Technical culture of the Zeliangrong of North East with special reference to house building - Part 1 -

Dr Budha Kamei *


The Zeliangrong are one of the natives of Northeast. In terms of race and language, the Zeliangrong fall under the Tibeto-Burman family of the Mongolian race. The population of this group is found mainly in the Tamenglong and Noney districts of Manipur.

These people are found scattered also in the neigbouring districts of Tamenglong District, namely Churachandpur, Senapati, Imphal West, Imphal East, Thoubal and Bishnupur; outside the state of Manipur they are found settling in Nagaland in its Paren District, and Kohima, and in Assam in its Haflong sub-division of Cachar District and Hailakandi District.

The present article is a humble attempt to look into the technology employed by the Zeliangrong people in house building. House is a structured designed as an abode for one or more persons. According to Bechan Dube, a human habitation means a place of abode or settled dwelling of man and includes a house or a residence belonging to people. Kaishumei literally means construction of dwelling house; (Kai means dwelling house and Shumei, to construct).

Location determines, to a certain extent, the way in which a house is designed and built. At least three main reasons have an influence –the climate, the building materials available, and the need for protection against various dangers. In fact, houses are commonly built of the materials most easily obtained. In the early time, men often used caves as homes. In time they learned that they could make their cave homes larger by building rock walls out from the entrance and placing branches or skins across the top for a roof.

Where there were no caves, men learned to build simple wind break of branches. Later on, they placed the branches in a circle and tied the tops together to form a cone-shaped shelter. When men became settled agriculture life, they built houses that were more permanent. One type was the bee-hive hut. In fact, the earliest houses were circular in form, perhaps a legacy of cave shelters.

An early four-sided home was the long house. Some of the long houses were made by putting two parallel rows of stakes in the ground. Opposite stakes were tied at the top to make a tunnel-like framework. The frame was covered with skins or woven reeds. This style was common among the Iroquois Indians in the United States. The long house is still in use today in the South Sea Islands. In Borneo whole villagers live in single long house. Rooms on either side are used for sleeping.

Some houses in Sarawak are a quarter of a mile long. Another early house was the wattle and daub hut. Stakes were driven into the ground and branches were woven into them. The walls were daubed with mud and the roof covered with thatch. Other early houses were of adobe, or sun-dried brick. All these earliest types of dwelling are in use today by primitive people.

Among the Zeliangrongs, there are no public buildings; the main structures are houses and granaries. Traditional houses are built inside the stockade or fencing. At the middle of the village, there runs a broad common path which cuts through the residential areas. The houses are built in line on both sides of the common path facing inwards known as Kaimong Pondamei and these are closely situated. If the village is situated on the narrow ridge, the houses are built on either slopes or on the ridges.

Each house is built with reference to its "own convenience, the regularity of the village is not cared for, but no house is so far remained from the rest to prelude its being included in the stockade or rampart of stones which usually surround them as a defense either from their enemies or wild beasts." All the houses are built on the general principle, but vary in size.

According to Van Gennep (Dutch-German-French ethnographer and folklorist), the rites connected with laying the foundation for a house and constructing a house falls into the category of rites of passage. Like other tribes, they also strictly follow certain ritual formalities in building of a house, without which the house is considered incomplete. Religious belief of the people determines their attitude in the selection of the site for building purposes.

Usually, a plot is selected by omen of dream. If the omen is good, then the ground is levelled and a favourable day for laying the foundation post is chosen by consulting with the village priest.

On the favourable day, they will perform a ceremony called Kairaoteng Khunmei, upright of foundation post. Under this custom, the priest offers a little rice beer(Joungao), crushed ginger(Guhtam), a piece of ant-hill mud (Pungneng), a piece of iron(Tan), water(Dui), pebbles (Taokek), a kind of grass called Sampripra etc. into the pit hole and erects the foundation post (Kairao Teng) with prayer for success in the construction, wellbeing and prosperity of the family.

Usually, such ritual is performed in the morning when the sun rises. In other words, it is a good and favourable time to perform Kairaoteng Khunmei when the sun rises in the east. Traditionally, the Kairao Teng stands for the ancestors of the family; (Kairao means ancestors and Teng, post). The offerings of the ritual are placed into the hole as the earth is also the realm of the dead. In other words, the offerings are also meant for the ancestors of the family.

The spirits of the ancestors in the form of Kaiorao Teng are supposed to look after the family and its members. At the time of inauguration they will offer rice beer and crushed ginger near the Kairaoteng as a way of honouring the ancestors. They consider certain period and season to build their dwelling houses. The most suitable season is from November to February or between the harvest and the sowing. Houses are normally built facing to the east or north in the belief that east stands for life and west, death.

Like the Zeliangrong, the Angami Nagas also prefer the front of their houses to catch the morning sun. Among the Hindus, the sun's northern course is considered auspicious. Every new house is taboo until appropriate rites are observed and it is made Noa. When a man builds a new house, it is customary that his neighbours, relatives and the friends render all possible assistance to him. After finishing the house building, a date which is considered auspicious for inauguration ceremony is appointed and fixed.

On the day of house warming function, the Pei's elders are formally invited for their blessings. In other words, the presence of the village elders in such important occasion is meant for wellbeing and prosperity of the new family. The priest or an elder of Pei (village council) who officiates as priest and performs Laibu Sommei, fixing of three hearth stones; (Laibu means hearth stone and Sommei, to fix).

Under this custom, the priest will erect the hearth stones one after another by placing the offerings such as a little rice beer, crushed ginger, a piece of ant-hill mud, pieces of iron, water, pebbles, Sampripra, some cooked rice etc. into each hole with prayer. Laibu Sommei is an important ritual of the Kaithan Kumei function.

It is believed that the spirits of the ancestors (Kairao), goddess of wealth (Kambuipui) and goddess of rice (Charaipui) reside in the form of hearth stones. This is followed by offering of holy wine on each hearth stone for wellbeing and prosperity and line of generation of the family.

Then, a new fire is extracted called Mhaithanlapmei and it is kept on burning for five days so that the evil forces turn away from the new house. Fire gives not only warm, but also purifies the house. Nowadays, this practice is replaced by a lamp.

"The continuity of the fire is linked with the continuity of life, because warmth and life are associated." Next, articles such as a bin containing full of grain (Nashampantilai) and a pot full of water (Duilai) from the old house will be brought in the new house through the main door.

E.B Tylor writes, "The door often had a special significance for the early man, probably because of its having separated the outside world and its troubles from the world inside and its comfort." This ritual act indicates that even they have a separate house the old house never leaves the new one; the relationship is like between a son and parents. It also indicates that the old house gives life and bread for their existence.

If they sacrifice a pig in the house harming function, the spleen of the victim will be examined to predict the future of the family. The victim is cooked and consumed by the present members. Singing of traditional song called Maja Lu, paddy song by beating of gong (Senmu) with an interval is an inseparable part of Kaithan Kumei. At the end of every song they will say Laogai, Laogai, Laogai (plentiful harvest).

To be continued .....

* Dr Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at budhakamei(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on August 05, 2019.

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