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

Dr Budha Kamei
Contd from previous issue
The concept of taboo may be explained by the belief that magic powers are inherent in taboo things or persons, sometimes considered to be naturally taboo, sometimes made so by the transfer of taboo to an object or person by the chief or medicine man of a tribe. The implications of the sanctions exercised by taboo are mainly social. The person who makes violation the taboo will be punished either by some magic spirit or by his tribe directly. The punishment of the violation of taboo automatically meant purification, in some cases only of his fellowmen, in other cases also of the individual violator himself. Among the primitive peoples, murders, violators of the marriage rule and strangers were considered as taboo. Sometimes, the taboo was spread to warriors and priests, almost always to the dead and in some cases, it extended even to the clothing, food, and other property of taboo persons. The offender of taboo faced the danger consequences.  
Gradually taboo, with its double implication of being dangerous and unclean, develops into a religious element of morality and social behavior. The unclean becomes the unholy. Violation of the taboo can be remedied by prayer, fasting, physical punishment, and repentance, out of this concept developed certain specific prohibition. Thus, for the Greek, the warrior during the war was sacred, which actually means taboo. The Roman vestal virgins were taboo. For the Jews the name of Jehovah was taboo, as were certain foods, women during menstruation, etc. even certain periods of religious feasts create a taboo. Thus, the Jews made leavened bread taboo during Passover, the Mohammedans made all food taboo in the day light hours during Ramadan.
Marriage between the close blood relations is commonly prohibited in all societies. Violation of the marriage rule means a blow to the moral code of the society. In the society, where exogamy (marrying outside the clan) is practiced, the violator is punished by the society.
“Taboo complex in the north-eastern region is so effective that it does not only control social behaviour but also surrounds most of ritualistic performances. It is the taboo complex which links the social to the religious and prompts an individual to remain in a regulated behavior, thus occasionally reminding him of the supernatural force controlling the phenomena. It makes him revere this supernatural being in awe and afraid of his fury.” Among the Zeliangrongs, taboo is commonly known as Nuhmei, meaning ‘not to do’ or ‘not to act’ against the divine message and custom of the society. The customs relating to rites of passage, like birth and birth ceremonies, marriage, death and death ceremonies, festivals and religious ceremonies cannot be violated. It is taboo. The individual who breaks the prohibition will be considered breaking the social customs and moral code. And the violator of Nuhmei will get divine retribution or human punishment.
Taboo is an indispensible part in the life cycle of an individual, as it determines the status of the person in the society. During pregnancy of a woman and after birth, the expectants parents are required to observe certain food taboos, which they eat freely at other time. One of the parents violates this prohibition means, illness or evil consequence for the child. The mother and newly born baby are treated unclean for five days and they are isolated from the rest as to protect from the evil eyes since they are weak.
One of the strictest taboos of the Zeliangrong is the incent taboo. Marriage within the same clan is unthinkable. Any breach of this taboo cannot be forgiven or ignored, and that the couples who are guilty of incest are not allowed to live in the village and are banished from the village. Divorced couple is not allowed to remarry; it is a taboo until a purification ritual locally called Chalungchuk is performed. The couple who just get married through Noushonmei (engagement marriage) is prohibited to sleep together for five days, because it is a taboo. The husband will sleep at the male’s dormitory, and the wife with a friend or a relative at her husband house. The girl who eloped is not allowed to visit her parent’s home until a ceremony locally called Duilouduk Loukeimei Mhairak is performed as she incorporated in the lineage of her husband without the consent of her parents.
During Neihmei, genna of the village, the married couple is suggested to sleep separately to avoid evil effect. The priest of the village is forbidden to sleep with his wife on the eve of ritual worship of Tingkao Ragwang, the Supreme God. Work and time is also taboo during Neihmei of the village.
T.C Hudson has rightly stated that in Zeliangrong society food tabus are not rigidly imposed on either the very young or the old. The young children, not yet enrolled in the dormitory concerned, and old who are at the rank of Gaanchang and Banja and members of Kenjapui, old women forum are permitted to eat Khuroutak, taboo food.26 But, to avoid evil consequences, propitiation rituals locally recognized as Rou Kara Rarei for elderly person and Gallao Rou Kara Rarei for young one are observed.
A corpse is a taboo; those who attend the funeral are considered unclean or unholy until they perform various forms of purification, such as bathing (water is universally used as purifier), Garoumei, to rub a slice of the mixture of Gah, a kind of turmeric, leaves of kaa plant, Ngeinem, a kind of thatch grass and water at the cheek and Than Jou Jangmei, drinking of holy wine. Munthimmei, prohibition of eating and drinking is strictly observed in the funeral ceremony, and in particular ritual like Kairao Kalumei, ancestors worship. The period of observation is very short, and it covers only to those who assemble in the funeral ceremony. During the observation, the gathering offers prayer to Tingkao Ragwang for safe passage of the dead to the land of death.
It is said that ‘Taboo’ is the only guardian of moral code. As soon as a girl is married, she becomes taboo to all other except to her husband. It is also a taboo to beat or use the instruments of festivals like drum, symbol, gong etc. at other time, as they belong to the festivals and ritual occasions only. It is prohibited to eat the victim of a particular ritual by the individual on whose behalf the sacrifice is offered. In the Chaga-ngai festival, men and women sleep separately, as it is a taboo to sleep together.
In the Ralen Loumei ceremony, worship of Seven Brother Gods and local deities of Gaan-Ngai festival, complete genna is observed in the village during the period of sacrifice; it is taboo to violate it. The couple who did host the Maku Banru, the great sacrifice is suggested to sleep separately during the period of the sacrifice, because it is a worship of Tingkao Ragwang. A new house is a taboo until an appropriate rite is performed and made ‘nao.’ These are the examples of taboo of Zeliangrongs.
After observing the above facts one can say that the Zeliangrong are composed of four exogamous clans; and each clan is associated with a totem species; they abstain from killing the totem, because it is a taboo. The children follow the totem of their father, but a girl after her marriage follows her husband’s totem. No totem ceremony is performed and the function of the totem seems to act as representative of the clan. Breach of the social customs, festivals and religious ceremonies is taboo; they strictly observe it.  However, some taboos, which are out of date, are now gone from the society.