The life afterdeath: Traditional Zeliangrong of Northeast

Dr Budha Kamei
The Zeliangrong, one of the natives of Northeast India belong to the Tibeto-Burman family of the Mongoloid racial stock. Tradition says, the ancestors of 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; the Rongmei to the South, Zeme to the West and Liangmai to the North. Another theory suggests that they came from two regions: Southwest China and Southeast Asia. As the Zeliangrong are Tibeto-Burman, “they must have lived with other groups of the same family in South West China about 1000 B.C and migrated to their present habitat” 1 through various routes in batches and at different periods. Today, the Zeliangrong people are found inhabiting in the three states of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. The present article attempts to look into the concept of life after death of the Zeliangrong of North East India.
Methods and materials :
The data of the study have been collected from available primary and secondary materials of published works and also from information collected from well informed informants of the Zeliangrong.
Concept of death :
Death (Theimei) is the last crisis in the lifecycle of an individual. The usual theory of the process of death is the separation of the soul from the momentary body (Pum). However, the soul may move out from the body before death as in dream. The only distinction between such a separation and that of death is that the later is final. The moment when the final separation is accomplished, the liberated soul takes flight. It is believed that the soul commonly escapes by the natural openings of the body such as nostril and mouth. The rites and ceremonies of the dead are to ensure for safety and joyful trip of the soul to the land of the dead where the soul of its ancestors are leading a life of themselves. Thus, they look upon death is not an end of human soul, but it is just a change of way of life of the soul. So, death is the gateway to the other world.
Concept of soul :
The word soul in its primary meaning designates an entity conceived as the cause or vehicle of the body life and psychical activities of the individual person. The soul is assumed to exist as a spiritual substance, in rather sharp antithesis material substances, thus giving form to the contrast of soul and body (as constituents of man) and the assumption of their separability. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica defines soul as an immortal principle and aspect with the body constitute the human person. Such principle has always been attributed to all the living things to the universe as a whole and even inanimate object which is regarded as ordinary. It is the every essence of a thing and not a mere part of it. It is the core of a bodily life, function and highest mental activity. Plato has opined that soul in the manner that soul exists in pure state only when it is released from its prison house in the body. According to Oxford advance learner’s dictionary, soul is none material part of a person believed to exist after death.
Soul (Buh) is the immortal spiritual substance of human person. Soul is the animating substance of Individual life. The structure of the composition of soul and body is known as a living being and is further termed mortal. Local tradition says, man was created by another god named Dampapui by the orders of Tingkao Ragwang, the Supreme God, but it was lifeless. Tingkao Ragwang gave soul and life then the man became alive. Soul is not born and does not die since it comes from Tingkao Ragwang who is the source of soul and life. According to thier belief, the physical form of life is enshrouded by transitoriness, having definite span of existence or duration. The physical body is nothing but a shell or cover of the soul. Human body is the home of the soul. The man is alive so long it resides in the human person and the moment when it departs permanently from the momentary body the man dies. The life and death of man is indicated by the presence or absence of soul. The soul is pure since it originates from Tingkao Ragwang and the final goal of soul is supposed to move to Heaven (Tingkao Kaidai). However, it depends upon the actions of man done in the human world since the soul resides in the body of man. Montgomery says, “The soul, of origin divine God’s glorious image, freed from clay, in heaven’s eternal sphere shall shine, a star of day! The sun is but a spark of fire, a transient meteor in the sky; the soul immortal as its sire shall never die.”
The Zeliangrong people believe on the subject of life here after and the land of the dead called Taroilam in local dialect. Belief in a future life is the main principle of their antique religion. To Emile Durkheim, “While the body no longer exists and no visible traces of it remain, the soul continues to live: it leads an autonomous existence in another world.” It is believed that in the human body there lives a soul, which on being released from its mortal covering, goes its way to Taroilam, the abode of souls, where he will lead another life. For instance, when a man dies, they offer food and drink for the departed soul with an interval till the dead body taken away for burial. It is done in the belief that like the living the dead also feels thirsty. This gives an idea of the existence of life after death.
Means of approach to the afterworld :
Like in many other religions, the Zeliangrong people also believe that the dead has to make a journey to another world, to which they actually belong. In this faith, they perform the funerary rites for safe and wonderful travel of the dead to the next world. Soon after the death of man, an elder of Pei (village council) who officiates as priest and very close to the head of the deceased will pronounce: “You go without fear.” The dead is bathed with a haircut by using the bark of Khoi, a kind of tree; it is believed that if the dead comes with a bath, he is well-received in another world. They attire the dead in his best traditional clothes and costume and lay him on his bed as he is ready for a voyage. Mourners sing traditional songs such as Ramlon-Luh, Chun-Luh etc. for the departed soul in the thought that funeral songs help the deceased to enter the land of the dead with his head held high. As a custom, the deceased family offers Takan, an animal or a bird for the dead. If a dog is sacrificed, it is believed that the dog will protect him from evil spirits and will take the message ahead to the land of the dead and to his relatives of his coming. E.E Evans-Pritchard opines, “His soul will go along with the soul of the sacrifice animal.” They prepare seven food packets for the dead to eat and drink on different places through which he will pass his travel to the land of the dead: the first packet is for eating at the Karangbang, at the village gate; the second packet is for eating at the Bamdondai, the big resting place; the third is for eating near the Kanung river; the fourth packet is for giving to them who receive him at Taroilam; the fifth packet is for giving to his parents and grand parents (those elders who died ahead of the person); the sixth packet is for feeding the dog of the Taroilam and the seventh is for giving to the Khanana, the evil spirits of the Taroilam. The Zeliangrong burry the dead along with articles like Napdom Khatni Taktu, food packets, Khengmu Deimu, rice-beer, Shaobon, one set of pointed thorny for the purpose of defending from the attack of enemies or evil spirits, Bui, a spear for throwing to the enemies or evil spirits, Bang, a dao for chopping the evil spirits or enemies, Buirong, a walking stick, Laogai, a small spade for cultivation in the next world, Tambem, Tangnuk, Tangnam, weaving equipements for female etc. for his or her safe passage to Taroilam. Among the Nagas, the dead body is buried along with a spear and dao. R. Brown writes, the corpse is buried on the day of death in a coffin, in which, under the body, are placed a hoe, spear, cooking pots and cloths for his use in the other world.
The idea that the dead had to cross some barrier that divided the land of the living from that of the dead also occurs in many religions. The Greeks and Romans believed that the dead were ferried across an infernal river, the Acheron or Styx, by a demonic boatman called Charon, for whose payment a coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased. In Zoroastrianism, the dead crossed the Bridge of the Requiter (Cinvato Paratu); bridges figure also in Muslim and Scandinavian eschatologies (speculations concerning the end of the world and the afterlife)- the Sirat bridge and the bridge over the Gjoll River(Gjallarbru). In the same way, the Zeliangrong people also put a coin in the mouth of the dead which is intended to pay to the ferry for crossing the Kanungdui, a mythical river (in Hindu Beitaranadi) which divides the living and the dead. The ancient Greeks and Romans provided with honey cake for the dead to feed Cerberus, the fearsome dog that guarded the entrance to Hades. The sixth foodstuff packet cited above is meant for the dog of Taroigwang. Thus, the soul travels to the land of the dead.
Geography of the afterlife :
The term Taroilam literally means land of the dead; (Taroi means dead and lam, land). Taroilam is supposed to be the land of death, but no one exactly knows or gives idea about where it is. Burial is the mode of the disposal of the dead has long been universally known and practiced, and no one doubts that it is the burial of bodies underground which has given rise to the belief that the abode of the dead is underground. (To be contd)

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