Taboo and Gennas in traditional Zeliangrong society

Budha Kamei *

Gaan Ngai Celebrations at New Delhi on January 30 2010
Gaan Ngai Celebrations at New Delhi on January 30 2010 :: Pix by Anthony Gangmei

The present article tries to examine the observance of taboo and gennas among the Zeliangrongs of north east India. The customs relating to life cycle of an individual from birth to death can not be violated; it is Nuhmei (taboo) and strictly enforced. Neihmei (gennas), worship of god is also observed to avoid the misfortune or natural calamity and to restore prosperity of man.

The English word 'taboo' is derived from the Polynesian word 'tabu' which means simply 'to forbid', 'forbidden'. (A.R. Radcliffe Brown 1976:133) 'Taboo' was introduced into English by Captain Cook. He first met the word 'tabu' in 1777, at Tonga. According to Sigmund Freud, it is difficult to find a translation of the Polynesian word 'tabu' which is the same with the ancient Romans word 'sacer', 'ayoc' of the Greeks and 'kadesh' of the Hebrew. The meaning of 'tabu' diverges in two contrary directions: 'sacred', 'consecrated' on the one hand; and 'dangerous', 'forbidden', 'unclean' on the other.

The converse of tabu in Polynesian is 'noa' which means common or general accessible. It is principally expressed in prohibitions and restrictions. (Sigmund Freud 2004:21) "Literally taboo means a forbidden activity, something that is not permitted, something which stands against social approval and is disallowed by norms of behavior". (Raghuvir Singha 1977:105) According to dictionary of sociology, taboo is "A strong social norm prohibiting certain actions that are punishable by the group or community, by the supernatural, by magical consequences". (William P. Scott 1999:433) The idea of taboo is of great importance from a psychological, sociological, and religious point of view.

Raghuvir Singha writes, "Taboo complex in the north-eastern region is so effective that it does not only control social behaviour but also surrounds most of ritualistic performances. It is the taboo complex which links the social to the religious and prompts an individual to remain in a regulated behavior, thus occasionally reminding him of the supernatural force controlling the phenomena. It makes him revere this supernatural being in awe and afraid of his fury". (Raghuvir Singha 1977:105)

Nuhmei means 'not to do' or 'not to act' (Arnold Van Gennep1960:8) against the divine message and social customs.( Conferences on Zeliangrong Religion 1994: 22) The customs relating to rites of passage like birth and birth ceremonies, marriage, death and death ceremonies, festivals and religious ceremonies cannot be violated. It is taboo. The individual who breaks the prohibition will be considered breaking the social customs and moral code. And the violator of Nuhmei will get divine retribution or human punishment. (Gangmumei Kamei 2005:18)

It is an indispensible part in the life cycle of an individual because it determines the status of the person in the society. During pregnancy of a woman and after birth, the expectant parents are required to observe certain food taboos which they eat freely at other time. One of them violates this prohibition means, illness or evil consequence and it may also transit to the child. (Arnold Van Gennep1960:41; L.P. Vidyarthi and B.K. Rai 1985:244)

One of the strictest taboos of the Zeliangrong is the incent taboo which prohibits to have sexual relation with a close blood relation. Marriage within the same clan is unthinkable. Any breach of this taboo cannot be forgiven and that the couples who are guilty of incest are not allowed to live in the village and are banished from the village for fear of coming a terrible calamity or severe supernatural punishment. Divorced couple is not allowed to remarry; it is a taboo until a purification ritual locally called Chalungchuk is performed. (Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak 2012:119)

The couple who get married through Noushonmei (engagement marriage) is prohibited to sleep together for five days because it is a taboo. The husband will sleep at the male's dormitory and the wife with a friend or a relative at her husband house. The girl who married through elopement is not allowed to visit her natal home until a ceremony locally called Duilouduk Loukeimei is performed as she incorporated in the lineage of her husband without the consent of her parents.

During genna of the village, the married couple is advised to observe sex taboo. The priest of the village is forbidden to sleep with his wife on the eve of ritual worship of Tingkao Ragwang, the Supreme God. Work and time is also taboo during Neihmei of the village. They are divided into four exogamous clans and each clan has a totem animal or bird or plant. It is a taboo to kill or eat the totem species. (K.S. Singh (Ed.) 1998:9) They observe avoidance and show respect towards the totem species.

T.C Hudson has rightly stated that in Zeliangrong society food tabus are not rigidly imposed on either the very young or the old. (2006:77) The young children, not yet enrolled in the dormitory concerned and old who are at the rank of Ganchang and Banja and members of Kenjapui, old women forum are permitted to eat Khuroujan/Khuroutak, taboo food. (Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak 2002:5) But to avoid evil consequences, propitiation rituals locally recognized as Rou Kara Rarei for elderly person and Gallao Rou Kara Rarei for young one are observed. (Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak 2002:5,11)

A corpse is a taboo and one who attends the funeral is considered unclean or unholy until he performs various forms of purification such as bathing or sprinkling of water (water is universally used as purifier), Garoumei, to rub a slice of the mixture of Gah, a kind of turmeric, leaves of kaa plant, Ngeinem, a kind of thatch grass and water at the chin (Marulung Remmei 1983:54; K.S. Singh (Ed.) 1998:61) and Than Jou Jangmei, drinking of holy wine. (G. Makuga 1994:114-115)

Munthimmei, prohibition of eating and drinking is strictly observed in the funeral ceremony and in ritual worship of Kairao Kalumei, ancestors worship. The period of observation is very short and it covers only to those who assemble in the funeral ceremony. During the observation the gathering offers prayer to Tingkao Ragwang for safe passage of the dead to the land of death. (Chaoba Kamson 2009:247)

It is said that 'Taboo' is the only guardian of moral code. As soon as a girl is married she becomes taboo to all other except to her husband. It is also extended to young girls when the taboo has thus been laid is reckoned as a married woman. (John R. Mackenzie, L.L.D. (Ed) 2006:863) It is also a taboo to beat or use the instruments of festivals like drum, symbol, gong etc. at other time because they belong to the festivals and ritual occasions only.

It is prohibited to eat the victim of a particular ritual by the individual on whose behalf the sacrifice is offered. In the Chaga-Ngai festival, men and women sleep separately; it is a taboo to sleep together. (Gangmumei Kamei 2004:314) In the Rangpatmei ceremony, worship of Zeliangrong pantheon gods and local deities of Gaan-Ngai festival, complete genna is observed in the village during the period of sacrifice (Chaoba Kamson & Mukulim Remei (ed) 2003:7-8) and young children are prohibited to go beyond the village; it is taboo because disobedience may get evil consequences. (Chaoba Kamson 2010: 45-46)

The couple who host the Maku Banru, feast of merit is suggested to observe strict sexual taboo during the period (days) of the feast because it is a worship of Tingkao Ragwang. It is a taboo to take out fire (Mai) from the individual house during festival. And it is also a taboo to commit a mistake while singing the Kuanlu sung during the feast of merit. (Alana Golmei 2004:93) It is taboo for man to eat game (wild animals killed for food) killed by a woman because it is unnatural and hunting is a man's job. (Ursula Graham Bower: Naga Path 1986:85)

A new house is a taboo until an appropriate ceremony (Kaithan Kumei) is performed and made 'nao'.(Arnold Van Gennep 1960:23-24). According to Colonel McCullock, the granary is a tabu place and not to be violated. (T.C. Hodson 1996:78) These are the examples of taboo observed by the traditional Zeliangrongs.

The Western anthropologists had described Neihmei as genna. The term genna comes from the Angami word Kenna meaning prayer. (J.H.Hutton 1969:190; Gangmumei Kamei 2005:19) Neihmei is the collective form of worship of Tingkao Ragwang, the Supreme God by the whole village community or individual families abstaining from physical work on the occasion of the beginning of various agricultural operations. During Neihmei, no one is allowed to go beyond the village gate and no outsider inside the village.

The period of observation is short. Everyone abstains from breaking it because of the fear of evil consequences flowing from the will of a divinity. (Bronislow Malinowski 1982:57) Colonel McCulloch remarks of the Zeliangrong that, "A whole village or individual members of it are often 'Neina' or under prohibition. Sometimes this state of things lasts a day, sometimes several. The 'Neina' may be against the entrance of strangers or the exit of members, or of both, or allowing the entrance of strangers, disallow their going into houses, etc." (M. McCulloch 1980:53)

To Nagas, a genna is a community worship of God. Gennas serve a dual purpose: to avert epidemics, natural calamities, or misfortune circumstances on the one hand; and restoration of prosperity on the other.(Edward E. Dudek 2008:11-12;G. Makuga 2007:15) In view of M. Horam, gennas, compulsory rest days, mass abstention of work at the height of the agricultural season, sacrifices and prayers, all have the same and single aim, that of plentiful harvests.(M. Horam 1980:59)

In Zeliangrong society, Gennas for good paddy(Napchang Lingpui Nei) and crops(Loidui Boumei Nei), safety from rats and rodents(Pu-Pok Mong Thingmei Nei), pests and birds(Thaoroi Mun Thingpui Nei), animals and beasts(Su-Jou Mun Thingpui Nei) and genna for rich harvest (Nap Thuipui Nei)etc. are strictly observed for welfare and prosperity of man. (Chaoba Kamson 2009: 195-197)

But some unnecessary and harmful customs such as birth of chicken, piglet, puppy and child in the individual house or in the village, climbing of a roof of a house by a dog or sitting over its roofs by a crow or kite, birth of still born child, death of a woman, five days after delivery, earthquake, falling of trees and landslides, injury from dao or spear, the first rains of the year, the first hailstorm of the year etc. were abolished by Haipou Jadonang, prophet of the 20th century. He declared in the name of Tingkao Ragwang with an iron hoe in his hand as no longer taboo or gennas. (Gangmumei Kamei: 2009:35)

To conclude, it can be stated that the Zeliangrong people till today observe the Nuhmei (taboo) and Neihmei (gennas) as to promote and preserve the customs and belief system of their forefathers. One who violates it will be regarded as breaker of social, religious and ritual practices and moral code.

* Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on November 11 2012.

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