Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1: 5 September 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editor: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.


A. Bendangyabang Ao, D.Min.


Ao is a language of the Naga group of languages within the Tibeto-Burman family. This language is mainly spoken in the state of Nagaland, India. However, the speakers of this language are found in major metropolitan cities of India. With growing literacy, and with enthusiasm to develop their language and maintain its distinct identity, a good number of the speakers of this language write a variety of literature in this language. Strictly speaking, however, the literacy work between the Ao and other Naga peoples was initiated only after the advent of the Christian missionaries from America in 1872. The spread of the gospel among the Naga peoples encouraged the writing of the hitherto unwritten languages. The missionaries who served these peoples developed script systems for most of the Naga languages.

Ao Nagas appear to have migrated to their present habitat in the state of Nagaland from Mongolia through the Southeast Asia sometime in AD 400 (Bendangyabang, pp. 33-32). Ao Naga was primarily a preliterate language until the missionaries introduced the writing system. Oral tradition of the Ao Nagas indicates that the Ao Nagas had their own writing system in the past, but a dog ate the writings that were in a leather parchment, during the process of Ao migration to the present land. The tradition also states, and we all know it by experience, that the dogs like to eat bones and leather. The Ao Nagas have a good memory of the past, and they transmit this knowledge of the past constantly through narration.


In 1872, an American Baptist (Northern) missionary, Edward Winter Clark, came to the Ao people in Molungkimong village from his mission headquarters in Sibsagar, Assam. His Assamese interpreter, Godhula Rufus Brown, assisted Dr. Clark in this effort of reaching out to the Ao people. There were already 9 Ao Nagas who accepted Christ as the Lord and Savior and had been baptized on November 10, 1872 in Sibsagar. On December 22, 1872, Dr. Clark and his interpreter Brown performed the Baptism and Holy Communion among the villagers of Molungkimong, and organized the new believers into a Christian fellowship.

Clark settled for good in the Ao land in 1876. He initiated the development of Ao literature and the translation of the Bible into Ao. Ao was not written until that time. Clark had to study the language as spoken by the people, and observe the speech habits of the Ao people. His problem was to establish a mental connection in his mind first of all linking the speech of the people to some writing system so that he could work out a correspondence between the two. Clark chose the Roman script to represent the sounds of Ao language. He started putting the Ao "junglee" dialect into literary form using most of the letters used in the English alphabet.

In 1878, two years after Clark chose to settle down among the Ao people, his wife, Mary Mead Clark, also joined him. She realized the need to open a school in order to acculturate the Ao people with the world outside, far beyond the Ao land. This further hastened the development of Ao literature. In order to teach the students, Clark and Mary formulated and printed first Ao Naga alphabet and simple grammar in their hand printing press in 1880. Along with this Clark also started translating the Bible into Ao language. That is how the Bible translation work in Ao Naga was started.


After putting the spoken Ao language into writing, Clark and Mary began their Bible translation and other literary works in Ao language. For this they took the help of Ao elders who could communicate with them in broken Assamese or in broken English. Gradually both Clark and Mary learned the Ao language. This helped them tremendously in their translation work. They began to understand the intricacies of Ao speech. They started comparing and contrasting Ao language with their own mother tongue.

After about 11 years of severe limitations and hardships, Clark and Mary printed the first translation of the Gospel of Matthew in 1883. The printing of the Gospel of John followed in 1906, and the first Ao Dictionary came out in 1911. The gospels of Matthew and Mark were reprinted in 1919, and the Gospel of Luke in 1920. The first edition of the New Testament came out in 1929. Subsequent editions were brought out in 1931 and 1949.


Some Ao people assisted the missionaries ably. Notable among them were Idijungba, Subonglemba, Kilep, and Allem. Ao has had several dialectal differences. Clark chose the jungli Ao dialect to translate the Bible and its literature. He followed the method of literal translation to a great extent. Therefore, even today, several words and their meanings need some interpretation. Clark and Mary used the method of dynamic equivalence very sparingly.

Mr. Rongsennuken was officially appointed the first Ao Naga translator in the 1920s. He translated most of the epistles and some of the Gospels again. After the death of Clark, the missionaries R.B.Longwell and C.W.Smith, and the first Ao Naga Head Master of the Mission school Mr. Mayangnokcha took up the responsibility for the translation of the Bible. Other missionaries who came after them and were stationed in Impur continued to pursue the translation work with vigor and enthusiasm. During this period the missionaries concentrated on the translation of the books in New and Old Testaments.


The translation work pursued by the missionaries of the later period used the colloquial terms used by the people. The use of common people's language helped speed up the translation work. In places where Ao did not have an equivalent meaning for the Bible word, the translators borrowed the English word and used it with the Ao spelling. They also adopted the Assamese or Hindi spoken spelling. The following examples will illustrate this point:

Fork in I Samuel 13:21 was used as it is in English.
Powder in Song of Solomon 3:6 was used as it is in English.
Mandrakes in Song of Solomon 7:13 was used as it is in English.
Nurse in II Samuel 4:4 was translated as 'aya' as used in Assamese.
Royal post in II Chronicles was translated as 'sentry dak' as used in Assamese.
Sellers in Nehemiah 13:20 was translated as 'dokantar' as used in Assamese.
Sackloth in Psalm 35:13 was translated as 'toila' as used in Assamese.
Hammer in Psalm 74:6 was translated as 'matrol' used in Assamese.
Bridle in Proverbs 26:3 was translated as 'lakam' as used in Assamese and Hindi.
Hinges in Proverbs 26:14 was translated as 'kepja' as used in Assamese and Hindi.


The Literature Committees constituted by the leaders of the various people groups in North East India have been very influential in developing literatures in the hitherto unwritten languages. These committees have been led by young men who were passionate about the development of their languages as fit vehicles of expression. These committees were greatly involved in the translation of the Bible and in the production of textbooks, etc.

The Ao Christian Literature Committee started in 1950. The first meeting of the Committee was held on the 7th January 1950. The Ao Mungdang appointed the Committee during its session in December 1949 in Kangtsung village. The translation committee members included Mr. Shilukaba as the Chairman. The first meeting of the Committee decided to print 10,000 copies of the Ao Naga Holy Bible as a revised and enlarged edition. This was done under the supervision of the missionary Dr. C.E.Hunter, and Mr. Nokdenlemba as the Translator. The Old Testament books were distributed among various persons for revision and translation. Not all these translators were theologically trained. But those who were not theologically trained had their secular degrees and had been working in government service.

The Committee met several times for consultation and to pass necessary resolutions. A decision was taken in the second meeting that the translation work should be completed within the stipulated period. If a translator failed to complete his work within the stipulated period, Mr. Nokdenlemba would complete the unfinished work. The focus of the committee was to translate only those books of the Old Testament that had not been translated so far. Thus the following books were taken up for translation. The names of the persons who were assigned the translation work are given within parentheses against each book: Psalms (Mayangnokcha); Proverbs (Medemkaba); Judges (Subongmeiba); I and II Samuel (Shilukaba); I and II Kings (Yajenlemba); I and II Chronicles (Imnukluba); Job (Bendangwati); Ezra, and Esther: (Mopumeren); Jeremiah (Longritangchetba); Nehemiah (Tekasosang), and Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon (Stephen). The Committee also decided to make changes in the translation done previously for the book of Psalms. It was originally translated as David ken (Song of David). Now this was changed to Temungsang ken (Psalm).

The Committee also appointed Bendangwati, Yajenlemba, and Mayangnokcha to undertake an entire revision of all the books translated already, and to read the manuscripts of all the translations done. In addition, the Committee also resolved to use the following: Kibua for the 'Lord'; Yihova for 'Jehova'; Yisu for 'Jesu'; Mari for 'Maria,' Yirusalem for 'Jerusalem,' etc. This took the nomenclature used in the translation closer to the original tongues of the Bible.

With help from all the persons mentioned above, and some persons not mentioned, it took more than 14 years to complete the first printing of the entire Holy Bible as a single volume in Ao Naga language. Printing of the volume was done in England, and the size of the printed book was chosen to be the same size as the New Assamese Bible.


Further revision of the Ao translation of the New Testament was assigned to the following persons: Gospels of Matthew, Gospel of Mark (Imtiluen); Gospel of Luke, and Gospel of John (Takosungba); Acts, Romans (Mopumeren); I and II Corinthians (Remasangba); I and II Timothy, I and II Peter (Ayutemjen); I John, and Revelation (Kijungluba).

Majority of the translators came from the following professions: government officials, teachers, evangelists, and missionaries (foreigners from America).


By God's abundant grace, and with all the efforts and diligent work of the lead translator Nokdenlemba, who was assisted by Bendangwati, the Holy Bible in Ao Naga was dedicated for public use on 29th November 1964. Three thousand copies were sold within one hour of its release. Ao Nagas were thirsty for the Word of God in their own language, and when they heard that the Holy Bible was being released in their own language they borrowed money and thronged the sales counter. Literally it was a mad rush.


The release of the Holy Bible in Ao Naga not only nourished the Ao people spiritually it also helped the growth of the language in significant ways. Ao language writers started writing their language using the diction, styles, grammar and spellings used in the Bible translation. Teachers in Ao schools set their standards by the language used in the Bible. In a language that lacked written creative literature, the stories from the Bible became the major literary works. The metaphor and idiom that the translation used came very handy for those who wished to write personal and official communications in Ao Naga. The language is endowed with very many literary and language forms and functions. The translation gave several models for the textbooks to be used. The benefits of the translation are boundless in time and space for the Ao Naga people.

People with a simple knowledge of their language, but committed to their God and to the task, have accomplished something really tremendous. Their goal was to preach the Gospel, but the net result went beyond what they anticipated. The missionaries perhaps did not realize that theirs was a great and pioneering work in Ao Naga. The pain that they underwent sitting with the village tribals, ignored so far by the outside world as the headhunting marauders, in places not easily accessible, and crafting the alphabet of the language they barely knew, was fully rewarded by the gratefulness of Ao Nagas for the service rendered to them. Equally important is the contribution of the few literate Ao Nagas who spent several years of their life doing the translation work faithfully, with no personal gain. They did all this in addition to their regular official work. Today we see that the whole Ao people come together under one literary and written language and spelling despite several dialectal and other linguistic problems.


  1. Ao, A. Bendangyabang. History of Christianity and Social Change among the Aos, 1872-1972. A Doctoral dissertation. Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, Bangalore.
  2. Clark, Edward Winter. "Lette," as found in A. Bendangyabang.Ao. 1998. History of Christianity in Nagaland: A Source Material. Shalom Ministry, Mokokchung.
  3. Wati, I.Ben. 1989. Laishiba Juri Otsu. Clark Theological College, Mokokchung.

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