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Saroj Nalini Arambam

Theological Scholars of Manipur Commemorate Saroj Nalini Arambam, First Theologian and First Woman BA, MA

Indian Christians will be celebrating the Indian Christian Day on 3 July 2021, marking of 1970 years birth of the church in India, the coming of St Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus in 52AD. On this occasion, a light is thrown to the theological scholars of North East India, of one theologian, they missed out in their historical account of research.

Arambam Saroj Nalini Parratt is well known among the scholars in North East India, but not to the theological students of the region. She was the first, who did Bachelor of Divinity from London University during the 1950s.

Saroj was born at the Meino Leirak of Imphal, the state capital of Manipur on June 2, 1933. Her father Ibohal Arambam was a well-known educationalist and worked as an officer, posted at Jiribam during the war. Saroj began her schooling there and later went to Haflong in Assam for high school. After the completion of high school, Saroj went to Kolkata for college and became the first woman BA and MA graduate from Manipur.

She had Naga Christian friends while studying at Kolkata and became close connection to the Christian faith. She embraced Christianity and look baptism from Walter Corlett, who was then the minister at Lower Circular Road, Kolkata. Walter Corlett served in Manipur during wartime.

Christian faith became a prominent factor in Saroj’s life and went to London for theological studies at the beginning of the 1950s and became the first person from Manipur, completed a Bachelor of Divinity. Manipur, like the rest of North East India, has a tradition of marking the name of pioneering individuals in any field, particularly among the churches. Yet, the name of Saroj needs to enter into history as the first theologian of Manipur. As per the work done by Saroj and defining the exact definition of the theologian, Saroj will be a lesser qualification to be named as a theologian, but she is the first person from the state of Manipur, completed Bachelor of Divinity, which is as a theological study.

After completing her theological study at London University, she married John Parratt and had three daughters. Saroj and John wanted to come back to Manipur and work but did not work the place and while going through the frustration, they decided to work in the developing nations and went to Nigeria for work. Saroj worked as a tutor of philosophy at the University of Ile-lfe, while John enrolled in doctorate study at the Australian National University. Later Saroj enrolled in the Ph.D. program under the Department of Asian Studies at the same university. Their student took longer and went to Papua-New Guinea for fieldwork. Later, she came to Manipur in 1972 for field research and she completed her doctorate within the following three years.

Professor Suniti Kumar Chatterji, one of Saroj’s examiner of the work, was interested in North East India and helped Saroj to publish her thesis as a book by Firma KLM, Kolkata in 1980. The publication of Saroj’s thesis as a book became an important step for her life and later her work became inspire the young scholar of Manipur.

Saroj taught in African countries including the universities of Malawi and Botswana from 1975 to 1990. She wrote many articles on the Islam of Botswana and the Christian women of Tswana and many of them were published in different periodicals.

Though Saroj could not come back to her birthplace and work and ended up in the developing countries, working for years, far away from her homeland, yet she never gave up her dreams and passion for Manipur. She was passionate about the Meitei, her ethnic group in North-East India. She came very often to Manipur for her passionate fieldwork. Later developed a close relationship with Manipur University.

She was appointed as an honorary visiting professor there in 2001. She along with John wrote several research papers and presented them in the seminars conducted by Manipur University, many of them were published in the local papers. Saroj’s two main books are ‘Queen Empress vs. Tikendrajit, the Anglo-Manipuri Conflict 1891’ and ‘The Pleasing of Gods: Meitei Lai Haraoba’ published by Vikas, New Delhi.

Saroj and John left Botswana in 2000, came to England, and settled at Carsiles and she continued her work on Manipur until she went to be with Jesus on January 3, 2009.

Before leaving Botswana, Saroj had a desire to translate Cheithārol Kumbaba, the important royal chronicle of Manipur into English. She came to Manipur and had an opportunity to meet the Amāibas and Amāibees, the scholars of the Meitei religion. She could collect a photocopy of Cheithārol Kumbaba, the Royal Chronicle, originally written in ancient Meitei script. Saroj mastered the Meitei script within a short time that she used later in her translation of the royal chronicle of Manipur.

Saroj got an opportunity to work as an honorary fellow of the Institute of Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing of The University of Birmingham, began the translation of the Cheithārol Kumbaba, and continued the work until she breathed the last. After completing the first volume of the translation, the Royal Asiatic Society sponsored The Court Chronicle of the Kings of Manipur: the Cheitharol Kumpapa and published in 2005 by Routledge.

By then, Saroj had developed a terminal illness, and she completed the first draft of the second volume a week before she passed away. John completed later volume 2 and 3, from the work left by Saroj. The translated version of Cheithārol Kumbaba has opened a way wide for future scholars.

Christians in Manipur have not recognized the work of Saroj. It will be a pride for the Christians in Manipur with the fact that Saroj as a Christian, being the first theologian and first woman, completed BA and MA did the translation work of the important historical account of Manipur.

Saroj Nalini Arambam Parratt has earned well known among North-East India and yet to be known among the Christians about the work she and her husband did for the mongoloid people.

Unlike the Christian theologians of the state, there is no historical record of her involvement in the mission. Having said this, in one of the trips for fieldwork in 1989, she went to different Meitei churches and met them. By then I was posted at Dimapur, Nagaland, and went to Wangjing Mission compound for a month-long program. During the program, Saroj visited the Wangjing Mission compound and she wept after seeing so many new Meitei Christians, she has never seen. Since then, until she breathed last, I had closed exchanges of correspondence and had several discussions on the issues related to Manipur, particularly Meitei Christians. She had a desire to see many Meitei Christians go for higher studies.

Her books are listed at the end of the article, which is widely available online and in shops in Manipur. One the piece, she wrote “The Early Meitei Christians” and presented it in a seminar conducted by Manipur University in 2004, which was published in the local newspaper and its online version was available at kanglaonline.com for a long time but disappeared now. With permission from Saroj, I translated it into Manipuri and it is available on social media and became questionable who was the first Christian in Manipur.

In the article, she has mentioned her finding of early Meitei Christians from the oral resources of the people who lived with those first Christians, which is not found in the work of the theological scholars from Manipur.

Saroj identified the two first Christians of Manipur. Angom Kaboklei from the royal family was one of the queens of Tripura king. Maharaja Birchandra Manikya had many wives including three Meitei women. Kaboklei was the third Meitei wife of Maharaja Birchandra Maikya. Kaboklei became a Christian at Sylhet, which is part of Bangladesh now after she met a missionary in 1894, the year the first missionary to Manipur, William Pettigrew arrived in Manipur. She became a widow after maharaja Birchandra Maikya expired in 1896. Thereafter Kaboklei came to Manipur as a Christian and worked with the few early Christians of Manipur in those early years.

The second first Christian, Saroj mentioned in her work was Angom Porom Singh from Phayeng, who became Christian in 1896, two years after Pettigrew come to Manipur. The historians, yet no attempt done on the finding of Kaboklei consider Angom Porom Singh the first Christian in Manipur. These two individuals are the first Christians of Manipur, who became Christian first; the scholars will need to dig down the history, rather than quoting and requoting from the ones written without much research.

Works done by Saroj: 1. The Religion of Manipur (Calcutta 1980). 2. The Court Chronicle of the Kings of Manipur, original text, translation, and notes vol. 1 (London and Delhi 2005). 3. The Court Chronicle of the Kings of Manipur, original text, translation, and notes vol. 2 (Delhi 2009). 4. The Court Chronicle of the Kings of Manipur, original text, translation, and notes vol. 3 (Delhi, forthcoming).

Works did with John: 1. Queen-Empress vs. Tikendrajit, the Anglo-Manipur Conflict of 1891 (Delhi 1992). 2. The Pleasing of the Gods, Meetei Lai Haraoba (Delhi 1997).

Madhu Chandra is a Hyderabad based freelancer and former spokesperson of North East Helpline, Delhi.

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