'The train of good news'

Bnei Menashe tribespeople recollect visions directing them to Israel.

Ramsiami said she had forgotten much but would tell us what she remembered. Chala, whose widow still lived in Ratu, had had many visions; Darnghaka, Ramsiami thought, had had but one. His spirit had left his body and his eyes were closed. Ramsiami remembered that clearly. She remembered kneeling by his side and praying. Prayer was the mi hlims’ [Pentecostals’] way of bringing back a spirit. As she prayed, she shut her eyes and had a vision of her own. “I saw Darnghaka become a small child and enter a house,” she said. “I could see inside, so I put his head in my lap and went on praying. Then I saw him come out. His head was surrounded by light. I asked what had happened, but he wouldn’t tell me. I wanted so badly to know.” Darnghaka related his vision to the UPC elders. “We all assumed, it was God’s spirit,” Ramsiami said. “We didn’t know for sure, though, until the elders summoned us and said, ‘You are the children of Manasseh. When we heard that, we were in much joy and sang and danced all around.” “The next vision, Ramsiami recalled, was Chala’s. “He fell unconscious to the floor in church. When he awoke, he told us we must return to Israel.” The elders sent three men, Darnghaka, Sankhuma, and Dothanga, to Silchar, the nearest big city, to find out how to get to Israel. They walked all the way. In Silchar they were informed that an Israeli consul resided in Calcutta. Before setting out for there (Darnghaka remained in Buolawng), Sankhuma and Dothanga were told by Chala, “You are going to bring back good news. Be sure to tell no one about it until you return.” And indeed the consul in Calcutta told Sankhuma and Dothanga that all the children of Manasseh could go to Israel. The two were overjoyed. Unable to restrain themselves, they revealed the glad tidings to everyone on the train they took back to Silchar. The consequences were immediate. The story was published in the newspapers, and the CID sent investigators to nip the emigration movement in the bud. “They told us only slackers wished to go to Israel,” Ramsiami said. (Good in the 1990s, Indian-Israeli relations were poor in the 1950s, when Jawaharlal Nehru was courting the Muslim world.) Although she tried to be accurate, tapping her little palm with a forefinger as if to match each detail against a checklist in her memory, her account of the consul’s declaration was different from Doliana’s and less probable.The story of the “train of good news,” as she called it, with its Pandora-like secret, sounded like folklore. Indeed, the entire episode was already encrusted with legend. In Israel I had been told that all of Chala’s followers had set out on foot for Silchar, intending to walk the rest of the way to Jerusalem. “How many were you?” I asked. Ramsiami thought the Buolawng movement had numbered one or two hundred people. Once they realized they were not going to Israel, they left the UPC and founded a church of their own, called the Church of God. The break occurred when Chala instructed them to observe the Old Testament Sabbath in place of the Christian Sunday. Subsequently, they stopped eating pork and reinstated biblical sacrifice on a hilltop outside the village... Ramisiami said, “We knew nothing about Judaism. We didn’t know what a Jew was. We never used that word. We said Israel.” Judaism came later. First the Buolawng movement spread north into Manipur along the Ratu-Churachandpur road; then it returned from there in Jewish guise. The first to come preaching Judaism from Manipur was Gideon Ray. The events described took place in 1954.” This interview, excerpted from Across The Sabbath River by Hillel Halkin (2002), was conducted in 1999 in the town of Ratu in northern Mizoram with a woman named Ramsiami, who took part in the original “Israel movement,” that occurred in the nearby town of Buolawng and that eventually led to the formation of the Judaizing Bnei Menashe. Halkin comments: “While anyone reading this and other passages might well conclude that I think the whole ‘Manmasi-Manasseh’ equation is pure ly fanciful, the ultimate conclusion of my book, as incredible as it may seem (and did at first to me), is that it is not, and that there is a real historical connection between these two names and between ancient tribe of Menashe and some of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo’s ancestors.” The Editor