Descent and inheritance among the Zeliangrong of North East

Dr Budha Kamei *

A Scene from 'The Zeliangrongs' :: Provided by Director - Ronel Haobam
A Scene from 'The Zeliangrongs' :: Provided by Director - Ronel Haobam

Introduction: The Zeliangrong, one of the natives of Northeast belong to the Mongolian race and speak the Tibeto-Burman language. The population of this ethnic group is found mainly in Tamenglong and Noney districts of Manipur. These people are found scattered also in the neighboring districts, namely Churachandpur, Senapati, Imphal West, Imphal East, Thoubal and Bishnupur districts; outside the State of Manipur, they are found settling in Nagaland in its Paren district and Kohima district, and in Assam in its Haflong sub-division of Cachar district and Hailakandi district. The present article is a humble attempt to delve into the system of descent and inheritance found among the Zeliangrong of Northeast India.

Methods and materials: The approach of the study is both history and social anthropological. The necessary data are based on available primary and secondary materials of published works and also on interviews with village elders.

Kinship: Kinship is one of the main organizing principles of society. According to A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, the term Kinship system explores for a system of kinship and marriage or kinship and affinity. It is the system of human relationships derived from marriage and descent. It is an important factor regulating behavior between individuals and affecting the formation of social, political and territorial group. This social rule binds different members into one and forbids them from doing certain anti-social activities.

The kin terminologies such as mother, father, sister, brother, uncle, cousin etc. indicate the blood relationship among the members of a kin group. L. H. Morgan uses the terminology, 'gens' for the body of consanguine descended from the same common ancestor, distinguished by a gentile name, and bound together by kinship affinities of blood. It is an important factor in preserving social unity and the most effective way to study the social structure of a society is to begin with the analysis of kinship.

Descent: Descent is one of the principles of kinship organization, whereby a child is socially affiliated with the group of his or her parents. Groups are formed on this basis and social solidarity is maintained by the balanced opposition between them. The two common ways for the transmission of descent group membership, from parents to children are patrilineal and matrilineal.

In patrilineal, descent is traced in male line from father to son whereas in matrilineal, it is traced in female line from mother to daughter. The Zeliangrong people, like many other ethnic groups of Northeast follow the patrilineal system and descent is reckoned through the father.

Property: The term property can be described as a thing or things belong to somebody. It may be material or non-material, over which ownership is established. "The word property means either something that belongs to somebody, or else the right that somebody has to own something." Property may be private or public. The concept of property was initiated with the beginning of agriculture during Neolithic time. Since the concept of property raised among mankind, they are trying to earn it, enjoying it and transferring property to others. Among the Zeliangrong, property means immovable and movable. Immovable property includes paddy field and house, while movable properties consist of dress, ornaments, gong, spear, utensils, domesticated animals etc.

Inheritance and Responsibility: Inheritance is the practice of passing on property, titles, debts, and obligations upon the death of an individual. According to L. H. Morgan, inheritance is the distribution of property among the cognate kindred. With descent in the male line, the children of a diseased would stand at the head of the cognate and very naturally received the portion of the inheritance. Another scholar, Robert H. Lowie opines that rule of inheritance is like the whole of property law reflects the total ideology of a society.

Law of inheritance indeed gives an unpleasant insight into the socio-economic and political formulation of any society. In the opinion of Kinglsey Davis, inheritance is an institution of kinship and a dominant pattern in family organization in any society. In addition to property of various kinds, rights and obligations, crafts and skill might be passed on in accordance with kinship roles. Succession to office, kinship and to other social roles and statuses is also very often determined by kinship criteria.

Inheritance is usually understood as leaving the fruits of one's life from one generation to another. This is a vital expression of mutual human devotion between parents and their children. Inheritance for the parents is the opportunity of leaving a legacy to their offspring. And for the descendant, it is a responsibility and obligation to honor the parents for their sacrifice and investment of life, love and lineage. The filial piety of the offspring can be expressed by carrying on family traditions, maintaining the estate, caring for the welfare of the clan, and even fulfilling dreams of their parents which the parents could not accomplish during their life time.

Patrilineal descent refers to a system in which one is a member of a descent group because one has all male links back to the male founding ancestor. Patrilineality is the most common descent system in the ethnographic record, and is well documented in classic works of social anthropology. The Zeliangrong society is patriarchal society and descent is traced in male line. Only the sons inherit the family property. All the sons get their shares, but the youngest gets lion share including the ancestral house because he has to look after his parents.

Other elder sons move out of the house after their marriage and establish their own separate houses. Unlike the other Naga tribes, it is customary among the Zeliangrong that the youngest son should stay with his parents. If the parents are poor, the other sons are not given property. Unlike the Garos, no daughters can inherit property of the parents. In some cases, daughters are also given movable properties such as cows, buffaloes, pig, ornaments, utensils and many other domestic materials at the time of their marriage.

The inheritance is responsible for repayment of the debt of the father if any. If a man dies leaving no male child, his nearest kinsman will inherit the father's property. A widow has the right to her deceased husband's property as long as she lives in her husband's house looking after her children. But if she marries to another man all the properties go to her male children. According to the Zeliangrong customary law, it is the bounden duty of the brother or uncle or any other surviving male member of the family to give shelter to, as well as to look after the welfare of the daughter or sister or aunt as and when she comes back to her parental home or her being divorced by her husband.

In other words, divorced or unmarried daughters are entitled to live in the house of their deceased father's house or in the house of their surviving brother, and they also have the right to claim for maintenance of their life. According to the customary laws, the illegitimate son is not entitled to claim for inheritance and succession.

Succession: After the demise of the father, the eldest son will succeed his father and look after the family members including his widowed mother. In the case of a Nampou, owner or founder of the village, the eldest male of the clan will succeed the office of Nampou.

Intestacy: Intestacy does refer to the condition of the estate of an individual, owning property greater than the sum of his enforceable debts and memorial service expenses who died without a suitable will. In most common law of descent, property goes first to a spouse, then to children and their descendants. In Zeliangrong society, if a man dies intestate with no identifiable heirs, the person's estate usually goes to the Pei, village council; it is the responsibility of the Pei to perform his last rite or funeral service.

Cultural Inheritance: Inheritance can also refer to the circumstances, cultural practice (customs, beliefs, traditions and values) and surrounding environments into which an individual is born. Cultural inheritance of each person varies greatly depending upon, among others, the era, the geographical location, and the socio-economic condition of one's family. The era, for example, during which a person is born and raised, carries a unique merit of the age, which can influence the events in a person's life.

Also, whether one is born in an Asian or European culture usually influences a person's upbringing and worldview. While the circumstances at one's birth and the social and cultural heritage of one's youth may seem to be absolutely determinant in shaping the quality, opportunities and direction of an individual's life, they are not. Well known instances of normal people ultimately rising to become admired throughout India due to their extraordinary service and dedication to society, include Haipou Jadonang, Rani Gaidinlu, etc.

Adoption: In Zeliangrong society, adoption is in practice and the common motive for adoption is lack of child. A couple who does not have offspring can adopt a child. Generally, they use to adopt the son of a brother of the husband or of a close relative and the boy then become the principal heir. The sentimental relationship comes to approach very closely that based on natural tie. No ceremony is required in adoption of a brother's son or close relative as they descended from the same ancestor.

In case, the boy belongs to another clan, a rite called Joupan Keimei, offering of holy wine to God (Tingkao Ragwang) and ancestors (Kairao) of the adoptive father is performed at the Peikai, house of village council for practical purpose. The rite is carried out by an elder of Pei with the recitation of religious hymns in presence of the child and his adoptive parents and village council members. For this purpose, the man has to log a petition to the Peikai verbally by giving a jar of wine. This is called Peikai Joulai Ponloumei. The adopted son has his due right to inherit his adoptive father's property.

Conclusion: In Zeliangrong society, descent is reckoned through male line; only the sons inherit the property of their father. But the youngest son inherits the lion share including the ancestral house. He has to repay the debt or overdue of his parents. No daughter has right to claim her father's property, but at the time of her marriage, she is given movable properties like domestic animals, dress, ornaments, utensils etc. The adopted son is the legal heir of the family.

* Dr Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at budhakamei(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on 05 November , 2018 .

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