TODAY -

Ritual festivals of the Zeliangrong of North East
- Part 1 -

Budha Kamei *

State Level Gaan Ngai celebration organised at Tarung Village, Imphal West on January 25, 2013 :: Pix - Deepak Oinam
State Level Gaan Ngai celebration organised at Tarung Village, Imphal West on January 25, 2013 :: Pix - Deepak Oinam



"Festival is a time of merriment and enjoyment, to imbibe the spirit of love and brotherhood."

The present article is an attempt to look into the ritual festivals observed by the Zeliangrong people of North East India. The Zeliangrong is the acronym of the Zeme, Liangmei and Rongmei who live in the states of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. Racially, they belong to Mongoloid stock and linguistically, to Tibeto-Burman family. Like other communities of the world, the Zeliangrong people also are following a profound indigenous religion called Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak in short TRC. Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak is basically based on the fundamental belief of Tingkao Ragwang, the Supreme God. Tingkao Ragwang literally means the Heavenly God, or God of the sky or Lord of the universe. Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak means the religion of Tingkao Ragwang. This profound religious tradition is preserved and practiced through oral traditions by the ancient Zeliangrong community through the ages. The population of Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak in the three states of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland is 30,000 souls approximately.

A festival means a time or day of feasting or celebration or a series of performances of a certain kind. A festival in the accepted usage of the term may be defined as an aggregate of rituals observed mostly in an astronomically or ordinarily fixed date and time and celebrated with rejoice, pomp and grandeur by an ethnic group or a social group or a community as a whole. The term festival is derived from the Latin word Festum meaning "public joy, merriment, revelry" and "abstinence from work in honour of the gods".

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 festival are meant to ensure the prosperity and safety of the ethnic group or community. Although some festivals are celebrated primarily for worship and ritual, they are also a relief from daily toil and a major source of recreation for a large portion of the world. A festival scholar writes, "The primary and most general function of the festival is to renounce and then to announce culture, to renew periodically the life stream of a community by creating new energy, and to give sanction to its institutions, the symbolic means to achieve it is to present the primordial chaos before creation, or a historical disorder before the establishment of the culture, society, or regime where the festival happens to take place."

Festivals were first studied to gain understanding of the primitive people. Jean Duvignaud has argued that the classic analysis of festivals goes back to Emile Durkheim who differentiated between the sacred and profane and wrote about "collective effervescence" as the supreme moment of the solidarity of collective consciousness. Other scholars observed how during festival time the norms and rules of every day life were suspended. In the overview, Alessandra Falassi presents a morphology of festivals with ritual acts (rites) as building blocks for actual festivals.

The ritual that opens the festival is one of sacralization that modifies the usual and daily function and meaning of time and space. To serve as the theatre of the festive events an area is reclaimed, cleared, delimited, blessed, adorned, and forbidden to normal activities. Likewise, daily time is modified by a gradual or sudden interruption that introduces "time out of time," a special temporal dimension devoted to special activities. 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.

The opening rite is followed by a number of events that belong to a limited group of general ritual types. There are rites of purification and cleansing by means of fire, water, or air, or centered around the solemn expulsion of some sort of scapegoat carrying the "evil" and "negative" out of the community. If the rationale of these rites is to expel the evil that is already within, as in exorcisms, other complementary rites aim at keeping away the evil perceived as a threat coming from outside. These rites of safeguard include various forms of benediction and procession around and through significant points of the festival space setting, in order to renew the magical defenses of the community against natural and supernatural enemies.

Rites of passage, in the form described by Arnold Van Gennep, mark the transition from one life stage to the next. They may be given special relevance by being part of a festival event. These may include forms of initiation into age groups, such as childhood, youth, adulthood, and initiation into occupational, military, or religious groups.

Rites of obvious display permit the most important symbolic elements of the community to be seen, touched, adored, or worshipped and their communicative function is "phatic," of contact. Sacred shrines, relics, magic objects are solemnly display and become the destination of visitations from within the immediate boundaries of the festival. In sacred processions and secular adorned with momentary festive decorations. In such events, along the community icons, the ruling groups typically display themselves as their guardians and keepers, and depositories of religious or secular power, authority, and military might.

Rites of conspicuous consumption usually involve food and drink. These are prepared in abundance and even excess, made generously available, and solemnly consumed in various forms of feasts, banquets. 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.

Rites of exchange make expression the abstract equality of the community members, their theoretical status as equally relevant members of a community of equals under certain shared laws of reciprocity. At the fair, money and goods are exchanged at an economic level. At more abstract and symbolic levels, information, ritual gifts, or visits may be exchanged; public acts of pacification, symbolic thanksgiving for a grace received may take place in various forms of redistribution, sponsored by the community or a privileged individual, who thus repays the community or the gods for what he has received in excess.

Festival usually includes rites of competition, which often constitute in the form of games. Even if games are commonly defined as competitions regulated by special rules and with uncertain outcome (as opposed to ritual, the outcome of which known in advance), the logic of festival is concerned with the competition and the awards for winner; the rule of the game are canonic, and its paradigm is ritual.

The parts or roles are assigned at the beginning to the persona as equals and undifferentiated "contestants," "hopefuls," "candidates." Then the development and 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.

At the close of the festival, a rite of desacralization, symmetrical to the opening one, marks the end of the festive activities and the return to the normal spatial and temporal dimensions of daily life.

The festival is called Ngai/Ngi. [The Zeme and Liangmei term is Ngi and Rongmei is Ngai, which means rejoicing] The Zeliangrong people celebrate their festivals in all seasons and almost every month of the agricultural calendar. Every festival is associated with any stage of agricultural operation. They express their joy through prayer and thanksgiving to Tingkao Ragwang for good harvest and future prosperity. In the festival, Kairao, the ancestors are also honoured. The social and cultural values, the aesthetic and creative senses, their love of beauty and color are expressed in the festivals. Dancing, singing, eating and drinking are the four main highlights of festivals among the Zeliangrongs. Festivals bind together a religious group, the members of the clan and family and the society as a whole.

A colonial British writer says, "The festive occasions among the Zeliangrongs are numerous, and are characterized by feasting, drinking, dancing and singing, and shouting of the Hoi, Hoi without which no entertainment of any kind would be complete." The cry of Hoi, Hoi is an integral part of the festivals and it, also an intimation of their joys towards Tingkao Ragwang, the Supreme God. It is said that the joy of life which is the mother of the will to live is sustained by the successive festivals. Each of the festivals is a sweet gift of God which is practiced with true religious faiths which makes human being a superior race and dominant creatures. During the festivals, the dormitories particularly the Khangchiu [boys' dormitory] and the Luchiu [girls' dormitory] play the major role in the whole activity. Ngai, meaning 'rejoicing' or 'festivity,' is many-sided cultural phenomenon and in a year, they celebrate nine festivals which are discussed below:

1. Gaan-Ngai : The greatest festival of the people.

2. Rih-Ngai : The war festival.

3. Nanu-Ngai : The ear-boring festival.

4. Napkao-Ngai : The seed-sowing festival.

5. Ginki-Ngai : Worship of Goddess of food grains

6. Gudui-Ngai : The ginger soup drinking festival.

7. Tun-Ngai : The festival of rainy season.

8. Puakpat-Ngai : The pre-harvest festival.

9. Dongjaomei-Ngai : The festival of exhibition of the annual agricultural product of the village.

To be continued...


* Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on April 08, 2013



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