Traditional warfare techniques of the natives of Northeast India
with special reference to Zeliangrongs of Manipur
- Part 2 -

Dr Budha Kamei *

After omen taking rite, the Nampei also would worship Bambu, the northern presiding deity of the village by offering an egg (Charungbung) for safety and protection and success in the raid/attack. This rite separates them from their own land. The village gate (Kairong Raang) is the boundary between the foreign and domestic worlds and therefore, to cross the threshold is to unite oneself with a new world.23

Generally, in the tribal inhabited areas there are unclaimed zones of forests between the territories where everyone has the full rights to travel and hunt.24 While the warriors are in the neutral zone between two villages (worlds) is considered as transitional period25 and they offered a piece of ginger to the presiding deity (Shong) of the virgin forests not to give trouble to them.

As soon as they reached in the vicinity of the enemy village they offered a piece of ginger to the village presiding deity (Gucheng Phaimei) not to give trouble; this rite integrates them into the new environment/world. The whole mode of warfare of the Zeliangrong is to surprise the enemy.

The warriors reached the village to be attacked, near which they did lie in ambush during the night till the break of day, when they did rush in upon it with a great noise, and spear the first they met with, and afterwards cut off the head, hands, and feet, of their enemies, as many as fell victims to their rage, which they carried back in triumph to their own village.26 An attack is of very short duration, and over almost as soon as it has begun.

After successful raid/attack, they would return by crossing the neutral zone and stop a moment at the village gate where they were sanctified with smoke of Kham, a kind of leaf and fire (Mhai); after that a piece of ginger was offered to the Bambu as thanksgiving. Then, they moved inside the village by crossing the village gate.

Thus, the warriors are separated from the foreign world and return into the society. The war trophies enemies' heads or skulls locally called Rihpi which they brought home would be placed at the premises of Ritu Kaibang, and perform Rihshang Tuna Kabaomei ritual for whole day and night singing war songs such as Sheilu, Rihlu etc. to keep themselves awake. In the ritual celebration, they would throw rice, pork meat and spirits over the skulls and tell the skulls to call their relatives.

Among the Nagas inhabiting on the Burma side of the Patkoi Range, when heads had been taken in a raid, or while resisting an attack, the victory was celebrated as follow: The heads are placed at the bow, the braves who has assisted to procure the heads line up on either side of the war drum holding in their hands wooden stakes or paddy-pounders. With these they pound the drum together, with regular uniform strokes, at the same time chanting their song of victory and shouting loudly.

It is said that the sound carried very far, from five to six miles, and could be heard in the enemy villages across the Namphuk Valley. At the end of the celebration the heads were removed and permanently affixed to a tree trunk in the vicinity of the village. During the course of the year, from time to time the braves are said to dance before the skulls, thus reviving the memories of the victory gained.27

Among the Tinguians of north-western Luzon, Philippine Islands, the warriors, following the return of a successful war, "a great celebration attended with much singing, dancing and drinking of sugar-cane spirit, is held."28 Among the Angami Naga, the man who has cut off the head does place it under his bedstead five days and during that time the warriors eat no food prepared by women, and do not cook in their accustomed cooking pot. After the fifth day, however, the heads or skulls are buried, and a great feast is given of pigs and cows, after which they bathe and return to their avocations.29

On the next day of Rihshang Tuna Kabaomei, the warriors would bury the war heads or skulls somewhere at the Daanshanpung, village jumping ground. After that an elder of Pei would sanctify the whole village with Ten Mhaimit, a kind of thatching grass. It is the responsibility of the Nampei and Khangtanpou to bring back the body of the warrior who lost in the fight; otherwise they were looked down for their irresponsibility. When the Rih Ngai, war festival comes the warriors will secretly remove the heads or skulls and perform Ritak Ganna Kabaomei ritual at the Ritu Kaibang.

In the ritual performance, one is permitted to demonstrate his bravery through oral and action. In some societies, a man who has slain an enemy is given the right to distinguish himself wearing some special decoration or in other ways.30 The man who could bring enemy head or slay enemy was highly honoured and respected as a warrior. It is alleged that they killed the enemy in order to protect the innocent women and children of the village; otherwise the enemy would slay them and devastate the village.

And at the time of his (warrior) death, Kabaomei ritual would be performed in his house in the presence of villagers including Pei elders and his body would be carried by the youths of dormitory from one end of the village to another exposing his courage and bravery before burial. The transportation of the warrior dead body is said to be comparable with the tiger who roams on the high mountain range (Kamang Longpum Ruimei) with growl.

In view of S. N. Barua, the object of the tribal war is to "bring fame and economic gain to the chief and to decorate the warrior himself with tattoo marks and other awards in recognition of his valour and to enjoy special privilege" 31 in the society. It appears that tribal warfare is a combination of economic and headhunting. In this way, the Zeliangrong, in the distant past, conducted raids/attacks on other villages and celebrated their victory.

"Headhunting was once an institutionalised cultural practice among all the Naga tribes which has social and religious sanction. A Naga method of fighting and headhunting was a combination of individual enterprise and teamwork. Individual bravery was greatly admired and each warrior sought to distinguish himself by taking as many as possible. Every Naga aspired to take an enemy's head and flaunt his bravery for it not only brought him prestige, honour and entitlement to wear the much coveted warrior's paraphernalia, but in killing an enemy he was doing good for the village, in fact for the survival of the village."32

Headhunting was a widespread practice among the Austronesia speaking peoples of Southeast Asia. This practice is one of the affinities between Southeast Asians and North East Indians. Geographically and culturally, North East India is also a part of South East Asia.

Among the Angami Naga, "if a man kills another in war, he wears three or four rows of cowries round the kilt, and ties up his hair with a cotton band. If a man has killed another in war, he is entitled to wear one feather of the dhune's bird stuck in his hair, and one feather is added for every man he has killed, and these feathers are also fastened to their shields."33 Wearing the cowries kilt or feather in his hair is a sign that he has killed someone.

A warrior shawl among the Ao Naga is called Mangkotepsu. In the past, a man had earn the right to wear this shawl by taking human heads in warfare, thought acts of bravery and by offering by feasts of merit as proof of his wealth. Anyone wearing without the credentials was taken to task by the village council and had to pay heavy penalties for violating the code. Women of Chungliyimiti village, Makokchung District say that in the past the women of the village designed this shawl as a token to encourage their men to ward off repeated attack by neighbouring tribes.

The white strip in the middle carries the symbols of bravery and courage and the sun, moon and stars signify the resulting fame of such warriors. The animals depicted in the strip resemble the physical power and the valour of men. The hornbill is a revered bird whose feathers are used for decorative purpose in ceremonial costumes. The mithun indicates the wealth of the wearer because only the rich people could rear these animals. Other symbols are depiction of weapons and shields used by Ao men during warfare.34

Among the Konyak Naga, a young warrior would receive a tattoo of his face when he bore to the king the head of an enemy while the tattoo on the chest is yet another typical traditional tattoo, which was a high social privilege and only the best and brave warriors had tattooed. Konyak used a traditional basket specifically made to carry and bring back human heads from war. It was decorated with monkey skulls, wild pigs' horns and sometimes hornbill beaks. It was believed that by taking head of an enemy as a trophy, he took his power and soul.35

Among the Maori of New Zealand, the main aim in life is to wear the distinctive attire that rewards the man who has at least twice slain a human being. After the second killing he is allowed to wear a chocolate-coloured headband, the fourth entitles him to wear blood red trousers, and when he got six he may be used complete suit of that colour and a red bag to boot. Every additional life taken, while no longer resulting in a change of costume, brings additional credit.

Those who have never killed a person are nobodies, while the acknowledged braves fill positions of importance and are deemed under the special tutelage of two powerful spirits, between whom and the common herd they are intermediaries. Not only the status, but even the garments of the brave are not inheritable, and the latter should be buried with the owner.36

To conclude, in the distant past, inter-village war was a common occurrence among the native peoples of Northeast. The boys of the dormitory/morung at the cost of their lives defended the village from enemies' attacks. The practice was gone. However, it is preserved in the form of narrative.

Among the Zeliangrongs, the war rituals continue in the form of Chong Kapmei, (shooting of or spearing of the human effigies made of the plaintain trees), Kabaomei and Ritak Phaimei without the violence during the Rih Ngai festival for fruitful cultivation in coming year. By participating in the festival, the youths have the opportunity to learn the forefathers' traditions.


* 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 24, 2019.

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