TODAY -

Kairao Kalumei : Ancestor worship of the Zeliangrong
- Part 2 -

Budha Kamei *

 Scene from 'The Zeliangrongs'
A Scene from 'The Zeliangrongs' :: Provided by Director - Ronel Haobam



In supporting this position, he has contended the maintenance of the parental instincts and family affection was essential to the survival of primitive man in the struggle for existence; and he has quoted examples of the grief felt by the living when a death happens in the family; the provision of food and other essential items for the use of the dead; the appeals of the mourners to the spirit (ghost), imploring it to return home; the custom of calling the departed soul; the periodical feasts which the dead are invited to attend; and so on.11

Jevons (the same writer), in opposed of the above hypothesis, has accepted that love was not "the only feeling ever felt for the deceased. On the contrary, it is admitted that fear of the dead was and is equally wide-spread, and is equally natural."12 In supporting these two apparently contradictory thought in relation to the dead, he has maintained that primitive man creates a clear line of distinction between the ghost of the kinsman and that of the stranger; the one is kindly and protective, the other malignant, dangerous and hence an object of fear. He further writes, "As we might reasonably expect the man who was loved during his life time did not immediately cease to be loved even by savages, when he died, nor was he who was feared in life less feared when dead."13 The instances of the cult of the dead of savage, when it may be prompted by fear, he believes as to 'mal-observation of the facts of savage life'.

Among the Zeliangrongs, too, the ideas of love, respect and fear of the dead are found. Mortuary rites are meant to ensure for safe passage of the dead to the next world. Like the living being the dead man also feels thirsty.14 In this faith, they offer food and drinks for the departed with an interval till the deceased taken away for burial. A coin is put in the mouth of the dead which is intended to pay to the ferry for crossing the Kanungdui, the mythical river which divides between life and death.15 The dead body is buried along with articles such as seven food packets, weaving equipments for female, a small spade etc. for his/her use on the way to and to the next world.

The mourners sing traditional songs like Magenluh, Lamlonlu etc. for the departed in the belief that it helps the deceased to enter the land of the dead with his/her head held high. The grave is believed to be the residence of the departed so every effort is made to comfort the dead.16 Funeral feast is interpreted as in honour of the dead.17 The funeral rites themselves are also held to place the obligation on a dead man to give the survivors the benefit of his supernatural power.18 However, some customs of the dead are checked by fear. The practice of binding the coffin with bamboo splints, turning around the coffin three times in anti clockwise19 and carrying out the dead from the house with its forward are prompted by fear of the dead.20

Radcliffe-Brown,21 writes, "The term ancestor-worship is sometimes used in a wide loose sense to refer to any sort of rites referring dead person. I propose to use it in a more limited and more precisely defined sense, The cult group in this religion consists solely persons related to one another by descent is patrilineal through males. But in some societies, such as the Bakongo in Africa and the Nayar in India, descent is matrilineal, and the cult group consists of descended of a single ancestress. The rites in which the members of the group, and only they, participate have reference to their own ancestors, and normally they include the making of offerings or sacrifices to them." In the societies which practice ancestor-worship, the most important part of the moral code is that which concerns the conduct of the individuals in relation to his lineage and clan and individual members thereof. In the form of the worship of ancestors, violates of this code fall under religious or supernatural sanctions, for they are offenses against the ancestors, who are assumed to send penalty or punishment.22

Ancestor worship is primarily a family cult, based on the desire of the survivors to maintain friendly relations with the departed. The family supplies the body of worshippers when ancestors worship is observed and they [worshippers] are united by the natural bond of blood. But in the history of society, family is a late institution. It is only when settled life established, a son is allowed to get marry and come out form his group into which he was born and become the founder of a family. Thus, 'worship' of ancestors is believed to begin from the period of settled agricultural life.23 Evidence for ancestors' cult practices dating to the 7th century BCE was first discovered from excavations at JERICHO in Palestine, where several skulls were found to have been deposited in a separate room, some of them covered with a sculpted face.24 In the early period of agriculture, before the full development of the Neolithic period, deposits of human skulls appeared that suggest the presence of ancestor cult.25

Purpose of ancestor worship: The main objective of ancestor worship are to assure the continuation of the line, to avert illness or plague, to assist in the obtaining of good crops (in many culture ancestors are viewed as living in the ground); and to intercede with gods, since they are supposed to associate with gods and often are as living in the sky or in the abode of the deities. The relation of ancestral spirits to gods is that of inferior to superior, but they are commonly believed as having a larger share of divine favour than the living.26

Kairo Kalumei: The term Kairao Kalumei literally means ancestors worship; (Kairao means Ancestors and Kalumei, worship). Those who have gone before are locally known as Kairao. Like other communities of the world, the Zeliangrong also worships the ancestors as protector of the family or lineage. It is believed that if the ancestors are pleased and satisfied, the family or the lineage will have safety, prosperity, well-being and children (line of generation).

To the Zeliangrongs, the spirits of the dead "do not simply sit in some (Elysium) but constantly watch with interest the doing of their descendants, render them advice, and even revisit their people through some human or other medium." Thus ancestor worship is inseparable from the life of the Zeliangrongs. Gangmumei Kamei, renowned scholar writes, the ancestors are not worshipped as gods or deities but honored as the living dead. No shrine or temple is installed in the family or at the grave.

Ancestor worship involves the claim that dead ancestors can influence and be influenced by their living descendants. In many societies including the Zeliangrongs, the living claims to influence their ancestors to look favourably upon them or at least no harm them through proper adherence to traditional rituals and other practices. By following their traditions, the living worships their ancestors. The living effectively communicates to one another the importance of their ancestors to their lives, and be extension the value of the traditions and social (Kin) relationship the ancestors created. Violations of traditional rules imply that the ancestors, traditions and living kinsmen are not valued.

Like the Chinese, the Zeliangrong also accepts the ancestors as their superiors, owing them a debt for their lives and the goodness of those lives; for the ancestors not only engendered their offspring but also now endow their descendants with the merit they themselves accumulated. In a general sense, the ancestors collectively embody the dignity and authority of the groups over which they preside. Thus, the living descendants worship the ancestors with due respect.

In Zeliangrong society, the parents called Apu-Apui are highly respected in the family. Similarly, the eldest male in the lineage is also respected by his descendants since he is the protector of the lineage. Among the Hindus, touching feet of the parents or elders is the finest example of love and respect of the seniors by the junior members. After death, their souls turn to Kairao who are supposed to ensure safety and prosperity of the family or the lineage. It is believed that this worldly birth is caused by Tingkao Ragwang since He is the source of soul and life and without the blessing of their ancestors, the god shall never be pleased with them. They believe that the relation between the Tingkao Ragwang and one is made through the agencies of one's progenitors.

So ancestors are considered as the incarnation of Tingkao Ragwang. Like the Meiteis, they also regard parents as visible deity.32 The sin committed against the parents is not forgiven and there is no escape from punishment for defiant and wrong doing to the parents. In Ariba Laining Lichat, it is mentioned as "Is the sky higher ? Nay, father is higher. Is the earth heavier ? Nay, Mother is heavier". Shakespeare says, "The voice of parents is the voice of gods, for to their children they are heaven's lieutenants."

"Dies leaving a son . becomes an ancestor of equal status with any other ancestor." He may be equally remembered, but he is an ancestor in an equal sense. It is believed that those who died earlier, the ancestors of the family or lineage who look after the affairs of their living descendants.

The Ao Naga believes that 'the dead friend and brother becomes an enemy, and his coffin and grave are the abode of terror. It is fear that occasions the worship of the departed.' In the late summer, they offer a pig or dog to the ancestors to drive away sickness and to bring good crops. Offer is made on a new cloth which is spread on the ground near the grave, and if a butterfly or grasshopper catches it and carries it to the house. If the insect is caught they are thereby assured that the spirit of the departed made a friendly visit to the family during the night; but if not caught the departed did not accept the offering and his spirit failed to make the desired call.

To be continued..


* Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on December 07, 2013.



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