Indian Independence Day for Khasi Unitarians

This guest post on our blog is by Dranwell Barishisha “Barri” Mukhim. Barri is a member of the Unitarian Union of North East India; here, she writes about what Indian Independence Day (August 15) means to her as a Khasi Unitarian.

India was freed from about 300 years of British Rule on the 15th August 1947. It is marked each year with a national festival celebrated with great splendour and joy in every nook and corner of India. On this day, we have different cultural programmes dedicated to all those freedom fighters who gave us this auspicious golden day: a free India. This tradition is patriotically celebrated all over the country regardless of religions, tribes, classes, cultures or geographical distinction. Together, we all love to show our respect to the great Indian nation.

Independence Day 3Indian Independence Day is coming. My heart longs to be there at the ground watching the parade mostly by the armed and paramilitary forces with music of various kinds to wake us all from our slumbering daily chores to the beating of the patriotic songs and drums. As we watch, the various performances from different government departments showcase their achievements and successes.  It is a heart-warming sight.

As a child growing up in a village, we used to participate in the Independence Day celebrations in our respective schools where the Indian flag was hoisted. We took part in the parade among the students within the school followed by our solemn singing of the national anthem. We also sang and danced and sometimes we even enjoyed watching a movie about the independence struggle.

Barri and other Khasi Unitarians live in Meghalaya, a state in Northeast India.
Barri and other Khasi Unitarians live in Meghalaya, a state in Northeast India.

Many citizens are passionate about Mother India, but there are some who have secessionist tendency. Some of us, as tribal people in Northeast India, are struggling with the idea of being neglected by the mainland in many ways. Patriotism is dying gradually from our hearts, especially with the rise of insurgency militants claiming that they fight for our rights and also trying to spread the ideology that we are not Indian by blood. For the last many years we were not allowed to participate in the Independence Day parade because certain insurgent groups imposed a Bandh (public curfew) on the people. Many years have passed with people staying indoors for fear of being targeted. This gradually has become a habit so that people do not have the same kind of enthusiasm anymore. But life has started to rejuvenate again after the Court banned the Bandhs and no newspapers are allowed to publish or write on Bandhs. So, Meghalaya is now officially a Bandh-free state. Patriotic people are seen again at the parade ground.

Unitarians do not celebrate Independence Day separately as a religious community, but the holiday means a lot to us as citizens. We know that we are all Indians in an Indian soil, irrespective of regions or religions. India is a secular country; we celebrate Independence Day as one people. No rituals but only festivities are to be seen on this national day.

Politically, Indian Independence Day means a lot to Khasi Unitarians.  Khasis are a microscopic tribe in the great Indian sea of over 1.3 billion people.  Moreover, Khasi Unitarians are still a tiny minority among the whole Khasi tribe (of about two million people in the whole world).  Under current circumstances, I think as a tribe we cannot survive politically if we stand alone when we are sandwiched between the growing Indian and Bangladeshi populations. Our niche is much better with the Indian side than with any other country. Genetic studies have shown that we migrated in pre-historic times to these hills from mainland India, carrying with us many traits typical of Indians.  Moreover, Hinduism is a major religion in India and I consider Khasi Unitarianism as an offshoot of Hinduism. Hindus are generally religious and tolerant people that inherently allow a tribal culture to grow. Hence, I am proud to be Indian and willingly honour and celebrate the Indian Independence Day.

Barri, on the left in the front row, marches in a 4th of July parade with UUs in Seattle.
Barri, on the left in the front row, marches in a 4th of July parade with Unitarians in Seattle.

I was in the US on July 4th recently. It was overwhelming for me to be part of the American Independence Day celebration along with Unitarian friends in and around Seattle. I joined the parade with the East Shore Unitarian group; it was a joy to be there. For the first time in my life, I read the American Declaration of Independence which part of it I would like to quote here:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Independence Day 1I have a reason to borrow these lines. Being a Khasi Unitarian, I can see the spirit of the people all over the world is still overflowing with passion and love endowed by the Creator. Our inner self (conscience) is full of that love that can be shown in many different ways, such as being patriotic, even if our religion does not specifically teach us to be patriotic. On this Independence Day, I will be running with my children and the people of Shillong for peace and goodwill not only as a Unitarian but as a faithful citizen of India. We will be there at the parade ground to celebrate our Indian Independence Day and to instill in my young children, how to be passionate and patriotic about their country; this too means a lot to them. Jai Hind! (Long Live India!)

Unitarian Day 2015


September 18th marks the 128th anniversary of the birth of Khasi Unitarianism. On this day in1887, Hajjom Kissor Singh started the journey of organized Unitarianism in North East India.

According to The Shillong Times, this year’s celebration was marked with a day-long program which included morning prayers at 9 am, a worship service at 2 pm, sports for children at 4 pm and a torch procession at 5.30 pm. Religious heads of different denominations attended a candle lighting. The theme of the celebration is ‘Religious Tolerance and Liberalism – the Need of the Hour’.

From The Times of India:

Unitarianism is a unique movement in the realms of spiritualism which draws its theology largely from the indigenous Khasi religion.


Meghalaya perhaps is the only state in the country where there is a state holiday on this day.


As with traditional Khasi faith, the major emphasis of Khasi unitarianism is to carry out one’s duty towards God and fellow humans. Unitarians stress on the unity of God as opposed to trinity…


In the Khasi-Jaintia Hills, the movement was founded by Babu Hajom Kissor Singh (June 15, 1865-November 13, 1923). He came from a Christian family, but was dissatisfied with the orthodox Christian doctrine of his time.


With the help of Khasi Brahmos and American Unitarians, in 1887 he began the Unitarian movement at Jowai with three companions. He called his faith “Ka Niam Untarian’ (The Unitarian Religion.) On September 18, 1887, an anniversary date Khasi Unitarians celebrate, Singh led the first real church service at his home in Jowai.


A bright student, Singh became a “questioning member” of the Methodist Church, doubting orthodox Christianity. Singh observed that the Welsh missionaries had done away with the fear of demons only to replace it with fear of hell. He concluded from his studies that he would have to leave their church to seek “the true religion of Jesus, the love of God.”


Adapting some of the traditional values of Khasi culture, Singh defined Khasi unitarianism in terms of duty to God, to fellow humans and to oneself.

A warm congratulations to our Khasi Brothers & Sisters on this year’s anniversary! TO NANGROI 128!

Enjoy the following videos, which commemorate past Unitarian Day celebrations:

From East Shore Unitarian & their partner churches in Smit & Kharang:

From the 125th celebration:

New Khasi Unitarian Hymnal Published

Great news from Rev. Khlur Mukhim!  May the music be a blessing.

Dear friends,

Being a member of the standing Hymnal Revision Committee (HRC), I feel lucky I could attend yesterday the special meeting of UUNEI officials and some other church members at Jowai.  Graced by the President and the General Secretary of the Union, the occasion was led by Mr R Pariat and Mr L.Laloo (the Chairman & the Secretary of the HRC respectively) in which Rev Carleywell Lyngdoh, Seniormost Minister of the Union released the newly edited Khasi Unitarian Hymnal.  I cannot think of any better time to have this much awaited edition completed and released now before we wind up our Quasquicentennial celebrations next month during our Annual General Conference.  This edition has come after a long time and only few old copies are available in most churches.  Our organizers should take note and be careful to avoid stampede in our hymnal counters when all our churches and fellowships meet at Jowai next month! (more…)

Unitarians in North East India Celebrate 125th Anniversary

On September 18, 1887 Hajjom Kissor Singh started the journey of organized Unitarianism in North East India.  And, on that same day in 2012, 125 years later, the anniversary celebration and worship of the members of the Unitarian Union of North East India were spectacular.  It was an honor for me to participate in many of the Anniversary events – along with Derek Mitchell (the Director of the UUA Holdeen India Program) and Richard Van Duizend (Past-President, UU Partner Church Council).  Together we brought a message of solidarity, faithful partnership, and commitment to a shared future from the UUA and its congregations to our brothers and sisters in North East India.  And, we returned with a sense of awe at the strength and hope of Unitarianism here – as well as inspiration from the unrestrained joy and pride that members of Unitarian Churches feel for their faith in this part of the world.  I am a better UU – and I expect all of us are – by virtue of experiencing the faithful example of Unitarianism during this anniversary.

Shillong Torch Parade
Shillong Torch Parade (click for photos)

Among the special events that took place was a parade through the streets of Shillong a few days ahead of the anniversary.  1,000 Unitarians, representing every congregation in the UUNEI – some traveling 10-12 hours to attend – marched through Shillong amidst cars and trucks with immense lit-up flaming chalices on their roofs.  We sang Khasi songs, cheered and laughed throughout the 5k parade.  And upon arriving back at the Madan Laban Unitarian Church the festivities exploded into music and dance.  I don’t know that I’ve ever had as much fun being a Unitarian.

On the night before “Unitarian Day” – a special Holiday in the state of Meghalaya – we gathered in the town of Jowai which is home to the UUNEI’s largest church, and the location from which Hajjom Kissor Singh organized Unitarianism.  The church gathered for an evening service, followed by festivities in members homes.   At one of those homes we shared a prayer of gratitude for a child who had recently been declared cancer-free following treatment for leukemia.  After some socializing a guitar came out, along with some song books, and the men in the room began singing some of our favorite UU hymns (brought back to the Khasi Hills by Rev. Helpme H. Mohrmen after his visit to a recent UUA General Assembly).  I have never heard Blue Boat Home sung so sweetly.  And it was a beautiful surprise, as they reached the chorus of another song, that the women who were gathered on the balcony of the home suddenly joined in like angels – almost from out of nowhere.  Such a special evening – among many

Unitarian Day 2012On Anniversary Day itself there were three church services – morning, afternoon, and evening.  Each service was SRO (standing room only) – or nearly – and included excellent anniversary sermons/prayers and music.  Between services we visited some of the most elderly members of the Jowai church.  And, just prior to the evening service, a torch procession through Jowai took place.  There may have been another 1,000 Unitarians participating – not only with lit-up chalices – but with more than 125 flaming torches (like Birthday candles) as well.  As we processed through the town I couldn’t help but wonder: What could inspire 1,000 US Unitarian Universalists to do something similar with the same immense pride and joy?

Umru Unitarian ChurchThe visit continued beyond ‘Unitarian Day’ including a trip to the remote Umru Unitarian Church and School in the Ri-Bhoi district that straddles the border of Meghalaya and Assam, and many other events in Shillong.

My deep thanks are extended to the President of the UUNEI, Rev. Derrick Pariat, as well as the UUNEI’s General Secretary, Rev. Nangroi Suting, and many other committed Unitarians who taught me – a life-long UU from the US – about the depth and power of our global faith in a unique way.  What a precious gift.

SEWA meeting in New Delhi

20120914-234044.jpgThe UU Holdeen India Program – one of the UUA’s International programs – has been supporting and building solidarity with social-change and rights-based organizations for nearly 30 years. In August 2011 a new director was hired for UUHIP after the retirement of the founding director, Kathy Sreedhar. But, Kathy’s philosophy of supporting long-term partnerships, and her willingness to risk relationships with organizations that other funders overlook – continues to be a guiding light for Derek Mitchell who has been on the job for UUHIP for 1 year.

20120914-234142.jpgOn Wednesday I arrived in New Delhi to spend a few days with Derek, getting the chance to watch him ‘in action’ during site visits with urban partners. We began these visits with SEWA – the Self-Employed Women’s Association – founded by Ela Bhatt in 1974. UUHIP has partnered with SEWA since its earliest years, and continues to work in solidarity with them even as they have grown to 1.35 million members. Regional SEWA leaders from throughout gathered in New Delhi this week to plan and pursue their advocacy agenda with top government ministers and foreign dignitaries, including India’s Secretary of Labor, US UN Representative Susan Rice, and the US Ambassador to India. Some UU’s will remember meeting the economic development officer for SEWA – Reema Nanavaty – at the UUA General Assembly in 2010.

20120914-234357.jpgAmong the issues discussed with Reema-ben this morning were volunteer opportunities for UU Young Adults and service/learning trips with SEWA to be conducted by the UU College of Social Justice (the first service/learning trip will begin in late November, 2012). Both SEWA and UUHIP are excited about these prospects.

Derek and I also learned that SEWA is experimenting with organizing women in North East India – in the states of Assam and Meghalaya – where, coincidentally, a community of 10,000 Unitarians (the Unitarian Union of North East India) has existed for 125 years. SEWA representatives from the North East were in attendance at the New Delhi meeting, and Derek and I hope to catch up with them in the North East next week. We’re all excited by the prospect of Unitarian women getting connected with SEWA.

20120914-234427.jpgI’ll be blogging next about a site visit with a new UUHIP partner who is organizing informal construction workers who are living in resettlement sectors throughout New Delhi following government destruction of the slums where these families once lived. And, a site visit with SEWA-Bharat which organizes women here in Delhi and partners with development agencies supporting women and girls.


Unitarian Union of North East India Celebrates 125 Years

This year, the Unitarian Union of North East India (UUNEI) celebrates the 125th anniversary of its founding with a series of special events from June 2012 through February 2013.

The Unitarian Church of Madan Laban commissioned and recently unveiled a commemorative statue of Babu Hajom Kissor Singh, the founder of Unitarianism in the Khasi Hills, as part of this year’s festivities (pictured above). The first Unitarian worship service in the Khasi Hills was held in Jowai on September 18, 1887. Rev. Eric Cherry, Director of the UUA’s International Office, is currently in India visiting with our Khasi brothers and sisters and will be present for next week’s official celebration on the 18th.

Earlier this year, the UUNEI hosted a 4K “Quasquicentennial Green Run” to raise awareness around local environmental issues, in celebration of the church’s founding.

Hundreds Participate in Race for Environmental Awareness in Khasi Hills

On Saturday May 25th, 600 runners turned out for the Unitarian Union of North East India’s (UUNEI) 4K “Quasquicentennial Green Run” in celebration of the 125th anniversary of Unitarianism’s founding in the Khasi Hills.

Drawing participation from all over the Khasi-Jantia Hills region of the north east corner of India, adults and children alike ran in support of raising local awareness around environmental issues. Rev. Nangroi Suting, UUNEI General Secretary, described the historic event:

The RUN is being organised primarily to create a mass awareness of and sensitise the people to the dire and urgent need of preserving the environment and bringing back the disappearing foliage. It may also be pointed out that one of the core principles of the Unitarian church is the interdependence of the web of life and in honour of this we take a pledge at every Annual Convention to safeguard the environment; and to this effect we also undertake a cleaning drive in adopted villages every year. During such drives we also organise community capacity building programmes with the aim to educating and empowering our rural masses.

The Times of India reported on the race and its winners: Congratulations to Dondorlang Kharbithai and Blarisha Nongrum, winners of the men’s and women’s titles respectively, and to the UUNEI for hosting a successful race for its 125th anniversary!

View more photos

A Dinner in Honor of Kathy Sreedhar at the Embassy of the United States in New Delhi

Embassy of the United States Charge d’Affaires Peter Burleigh. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy New Delhi

On October 31st the United States Chargé d’Affaires in New Delhi, Ambassador Peter Burleigh, held a dinner in honor of Kathy Sreedhar, Director Emerita of the UU Holdeen India Program (UUHIP).

Ambassador Burleigh hosted the dinner at Roosevelt House, the historic Ambassador’s residence on the grounds of the United States Embassy. Kathy has known Ambassador Burleigh since his days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal in the 1960s, when she was a Peace Corps staff member in New Delhi. They have remained friends since and she was thrilled to learn of his recent appointment as Chargé d’Affaires in New Delhi.

Joining Ambassador Burleigh to celebrate Kathy’s nearly fifty years of service in India were numerous friends and Embassy officials. Kerry Pelzman, Kathy’s god-daughter, and her husband Patrick Robinson, both now serving in senior positions at the USAID mission in India, were among the guests, who also included Kathy’s sister-in-law, the feminist scholar Devaki Jain, and Indira Jaisingh, Assistant Solicitor General of India and a renowned women’s rights lawyer. Renana Jhabvala, the National Coordinator of UUHIP partner organization SEWA Bharat, was joined by her husband Harish Khare, Media Advisor to the Prime Minister of India. Also present were friends serving as foreign correspondents from National Public Radio and the Associated Press, an artist from Alaska, a teacher at the American Embassy School, and Derek Mitchell, who succeeded Kathy as Director of UUHIP last August. Officials at the dinner included the Embassy Spokesperson and USAID’s Chief of Mission.

The Ambassador’s guests were delighted to discover that he had chosen stunning tribal paintings to decorate Roosevelt House during his residence there. The paintings were created by members of the Gond tribe, with whom two UUHIP partners have long worked. Much discussion during the evening centered on UUHIP’s courageous partners and Kathy’s twenty-seven years working with them. Ambassador Burleigh’s dinner was a heartfelt tribute to her pioneering vision for social change in India.

Incredible Support for the UU Holdeen India Program

Derek Mitchell, the new Director of the UU Holdeen India Program (UUHIP), shares the following update:

During August and September, friends of the UU Holdeen India Program (UUHIP) have shown incredible support for the work of our partners.

An Uplifting Musical Contribution

On August 13th Keith Arnold and David Burrows of the Jefferson Unitarian Church in Colorado held an evening of song and stories to raise support for UUHIP’s work in education. Last February Keith and David spent a month teaching music at the Eklavya Parivartan Vidyalaya residential school for girls in Usgaon, Maharashtra, seventy miles from Mumbai. The school provides an education to 170 tribal girls, some of whom come from tribes with female literacy rates close to 1%. UUHIP partner organization Vidhayak Sansad established the school to change this tragic and unjust scenario, allowing hundreds of tribal girls in the Thane District of Maharahstra to become the first
educated women in their families.

Keith and David are music teachers in Colorado. Keith is Minister of Music at the Jefferson Unitarian Church and David, an expert in woodwind instruments, has been Choir Director at Columbine Unitarian Church and involved in the children’s music program at Jefferson Unitarian Church.  The administrators in Usgaon welcomed Keith and David to spend a month teaching protest songs, in the social justice spirit of the school, spirituals, and flute and assisting the English teachers with their instruction.

I had the pleasure of meeting Keith and David during their time at the school in Usgaon.  They were the model for volunteers. They came well-prepared for the culture, language, and environment that they encountered in Maharashtra and were as eager to learn as they were to teach. It isn’t easy adapting to the chaotic schedules and confusing mix of languages anyone new to India finds, but Keith and David went through it all with a smile!

Inspired by their experience with the students in Usgaon, Keith and David resolved to hold musical recitals in the United States to raise $5,000 for UUHIP’s work in education. That amount would allow one student to attend the school in Usgaon for ten years, from the first grade to the tenth, after which students can go to college in India. The recital in August featured classical songs in French and German, flute music, and a performance of “Silence and Music,” a choral piece by Keith that he conceived while in India. Keith and David also presented on their time at the school and the incredible impact it has on
students’ lives.

I was moved to learn of the reactions to the event and the generous contributions those attended made to UUHIP. Dea Brayden, special assistant to President Peter Morales, sent us her reflections:

Keith composed a choral piece that was stunning. He was inspired by his time at an ashram. That’s where that music began in his head…I can tell you that people were so so moved by the slide presentation and by the videos and recordings of the girls singing and of life at the school. Of course, Keith, David  and I were in tears.

Keith and David followed up this event with another recital for UUHIP at the home of UUA President Peter Morales and his wife Phyllis Morales. They have now raised $3,971 and plan to hold more musical fundraisers, inspired by the impact it will have on educating disadvantaged youth. The UU Holdeen India Program is deeply grateful to Keith and David for their outstanding commitment.

One Young Woman’s Dedication to Education in India

Kathy Sreedhar with students at the school in Usgaon

Early in September, Kathy Sreedhar, Director Emerita of the UU Holdeen India Program, called to tell me that her seventeen-year-old niece Emily Teall was about to donate $10,000 for our work in education! I was overwhelmed by the news. That would allow twenty new students to attend for one year. What had inspired this young woman, still in high school, to make such an incredible contribution? Kathy told me that Emily had always known about our program’s work in India through what her aunt told her growing up and the kind of education that the school in Usgaon provided tribal girls.  When she turned sixteen she surprised Kathy by donating to our program everything her family and friends gave her for her birthday. She also told Kathy that she was celebrating her birthday by taking friends to a speech by Elie Wiesel. She’s quite an amazing young woman!

That year she and her parents made a personal visit to the school in Usgaon. The girls studying at the school greeted them with songs and laughter. Pictures here of the students show just how warm and welcoming their smiles can be! The Tealls saw the plaque outside the school, dedicating the building to Kathy Sreedhar for her nearly three decades of guidance and support to the institution. They also had an inspiring interaction with Vivek Pandit, one of the founders of the school and now a Member of the Legislative Assembly in the state of Maharashtra. He told us later how impressed he was to meet a sixteen-year-old American so dedicated to the education of tribal children in India.

After Emily decided to make her contribution of $10,000, we asked her what had moved her to provide such incredible support to UUHIP. She’s a modest person and didn’t want to discuss her own motivations, but offered these reflections on the responsibility of those more prosperous to support the disadvantaged:

I believe that the difference between haves and have-nots is one of birthplace, luck or opportunity. Those who lead a life of affluence therefore have a moral responsibility to aid those in need. It costs little to those with wealth and could make a huge impact on those without; they in turn will better the world for themselves and for others, both rich and poor…Those with money also have a moral responsibility to aid those without because indifference or inaction sits no better morally than acting against someone.

Emily graduates from high school this year and we have no doubt that she will continue to inspire others with her vision and dedication. UUHIP is profoundly appreciative of her contribution to education in India.

Ela Bhatt honored with Radcliffe Award

Ela Bhatt
Image source: Harvard Magazine

In keeping with a historied tradition of honoring individuals who have had a transformative impact on society, Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study bestowed this year’s Radcliffe Institute Medal upon Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a UU Holdeen India Program partner.

“The definition of leader in SEWA is one who helps make others lead,” said Radcliffe Institute Dean Barbara J. Grosz, quoting Bhatt during her introductory remarks on Radcliffe Day, which took place May 27th.

With a legacy of leading and creating leaders, Bhatt certainly fits the bill.

Empowering over 1.3 million marginalized women in India since 1972, SEWA, under Bhatt’s leadership, has created a social justice movement that’s challenging and changing the very fabric of Indian society, believing that “it is from the margins that real transformation comes to the center.” With its origins as a women’s trade union, SEWA has steadily developed into a self-governed NGO, offering assistance in the form of  microlending, health and life insurance, and child care to its members.

“The Radcliffe Institute is proud to honor [Bhatt] this year, in which gender in the developing world is one of its dominant themes,” the Institute said. The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University is a scholarly community where individuals pursue advanced work across a wide range of academic disciplines, professions and creative arts, with sustained commitment to the study of women, gender, and society.

Over the years, Bhatt has been internationally recognized for her incredible social justice work. Last November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton honored Bhatt with the Global Fairness Initiative Award; Bhatt was also the 2010 honoree of the Niwano Peace Prize.

The Unitarian Universalist Association, through the UU Holdeen India Program, has been a strong ally and supporter of SEWA for the last 27 years.

Read Harvard Magazine’s coverage of Radcliffe Day and hear Ela Bhatt’s speech