Autumn season brings joy and festive mood in the Zeliangrong habitats of the north eastern region of India. Recognised as Kabui and Kacha Naga scheduled Tribes, the Zeme, Liangmei, Rongmei and Puimei constitute a composite tribe of kindred entity. The Zeliangrong people occupy a compact geographical block consisting Tamenglong district of Manipur, Peren District of Nagaland and further fragmented by administrative bifurcations in Cachar district, N.C. Hills of Assam, Senapati, Churachandpur, Imphal East & West, Thoubal and Bishnupur district of Manipur. Zeliangrong population is estimated at 3 lakhs approximately.
Significance of Gaan-Ngai:
Gaan-ngai, the festival of lights and victory
Gaan-ngai signifies victory over evils which depicts the events occurred during "Amangh Kaisu-mei' (feast of merit and painted house or Tarang-kai ceremony) in the Zeliangrong mythology. Man and tiger held competition to extract fire from a wooden log called "Ringh-maigang" by rubbing it with a bamboo flint to acquire power to rule the earth as declared by Haipou Amangh, the mystic Godly man who built the first traditional house of dignity (Tarangkai) following the example set by God of earth and host of combined God-man dormitory (Khangchu), Tingpu Liangsonang. Man won the test of equating sacred fire and was given the authority over all creatures on earth. Even God of earth blessed man to win the war with earthly gods who failed to obey their master God.
To celebrate this victory a festival called Gaan-ngai i.e. Gaan - means light Ngai means festival, the festival of fire light was first held for just one day. The festival began with "Mhairapmei" or igniting extracting fire to signify the victory over evil and darkness.
In course of time, more days were added one after another with special functions till the festival become a seven day long festival.
Luih Lamei (Gaan-ngai eve) or collection of Plantain leaves
Early in the morning all the village gates, local deities and surrounding sites are cleared by men. The older people will carry on the social service the whole day while young people go to the forests for finding plantain leaves for use as containers of wine and joint meals. The rest of those house wives also go to find 'fresh vegetables of various kinds including plantain leaves. The young people shall bring the container leaves at their respective dormitories "Khangchu-Kailu' (Boys' dormitories & Girls dormitories) etc. They would also distribute the leaves to all households in the village.
Special dishes are served on the eve of this great festival to every home while group singing or carolling will be performed by young and old people marching in and around the entire village by night. 'Kailongronlu' or marching song shall be sung as long as the participants can endure late in the night.
Ngai-Gongmei (Commencement of the festival)
Early in the morning elders go around the village holding 'Tianmaimin' (Typical broom like plants of spraying leaves) and perform "Kailong phiakmei" (Sanctifying the village) from all evils and any unseen forms of harm and dangers. Villagers also clean the village roads/leaves/court yards and village gates.
'Laenghtiang nummei' (Ordeal/Dedication of village gates) is performed by the 'Nampou' (chief of village or Khunbu/Khullak or who ever is the first settler) into the pillar's pit/hole inside the earth. Eggs, wine and other ceremonial herbs will be poured into the pit by swearing as the chief or first settler of the village before God Almighty with prayer as preventive measures against any harm and danger which may intervene during the festival being commenced and the year through ever since.
Then the youngmen of 'Kangchu' (Boys' dormitory) will prepare 'Khuaih" or traditional herbal ware used as soap for the entire villagers and put the 'Khuaih' or rural soap ware of the public bath place or Duikhun. There may be two or more 'Khangchu' (dormitories) for young-men and two or more luchu (dormitories) for young women in the village.
Traditionally, a 'Thianh' or a co-dormitory is consisted of one Khangchu & one Luchu or Kailu combined. Each 'Thianh' has certain names such as 'Thianka-oh' or upper Thian, Thian-hschung or middle Thianh, Thianh na or lower Thians and so on and so forth. It is told long time ago that Mukti village had seven Thian or co-dormitories viz; Thiandai-hmei, Thian Kaohmei, Thian chungmei, Kanchong Thian, Khud-angmei Thian, Kaiguang-thian and Thian namei etc.
The young-men prepare pikam (head gear) and sharpen the spears of elders for their respective Thians or dormitories. Then all the men take bath together and after all these things are over they will march together towards the centre of the village with hoeing or hawling i.e. 'Huai gammei'. The young-men drank rice brew (jou-ngao) with dry meat pickles.
Visiting each house and resumed hoeing 'Huai kadinghmei' or hoeing when conclusion took place. After hoeing is over traditional sports shall be started with long jump (daanh chammei) to be opened by 'Banhja' (eldest man or senior) of the village. When long jump competition is over, 'Taopong' or stone throwing competition shall follow which too shall be inaugurated by any Banja. After the traditional sports are over, seniors will declare winners by holding hands while shouting aloud consisting words of blessing. The winners will present victory offering of wine or cash gift, which shall be borne by relatives for the winners.
When supper is over, young-men of various co-dormitories or Thianh jointly visit each house and perform extraction of sacred fire/igniting fresh fire which is the main significance of Gaan-ngai. Strong and able youths will rub out fire with bamboo flints from wooden log supported by wooden chafts (thutnut) or remains at its base to attract fire sparks.
The fire ignited in the wooden chaffs or remains is to be kept under the wealth box or rice, container with the wish for prosperity. Then seniors shall visit houses to perform kaidapmei or bidding the households to maintain peace with warning of cattle fine against any defaulters. When all is over young people get together at their respective Thians or co-dormitories and enjoy dinner, drinks and singing. Others will march round the village as kailong ronmei with singing in groups.
Ngaidaih (main celebration)
In the morning each Thian will offer wine and kill cattle (Mithun/buffalo/cow) to distribute meat for every home. Much of the meat portions shall be reserved at their respective dormitories for consumption during the festive days. Pigs, chicken, fish and other delicious dishes will also be prepared with the best of wine or rice brew drinks.
Pieces of fresh meat shall be distributed and sent messengers to reach the same at the houses of the children who belong to their respective thians. Whoever comes at their dormitories shall dine together. This act is known as, Thianh suimei or reaffirmation of solidarity among the members of the dormitories. After this young people perform dances at the houses of Khangbuan (elders of dormitories) till late in the evening. The young people of particular Thian dance at the houses of Khangbuan belonging to their Thian. (Thians perform the dances separately)
Young and old perform "Kailuang ruanmei" carolling or marching around the village in group singing through the night.
Ngaidaih (main celebration)
Young people dine together at their respective dormitories. After dinner preparation for "Han-siangh lam" (dance) begins with singing rehearsals, dressing and other costumes which take a long time. In the evening dancing programme begins at the house of late Khangbuan, heads of girls or boys dormitories and also some appointed houses in the village. Singing competitions are held at Kailu/Luchu. i.e. girls' dormitories. Married women also enjoy joint dinners. Kailuang Ruanmei continues by men till the night through.
Ngnilan (continuing celebration)
In the morning boys of different dormitories jointly go to the forests and collect "Tnrouthai" fruits i.e. Goose berry also known as poor man's apple. They distribute the fruits at every door wishing the villagers all prosperity. They return to their respective dormitories with larger portions of collected fruits. The young people dine together at their respective Thians or dormitories.
They also perform dances called "Tingthai-pou lam" at the houses of "Tunapi" (heads of girls) and "Ganpi" (heads of boys) in the evening. After dancing performance, wine or rice brew with meat or fish pickles are collected at their respective dormitories which include shares of Khangbuan, Tunapi, Ganpi and Ganchang etc. Delicious dishes are served and enjoy together. The best wine or pickles shall be recognised and persons whose food items are declared best shall offer wine as winner reward. The cost of such wine shall be borne by relative or puning Chian gaimei (intimate brother) increase of the "Tunapi" (head girl).
Ngaidon (Valedictory Celebration)
In the morning young people dine together at their respective dormitories. After dinner boys go to the outskirts of the village for "Langanmei" (enjoying decorated gate pillars) and grown up youngmen go to cut trees for the pillars of the village gates (Langtan thing) and they bring the pillars at the village gates i.e. northern gate and southern gate.
Elders and youngmen erect both gates with all required structures for the ceremony of "Rang Pamhmei" (ominous act of gate keeping) to be performed later at night. Celebration continues with singing, drum beating, group wise festivities of joint dinner and various other duties concerning the festival.
When evening comes, men drawn from various thians (dormitories or co-dormitories) and two selected youngs (designated for performing the gate keeping) assemble with full daws and spears at the centre of the village.
Group howling or Hoeing or Huai 'gamhniei shall be started then and there to march/up and down between the northern and southern gates. Then elders announce by shouting to keep silent in the entire village that even insect, animals and birds seem to understand by their silence. When darkness falls, men form three groups to march towards northern gate and groups so as to give proper strategy against any impending danger of war or external attack.
The bigger group will stay a distance away from the middle group of lesser number while the third group being smallest include the two selected youths. As the 3rd group shall stand by, one of the two selected persons will lean over the pillar of the left side in standing position and all will keep silent.
Then the other selected youth would, chop/cut the right side pillar of the gate by daw (traditional machete/knife) with war cry which is followed immediately by the start of hoeing. The 3rd group nearest to the gate would start the hoeing followed one after another by the 2nd and the 1st group after which they march towards the southern gate. Here too, the same procedures are observed with three groups formation and the chopping of the pillar of the gate.
After two gates are ominously solemnised, the men march towards the Centre of the village when hoeing will be concluded.
After all is over, the two selected youths will 'sleep together at their dormitories separated from the rest of the young men.
In the morning, both of the selected man would go to the nearby forest and cut down some bamboos called "Nchi" which should not be placed on the ground. Other youths may also bring the bamboos with the same procedures. The youths will then split open a whole bamboo in to two equal parts. The two youth's will stand apart facing each others by holding the parts of the Nchi bamboo with both hands and place the two half parts on either sides of their waists. When the youths swear or recite some wishes, the two half of the bamboo would come closer to each others till they would join in the middle to visualise the good signs and the half will not join if it were for a bad sign for the village.
Then, the elders would ask the dreams from the said two youths who performed gate ceremony the previous night by sitting together at the boys' dormitory later in the morning. When the dreams of the two youth and the signs of bamboo test do not produce good signs, elders would perform sacrificial rite later in two or three days time.
Young people would go to the forests to collect fire woods for their respective dormitories as a compensatory gestures for the loss borne by the hosts during the days long festival. In the evening, valedictory songs and dances are performed as "Tuna Suanrnei" or bidding farewell to the girls at their respective houses.
This practice reflects the past bad days when girls could not return homes without escorts for fear of evils of, war and dangerous animals like tigers.
On the eight day, the village gates shall be closed and the villagers observe genna or Neimei. No one goes out from the village. The above facts are enumerated as practical in the hill and rural villages in the past. But, it is also pertinent to mention that only four or five days are incorporated for this biggest festival "Gaan-ngai" in the towns and cities in particular.
Even hill villages seldom observe 7 days in this modern time in view of the impracticable implications involved. All the events are now incorporated in the four or five day period of celebration. Infact, many events are either abolished or side lined. Thus, Gaan-ngai is a celebrated festival to remind the discovery of fire by early man as victory over evils.
Akham Gonmei is the advisor of All Zeliangrong Arts and Cultural Organisation, Manipur
This article was webcasted on Feb 15th, 2005