Totem of the natives of NE India with special reference to TRC
- Part 1 -

Dr Budha Kamei *

The term 'totem' is derived from 'Ototeman,' meaning 'his brother-sister kin'. A totem may be a particular species of bird, animal, plant, natural phenomenon, or a feature of the landscape with which the group believes itself linked in some way. JG Frazer (1887) says, a totem is never an isolated individual, but always a class of objects, generally species animals or of plants, more rarely a class of inanimate natural objects, very rarely a class of artificial objects.

To Frank Byron Jevons, a fundamental article in the totem faith is that the human kin and the animal kind are one flesh, one blood, members of the same clan, bound by the sacred tie of blood to respect and assist each other. Totemism developed in or about northern Africa, and thence spread to the four corners of the globe. They are also found among the primitive tribes in South America, Australia, Africa, Melanesia, and parts of Asia.

Regarding the genesis of totem, Sigmund Freud writes, the Darwinian conception of primal horde doesn't, of course, allow for the beginning of totemism. There is only a violent father who keeps all the female members for himself and drives away the growing sons. One day, the expelled brothers joined forces, slew and ate the father, and thus put an end to the father horde. Of course, these cannibalistic savages ate their victim.

This violent primal father had surely been the envied and feared model for each of the brothers. Now, they accomplished their identification with him by devouring him and each acquired a part of his strength. The totem feast, which is perhaps mankind's first celebration, would be repetition and commemoration of this memorable act. The totemic system, where it is still in force today, they describe the totem as their common ancestor and primal father.

The beliefs and practices associated with totems are known as Totemism. To AR Radcliffe-Brown, Totemism as a set of "customs and beliefs by which there is a special system of relations between the society and the animals and plants and other natural objects. That is important in the social life".' Totemism has two important aspects, namely a) religious or ritual aspect, and b) Social aspect.

In its religious aspect, it consists of mutual respect and protection between a man and his totem, and which sometimes, performs rites and ceremonies for its multiplication; in its social aspect, it consists of the relations of the clansmen to each other and to men of other clans or subdivision of the tribe into minor units called clans, genets, sibs, or phratries.

There are three kinds of Totems namely (a) the clan totem, common to a whole clan, and passing by inheritance from one generation to another; (b) the individual totem, belonging to a single individual not passing to his descendents, and (c) the sex totems, common either to all the males or to all the females of a tribe, to the exclusion in either case of the sex.

The TRC people of North East also do have some features of totemsim. They have four clans and each clan is divided into lineages except the Longmei clan. Each of the four clans is associated with a species of animal, bird or plant known as Kagai (Totem).

Marriage cannot be contracted among the male and female of the same totem, because they are thought to be having blood relationship. Myth and legend speak about the genesis of totem.

Kamei clan : Once upon a time, there was a Kamgong family. They lived very happily. One day, an accident happened to the Kamgong family that the mother of the family after keeping her young daughter in the custody of her elder daughter went away to collect firewood from the nearby forest. She told her elder daughter to boil the arum to eat when she comes back home with this words she left the place for the same purpose.

The elder daughter could not hear the words of her mother clearly so she asked again to her mother but an old man who walked behind her mother wrongly interpreted the version of her mother that " to chop off the head of the younger sister and boil it" so that they could have it together after she returned home. The elder daughter did cut off the head of her younger sister and boiled and kept it ready for her mother.

She did it in the thought that the old man gave the correct version of her mother. After some hours the mother came back home with the fire wood in her long conical basket and found the head of her younger daughter instead of arum this made her shock that she told her to boil arum. She asked her elder daughter about the happening and the elder daughter with tears replied what the old man had said.

The elder daughter with shame disguised into Ahuina, a kind of green pigeon and flew away. After the accident the sons of Kamgong decided to treat Ahuina as their totem. Thus, Ahuina became the totem of Kamei and its sub-clans.

Longmei clan : In the distant past, in a village, there was a man of Longmei clan. He had seven sons and a daughter. They lived very happily and the only daughter cooked food for the family members. The only sister also brought food packet for her seven brothers who were working in the field everyday but there was no food packet in her long conical basket when she reached the field.

The seven brothers thought that the food packet was eaten by her sister's lover. The seven brothers asked her about the food packet lost on the way to the field. She replied that no one ate the food packet. It occurred every day.

One day the seven brothers decided to catch the culprit by hiding in the shrubs. While their sister was on the way carrying the food packet in her conical basket, a big snake came out from a tree to eat the food packet that moment the seven brothers killed the big snake.

Since the youngest brother was weak, he was assigned the task of cooking the big snake in a pot. While he was cooking in a pot, another big snake came out from a nearby bush and hit out the pot that resulted spreading all cut pieces of the snake on the ground. With a bark of Laangchi tree which the big snake brought and touched all the cut pieces of the snake thus joined all the pieces into one and became alive.

Thus both of them slowly moved away together. The elder brothers came back after toiling with the thought of eating the luscious curry of big snake but when they reached there the pot curry was empty. The elder brothers thought that he had eaten the curry. So they got angry and asked him about the incident.

The youngest brother explained the coming of another big snake while he was cooking and after knocking the pot down how the cut pieces of the snake joined together as one with the help of the bark of Laangchi but the elder brothers could not believe him out of anger they injured their youngest brother. He requested his elder brothers to place him near the Laangchi tree.

The elder brothers declined his request but the sixth brother took him near the tree. Then they left the place. The youngest brother removed the bark of Laangchi tree and touched the injured limb thus he was cured and became normal again. With the barks of Laangchi, the man moved toward the village.

At the village gate he found a decayed dog opening its mouth widely and he touched the dog with the bark then the dog began to bark. The man named the dog as Laangbung. He did not return to his village as his elder brothers did not love him. So he left the village forever and after a walk of long distance with his dog they finally reached the Kambobou village where he took one night shelter in the house of a widow.

He heard the sound of crying in the village and asked the widow to take him to the bereaved family. The deceased was a beautiful girl of Panmei lineage. The man requested the deceased's parents to give her for his wife if he could bring back her to life. The parents accepted his request and then he entered the room of the girl.

With the help of the Laangchi's bark, the girl started moving and he came out and told the people gathering to enter and see the girl. When the people came to know that the girl is alive they were very happy. The man took the girl as his wife and left the village to settle at Tajengning village where they lived very happily with their children. But he did not tell her the story of Laangchi's bark and kept it in the conical basket with cover called Khuk. Every day, when he was about to go to the field, he told his wife not to open the Khuk.

She thought there is something special in the Khuk and wanted to see it. With this intention she opened the Khuk and found the barks of Laangchi in putrefying form which is urgently required to expose to sunlight. Seeing the barks on the winnowing fan, in front of the house, the sun and moon with competition came down and took it away. The man who was working in the jhum field knew that something had taken place in his house as he saw flying of the sun and moon.

He immediately returned to his house and found no Laangchi barks in the Khuk. He then convened a meeting of all the creatures in which he informed the importance of the bark and the need to build a ladder tower to reach the sky so that he could take back the immortal bark from the sun and moon. The gathering accepted his proposal and constructed a ladder tower. The Laangbung dog led the journey and stepped up the stairs of the ladder.

The man pushed the dog and could reach the sky. And men too were about to reach the sky the white ants ate up the foundation of the tower as the white ants were not asked to help in construction of the ladder tower. The ladder fell down and men died thus men couldn't take back the immortal bark.

Because of the death of its master the Laangbung dog with frustration swallowed the moon and the sun. The TRC people believe that the Lunar and the solar eclipse happen because of Laangbung dog. Thus, the descendants of Longmei clan don't eat the flesh of dog. White pumpkin is also treated as totem of Longmei clan.

Gangmei clan : One day, a man of Gangmei clan decided to take vengeance against the tiger that killed his sister. The man by putting stripe of tiger color on his body and with a Sanjikbui, spear in his hand roamed in the jungle to kill the tiger but the tiger did nothing harm to him and moved away as he resembled a tiger.

After that the man acknowledged the tiger as his friend and they promised that if tiger kills and eats man its tooth will decay. Hence, the descendants of Gangmei clan do not eat tiger's meat as taboo food.

Another version is since tiger killed everyman who came out of the Taobei cave, man wearing garment having same color of tiger and emerged from the cave but tiger did not kill the man in the thought that the man was his relative. Then they made an agreement that they will not kill each other whenever they meet. Thus, tiger became the totem of Gangmei clan.

Gonmei clan : One day a man rolled on earth with stomach burning after having ripened chilly in the thought of fruit. Roingao bird asked him about the reason of rolling on earth. The man replied that he had stomach burning. Roingao bird after hearing it brought a bunch of matured paddy and dropped near him to eat. After chewing and swallowing it the man felt relieve from burning. Hence, the descendents of Gonmei clan do not kill Roingao bird. Another version is that once upon a time, there was a boy and a girl named Kumgongmei and Chaphummeilu. They felt in love with each other but their parents did not accept their relationship. Knowing the intention of their parents, they decided to commit suicide in the Agu River so they went there and sat on a bamboo raft by tying their hair together.

But the girl jumped in the water and died as the boy cut off the hair at the moment when they were about to jump together in the water and the boy remained on the raft for sometime. Then he moved towards the direction of his village with tear and penitence of his fault act. While he was on the way, a Roingao bird chirped and on the other side of the hill another Roingao bird responded its call with appalling voice.

He tried to catch the Roingao bird in the thought of his girl friend but the bird disguised into Paanlai (a kind of mushroom). Paanlai is generally found growing on the tree. With the Paanlai, the boy returned home. People called him Paanluimeipu as he was resemblance to Paanlai. Afterward he was popularly known as Panmeipu. Ultimately Roingao bird was regarded as his wife. Hence, the descendants of Gonmei/Gondaimei/Panmei clan do not kill and eat Roingao bird.

(To be continued ...)

* Dr Budha Kamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on March 01 2021.

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