- Important Days and festivities -

Dr Budha Kamei *

The Zeliangrong people celebrate their festivals at various stages of agricultural operation and seasons according to the lunar calendar. Their rejoining of festivals has been expressed through prayer and thanksgiving to God for His blessing of good harvest and welfare and protection against disease and hardship.

The honour and farewell to the ancestors is also reflected in the festival. The social and cultural values, the aesthetic and creative senses, their love of beauty and colour are expressed in these festivals.

Gangmumei Kamei writes, "Festivals are a vehicle of religion and the Zeliangrong religion is sustained by their colourful festivals accompanied by religious rites and prayers, dance and music and feasting during different months of a year". It is believed that the ritual dance and music are a form of worship of God. Dancing, singing, eating and drinking are the four main highlights of festivals among the Zeliangrong people of Manipur.

They celebrate their festivals almost every month of the year with the changing cycle or seasons of the agricultural year in the form of rites. The time and mode of celebration of the festivals may slightly differ from one area to another due to their agricultural timings and influences of the locality.

R Brown says, "The festive occasions among the Kowpois are numerous, and are characterised by feasting, drinking, dancing and singing, and un-moderate amount of the haw haw or peculiar cry of the hill-men without which no entertainment of any kind would be complete". The peculiar cry haw, haw is a part and parcel of the festivals. It is believed that by performing such cry, they are intimating their joys towards the supreme God, Tingkao Ragwang.

In the festivals, the dormitories particularly, the Khangchu (boys' dormitory) and Luchu, (girls' dormitory) take the major part in the whole activity. Regarding the Zeliangrong festivals, ET Dalton observes, "There are first Engan, which happens in December. During the five days its continuance all the inhabitants of the village dressed in their best attire, keep up the dance and song, interrupted only by short intervals of response and breaks dedicated to feasting.

Next is Reing-nai in or about January, which lasts for three days. In one day during this festival men and women fetch separately the water that each may require. In these festivals the graves of the ancestors are sprinkled with the national drink, and on its termination omen are sought for the selection of land for cultivation and general welfare in the ensuing years". Thus, the Zeliangrong festivals which they call Ngai meaning, 'rejoining' or 'festival' are multifaceted cultural phenomenon.

Gaan-Ngai is the greatest festival of the Zeliagrong people of North East India; Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. The literal meaning of Gaan-Ngai is the festival of winter season; (Gaan = winter or dry season, Ngai = festival). It comes from the name of the season called 'Gaan-bu' which means winter season.

The Gaan-Ngai is a post harvest festival. When the granaries are full, the landscape is dry, the whole village is free from all agricultural works, people turn to celebration, festivity and worship of the God and honouring of the departed soul. This festival may also be described as a New Year festival because it marks the end of the year and beginning of the New Year and every tribal New Year festival is marked by the production of new fire either by friction of wood and bamboo or friction of the flint.

In the Gaan-Ngai festival, they produce a new fire. It is celebrated in December or January for southern Zeliangrong and October or November for the Northerners. During this festival, ritual farewell is given to all those who died in the previous year. It is a religious, cultural and customary festival lasting for five to seven days depending on local variation. Each day of this five days festival has its own name, speciality and each act in these days has its significance. Gaan-Ngai is a festival of the Zeliangrong people who believed in fingkao Ragwang, the Supreme God (God of Heaven).

Ngaigangmei (The first day or Coming of the festival):

Ngaigangmei is the first day of the Gaan-Ngai festival. It generally begins on the thirteenth day of Wakching (December-January). In the early morning of the day, an omen taking ritual called Danjaomei is performed by an elder of Pei at the place of village deity called Bambu or Shong to prevent any untoward incidents during the festival.

It is performed in front of the Bambu or Shong by pronouncing: "Upper and lower village deity, today festival is started, on these days (during the festival) be kind, to prevent any violence, quarrels and danger or sufferings from illness and disorders in dance, music and discipline. For this we are performing ginger offering ceremony, you please prevail and protect us from evils".

Danjaomei is performed in this way that the elder who officiates as priest (Mhu) will keep a plantain leaf in front of the deity to be worshipped. He will select a piece of fleshy ginger and peel off its skin by using a special knife. Then, he will divide it into two halves.

Next, he will put one half on the plantain leaf and other half on the sharp edge of the special knife and chant a hymn mentioned above and will throw over the other half on the plantain leaf. If the half ginger falls accurately on the other half, then Mhu will foretell that the commencing festival will be all right and harmonious.

Otherwise, he will ask the village elders to take care of the coming festival as the omen is not good. On return to boys' dormitory the elder offers the holy wine along with Gu-Tam (crushed ginger) to Tingkao Ragwang for well being and prosperity to human being and it is followed by beating of drum which symbolises the commence if Gaan­Ngai.

After Danjaomei ritual, all the males come at the boys' Dormitory and Gaukpai Jaomei ceremony (Gauk=pig, Pai=spleen, Jaomei=observe) is performed in which a pig is offered to the Supreme God, Tingkao Ragwang for His blessing. The spleen of the pig is carefully observed by the village elders in search of good omen and evil that is to come in the following year.

The victim is consumed by the members of Khangchu including the elders of Pei; just before the consumption an invocation to God called Naplao Hoi is performed. The feast is called Jeigan-Tumei. Eating together of the meat cooked with blood (Jeigan) is a vow they make to stand as one in times of happiness and in times of woe. Thus, it is inaugurated by the men at a meal in the men's house.

Ritual farewell is given to all those who passed away in the preceding year in the form of parting meal provided by concerned families to his or her friends. It is in the belief that the soul of the dead does not leave for the land of the death until the parting meal is over. They will place drinks and eatables on the grave also as a way of sharing the meal with him. This is known as Kadimei.

In the afternoon, all male members of the village with well bath are gathered at Khangchukai. They eat and drink the chutney (Tam) and rice beer (National drink of Zeliangrong people) brought out by the owner of Khangchu after a libation of holy wine to Tingkao Ragwang.

Then, they start shouting Hoi and march through the length and breadth of the village just as nations expose their strength, their power in water, land and air, show their cultural richness on a specific day, the procession is a grand show of their strength. This is called Hoi Gammei.

The Hoi Gammei procession is led by the Khangbons (senior members of Khangchu) with spears in their hands and it will come to a halt when they reach the Danshanpung (the village jumping ground). The youths will perform competition in stone throwing and long jump in the presence of the whole community and this sports is inaugurated by an elder of the village with a sort of religious hymns. The winners of the sports will not be given prizes but they are required to pay fees called Shon for declaring and acknowledging their power and ability.

When the competition is completed, the procession of Hoi Gammei will go back to the Khangchu. The youths will make the new fire by the wood and bamboos friction and the same (fire) will be distributed to every household or several teams of youth will visit the individual families of the village to produce the new fire locally known as Mhairapmei. Easy extraction of this fire is believed to be a sign of prosperity for the year. With this new fire, they will cook their food for the festival.

Napkaomei ceremony is performed in every household in which a fowl is offered to God as thanksgiving for the bountiful harvest and prayer for abundant agricultural production in the coming year. In the evening, unmarried boys and girls of Khangchu and Luchu, will visit every member of houses to enjoy the delicious foods. This is called Napcha Tukaronmei.

In the same evening, the elders of Pei will visit every house (beating a piece of bamboo at the door) warning the members of each family not to argue with each other during the festival. If there is any quarrel, the Pei (village authority) will take action against quarrelling parties. This is locally known as Saopak Danmei.

On this day, two married males of Khangchu are appointed as Tuna Munsinmei (in charge of girls' dormitory) who will look after the affairs of Luchu during the festival.

Ngaidai (The second day of Gaan-Ngai, the great festival day)

The second day is called Ngaidai. It is greatest festival day out of the five days of Gaan-Ngai. It is also popularly known as Tamchan Ngai. In the morning, all the boys and girls of the village will bring eatables with a jar of rice beer to their respective dormitories.

In ancient times, there was a convention that different items of eatables and materials for making chutney called Tam should be brought by the members of Khangchu and Luchu to their respective dormitories at regular intervals on all the five days of Gaan-Ngai.

Now-a­days instead of contributing in kind a fixed amount in cash is contributed. The members of both dormitories who died between the last and this year's Gaan-Ngai will also contribute their share. In return, a share of eatables is given by the representative dormitories to those bereaved families.

In the afternoon, girls and boys of the dormitories will give out from their collection of meats, drinks, and vegetables to other dormitories like Peikai, Gaanchang Kaibang, Karapei kaibang and Mathenmei kaibang. While presenting these gifts the members of khangchu and Luchu will sing songs and perform dances as well. These dances are known as Tamchan Lam and the dance is performed by only girls who are the members of Luchu. The songs sung are called Tamchanlu.

On this particular day, a ritual called Rang-Ganmei is performed for good harvest of coming year.

After the evening feast, there is song competition between girls and boys at Luchu. The girls are led by Tuna-Munsinmei. This song competition will continue throughout the night and no song will be repeated by any singer.

Some boys, on the other hand, will go around the village singing songs in praise of the might and courage of the people of the village. Such singing of the songs of courage is called Kairong Lonmei (defense of the village). Those who participated are entertained with drinks by the individual families.

Tuna Gaan-Ngai (The third Day of Gaan-Ngai)

The third day of Gaan-Ngai is called Tuna Gaan-Ngai which means the festival of the girls and boys; (Tuna = girls, Gaan = Boys, Ngai = festival). On this day, all the four senior members of Khangchu called Khangbon will bring their Tamcha in the form of chutney and best prepared rice beer.

In the evening of the day, the boys and girls will perform Theikadilam, farewell dance in honour of the death to all the houses where death of any dormitory member had taken place during the previous year.

This is called Ngaidongmei. Khangbon Kadi Lam, (farewell dance in honour of the promotion of Khangbon of Khangchu to Peikai) is also performed by the dormitories when the elders of khangchu are being promoted to Peikai (village authority). These posts of Peikai loally known as Ganchang are not given by resolution or appointment order but by songs, dances and cultural activities.

Longkumei or Longruimei (The fourth day is hill-trekking)

The fourth day of the Gaan-Ngai festival is called Longkumei or Longruimei which literally means hill trekking; (Long = hill, kumei or Ruimei = trekking). It is performed by the boys and girls donnitories of the village at a chosen place on top of the hill. They sing songs called Luchenlu and eat the Gaktingtam with drink.

The Gaktingtam, boiled pork pounded with salt, ginger, chilies and made into balls will be eaten on the hill. Drum beating is carried out by those who are expert in this art. Among them, two boys and girls are selected to be kings and queens and each of them wears a crown made of leaves of Fak, a kind of long grass.

All the four are called Fakgwangs. In the evening, they will return to the village and perform dance and sing in front of the houses of the Phakgwangs who in return entertain all with eatables and drink. This dance is called Phakgwang Lam.

Napchanmei (The fifth and last day of Gaan-Ngai Festival)

Napchanmei is the fifth day of the Gaan-Ngai festival. In the early morning of the day, a pig and a fowl are offered to Tingkao Ragwang with an invocation to restore the consumed and wasted rice during the festival and for the plentiful harvest of the coming year. Every household also performs Napchanmei for a bountiful harvest of the coming year.

Offering of the best part of the killed animal or fowl ie the liver with rice and drink are placed on the hearth stones in the house. It is in the belief that the Goddess of wealth dwells in the hearth. After the feast is over, there is song competition between the boys and girls of the dormitories. They will sing throughout the night.

On sixth day, there is an important occasion called Raang-Patmei. It may not be considered as a part of the five day festival. On this day, every family will contribute at least one fowl, ginger, chilies, egg etc. The village priests and elders perform the ritual called Laren-Loumei at the Northern gate, the seat of Kaipi Bambu or Shong, offerings consisting of fowls, eggs, ginger, water and rice-beer are made to all the deities of the Zeliangrong Pantheon.

Appointments and retirements of person, handing over of charges, etc, in connection with religious-cultural matters concerning the village are announced at this place. Such announcements which are believed to be made in front of the gods have strong customary sanctions behind them. After this ritual, the elders of Pei, old women and children will dine at this place though cooked rice is brought from their respective houses.

A complete Genna or Neimei is observed. Then, all the elders will return to the village Pei and a ritual called Buhkaomei (calling of the soul) is performed in which a big and beautiful fowl is sacrificed to the God supreme (who is the source of soul). It is carried out by the Khullakpu who officiates as priest.

The main objective of this ritual is for giving peace and blessings to the souls of the villagers and prosperity to the village as a whole. The cooked meat of the sacrificed fowl will be distributed to every household and tested. This ritual is followed by an announcement made by an elder that Genna or Neimei is over and everybody is allowed to move out from the village.

With this, the Gaan-Ngai festival comes to an end and the dead are made to leave the house for the land of the dead called Taroilam where the dead and living are divided.

Thus, Gaan-Ngai is the biggest, most important and colourful festival of this tribe. Due to its dynamic dimensions, Gaan-Ngai covers almost all virtual aspects of life. It fulfils the needed social, religious and cultural aspirations of life. Indeed, it is a multi-faceted festival playing multi-role in shaping the life of the Zeliangrong people.

* Dr Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express. This was webcasted on December 28th, 2009.

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