Beliefs and practices of the Zeliangrongs of North East : Totem and taboo

Dr Budha Kamei
The Zeliangrongs are one of the natives of Northeast. 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 different directions. On anthropological and linguistic grounds, it has been identified that the Zeliangrong people belong to the southern Mongloid who migrated to the Northeast by different routes after moving in different parts of South East Asia several thousand years ago. Today, the Zeliangrong people are found settling in three states of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland.
Method and materials
The present study has adopted interdisciplinary method, particularly the application knowledge of both history and anthropology. The data have been collected from the available literary sources and also from well informed informants of the Zeliangrong community.
The term ‘totem’ is derived from ‘Ototeman,’ which in the Ojibwa and cognate Algonquian dialects means ‘his brother-sister kin’. A totem may be a particular species of bird, animals, plant, natural phenomenon, or a feature of the landscape with which the group believes itself linked in some way. J.G. 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 a number of primitive tribes in South America, Australia, Africa, Melanesia, and parts of Asia.
Regarding the origin of totem, Sigmund Freud says, the Darwinian conception of primal horde doesn’t, of course, allow for the beginnings 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 A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Totemism as a set of “customs and beliefs by which there is set up 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.
In India, totemsim is found only among the tribal people. They believe in their mysterious relation with some plants, and animals. The Munda and the Oraon have totemistic clans. The Santhal and the Kharia also have clans which took name after plants or animals or material objects. All these tribes have a belief that their totems plants or animals have protected their respective ancestors of the clan concerned or have proved to be of some peculiar service or use. The tribal people have a reverence for them. And they do not kill or destroy the objects of their totem. They are forbidden from eating their totemic fruits or flowers. A totemic object is found in a condition of disease on any condition, they nurse it back to health and let free. They honour the dead totemic plants or animals, and attend to in their last hour accordingly. At the same time, they follow the rule of clan exogamy. This may be called a social aspect of totemism.  Among the tribes who have some kind of religious regard for the totemic plant or animal, mention may be made of the Bhills and Gonds from Madhya Pradesh, the Minas and Bhilalas from Rajasthan and the Katkaries from Maharastra. Totemsim was most probably brought into India by the proto- Australoids. And it is now found, although in a mild form, among the Mongoloid Naga tribes of North East India. It has also infiltrated into other more advanced groups, with or without any emotional tie with the totemic animal or plant, as the case may be. Herbert Risley has said that in India the religious aspect of totemism is dead, and only the social aspect is operative.
The Zeliangrong people of Northeast also do have some features of totemsim. Each of the four clans is associated with a species of animals or plants known as Kagai. Marriage cannot be contracted among the male and female of the same totem, because they are thought to be having blood relationship. The four clans with their totems are:

Name of the clan        Totem (kagai)             
1)    Kamei                    – Ahuina (green pigeon)
2)    Gonmei                     – Loingao bird
3)    Gangmei                             – Kamang (tiger)
4) Longmei                       – Pongma (white pumpkin)
There are myths and legend which explain how totemic species or food taboos are adopted.
1. Kamei clan: Once upon a time, the mother of Kamgong family told her elder daughter to boil the head of arum (Bibut). By telling this, she left home for collection of dried fire wood. But, her daughter did not hear clearly what her mother said, and she further asked what her mother had said. An old man who walked behind her mother told a wrong version that the head of her younger sister be cut off and boiled it so as to eat when she returned home. Accordingly, the daughter cut off the head of her younger sister and boiled it. After some hours, the mother returned home and found her boiled baby head instead of arum. The mother said that what she had said was to boil the head of arum not the head of her baby child. The daughter replied that what her mother said was not heard clearly so she asked again. The elderly man who walked behind her mother wrongly communicated that the head of her baby sister be cut off and boiled it. She did it accordingly. The elder daughter with shame turned into an Ahuina, a kind of green pigeon and flew away. Thus, Ahuina became the totem bird of Kamei clan.
2. Gonmei clan: A man or great ancestor of the Gonmei clan while searching for food to satisfy his hunger found red chilies. He ate all the chilies in thought of ripened fruits and as a result, his stomach was burnt and rolled on the ground. At the moment, a bird called Loingao dropped a bunch of paddy locally called Maja near the man. The man picked up the paddy and chewed and swallowed, only after that he felt relief, and thus, Loingao bird became his totem.
3. Gangmei clan: One day, the ancestor of the Gangmei crossed the Aguh River (Barak) by holding the tail of a tiger. The tiger did nothing harm to the man. From that day, tiger was regarded as his brother or totem. Another version is, a tiger ate the ancestors of Zeliangrong who emerged out from the Taobei cave. At last, an ancestor wearing cloth having different strips of colour called Pheiga came out from the cave; seeing the man, the tiger giving no harm to the man went away from the Taobei. Thus, tiger became his totem.
4. Longmei clan: Once upon a time, seven brothers went to a Jhum field. They killed a snake and entrusted the youngest brother to cook the meat. When he was cooking the meat in a pot, a snake knocked out the pot and brought some bark from a nearby tree, and spread into the pot, thereby making the earlier snake come alive. When his brothers retuned, they were in great hunger, and the younger brother narrated the story. They did not believe him as they suspected him to have eaten the meat alone. They beat up this brother whose limbs were broken. However, he requested his brothers to have pity on him and requested them to take him near the tree from where the snake took the bark and made the dead snake alive. He was placed near the foot of the tree and the brothers left.
The injured brother did take out the bark of the tree and treated his entire wound. And he was completely healed. This was the tree of immortality. He returned home with bundles of the magical bark. He got married and settled down one day his wife happened to see the old enclosed barks in an old basket and unwittingly kept the bark in the sun. The sun and the moon seeing this, rushed down on earth to take the barks of immorality.
The man saw the coming of the sun and moon, and rushed home with his dog. He was unhappy and constructed a tower to reach the sun and moon to take back the bark. He requested every creature for help except the white ant. The man and his dog went up the ladder tower, and while he had almost reached the sun and moon, the white ants ate up the foundation of the ladder and he fell down to earth. His dog jumped into heaven. It is this dog which swallows, when angry, the sun or the noon and eclipses happen. The Longmei clan descended from this man. His totem is white pumpkin. Some have suggested that the totem of Longmei clan is dog.
The English word ‘taboo’ is derived from the Polynesian word ‘tabu’ which means simply ‘to forbid’, ‘forbidden’. ‘Taboo’ used; indifferently as adjective, noun, or verb, was introduced into English by Captain Cook. He first met the word ‘tabu’ in 1777, at Tonga.  According to Sigmund Freud, it is difficult to find a translation of the Polynesian word ‘tabu’ which is the same with the ancient Romans word ‘sacer’, ‘ayoc’ of the Greeks and ‘kadesh’ of the Hebrew. The meaning of ‘tabu’ diverges in two contrary directions: ‘sacred’, ‘consecrated’ on the one hand; and ‘dangerous’, ‘forbidden’, ‘unclean’ on the other. The converse of tabu in Polynesian is ‘noa,’ which means common or general accessible. It is principally expressed in prohibitions and restrictions. It can be employed to any sort of prohibition. A rule of etiquette, an order issue by a chief, an injunction to children not to meddle with the possessions of their elders, may all be expressed by the use of the word ‘tabu’. It is by no means confined to any one geographical region, however, but in common to all primitive peoples. The idea of taboo is of great importance from a psychological, sociological, and religious point of view.
To be contd