Rih-ngai and Mayasvi festivals of the Zeliangrong and the Tsou
- Part 1 -

Budha Kamei *


The present article is a humble attempt to delve into the Rih-ngai and Mayasvi festivals of the Zeliangrong and the Tsou of Taiwan: their socio-cultural significance. The Zeliangrong is one of the natives of North East India. Ethnically, they belong to Mongoloid stock and speak the Tibeto-Burman language. According to myth and legend, the Zeliangrong originated from a cave known as Mahou Taobei; they moved to Makhel and to Ramting Kabin, and then to Makuilongdi, Senapati District of Manipur.

From Makuilongdi, they migrated to different directions. Most of the Naga traditions point to Makhel as their original home. Another theory suggests that the Zeliangrong along with other groups of Tibeto-Burman family came from two regions: south-East Asia and South-West China.

As the Zeliangrong are "Tibeto-Burman, they must have lived with other groups of the same family in south West China before 1000 B.C and migrated to eastern Tibet, Upper Burma, then moved into Irrawaddy valley, Malaysia and Indonesia, and they returned southward and entered north East India through Manipur river, and some tracts of Indo-Burma border to their present habitat."3 Now, the population of this ethnic group is found inhabiting in three states of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland.

The Tsou ethnic group is one of the fourteen recognized indigenous peoples of Taiwan. They speak a branch of Austronesian language, languages spoken by aboriginals in Australia and people in the south Pacific not the languages spoken by people in China or Southeast Asia. They are a people of both beauty and power, like the mountains of Alishan which they call home. They are also a people of age old traditions, many of which remain closely interwoven in the fabric of their life today.

Their culture (from costume and customs to festivals and food) does continue to convey the spirit and passion of these early settlers of Alishan. In the distant past, they prospered throughout the central and southern parts of Taiwan, but war and epidemic greatly decreased their population to only 7000 people, concentrated on the southwest side of Yushan in Chiayi County.

They are now divided into southern and northern groups: the southern group makes their home at the upper reaches of the Nanzihsian River in Sanmin township, Kaohsiung County and the northern group inhabits the upper reaches of the Zengwen River, the left bank of the Chenyoulan River, and the upper reaches of the Cingshuei River in Alishan Township, Chiayi County. The northern Tsou group is further divided into two subgroups: the Tapangu (Dabang) and the Tfuya (Tefuye).

Each group has kept some distinct characteristics in language and culture. In keeping their unique spiritual roots while consolidating the Tsou identity, they (three groups) have re-established their traditional ceremonies and celebrations. In a year, they perform three major celebrations with prayer for heaven's blessings, hoping that the God will grant them good fortune and prosperity and avert evil and disaster. This attitude applies to all aspects of society, from agriculture, war and hunting to architecture, religion and everyday life.

Preparation of the festival:

A few days before the Rih Ngai festival, every household of the village prepare all the requirements such as food and drink (rice beer) for the festival. Among the Tsous, some days ahead of the festival, young men of the tribe under the guidance of old men start to organize sacred objects in the Kuba (meeting place for tribal males), maintaining the Kuba, and cleaning major roads of the tribe. Female members of the tribe prepare wine, sticky rice cakes etc. for the ceremony.

Meaning and Time of celebration:

Rih-ngai is an important ritual festival of the Zeliangrong inhabitants of Northeast; (Rih means war and Ngai, festivity). Some Zeliangrong villages celebrate this festival in the name of Chaga Ngai. This festival is observed in commemoration of war and victory. Rih Ngai is now celebrated on the 13th day of lunar month of Rihngaibu (which falls in February every year) for one day. In the remote past, the date of the festival was fixed by the elders of Pei of the village after the Gaan Ngai festival as there was no fixed date.

Mayasvi is the grandest annual celebration of the Alishan Tsou tribe. Traditionally, Mayasvi was celebrated upon the return of tribal warriors from war or a hunt, the building of a Kuba, or when the tribe experienced a major change or setback. For centuries, they celebrated the war festival to honor its gods and warriors.

Head hunting has long been banned by the government. Today, they celebrate the festival to protect their cultural identity; it lasts for two days. The festival does bring together the male members of the tribe for two days of singing, rites of passage, and the blessing of newborn boys. In fact, the festival has compounded a number of rituals, with a very rich content, and deep meaning of praying for victory, prosperity and strengthening the tribe.

According to Chi Hao James Lo, "Mayasvi is notably the most important celebration of the indigenous Tsou people. Mayasvi is to the Tsou what Chinese New year is to the Chinese, usually resulting in the celebration being mistaken for the Tsou equivalent of an indigenous harvest festival held in high esteem by other groups.

This would be wrong, as the Tsous celebrate their harvest during Homeyaya, making Mayasvi more accurately translated as "Festival of War and Triumph," celebrated by the Tsou to serve two purposes: To invite the gods into their village to bless the people with prosperity and triumph, as well as a rite of passage for new born baby boys to be recognized by the gods."

In Tsou tradition, the elders choose the date of the festival after the Homeyaya (harvesting festival) considering factors like hunting results (head hunting), whether the Kuba requires reconstruction and situations that affect the tribe such as natural disasters/other incidents. Due to factors like social environment and changes of tribal life, the Dabang and Tfuya villages hold the festival in rotation; now, the date of the festival falls on around in the middle of February every year.

Male's sacred building:

Kuba is a sacred building of males; it can be seen in the patriarchy-oriented Tsou village and it is surrounded by local houses. It is always built high above ground so that a constant fire which symbolizes the Tsou's everlasting flourishing and passion be burnt in the center of the ground floor. Women are not allowed to enter and touch the Kuba. All important decisions are taken by a conjoint meeting of village males in the Kuba.

Traditionally, old men of the tribe clean and repair the roof of the Kuba with the assistance of young men prior to Mayasvi festival. This does serve as a chance to pass age-old traditions as well as presenting a seldom found bonding opportunity between generations. Unlike the Tsous, there is no separate building as meeting place of male members of the Zeliangrong.

They have Khangchiu (male's dormitory) and Pei (village council). Both Khangchiu and Pei are housed in individual houses with rich and influential owners who have big houses. All important decisions of the village are taken by the elders of Pei and the same are implemented by the members of Khangchiu. Women are prohibited to enter into the Khangchiu during the festival.

Rituals of the festival:

Rih Ngai festival opens with a ritual called Gucheng Phaimei, ginger offering at the abode of village presiding deity (Bambu) not to occur any untoward incidents in 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.

The opening rite is followed by a number of rituals. 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 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.

(to be contd)

* Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on September 08, 2016.

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