An RT documentary crew traveled to see Ziona, the head of the world’s largest family, who has led a quasi-Christian cult in rural India for decades.His family remains loyal but lapsed members are less enamored with the polygamous sect, within which women seem to have few rights.
“God! Our great God that gives us light! We're standing before you on this beautiful morning, we serve you and our country. We seek your blessings. Amen,” members of New Generation chant during their morning prayers dedicated not to Jesus, but to their 72-year-old leader.
The cult occupies a massive purpose-built compound outside Baktwang, a village in the north-eastern state of Mizoram, which is inhabited by the predominantly Christian Mizo people. There are currently about 1,000 sect members.
A notable proportion of them are direct relatives of Ziona himself. According to the latest count, the leader Ziona has 38 wives and 89 children, and dozens of grand-children in a broadly branching family tree.
Overseeing a family unit of such size requires schoolmasterly discipline, and everything within the complex is done according to rotas, from meal and prayer sessions, to the allocation of time with the leader, whose wives alternate in his bed, one week at a time.
Despite his status as a deity, Ziona’s past is not as mythological as might be expected, although he refuses to be filmed by TV crews. Relatives openly admit that the cult leader was a womanizer and a drinker in his younger years, while his father led an embryonic incarnation of the now-popular sect, which had already been expelled from one village for its iconoclastic beliefs.
“After his father died, everything changed,” explained Zana, Ziona’s cousin.
The cult remains idiosyncratic in its practices – there are no Bibles on the campus, and instead statues of the Lion, a totem of fertility as well as an early Christian symbol, populate the otherwise-sparse quarters. Ziona’s father also propagated the idea that the human body is immortal, a central tenet of the cult’s thinking, although one not accepted literally by all members.
The faith is reinforced by elaborate marching ceremonies for children that more resemble military parades than religious rituals, hours-long prayer sessions and orgiastic dances lasting into the night. A local cable station, run by Ziona’s son. allows followers constant contact with the sect.
“They don't believe in Christ. They think that the times of Jesus have passed. Now, they've got Ziona instead,” said Zana.
Zana grew up a member of New Generation, but left in the late 1970s, when she married a man following the more conventional Presbyterian denomination of Christianity. She says that she is now shunned by the sect members.
Like other villagers living next door to the cult – who legally separated from New Generation after the cult’s representatives kept invariably winning the village elder elections – she is concerned about some of its practices.
Most of the cult members work long hours in the fields, producing crops – Ziona himself symbolically leads the farmhands – but receive only food and boarding-house lodging in return. Those sect members with an income are encouraged to donate a “tithe” that goes directly to Ziona, and his favored sons. There is no outside oversight of finances, though envious neighbors say that the cult has grown wealthier than its surroundings.
While his wives insist that they love Ziona, in practice, the men of the New Generation pick the poorest women from nearby villages, and arrange for them to be married into the sect, which allows all men to be polygamous. Once inside, they are assigned chores, and stand little chance of receiving an education or attaining independence.
Yet, as the crew filmed Ziona’s 72-nd birthday, there were few outward signs that the arrangement is unsatisfactory to either side, with members of the cult’s private militia handing out meats, a luxury reserved for feasts, to thankful villagers, who wolfed down the generous portions.
But inevitably, the passing of another year brings about thoughts of what will happen once Ziona ascends to heaven.
“We keep asking them ‘Should Ziona die, what's going to happen to the commune?’ They say ‘No, he won't die. He's immortal," said Azan, the local Presbyterian pastor, somewhat dismissively.
Despite his reluctance to speak on camera, RT’s crew managed to finally gain access to Ziona, to ask him about whether he genuinely believes he is a God and an immortal. To their surprise, the man at the center of the cult dismissed the lore growing around him out of hand.
“A man cannot be God. It's impossible no matter what they might say. God uses me in certain ways to watch over his people. That all and nothing more,” Ziona said with a wry smile.