Fr Pritam Toppo belongs to the Society of the Missionaries of Saint Francis Xavier, and has been working in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for years, bringing the joy of the Gospel to some of India’s remotest communities.
His tasks come with many challenges, ranging from encounters with
tribesmen armed with bows and arrows to centipede crawling on his body
at the night as he slept in huts.
As soon as he was ordained in Goa, headquarters of the Society, the
new priest left for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an Indian Territory
in the Bay of Bengal. Here, his mission has been full of challenges.
Yet, all these experiences, he told AsiaNews, have enhanced his “joy and faith in Jesus Christ".
Fr Toppo teaches and provides pastoral outreach to the local
population. His first destination was the parish of Campbell Bay in
Great Nicobar, the island on the southern part of the archipelago, a
territory of some 572 islands, islets and rocks. Here the missionary
concelebrated Mass, and served as pastoral guide for youth and children.
He was later assigned to the regional house of the congregation in
the territorial capital, Port Blair, where he was in charge of the
administration as well as the kindergarten.
Now, on his third assignment, he serves the Rangat parish, on Smith Island, north-central part of the archipelago.
From the start, the "mission was very tough,” he said, because of
“limited means of transport”. There were “no jeeps, no autos, [. . .]
only state transport services”. Even those were limited. Sometimes if
one “vehicle breaks down, there are no other buses to replace it”.
this happens, “we had to cancel Masses without informing the village
heads as there were no telephone services in the village.”
The mission is still at its beginning and has to be built up. The local population is mainly aboriginal.
"One day we were going to a village far from the parish to celebrate
mass. I was with nuns. Since there was no approach road, one had to walk
seven or eight miles to reach that particular village. One had to go
through the deep forest and cross many streams, rivers and wet ground
soaked with rain water. There were leeches to suck our blood.”
“On that particular day, in the middle of the journey in the deep
forest, we encountered a primitive hostile tribe, called Jarawas. They
were 15, equipped with bows and arrows. Immediately seeing them, I asked
the nuns to remove their veils and hide under a big tree. I too took
shelter under a big tree. We were lucky that they went on their way
doing no harm to us. Then we came out from our hiding pace and once
again gathered our courage and with great fear reached our destination.”
Compared to a world that is technologically driven, time seems to
have stopped here. Often the missionary manages to reach the remotest
villages to say Mass only once a month. This is the case of the area
inhabited mainly by Catholics from the Oncnochers tribe.
The local church “is built of forest products with bamboo thatched
roof. When visiting, Fr Toppo stays overnight. The village has no
electric light and everything is done with lit candles.
During his stays, he holds catechism classes for children, chairs
meetings to discuss the universal Church and resolve issues related to
marriage and baptism. The meetings can last until 11 pm, followed by
Then "we spend the night sleeping on mats on the floor. During the
night we are aware of snakes and centipedes, which are very common in
the forest. Many times I found snakes hanging over my bed from the
ceiling, as well as centipedes crawling over my body. But these are
experiences that enhance the joy and faith in Jesus Christ.
In addition to pastoral outreach to Catholics, he also visits Hindus,
Muslims and animists and they celebrate together the feast of their
respective religious traditions.
The archipelago is like a mini India. “All people participate with
solidarity in all the joys and sorrow of each other irrespective of
caste, creed and languages.”