TODAY -

Rih Ngai: The war festival

Budha Kamei *



Culture can be preserved when the religion of the community survives. Culture is a vehicle of religion. Culture and religion are inseparable in Zeliangrong indigenous religion. Cultural festivals are times of "worship and prayer to Almighty God for plenty and welfare and celebration for them." The social and cultural values, the aesthetic and creativity are expressed through dances, songs and music.

In a year, the Zeliangrong people celebrate nine festivals at different stages of agricultural operations according to lunar calendar with festive spirit and prayer. "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."

Rih-Ngai is an important ritual festival of the Zeliangrong of North East. Rih-Ngai literally means war festival; (Rih means war; Ngai means festivity). Some Zeliangrong villages celebrate this festival in the name of Chaga Gadi or Chaga Ngi. This festival is observed in remembrance of the victory of war. The festival opens with a ritual called Gucheng Phaimei at the abode of village presiding deity not to occur any untoward incidents during the festival.

With this they renounce the usual and daily function, and turn to the festival and it is observed only within the parameter of the village. Festival time imposes itself as an autonomous duration, not so much to be perceived and measured in days or hours, but to be divided internally by what happens within it from its beginning to its end. It is celebrated for one day in the month of Rihngaibu, January/ February.

The opening rite is followed by a number of events of general ritual types. There are rites of purification and cleansing by means of fire, water (Maithan Duithan Lamei) or expulsion of some sort of evil and negative out of the community. The rites of safeguard include various forms of benediction and procession (Hoigammei) around the village in order to renew the magical defenses of the village community against natural and supernatural enemies.

Traditional meals or blessed foods are one of the frequent and typical features of festival, since they are a very eloquent way to represent and enjoy abundance, fertility, and prosperity. Ritual food is also a means to communicate with gods and ancestors.

Only male members of the village perform the activities of the festival and female members are mere spectators. On the eve of the festival every male member of the Khangchiu observes Lumthengmei, fasting for the purification of one's body, soul and mind, thereby making oneself fortunate and for every challenges of life say ready for war, hunting, fishing, cultivation etc.

During this festival, men do not touch women and also fetch water separately. "The reason for the males and females bringing water separately during this festival is to begin with this ceremony the making of liquor; and the separate eating and cooking of the sexes to be a mark of respect to their gods."

The men kill pigs, take a portion for them and give a portion to women. They cooked them separately with new fire and eat separately. It is similar to the first day of Gaan-Ngai festival; there is no feasting at the dormitory. In the afternoon of the festival, all male members of the dormitory who are armed with spear and dao will walk in procession (Hoigammei) from one end of the village to the another chanting Ho Hoi in chorus. It is an invocation to God for safety and wellbeing of the village.

Usually, festival includes rites of competition, which often constitute in the form of games. The result of the game create among them a final hierarchical order- either binary (winners and losers) or by rank from first to last. Games show how equality may be turned into hierarchy. Besides, festival competitions include various forms of contests such as drum beating, singing, dance etc. By singling out outstanding members and giving them prizes, the group implicitly reaffirms some of its most important values.

Athletic or competitive sporting events include individual or collective games of luck, strength, or ability. These have been considered a corruption of older plays of ritual combats with fixed routine and obligatory ending. In their functional aspects, such games may be seen as display and encouragement of skills such as strength, endurance, and precision, required in daily work and military occupations; such was for instance the rationale of medieval mock battles.

In their symbolic aspect, festival competitions may be seen as a metaphor for the emergence and establishment of power, as when the winner takes all or when the winning faction symbolically takes over arena, or the city in triumph.

After the Hoi procession, competitions like long jump (Daan Chammei), stone throwing (Tao Phaimei), wrestling (Naokhemmei) etc. are held at the village jumping ground (Daanshanpung). In these competitions, young men of the dormitory fully take part.

The winners are not given prizes, but they are required to pay Shon (fees) for declaring and acknowledging their power and ability. Before the competition, they will perform the Chong-Kapmei (shooting of or spearing of the human effigies made of the plantain tree) at the Raang (village gate).

It is believed that one who hits the head of the effigy will be successful in war and hitting on the chest of the effigy is a good luck in hunting. He who strikes at the belly of the effigy will be blessed with bountiful harvest in the year. R. Brown writes, "An effigy of a man made of plaintain is hung on a tree, and at it they throw pointed bamboos or sticks. Should the javelin strike it on the head, the thrower, it is said, will kill an enemy, but if it lodges in the belly, the thrower is to be blessed with plenty of good."

If any woman, who by mistake, eats or drinks which is meant only for male in this festival, she must joint the Chong-Kapmei for forgiveness of what she has committed. In this festival, the elderly men perform Kabaomei (warrior talks), Ritak Phaimei (throwing of rice, and pork meat at the village gate with war hymns), etc. No song and dance is performed in this festival.

At the close of the festival, all the young men of the village will march to the Northern village gate with bamboo cups which they used for drinking purpose. And the cup will be split in the middle at one stroke with dao and taken the omen. If one half of the cup turns open and other half turns closed the omen is taken as good.

If both the halves turn open or closed simultaneously, the omen is taken as bad. This rite marks the end of the festive activities and the return to the normal spatial and temporal dimensions of daily life.

To conclude, festivals are celebrated under different names, but their functions are essentially the same. They unite people in a common exercise, thus strengthening the bonds between the participants. Rituals of the Rih-Ngai festival are meant to ensure the prosperity and safety of the village.


* Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on February 03, 2015.


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