It was the sort of mass that Pope John Paul II has come to relish in his far-flung travels. There were exotically dressed natives, dancing girls and even a tribe of reformed headhunters.
Dressed in loincloths, colored shawls and with elaborate headdresses made of feathers, bear skins and boar tusks, the once feared headhunters of nearby Nagaland's Konyak tribe danced around the beaming pope as he arrived here to celebrate mass on a former colonial golf course at this northeast highlands hill station in the most isolated corner of India.
Performing their traditional dance of peacemaking, the Konyaks waved the razor-sharp, two-foot-long dao, the weapon of headhunting as recently as two decades ago, to the pope's delight and the obvious nervousness of security officials.
"This is what we have worked for here and what the pope has come to see," said Father Kesudah Fernando. He is one of the Indian Roman Catholics who has been working with the Konyaks and other former animists who long have been the dominant population in this land at the foot of the Himalayas that is almost totally surrounded by Burma, Bhutan and Bangladesh.
"As recently as 1967 these men were hunting heads," Fernando said. "Today they are peace-loving Christians."
One of the model converts attending the mass was 62-year-old Nyamnye Abraham, who told journalists, through Fernando's interpreting, that he had cut off five heads in his day.
"We used to believe in the power of spirits that hovered over all heads, those of friends and foes," he said. "To increase your own spirits, you took the head of another."
That stopped, he said, after priests came and began convincing them to adopt Christianity, which Abraham said he did in October of 1984 because "everyone else was turning Christian -- I thought, why be a pagan?"
He had made the two-day trip through the tropical hills from his native Nagaland, one of the seven small Indian states that make up this area, because "the pope is a small god.
"I came to see him. I am very happy to have come to see him," said the former headhunter, a brass necklace with five small heads representing the ones he had taken in war dangling around his neck.
The presence and performance here at the mass of the headhunters, and the other tribesmen in attendance, represented the extent to which the church, since the Second Vatican Council, has embarked on "inculturation," or the inclusion of local cultural symbols, music and language into the traditional Latin rites.
It is an issue that has divided the church, and at times clearly bothered the pope when it has been taken to extremes, as it has in some places in Africa. The impetus for inculturation has come mostly from Third World churches that want to make what is often perceived in their countries as a western, foreign creed, a religion that relates more to local customs and traditions.
The pope addressed the issue today at the mass on the rolling golf course in Shillong before a crowd that may have reached 100,000. The ceremony included modern, upbeat choral music, a first reading of the gospel in native Khasi, and an offertory accompanied by more tribal dances.
Aware of the fact that it is among the animist tribesmen such as the Konyaks that the church has had its greatest evangelizing success in otherwise Hindu India, the pope today spoke of how first missionaries to the territory in the past century "zealously implanted" Christ's message "into each cultural milieu" they found.
"Today the proclamation continues and it is being lived out in every corner of this region in harmonious dialogue with local tradition," the pope said in his homily.
Having clearly enjoyed the spectacle and the signs of faith he saw here, the pope flew back to Calcutta to say a final mass in the city's central Brigade Parade Ground before a crowd estimated by police at 200,000.