The remote state of Mizoram in north-east India is preparing to celebrate a landmark in its history - the centenary of the coming of Christianity to what is now the most devoutly Christian region of South Asia. Andrew Whitehead travelled to Mizoram recently, and now looks at the ways in which the Christian missionaries have moulded the life of the Mizos:
On 11th January 1894, two British Protestant missionaries - Messrs Lorrain and Savidge - reached what is now Mizoram. Within half-a-century, the Mizos had been converted, almost to the last man and woman, by Baptists or Welsh Presbyterians. Why such dour and puritan religions appealed to such an outgoing people, with a well developed taste for rice beer and raucous drum-accompanied singing, remains a mystery - at least to me. But the Mizos remain resolutely, cheerfully, enthusiastically Christian. It's one of the most enduring achievements of the pioneer missionaries. Though with hindsight, perhaps the greatest achievement of Savidge and Lorrain was in reaching Mizoram at all.
It still isn't that easy. No other Indian state is quite so inaccessible. There's a daily flight from Calcutta. But the landing strip can't cope with anything bigger than an eighteen-seat Dornier. It isn't the most reliable of services. And potential passengers may find themselves bumped off by VIPs or even VVIPs.
We got on the flight OK. But the airline hadn't been expecting the bulky television equipment. Ever obliging, they made room - and left a little cargo behind. That was the day Mizoram didn't get any national newspapers.
Flying into Aizawl is an entrancing experience. From Calcutta, east across the breadth of Bangladesh, over the estuary of the Ganges, then up into the mountains beyond. Mizoram consists of steep jungle-clad hills. Range upon range of them. All the way to the border with Burma.
All the settlements are on hilltops. Aizawl, a city by any standards, is spread out along ridges on slopes so steep the houses are built on wooden stilts. From the air, the villages seem to be perching precariously on top of dense forest. And every now and again, a stout wooden church towers above the woven bamboo houses.
For the Mizos, Christianity serves to reinforce their identity. Like many of the tribal people of north-east India, they are of Mongoloid origin. They have their own language, their own culture and traditions. When they head to Assam or Calcutta, they talk of travelling to India. And the Indian cameraman who accompanied me, on his first trip to the area, couldn't get over how unIndian the whole place was.
It's a touchy issue in Mizoram. Separatist guerillas fought for twenty years in a vain attempt to secure independence. The Mizo National Front has now laid down its arms, and operates as a mainstream political party. But it still hankers after a separate nation state. Inherently unlikely, perhaps. The Mizoram state government relies on Delhi for almost all its spending money. Oil and other essential supplies are trucked over hundreds of miles of perilous mountain roads. The Mizos have marvellous oranges, the biggest bananas I've ever seen, pineapples and an exotic array of vegetables - but no easy means of getting them to international markets. The one export which is economical is heroin. One of the main trading routes from the opium-growing Golden Triangle runs through Mizoram. And in a state which at first appears to be without vices - the churches have certainly kept alcohol at bay - there are the first stirrings of concern about drug abuse.
The Mizos seem quite happy as they are. They are insulated from outside influence by their remoteness, and generations-old regulations limiting settlement by non-locals. At the same time, the Mizos have one of the highest literacy rates in India. The prejudice still widely held in metropolitan India that tribals are feckless, drunken and ignorant certainly doesn't hold for Mizoram.
The Mizos regard their pre-Christian past with a curious detachment. Almost disavowal. As if they were a nation born again. The Christian gospel - said the state's chief minister - brought the Mizos from darkness to light. The moderator of the Presbyterian church asserted that before the missionaries came the Mizos had been very low and heathen, An official hand-out for the centenary celebrations rejoices that Christianity took root 'among hitherto simple and ignorant tribals'.
And then there's the theocratic side of life in Mizoram. In a state where all the leading politicians are professing Christians, the churches hold enormous influence. And the Young Mizos' Association - a loosely church-affiliated organisation - has something of the influence and demeanour of a Young Communist League in the old Soviet-bloc. But straying into the Gospel centenary hall in Aizawl, and sitting-in on an enthusiastic women's choir practice for the anniversary celebrations, an inspiring rendition of familiar Welsh hymns, it's impossible to avoid being swept away by a sense of anticipation. After all, it will soon be a century since Mizoram was saved.