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When community lives erupt in ritual celebrations

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The new agricultural season for most ethnic communities commences almost as soon as the harvest season is over.

By Salam Rajesh

The rotational seasonal cycle for the agrarian societies in Northeast India is full of activities related to their lifestyles, knitted closely to the elements of nature and bound to their surroundings for their living and sustenance.

In Manipur, as is true of the other ethnic communities living in the eight sister States that collectively are demographically and socio-politically termed as the ‘Northeast’, the agrarian society is one with the recurring annual seasons in terms of the interpretation of the seasons through different forms of celebrations and ritual occasions to mark the end or beginning of a particular season, more specifically concerned with their agrarian lifestyle.

The commencement of the seed sowing, plantation and harvest season is full of activity with ritual worships and celebration, so much as the post-harvest season is equally marked with different ritual observations and celebrations of life. Almost every ethnic community in Manipur, none of the thirty six scheduled tribes nor the Chakpa or the Meitei to be left unaccounted, celebrate life in their own ways and based on their beliefs and age-old traditions.

The new agricultural season for most ethnic communities commences almost as soon as the harvest season is over. For instance, with harvest over by October and November months, for the Kharam tribe the preparations for the onset of the new agricultural cycle begin in late December. Calculation for a specific ritual observation is done according to the readings on the lunar calendar – ‘Thaban’ in the vernacular.

The annual Meithal Kaap ritual festival of the Kharam tribe heralds the commencement of the new agricultural cycle with ritual cleansing of the village locality. The climax of the festival is marked by shooting of fire-arrows when night falls to shoo away all evil spirits from the village locality, so that the new agricultural cycle begins with the promise of a bountiful harvest in the ensuing season and good health for all.

In particular, December and January months on the Roman calendar coincide with the Poinu and Wakching months on the lunar calendar. Typically windy and cold, with the strong north-westerly winds raking the bones and added with a spice of misty mornings, the elements of nature however do not dampen spirits when the community springs to life in their celebrations, unbroken for ages – generations after generations.

For the Maomei tribe in the northern uplands, the cold and windy days in early January do not deter them from celebrating their annual ritual festival Chiithuini. The festival marks their commencement of the new agricultural cycle, celebrated with the age-old tradition of communicating with their forefathers through the chanting of ‘hoi-hoi’ atop the heights of the mountains.

The colourful costumes of the Maomei men and women, drawn from the colours of the rainbow and the imitation of flowers, mingle easily with the vigorous physique and the display of prowess in hunting and war-like games. In Maomei society, as much as in Tangkhul and Poumai societies, the collective singing of the men and women resonate the sounds and music of nature.

January month also sees the Zeliangrong ethnic communities celebrating the commencement of the new agricultural cycle. The ritual offering in the morning on the very first day of the five-day long Gan-ngai annual ritualistic festival marks the cleansing of the village community, with readings of the signs for the ensuing agricultural year.

Equally the celebration of the bountiful harvest in the preceding agricultural year, the ritual festival significantly is the time when everyone is free from the activities in the agricultural fields and they enjoy life to the fullest. It is also the season when young men and women choose their partners in life. Society allows them to know each other, interacting through community dances that involve all – young and old. In the midst of the festivity are the imparting of the nuances of life for the young and the un-initiated, through the respective boys and girls dormitories, each headed by learned and experienced elders.

In the Meitei society, there are various ritual worships and ritual festivals that mark the post-harvest season and the onset of the new agricultural cycle. For instance, the ritual worship of Kongba Leithong-phatpa is primarily the reading of signs for the ensuing agricultural seasons. The earth is dug to read tell-tale signs, whether there would be floods or droughts in the coming agricultural year. The drought would definitely impact the crops, so much as the impending floods would ravage the crops.

The ritual worship of the Goddess of Prosperity, Imoinu Ima, in early January can be interpreted as the celebration of bountiful harvest in the preceding agricultural season and seeking the blessings of the goddess for prosperity in the ensuing agricultural year – in terms of bountiful harvest in the following season.

In traditional life, the ritual worships and ritualistic festivals are accompanied by music and dance which is typical of agrarian lifestyle, seen in most ethnic communities all over the world. The celebrations of life is blended with music and singing that are again reflections of the sounds and sights of nature.

Both agrarian and pastoral lifestyles are closely interrelated with the elements of nature, whereby the sounds and sights and colours of nature are embedded in the choice of dress and costumes, music, song and dance. For instance, the Poumai use a wind musical instrument that are hung from the gable of the traditional houses and uses the force of nature (wind) to produce music naturally.

The Kharam use a wind musical instrument made out of bamboo tubes and when they blow in differing pitches, the music produced resonate the sound of nature. In all, the dances reflect community life in togetherness and the songs recount the passages of life.

(The writer has decades-long connections with ethnic communities in Manipur. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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