Socio-cultural significance of Rih-Ngai festival

Dr Budha Kamei
The Zeliangrong are one of the natives of Manipur belonging to the Tibeto-Burman family of the Mongoloid racial stock. Tradition says, the Zeliangrong ancestors 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 the South; other cognate tribes like Zeme to the West and Liangmai to the North. On the basis of traditions and linguistic history, it has been identified that the original homeland of the Zeliangrong and other ethnic groups of Tibeto-Burman family was in South West China. 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(Northeast)” through various routes in batches and at different periods. Now, they are found inhabiting in three states of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. Culture can be preserved when the religion of the community survives. Culture is a vehicle of religion. Cultural festivals are times of “worship and prayer to Almighty God for plenty and welfare and celebration for them.”The social and cultural values, the aesthetic and creative senses are expressed in the festival through dances, songs and music. In a year, the Zeliangrong celebrate nine festivals at different stages of agricultural operations according to lunar calendar with festive spirit and prayer. Rih-ngai is one of the important ritual festivals of Zeliangrong.
Announcement of the Rih-ngai festival
A few days before the Rih-ngai festival, every household of the village prepare all the requirements such as food and drink (rice beer) for the festival. Usually, a formal announcement is made by an elder of Pei (village council) for preparation of the festival.
Time of celebration
Allesandro Falassi has described festival as “ …a periodically recurrent, social occasion in which, through a multiplicity of forms and a series of coordinated events, all members of a whole community, participate directly or indirectly and to various degrees, united by ethnic, linguistic, religious, historical bonds, and a sharing a worldview.” Festivals are considered safety valves for the society.
Festivals are observed under different names, but their functions are essentially the same. They unite people in a common exercise, thus strengthening the bonds between the participants. Ritual of the festival is meant to ensure the prosperity and safety of the ethnic group. 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. The chief 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.
Rih-ngai literally means war festival; here, Rih means war and ngai, festivity. This festival is observed in commemoration of war and victory. Rih- ngai is celebrated on the 13th day of Manipuri lunar month Phairen (which falls in February) for one day every year.
Rituals of the festival
Rih-ngai festival opens with a ritual called Gucheng Phaimei, ginger offering at the abode of village presiding deity (Bambu) not to occur any untoward incidents in the festival. With this they renounce the usual and daily function, and turn to the festival; it is observed only within the parameter of the village. The opening rite is followed by a number of rituals. There are rites of purification and cleansing by means of fire, water (Maithan Duithan Lamei) or expulsion of some sort of evil and negative out of the village community.
Only male members of the village perform the activities of the festival and female members are mere spectators. On the eve of the festival every male member of the Khangchiu, male’s dormitory observes Lumthengmei, fasting for the purification of one’s body, soul and mind, thereby making oneself fortunate and for every challenges of life say ready for war, hunting, fishing, cultivation etc. In the festival, men do not touch women and also fetch water separately. According to R. Brown, “The reason for the males and females bringing water separately during this festival is to begin with this ceremony the making of liquor; and the separate eating and cooking of the sexes to be a mark of respect to their gods.” The men kill pigs, take a portion for them and give a portion to women. They cooked them separately with new fire (Mhaithan) and eat separately. It is similar to the first day of Gaan-ngai festival, but there is no feasting or communal meal at the dormitory. In the festival, the elderly men of different clans perform Kabaomei (warrior talks), Ritak Phaimei (throwing of rice, and pork meat at the village gate with war hymns), etc.
Hoi procession
In the afternoon of Rih-ngai festival, every male of Khangchiu wearing the best colorful varied shawls meant for their age, headgear and holding spears in their hands will march from one end of the village to another chanting Ho-hoi in chorus. It is an invocation to God for safety and wellbeing of the village community. It also expresses the strength and unity of the village. It starts from the Khangchiu after libation of holy wine to God and presiding deities of the village.
Games and Sports
Usually, festival includes rites of competition, which often constitute in the form of games. After the Hoi procession, competitions like long jump (Daan Chammei), stone throwing (Tao Phaimei) etc. are held at the village jumping ground (Daanshanpung) for wellbeing and prosperity. It is first introduced by an elder of Pei with a sort of religious hymns. In these competitions, young men of the dormitory fully take part. The winners are not given prizes, but they are required to pay Shon (fees) for declaring and acknowledging their power and ability. Before the competition, they perform the Chong Kapmei (shooting of or spearing of the human effigies made of the plantain tree) at the Raang (village gate). It is believed that one who hits the head of the effigy will be successful in war and hitting on the chest of the effigy is a good luck in hunting. He who strikes at the belly of the effigy will be blessed with bountiful harvest in the year.
At the close of the festival, all the young men of the village will march to the Northern village gate with bamboo cups which they used for drinking purpose. And the cup will be split in the middle at one stroke with dao and taken the omen. If one half of the cup turns open and other half turns closed the omen is taken as good. If both the halves turn open or closed simultaneously, the omen is taken as bad. This rite marks the end of the festive activities and the return to the normal spatial and temporal dimensions of daily life.
To conclude, in the distant past, inter-village war was a common occurrence among the hill tribes of Manipur. The male members/warriors of the village at the cost of their lives defended the village from enemy’s attacks. The practice of head hunting was gone. However, it is preserved in the form of narrative. The war rituals continue without the violence in the Rih-ngai festival for prosperity, strength and victory. It protects and promotes the rich culture and traditions of the people. Young members also have the opportunity to learn the historic culture, social ethics and ancestor’s wisdom through the process of the festival. Festival serves as a reunion of family members, relatives, and friends. By participating in the festival, people settle disputes and misunderstandings.

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