Ritual festivals of the Zeliangrong of North East
- Part 2 -

Budha Kamei *

Gaan Ngai  celebration at Ragailong on Jan 27, 2013 :: Pix - Deepak Oinam
Gaan Ngai celebration at Ragailong on Jan 27, 2013 :: Pix - Deepak Oinam


Among the festivals, Gaan-Ngai [Gaan-Ngai is called Hega-Ngi among the Zemei and Gin-ngi among the Liangmei] is the biggest and most important festival of Zeliangrongs. The literal meaning of Gaan-Ngai is the festival of winter season; [Gaan means winter or dry season; Ngai means festival]. It is derived from the name of the season called Gaan-bu which means winter season.

It is a post harvest festival celebrated in the month of December/January every year and usually prolongs for five to seven days. "When the granaries are full, the landscape is dry, the whole village is free from all agricultural works and people turn to celebration, festivity and worship of Tingkao Ragwang and honoring of the dead." On the first day, they produce a new fire so it may be described as a tribal New Year Festival. The whole culture, religion and social life are interwoven in the performance of Gaan-Ngai festival.

In Tribal History of Eastern India, E.T. Dalton writes, Gaan-Ngai, a biggest festival of Zeliangrongs which falls in December/January. 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. In general, the festival commences on the 13th day of the Manipuri lunar month of Wakching which falls in December/January. Today, the Zeliangrong community celebrates this festival in almost villages, towns and cities where Zeliangrongs reside. It is a festival for spreading good will, peace, prosperity and preservation of cultural identity.

In the commencement of the month of Wakching, the village elders will make announcement the coming of the festival by blowing the horn of the buffalo or mithun informing the community to make necessary arrangement/preparation of food and drink for the festival. This is called Gaan Shanmei in local dialect.

Day one:

Before sunrise of the first day, an omen taking rite locally called Guhlim Dan Shanmei [ginger offering] is performed by an elder of Pei [village council] who officiates as priest at the abode of the village deity called Bambu chanting: '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'. Guhlim Dan Sanmei is performed in this way that the priest will keep a plantain leaf in front of the deity to be worshipped.

Then he will select a piece of fleshy ginger and peel off its skin by using a 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 priest will foretell that the commencing festival will be all right and harmonious. If not he will advice the village elders to take care of the coming festival as the omen is not good.

Guh, ginger is considered sacred and it is used in many rites, sacrifices and also towards off evils. It is believed that ginger represents the fingers of Tingkao Ragwang, the formless creator and Almighty God. In ritual chants, Guh is not merely addressed as just 'Guh', it is always addressed as Kachak Gubung[golden ginger]. After the omen taking rite, at the premises of the Khangchiu, the same priest offers holy wine [Joupan Keimei] to Tingkao Ragwang, Bambu and ancestors of the village for safety and prosperity of the village followed by beating of drum [Khong] by young boys, which signifies the Gaan-Ngai commences. With this they renounce the usual and daily function and then turn to the festival and it is observed only within the parameter of the village.

Then, all the members of boys' dormitory gather at the premises of Khangchiu and an omen taking rite known as Gaukpaijaomei, [observation of pig spleen; Gauk means pig, Pai, spleen and Jaomei, observation] is performed offering a big pig to Tingkao Ragwang for wellbeing and prosperity of the village. The Gaanchang and Banja, senior members of Pei [village council] are also invited in the rite. The spleen of the pig is removed and examined carefully for the sign of good and evil that is to come in the following year.

The portent is read as: if there is blemish on the spleen it is assumed as bad and there is nothing on it, is regarded as good sign. The victim is cooked and consumed by the members present with an invocation to Tingkao Ragwang called Naplao Hoi [Shouting Hoi for meal]. Eating together of the pork meat cooked with the blood called Jeigan is a vow they make to stand as one in times of misery and happiness.

Some say Jeigan is meant only for the Banja, Taku and Gaanchang. But all the members of Khangchiu irrespective of age must have it as a vow. However, sitting arrangement is made according to age grade.

Next, the boys will produce a new fire by the wood and bamboos friction called Mhailapmei [making new fire] at Danshanpung and the same fire will be distributed to every household of the village or several teams of youth will visit the individual families of the village to produce the new fire. Easy extraction of this fire is believed to be a sign of prosperity for the year. With the new fire they cook their food for the festival and partaking of the foods cooked with the new fire will make them healthy, wealthy and wise.

It is believed that the lighting of this sacred fire signifies ritual sanctification. It also indicates that one has entered a new era, a time of peace, prosperity and happiness. It is also believed that the blessed influence of the fresh fire will last throughout the whole year. The young boys will dig the village jumping ground where the sports of long jump and short put are to be performed. This day also marks the end of one harvest and the beginning of a new one, which for an agricultural community would signify the beginning of a New Year.

In the evening, all the members of Khangchiu wearing the best colourful varied shawls meant for their age, headgear and holding spears in their hands will march from one end of the village to another shouting Hoi, which symbolizes the ethnic group or community expose their strength, their power in land, water and air, show their cultural richness on a specific day, the procession is a grand show of their strength and identity. This is locally known as Hoi Gammei [Hoi procession].

Usually it starts from the Khangchiu after libation of holy wine to Tingkao Ragwang and comes to a halt when they reach at the Danshanpung, the village jumping ground where the young boys perform Taophai Danchammei, competition in stone throwing and long jump in the presence of the villagers. These sports will be introduced by the Nampou or Nampei with a sort of religious hymns for wellbeing and prosperity of the village. The winners of the sports are not given prizes but they are required to pay Shon[fees] for declaring and acknowledging his power and ability.

Hoi procession will go back to the Khangchiu from the Danshanpung when the competition is ended. In the Zeliangrong tradition every important event starts and comes to an end with Hoi1. Napkao ceremony [calling of paddy] is observed in every household offering a big and beautiful cock to Tingkao Ragwang as thanksgiving for the bountiful harvest. Bronislaw Malinowski writes, at the time of festival the spirits of dead ancestors return and receive offerings and sacrificial libations, mingle with the survivors and rejoice the feast.

On this day, ritual farewell is given to all those who died in the previous year in the form of parting meal provided by concerned families to his or her friends. It is believed that the departed soul does not leave the village until the parting meal is over. The grave is beautified and drinks and eatables are also placed on it as a way of sharing the meal with him or her.2 It may be interpreted as a farewell banquet– a send off one who is unwilling to go at the termination of which the deceased is formally but firmly shown the door. This is locally recognized as Ngidongmei.

At the sunset, the village elders of Pei who are at the rank of Gaanchang and Banja will visit every house giving words of warning not to quarrel nor speak ill words with each other during the festival. If there is any quarrel, the Pei will take stern action against quarrelling parties.

This is locally called Saopak Danmei[warning message]. Every family prepares various dishes for the evening meal. The unmarried boys and girls of Khangchiu and Luchiu will visit every member houses to enjoy the tasty foods.

This is called Napcha Tukaronmei. On this day, two married males of Khangchiu will be appointed as Tuna Munshinmei [in charge of girls' dormitory] they will look after the affairs of Luchiu during the festival.

In the rite of passage, one can look at a specific rite of initiation: the initiation of youngsters into adulthood is an important rite. In such rites of passage (the first phase the rite of separation) requires the child to go through a separation from the family; this involves his/her 'death' as a child, as childhood is effectively left behind.

In the second stage, individual (between childhood and adulthood) must pass a "test" to prove he is ready for adulthood. If he succeeds, the third stage (incorporation) involves a celebration of the new birth of adult and welcoming of that being back into society.

In olden days, every boy has to show his maturity to the matriarch of the Khangchiu as a "test." If the matriarch gives positive signal then he successes and becomes a new member the dormitory.

To be continued...

* Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on April 13, 2013

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