TODAY -

Customary laws Relating to Birth and death of the CHIKIMS
- Part 2 -

Dr. Priyadarshni M. Gangte *

Cultural Programmes at Chandel District level Kut festival at Molnoi Khului Ground, Chandel on 01 November 2012
Cultural Programmes at Chandel District level Kut festival at Molnoi Khului Ground, Chandel on 01 November 2012
Pix by Gyanand Naorem



Death Rites :

Like birth of child every society has its own funeral rites as well (Raymond Firth, Human Types, 1958, p. 145.). When a member of a society dies, a group of people usually including close kinsfolk of the dead, assemble round the corpse, mourn for it, and arrange for its disposal (Ibid). The assembly is not merely a matter of choice, but it is dictated by obligation of a strong sanction. Likewise, the mourning is also usually not left to the discretion of the mourner's own emotions (Hindu Dharmashastras.

Especially Manu's Dharmashastra and the provisions made therein have been codified in the Hindu Funerary rites.). He is expected to mourn in prescribed forms, the intensity of his grief is almost codified according to the kinship status and not infrequently he receives some material acknowledgement of these services. It may be thought that the funeral rites would be concerned primarily with the fate of the soul of the dead man to facilitate his continuity and well-being in the next world.

This is often the case, but frequently this aspect receives only small attention. There may be a little talk about the afterworld and of the soul, which has departed and few rites to ensure its safe passage and preservation. Most of the time may be occupied with feasting and exchange of goods and future arrangement for the members of his family.

There is much truth in the view that the essential function of the ritual is to deal with the survivors rather than with the dead. As Radcliff-Brown has shown for the 'Andaman Islander' the death of an individual leaves a gap in the social group and disturbs the emotions of those who still live. The funeral ritual provides a channel for the expression of these emotions, and enforces consideration of the role that the individual has played in the social life.

Firth (Raymond Firth, Human Types, 1958, p. 145) contended that closely connected with the religion of any society is the mode in which the bodies of the dead are disposed of. Burial in the earth is the simplest and most natural mode of disposing of a dead body, and this mode is prevalent among the Mizos. There are slight variations in the method of burial and the choice of a grave but the general system prevails throughout Mizo societies. Even the Meiteis not so long ago had practised burial of their dead. It is after the second coming of the Hindu cultural influence that cremation was accepted as the form of disposal of the dead. This becomes more popular mode as it was considered to be more hygienic than burial.

Davis (A. W. Davis, Gazetteer of the North Lushai Hills, 1915, p. 14) in his study on the North Lushai Hills published in 1915 observed that among the 'Sailo' and other elite clans, the body of a dead man was never buried, that after death the body was placed in a coffin, hewn out of a large log and that the coffin was placed on the floor of the deceased's house, near the fire place and was connected through a hole in the bottom with the ground below the house by a bamboo tube through which fluid of the body got deposited.

The body was then placed in the coffin, which was hermetically sealed with clay and left in front of the fire for a period of four or five months. By the end of this period, the body was fully decomposed and decayed. When only the bones remained, they were then collected and placed in an ordinary wicket-basket and subsequently kept in the house. (The use of gun is quite recent but in olden days gongs were used to convey the message or beating of drums symbolized the gravity of the serration in the village or the area.)

As for ordinary man, the custom was to place the corpse on the floor in a sitting posture. He was dressed up in all his best clothes. So dressed, the corpse held a levee as it were, of all its friends and relatives came together to mourn the death for one day at least. Thereafter, the dead body was placed in a coffin and buried near the house. So we can see two different trends. However, one thing that was common was the ritual of collecting bones and burying them for posterity.

Among the Lakhers, immediately after the death of a person a gun is fired (The use of pugree is a main that contribution in the belief systems of the sun communities in the North East.) so that the spirit of the dead man reach the 'Athiki' (dead person's place) and also to signal the villagers that the sick person is no more alive. The body is washed with warm water, the hair is greased and properly tied and also properly dressed with a loin cloth, a cloth and a puggree (A. W. Davis, Gazetteer of the North Lushai Hills, 1915, p. 14) in case of a man and with all her best clothes for a woman. (N. E. Parry, Op. cit; , p. 399).

Two bamboos are placed diagonally against the wall at the back of the house, and a mat is placed across these bamboo and the body is laid on the mat in a reclining position with its feet on the floor. Just above the dead man's head, against the wall a shelf is erected for placing rice and cooked eggs for the soul of the dead man. And it is disgraceful if flies are found sitting on the corpse, thus special attention is taken. 'Rikia' or 'wake' is held by all friends of the deceased who bring 'sahma' (rice beer) known as 'Bupa'.

To accompany the spirit to 'Athiki', mithun, pig or whatever is available is sacrificed. Throughout this wake (Rikia) dancing with the beats of drums and gongs everyday, rice, meat and Sahma (rice beer) are placed in the deceased's mouth. The Pupa stands on the verandah facing towards the dead body telling to go to Athikhi happily and not to worry about his relatives (N. E. Parry, Op. Cit.). After this the Pupa cuts the beam and doorway of the house with a dao. After completing these, he dances round inside the house three times, and is followed by another man dancing at a time with two more men. At the end of each round one has to stamp his feet to show that the dance is over. The dancing in this process is called 'Rakhatla' and the object of the same is to please the soul. 'Rikia' is observed for two or three days.

Lakhers burry their dead bodies in the evening near the house. The Pupa leads the burial party followed by young men carrying the corpse and the relatives, he lays down the corpse, pushes the feet first into cove at one end of the grave. And before pushing down to the grave, the wife or husband of the deceased taps the body gently with his or her hand biding farewell by telling not to worry about him or her and also to go happily to Athikhi (Ibid, p. 400). Then the priest closes the grave with a stone and also covers it with a flat stone on the grave to place meal every morning until memorial stone is erected. In this connection, the Pupa after performing all his duties, before returning home, accepts 'ru' (dead man's price), which is paid by the relatives of the deceased. Prior to this, Pupa is obliged to kill a pig.

A death due consists of a main price called 'rupi' and the following subsidiary prices shown below (N. E. Parry, Op. cit.; p.420).
Phavaw (a pumtek bead);
Raibong (a sahma pot);
Bongta (a small sahma pot);
Sietla (The payment to be made because a mithun was killed for riha. This was prevalent in the olden days, but it is hardly killed , however, rice is still claimed);
Pangbu (a cloth);
Atu (a hoe) and
Thuasang (dao)

The above discussions of the death ritual is only for the chief, rich man and important persons. However, the normal death of commoner and that which occurred due to unnatural circumstances are totally different as far as the formalities are performed.

Unnatural deaths (N. E. Parry, Op. cit.; p.406) are regarded as unlucky, and anyone who dies unnatural death as a result of being killed by a wild animal, drowned, falling from tree, in a war or in a shooting accident is known as 'Sawvaw'. The dead is normally kept outside the village where it is closely watched by lighting fires by the relatives and friends. The next day, the corpse is brought to the village, and is kept at the verandah of the deceased's house (N. E. Parry, Op. cit.; p.407). After performing the rikia (wakes) it is buried before dawn outside the village in the west so the evil spirit may carry away. The grave is also different from the ordinary ones.

No memorial post or stones are erected for a 'sawvaw' or is 'any food for his spirit placed in the grave'. However, if reha is observed then the head of the animal is deposited along with the corpse. The Lakhers never use coffin like Lushai and other Mizo tribes.

As per Lakher custom, death ritual regarding the place where the person dies if it is a friend's house then, the sacrifice of a pig and fowl (N. E. Parry, Op. cit.; p. 409) is a must by the deceased's relatives for the purification of the profanity that takes place. In addition, giving of 10 rupees as a fine to the Pupa is prevalent. These people who take part in the funeral service are as per the list of books approved by the Committee at 15% discount to cross over the kindled fire already arranged at the entrances of their respective house lest they carry the hri of the spirit.

The death rites and rituals of the Lakhers, in one way, are very similar with the Meiteis. It is the practice of quenching the old fire used till the funeral ceremony is completed and the kindling of new one is commonly prevalent. And all persons who have touched the corpse have to cleanse themselves by washing their bodies with water and rice (N. E. Parry, Op. cit.; p. 404). Rice is a symbolic item for it is taken as the purest form of all things, which removes the evil smell of the corpse and other defilements.

It is pertinent to mention that while performing blessing-rituals and opening of grave women play a dominant role -

First, the wife of pupa performs the blessing-giving programme in the evening of the burial day. She brings a fowl and some 'sahmahei' (anthawm in Mizo), sacrifices the fowl to console the souls of the surviving members of the deceased's family (N. E. Parry, Op. cit.; p. 402) and with the blood of the fowl she anoints each of their big toe and offers them a little sahmahei. This ceremony is called Thlathleu. It is an important rite performed for bringing peace to the souls of the deceased's family and also to protect them from evils. It is believed that a dead person must not visit in the dream of survivors while they are asleep.

Secondly, the aunt, who is the sister of the deceased, opens the grave and she is therefore, to inherit whatever items are inside the same. This is called 'Thupahma' which is the price of touching the evil smelling remains. It was the common custom of a Lakher or a Mizo or even any Mizo before the advent of Christianity. So a common customary law can be seen existing among all Mizo tribes. Valuable articles such as beads, gongs etc., which have been owned by the family are deposited along with the corpse. It is very curious to understand that 'articles of value' buried in vaults should ultimately descend in the female line in the law of inheritance (N. E. Parry, Op. cit.; p. 411).

Concluded ...


* Dr. Priyadarshni M. Gangte wrote this article for The Sangai Express and Hueiyen Lanpao (English Edition)
The writer is a Sr. Lecturer at Damdei Christian College, Taloulong, Motbung, Manipur
This article was webcasted on November 24 2012.


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