Gaan-Ngai festival of the Zeliangrongs : Its socio-cultural significance

Dr Budha Kamei
The Zeliangrong are one of the natives of Northeast India belonging to the Tibeto-Burman family of the Mongoloid racial stock. It is believed that the ancestors of Zeliangrongs emerged out of a cave recognized as Mahou Taobei, which is presumed to be located somewhere near Makhel, Senapati District of Manipur. After coming out from the cave, they moved to Makhel, Ramting Kabin, and then to Makuilongdi. Makuilongdi is a big round village where they had well established social, cultural, political and religious systems. At last from Makuilongdi village, they migrated to different directions like south, north and west of Manipur. Most of the hill people of Manipur and their traditions point to Makhel as their original home. Another theory suggests that the Zeliangrong along with other groups of Tibeto-Burman family came from South-West China. Since the Zeliangrong are Tibeto-Burman, “they must have lived with other groups of the same family in south West China before 1000 B.C and migrated to eastern Tibet, Upper Burma, then moved into Irrawaddy valley, Malaysia and Indonesia, and they returned southward and entered north East India through Manipur river, and some tracts of Indo-Burma border to their present”  through various routes in batches and at different periods. After entering Manipur, they were supposed to take shelter at Mahou Taobei to protect themselves from the environments; and until they had settled life. The article attempts to examine the significance of Gaan-ngai festival in the socio-culture life of the Zeliangrongs.
Methods and Materials
The study has adopted inter-disciplinary method particularly the application of knowledge of both history and anthropology. The data have been collected from available primary and secondary sources; primary source mainly consists of published works of TRCP and also information collected from selected knowledgeable persons of the Zeliangrong community through unstructured technique. And secondary sources cover all relevant books, journals and internets.
Genesis of Gaan-ngai
According to local myth, Tingkao Ragwang, the Supreme God created a god named Tingpurengsonnang and he was assigned the task to look after the affairs of a common dormitory (Khangchu) of gods, men, animals and all creatures. All the members of the dormitory spoke common language. The main duty of Tingpurengsonnang was to teach man have a way of life i e how to speak, sing, dance, worship etc. In course of time, men became wise and started collecting and storing food grains (settled life). Then, they began to celebrate Gaan-ngai with thanksgiving to god for abundant harvest and offer prayer for prosperity and wellbeing in the days to come. Man offered foods and drink to god with the performance of dance and music; thus, there was peace and harmony among mankind. Man inherited Gaan-ngai from Tingpurengsonnang. It is clear that the Gaan ngai is not an invention, an indigenous festival born and sprang up from the soil of Northeast India.
Meaning and Time of celebration of Gaan-ngai
The term festival is derived from the Latin word Festum meaning “public joy, merriment, revelry” and “abstinence from work in honor of the gods.” Allesandro Falassi (1987) in Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival 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 celebrated under different names, but their functions are essentially the same. They unite people in a common exercise, thus strengthening the bonds between the participants. Rituals of the festival are meant to ensure the prosperity and safety of the ethnic group or community. 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.  A festival scholar writes, “The primary 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.”
Gaan-ngai is the festival of lights and victory, victory over evil; (Gaan means light and Ngai, festival). Another version of Gaan-ngai is the festival of winter season. Chakaan means season, Gaan also means winter and Ngai, festival. This festival is also described as a New Year festival as it marks the end of the year and beginning of the New Year according to the traditional calendar. The New Year is marked by Mhairapmei, the making of new fire by friction of wood and bamboos. In the past, Gaan-Ngai was usually observed between October and December depending on the state of the progress of agricultural operation.
Later on, Kabui Naga Association, the progenitor of the present Zeliangrong Union decided in 1947 that Gaan-ngai be celebrated on the 13th day of the Manipuri lunar month of Wakching. This festival now begins on the 13th day of Wakching every year and lasts for 5 to 7 days depending on local variation. It is mainly celebrated by the followers of Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak (For short TRC) and Heraka living in three states of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. The whole culture, religion and social life are interwoven in the performance of Gaan-ngai. It is a festival for spreading good will, peace and prosperity and preservation of cultural identity.
Area of celebration
Gaan-ngai is a festival based on antique religion. Unlike other modern religions, antique religion is mainly based on rites and rituals. Celebration in the hill areas of Manipur where majority of the Zeliangrong have accepted Christianity has almost become non-existent. However, it is celebrated with full pomp and passion in the valley area where the antique religion is alive. It is also observed by the TRC villages inhabiting in Assam and Nagaland.
Gaan-ngai’s Message
When the Wakching month arrives in the midst of cold gentle breeze, each and everyone remembers Gaan-ngai and its message of love and peace. We should cherish the message of Gaan-ngai to bring peace and harmony in the society. In the present day society, Gaan-ngai’s message of peace has a special relevance. The Scripture of TRC says, “Be truthful, love others, be good to others, good to the guests and please them. Such act of piety will atone hundred sins.”
Religious aspects of Gaan-ngai
Gaan-ngai is a post harvest festival. When the granaries are full, the landscape is dry, the whole village is free from all agricultural works, and people turn to celebration, festivity and worship of the God (Tingkao Ragwang) and honoring of the living dead. The rites and rituals associated with the festival are as follows:
Guhcheng Phaimei: The festival opens with Guhcheng Phaimei (ginger offering) at the abode of Bambu (village presiding deity) to avoid any untoward incidents during the festival. It is performed by an elder of Pei with relevant hymns. Guh, ginger is considered sacred and it is used in many rites, sacrifices and also towards off Rasi-Rarou, evil forces. It is believed that ginger represents the toes and fingers of the formless creator and Almighty God, Tingkao Ragwang. In ritual chants, Guh is not merely addressed as just Guh, it is always addressed as Kachak Gubung (golden ginger).
Gaukpaijaomei: In the morning of the first day, Gaukpaijaomei, (observation of pig spleen; Gauk means pig, Pai means spleen and Jaomei, to observe) ceremony is performed at the courtyard of Khangchu sacrificing a big pig in the name of God. The spleen of the pig is removed and examined carefully for the sign of good and evil that is to come in the year. The portent is read as: if there is blemish on the spleen it is assumed as bad and there is nothing on it, is regarded as good sign.
Jeigantumei: Rites of conspicuous consumption usually involve food and drink. These are prepared in abundance and even excess, made generously available, and solemnly consumed in various forms of feasts, banquets. Traditional meals or blessed foods are one of the frequent and typical features of festival, since they are a very eloquent way to represent and enjoy abundance, fertility, and prosperity. Ritual food is also a means to communicate with gods and ancestors.  The above sacrificed animal is cooked and consumed by the members present at Khangchu. Eating together of the pork meat cooked with blood called Jeigan is an oath taking to stand as one in times of misery and happiness. Some say Jeigan is meant only for the Banja, Taku and Gaanchang. But all the members of Khangchu irrespective of age must have it as a vow. However, sitting arrangement is made according to age grade. Before meal they cry Naplaohoi.
Hoigammei: The Hoi procession takes place on the first day. In the afternoon, every male of Khangchu 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; it starts from Khangchu and returns to the same place with Rilai Hoi after the sport competitions like long jump, throwing stone, wrestling etc. at the Daanshanpung (village jumping ground). It expresses the strength and unity of the village.
In the Zeliangrong tradition, every important event starts and comes to an end with Hoi. Shouting Hoi is an invocation towards Tingkao Ragwang. R. Brown writes, “The festive occasions among the Zeliangrongs are numerous, and are characterized by feasting, drinking, dancing and singing, and shouting of the Hoi, Hoi without which no entertainment of any kind would be complete.”  The objective of Hoi procession is to renew the magical defense of the village community against natural and supernatural enemies.
Mhailapmei: New fire is produced by wood and bamboos friction. The fire is either distributed to every household or several team of young men visit individual families to produce the new fire. It is believed that partaking of the foods cooked with the new fire will make them healthy, wealthy and wise. It also denotes that one has entered a new era, a time of peace, prosperity and happiness; other significance is that the blessed influence of the fresh fire will last throughout the whole year. The rite of purification by means of fire is to expulsion of some sort of scapegoat carrying the “evil” and “negative” out of the village community.
Khunnummei: This ceremony is performed in the afternoon of Tuna-Gaan ngai. In the ceremony, the Nampou, (owner of the village) the chief functionary will go to the village gates and dig holes in which he offers Loidui, an egg and Tanchu, iron pieces with the chanting of relevant hymns. It is an affirmation that he is the descendent of the founder of the village and prays for the affirmation of his position and strength of the village. This has social and administrative significance.
Raang pammei: In midnight of the third day, Raang pammei ceremony is observed as a symbol of reaffirmation of the strength and unity of the village against the elements and forces unfavorable to the village. During the day time, the youth prepare a wooden pole, the gaa creepers, and canes and keep in the village gates.
In the night, an elder of the Rangteng pammei family uprights the wooden pole of the village gate at the right side of the village gate chanting appropriate hymns which is not to be audible to the gathering. The two warriors dressed in ceremonial warrior dress, holding dao and spear cut the pole. It is followed by the Hoi-Hoing of the gathering to scare away the wild beasts and evil elements followed by a complete silence. The warriors report to the elders, “Our village is protected and safe it will be prosperous,” the gathering at the village gate will respond by shouting “gaiye” (meaning good four times). From the village gate, the gathering proceeds shouting Hoi to the village jumping ground. Then, the refrain of gaiye, will be repeated and it is over. They return to the dormitories in a Hoi procession.
Napkaomei: On the first day, in every household, Napka ceremony, calling of paddy is performed by an elder of Pei for bountiful harvest in the coming year.
Offering of the best part of the killed animals or fowls i.e. the liver with rice and drink are offered to Kambuipui, Charaipui and Kairao (ancestors) who live in the form of hearth stones.
This is called Napchanmei. The same offering is placed on the Nashampantilai, grain jar which is considered to be the core of all wealth. The ritual offering (Napchanmei) is carried out by the household mother as the deity of rice is female.  (To be contd)