Traditional warfare techniques of the natives of Northeast India
with special reference to Zeliangrongs of Manipur
- Part 1 -

Dr Budha Kamei *

The present article is a humble attempt to throw light on the traditional warfare techniques of the natives of Northeast with special reference to Zeliangrongs of Manipur. In days of yore, head hunting and animosity among the villages was a common phenomenon in the hills of Manipur. So, the defence of the village was a matter of great importance. Like the other Naga and Kuki tribes, the Zeliangrong, too, settled on the slope of the highest hills and not far from the top and occasionally a ridge, when flat enough was chosen as a village site.

It is on the consideration of defence, security and health. They constructed village gate (Kairong Raang) and fortified the village with wooden palisade and Raangpan, a kind of big thorny plant. In some areas, the villages, around the forests have plants which do cause itching over the human body if the latter come into contact with the former. This is also a part of fortification of the village. Houses were constructed in rows or clusters according to convenient. Horatio Bickerstaffe Rowney says, the Zeliangrong villages are "accordingly planned for everyday defence and stockade as hill-fort."

In political organization, there is an organized force or physical force under coercive authority to deal with the maintenance or establishment of social order within a territorial framework. Fortes and Evans-Pritchard have emphasized that while in primitive states the chief has the command of organized force, in stateless societies force is not the monopoly of any particular person or class. Among the Zeliangrong, there is no regular force or modern time police, however, Pei maintained peace and order within the village territory by using the force of able bodied males of Khangchiu (Morung) when it is demanded.

Pei as a supreme military body had command over the fighting forces of the village. It decides on wars, raids or defence of the village. The youth dormitory was controlled by the Pei. The whole fighting force was called Riphen (Ri means war, Phen, fighting). The fighting force of the village includes all males of the dormitory, but the real warfare is carried out by the Khangtan, senior members of the dormitory. They are a group of well trained and experienced warriors. The warriors met at the Ritu Kaibang/Khangtan Kaibang, the house of Khangtan, where they discuss the defence matters.

After discussion, they submit their proposal to the Pei for approval. The Khangtan executes the plan. The owner of Khangtan Kaibang is a warrior who had collected at least a head of the enemy or wild animals like tiger etc. For the security of the village, two Riphens are assigned to keep a vigil over the village, day and night alternately. At hours of darkness, two Riphens take the responsibility of guarding the village; the Riphens with spear and dao move up and down and across the village singing village guarding songs (Kairong Lon Lu).

This song not only keeps them (Riphens) awake, but also instils a sense of security among the women, children and old people of the village. In other words, the villagers can sleep without fear. In the same way, the other Naga tribes also deploy a regular sentry at the gate and look-out platforms to watch the approach of the enemies in the village. The Morung boys are usually deployed as the sentry guard on rotation basis. The village sentry is relaxed only when there is no war or quarrel with the neighbouring villages.

Riphens were not paid salary for their service. However, it is customary that during the annual festival of Gaan-Ngai the villagers always offer them special treatment in the form of offering special type of rice beer (Joungao) and best meat chutney (Jantam) to them. Indeed, they are the real protectors/defenders of the village from the enemy and wild animals.

On the defence of the village, R. B. Pemberton wrote that the safety of the "village is entrusted to a number of youths selected for their superior strength and activity, who are distinguished by a blue mantle of the Khes cloths, tastefully studded with cowries, and garter of red thread bound around the calf of the leg. It is difficult to conceive a more pleasing union of manliness, grace and activity, than is exhibited by one of these safeguards, when seen standing on the very verge of some projecting rock with all the sense of conscious security."

Apart from this, Pei has also full power to intervene in any types of ill-feeling arises between two different clans and two different families in case the matter is brought to the notice of the Pei. Once the matter is placed to the knowledge of the Pei, the question of further clash is not acceptable and if any party violates this tradition, then they are to be punished by charging huge fine. Whenever, there is a crime, the Pei sent immediately able bodied persons (Riphens) to protect the victims and to stop the aggressors until a final decision on the matter of dispute is taken by the Pei.

The main traditional offensive weapons of the Zeliangrong are the spear (Bui) and dao (Bang). They also use shield of wicker work, ornamented with painted figures and dyed hairs. These shields are of great length and curved slightly across. The Zeliangrong are very expert in the use of spear and they had the faculty of aiming and throwing the weapon with fatal skill. Like most of the hill tribes, they aimed at surprising their enemies, and after throwing the spear, came to close quarters with the dao.

The dao is an instrument resembling a bill hook is universal amongst all the hill tribes. It is also used to cut trees and fowls, divide meat, curve posts, and for any other kind of work. In fighting, those who do not have shields use wrapper of thick cloth folded round the abdomen several times for protection. In defending villages and roads, the Zeliangrong also use of stones and panjis or sharp-pointed bamboo sticks a few inches in length, which they stick into the ground, point upwards, at least retard any party that may start in pursuit.

The universal weapon of the Nagas is javelin (spear); it is usually adorned with coloured hair, and ornamented with strips of rattan of various colours. The Loohoopas (Tanghkuls) make use of a long spear and some of the eastern Nagas handle the tomahawk. The total disuse of the bow among the Naga tribes seems a very singular circumstance, especially as the weapon is common to all the surrounding hill tribes, and the advantage given them by the use of it, is acknowledged by the Nagas themselves. "The steadfast retention of their weapons of offence, may be considered as one strong mark of nationality, and an indication of a common origin; in it may also be traced the continuance of a long established custom, which could scarcely be preserved amongst tribes now so diverse, and that too, contrary to all the dictates of experience, were it not possessed of some sanctity, or consecrated in their recollection as the weapon of their forefathers."

According to Heath and Perry, "The universal Naga weapon was the spear, with a bamboo shaft, a long, leaf-shaped iron blade, and a pointed ferrule. Overall length could be up to about 8ft (2.4m). The shaft was either plain or ornamented with red-dyed goat's hair, with a space sometimes left bare for the hand. The Naga customarily carried two spears; a plain, shorter one for throwing, and the longer, decorated one for use a close quarters."

Generally, the Naga war dress includes a number of odd contrivances which give a fierce appearance. They bind up their legs with brogues of parti-coloured rattans, and adorn their heads and necks with bands of the same. On their heads they wear bunches of feathers intermingled with plates or brass and the horns and teeth of wild animals. They affix a bunch of hair to supply the deficiency of a tail. "Altogether the costume and accoutrements of the Nagas are extraordinarily picturesque, and the thrilling sight of such a savage bounding along and shouting his war-cry can be imagined."

The main causes of inter-village feud/war were land disputes (Lamjang Agaimei), hunting in the forest of other village (Meikailamkho Shulaimei), abduction of another man's wife (Meinou Nimjaimei) on her charming and attractiveness etc.

Among the Tangkhuls, in case any inter-village war is declared, it is the responsibility of all the ablest male members of the village to go to the war. The village councilors with the warriors will have a close door emergency meeting and plan the war strategies in the chief house or sometimes in the house of the senior most warrior. The warriors are to be equipped with armories and weapon such as spear, dao etc. They must possess high esteem of moral character. An immoral man is not permitted to go to war because it will bring bad luck and fall at the hands of the enemy.

The warriors, if they are to go on the next day, must stay away from his wife that night. It is the responsibility of the village councillors to check and arrange all these things. The Maram, before the warriors go to war they kill a fowl by strangling and predict what the day will be like. As they kill the fowl the legs of the chicken is examined by old men and predict how the war is going to be. If they predict that they are going to win, they go for war, but if they feel that they are going to lose the war they do not go.

The Angami Nagas, before they set out on a war expedition, all assemble together and decide on the village to be attacked, and the village chief appointed to command the party(warriors) does consult the usual omens, which proving favourable, a fowl is killed and cooked, and all partake of it. Then, they provide themselves with spears, shields, and a Panjie Choonga, and cooking two days' food wrap it up in leaves in baskets with meat, and set out for the village to be attacked.

The Tswana people of Africa, before going to war, they assemble at the capital, where it receives magical treatment to fortify it and is harangued by the chief. While it is away he and his doctors work destructive magic against the enemy, and the people at home also observe certain taboos.

Among the Zeliangrong, before the warriors set off their feet for battlefield the village chief (Nampou) would bless them and worship the Almighty God for their success in war mission. Nampou would wait at his house or at a place observing food taboo (Lumthengna) until the warriors return home. He would not sleep with his wife. According to Zeliangrong custom and tradition, the person who violated the marriage code is not permitted to participate despite his courageous and strong physique in the belief that it will give misfortune and trouble to the warriors.

Similarly, the husband of a pregnant woman also is not allowed. Cowards were mocked in the presence of the girls (Tunagoihukhou). Usually, the warriors set out from the Ritu Kaibang; the Nampei, assistant of Nampou and Khangtanpou would lead the warriors. In theory, Nampou is to act as supreme commander in war. And before leaving the same place, Nampei would distribute a piece of ginger (Gu) to every warrior for safety and protection as ginger is considered to be the fingers of Haipou Mhucharakhandijungpu, divine priest of Tingkao Ragwang, the Supreme God.

At the same time, Khangtanpou would bring out a pot of rice beer (Joungaolai Khat) with meat chutney (Sharoutam) which they ate and drank after libation of holy wine to Tingkao Ragwang (Joupan Keimei). This imposes on them (warriors) the duty of carrying out the mission successfully. Drinking of holy wine means one is sanctified.

They would halt a while at the village gate (Raang), where the Nampei would observe omen by stick (Thigpei Daan); if the omen is favourable, they would go for war, but if not, they would return home. Thingpei Daan is performed in this way that the Nampei distributes a piece of stick to every warrior, then he collects the same pieces of stick and wrap them up in a banana leaf; with the package of stick in his hand, the same person prays to God saying: "We are human beings, we do know nothing please tell us the truth whether we will win or lose in the fighting." If the Nampei finds all the pieces of stick while opening the package, then it is considered as good omen, but if some sticks are gone astray, a bad omen, they will lose some warriors in the fighting.

(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 April 19, 2019.

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