognised early on that, if these believers were to grow in their understanding of their new faith, they would have to be able to read the Bible, preferably in their own mother tongue. Sadly many Tamang believers cannot read the Bible in their own tongue (the Western Tamang New Testament was published in 1990 whereas we still await an Eastern Tamang translation). Literacy is anyway low, but those who do read have learned to do so in Nepali and struggle to sound out the conjuncts of three half letters. Throughout the 1990s, with this in mind, a number of literacy initiatives were begun resulting in a marked increase in the sales of the Western Tamang NT.
Nevertheless, though most churches in Tamang villages are made up entirely of Tamang people and Tamang is the mother tongue of the believers, much of the congregational worship continues to take place in Nepali. Western Tamang-speaking Christians have written some hymns in their mother tongue and other songs have been translated from Nepali, but many untranslated Nepali songs have also been introduced. The Bible translation read in most Tamang churches continues to be Nepali. Moreover, the sermon is also given in Nepali with only the main points being translated into Tamang. Clearly, there is here a discrepancy between the use of the Word and its understandingŅa matter I will return to later.
It is difficult to assess whether Tamang churches are continuing to grow. Tamangs are still coming to faith. Most of the early growth was among western Tamang but there appears to be some growth currently among the previously little affected eastern Tamang communities. It would seem, however, that the mass movement that took place in the late 1980s has lost its vitality. It is imperative for us to try to understand why this may have happened.
What of the financial inducements so often alleged by the national press to be the great motivator of religious change? Holmberg (not particularly sympathetic to Christians) seems to believe that poor Tamangs are more likely to convert that those less marginal though he acknowledges that the economic advantages of conversion gained by poor Tamangs ('access to loans, markets for cash crops, free medical care and the like') are likely to be only "part of a more complex convergence of social forces". Conversion in the areas Holmberg is more familiar with is, he says, "most likely located among the poorer or more marginalized Tamang". Ripart, however, who seems to have studied this phenomenon more thoroughly disagrees. She reports thus:
"When mapping the development of the various changes and comparing this with the mapping of Christian conversions, it is very clear that the villages that are the least transformed are the last to be converted. It is in these villages too that conversions are collective, since the ruling power remained more traditional, decisions are still collective, as opposed to the villages located downstream where the idea of individual choice, especially for politics and religion, spread more among the population".
One thing is sure: it is a gross simplification and deeply unfair to impugn bad motives on all who have become Christians.
There is clearly a relationship between the Tamang Christian movement and the awesome political, social, and cultural changes that have impacted Tamang society. Whether the 1990 movement for democracy had any major influence on the Christian movement is uncertain. Ripart believes that the transition to a multi-party democratic polity in 1990 was very significant. But if that is so, then it fails to account for the mass movement to Christ in the Ankhu Khola Valley that took place prior to the movement for democracy. Clearly, then, the simple change of political system cannot be so significant after all.
Democratic and egalitarian values, however, were being promoted well before that epochal event. The spread of development projects sponsored by the state, NGOs, or missions with their inevitable political and cultural impact cannot be ignored. The position of the lambu and bombo were surely threatened not only by the Christian promise of direct prayer to a compassionate God but also by the construction of hospitals and health posts. Again, the central importance of ritual practitioners was surely severely compromised by the introduction of schoolteachers and development workers with a different kind of knowledge. Ripart goes so far as to assert that, "The map of the diffusion of Christianity ... follows that of the construction of hospitals and schools".
Ripart observes that the Christian movement really took off at a time when the first batch of school educated young men was coming of age. "These educated youth, who gain an important political power thanks to their literacy, are the main actors of the christianisation process, since they are the ones who will become the local pastors, being the only ones able to read the Bible to the older villagers".
The Protestant missionaries proposals were well accepted by the Tamangs certainly, because they seemed to accompany the current changes of this society. The Tamangs consider that Protestantism, in their case, is more adapted to the new currently valorized economical, political and social forms.
The cost of being of Christian in monetary terms has appeared to be less than that of keeping ones allegiance to traditional ritual practice. The most oft heard statement in favour of the new is that one is no longer impoverished by the need to make sacrifices to the gods. Moreover, Christians appreciate that they can go directly to God in prayer without having to call a mediator. The Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is clearly one that makes the Tamangs rejoice. It must be noted, however, that the new cultural climate, with its modern emphasis on individual choice, surely predisposes people to such an acceptance.
Interestingly, Ripart singles out one issue that she believes gives Protestants an edge over Catholics the introduction of a ban on the consumption of alcohol and tobacco.
"The protestant missionaries have the tendency in Nepal to ask for a clear rupture with the previous religious and cultural practices. These radical prescriptions are considered as much more effective by the converted. In reverse, the few Catholic missionaries, mainly Jesuit, have tried to keep a local cultural and religious continuity. This position is understood by many villagers as a compromise with the lamas and the shamans".
It is remarkable that the introduction of the Word of God, in a translation understandable to the people, has been particularly significant to this movement even in spite of widespread illiteracy. The lama whose religious life focussed on sacred texts, was first drawn to Christ by a Gospel of John (presumably in a Nepali translation). Christian leaders emphasise more than anything else the importance of teaching the new congregations. However, traditional Tamang conceptions of the role of the sacred text are not fully compatible with a robust Biblical view. When Holmberg asked several Christians about how they cured themselves, "they said they now place the bible on their foreheads and pray and avoid the expense of sacrifice". This confidence in the Bible, Holmberg notes, "has a direct correlate in the metaphoric powers they historically have attributed to the books of Buddhist lamas". In other words, such a magical trust in the power of the sacred text points to a lack of change of worldview. Clearly the grounds for confidence in the Word of God need to be explained.
Marriage patterns are changing among Tamang Christians. One leading Tamang Christian told me that he is not in favour of traditional cross-cousin marriage as it is "too close". He went on: "It is like you are marrying your sister; you are one blood." It is not clear to this observer why this would be seen to be incompatible with Christianity. Certainly no Bible text was cited. There could be two distinct forces operating here to lead to such a change. On the one hand, Hindu influence as well as Buddhist influence is continuing to increase among the Tamangs. Cross-cousin marriage is regarded as incestuous to orthodox Hindus who ideally will not marry anyone who is closer than seven generations distant. It would seem, by the leader's comments that he has been influenced by such a value. On the other hand, as Tamang Christians have adopted a policy of intermarriage only with other Christians, it may simply be a convenient way to deal with the difficulty of proposed marriages with non-Christian cross-cousins. The problem here is that such a position will inevitably be construed as a necessary part of Christian discipleship. Clear Biblical teaching on marriage needs to be given within the traditional Tamang social context without creating confusion by introducing unnecessary extra-Biblical values. Only then will Tamang disciples of Christ be adequately equipped to critique their own tradition in a thoroughly Biblical manner.
Although Tamang Christians usually do not use the services of the lambu or bombo, it is commonly recognised that many are continuing to use the services of the village lama especially on the death of a family member. Church leaders believe that this is the result of a lack of Christian teaching. It would seem to me, however, that the situation is far more complex than this. I have demonstrated above how important the role of the memorial death feast is in the life of the Tamang village. Indeed, the event is central in Tamang social life and considered essential to the maintenance of societal well being. The key figure in the death feast is the lama. Christians die too, so it is understandable that the services of such a central figure in Tamang social life should be requested, even by those who have changed so much. Is this an example of syncretism? Perhaps. We must be careful, however, not to simply condemn such a practice without trying hard to understand it in its cultural and social context. Must the Tamang Christian abandon the death feast altogether? Is there an ongoing social place for the lama even when his ritual function is no longer required? Must Christians be those who break social ties as they are so often accused of doing?
What of the marriage of mission with modernity? Has not the coupling of the glorious gospel with rationalistic education and development in the name of mission led to another kind of syncretism? Must a Tamang be modern in order to be a pukka believer?
Clearly much work needs to be done to grasp the situation among the Tamangs properly. The burden of ongoing gospel work, both of evangelism and teaching, rests on very few shoulders. We must pray and encourage them as they go about their work. But we must do more than that. We have a solemn responsibility to publicly acknowledge the rot in our ranks and rebuke those who use worldly means to gain power and influence. If we do not we are no better than the political parties that close ranks under fire and cover up the fraud and avarice of their officials. Let us not pretend that such abuse does not happen but acknowledge it with tears and check our own hearts to see that we are not also guilty of such worldliness. Notes
God never discourages any seeker after truth by saying that he or his beliefs are wrong, but He so orders it that by degrees the man himself learns to recognise his errors and distinguish the truth. The story is told of a poor grass-cutter who found a beautiful stone in the jungle. He had often heard about diamonds, and thought this was one. He took it to the jeweller's shop and showed it with delight to the jeweller. Being a kind and sympathetic man, the jeweller saw that if he were to tell the grass-cutter that his stone was not a diamond, either he would not believe it, or it would be such a shock to him that his whole hope would be brought down to the dust. The jeweller, therefore, laid his plans so that the poor man might find out his mistake for himself. He gave him some work in his shop, and kept him there till he began to be able to distinguish the varieties of diamonds and their prices. Then the jeweller told him to bring along his stone. Up till this time the grass-cutter had kept it carefully hidden away in a box. He now opened it out, and saw with amazement that it was worthless. He turned pale, and came and fell at the feet of his kind master, and said, "I am very thankful for your goodness and sympathy. You did not destroy my hope, but made such a plan that I now know my mistake without any one's help. Now I want to stay always with such a master, and spend the rest of my life in your service." This is how God brings back to the way of truth those who have wandered away into error, so that they will follow Him, and give Him the service of their whole lives.
Sundar Singh, The Spiritual Life