By: Mr. Diphiu Prinmai & Dr. Tasongwi Newmei
Manipur is a tiny state in the Northeast India with the population of 28.55 lakhs that has diverse people of various Naga and Kuki- Chin tribes who speak different languages, besides the Meitei who inhabit the central valley region of Manipur. The Indigenous Liangmai Tribe is a recognized Scheduled tribe enlisted in ST list vide constitution order (Amendment) Act, 2011 republished in Manipur Gazette No. 838 dated 27/03/2012. The Liangmai community lives in various districts of Manipur, viz Tamenglong, Senapati, Kangpokpi, Noney, Imphal West and Imphal East with a sizeable population of about 70,000 approx and nearly 100 villages with the literacy rate of 73% in Manipur. The Government of Manipur as ordered by the Governor dated 2nd December 2021 had declared Chaga Ngee 30th October as a restricted holiday in the state.
There is an enhanced awareness amongst the Liangmai of the changes that have been taking place in the society largely as a result of the spread of globalization, Christianity, westernization and the development of new economic and political forces leading to giving up of traditional cultural practices. Change is a law of nature, and it is a natural phenomenon that a stronger form of culture often imposes its influence upon the other. The spread of Christianity within the community has changed the religious beliefs, rituals and practices, raising questions about how they can coexist with their traditional ways. Furthermore, the influence of westernization and foreign cultures has brought about many changes in the Liangmai culture with the dangerous consequence as the modern society has conformed so much to the new developments that the traditional cultural practices are slowly losing their relevance. In fact, as the saying goes a stitch in time saves nine, every possible measure should be invested to keep alive our traditional culture at any cost.
Chaga Ngee as one of the most significant indigenous post-harvest festivals is celebrated by the Liangmai in the month of Chaga Hiu (Kabai Hiu) based on the lunar calendar which is equated to the month of October in present time. The Chaga Ngee is considered as a festival of sanctification, purification of society especially the warriors, blessing, thanksgiving and determination of individual lucks through omens as indicated by Npeng kepbo/Phenbou. It is rather a festival of seeking blessing from Tingwang, the supreme God by the tribe. Based on the lunar calendar by observing the cycle of the moon, the Singkupiu (chief priest) assisted by the Apaimai, the council of elders decides when the Chaga Ngee will begin. The calendar is maintained by the method of ‘Singchet Riobo’ (Singchet, means a thin stick and Riobo, means partially breaking/making a mark by folding) where a particular thin stick chosen for that month is partially broken every new day to calculate the days and month of the year. Once the new moon is sighted and the priest declared the date, every necessary preparation for the festival will begin and every villager takes utmost measure to keep themselves safe from getting injured or falling sick. It is considered a bad omen to be injured or get sick and be bed ridden during the festival. Certain things considered as taboos or sins are strictly prohibited and the people refrained themselves not to indulge in all those actions; refraining from eating certain foods like vegetables obtained from creepers and from going to pregnant women or menstruating women’s house, or family performing ‘Tadiak rituals’ (family whose member died that year and are considered to be still living together with the death soul).
The preparation for the Chaga Ngee begins with a day called the ‘Zao Ra Thaobo nai’. On this day all necessary arrangements for ‘Zao Madungbo’, fermenting of powdered rice for preparation of indigenously brewed wines for consumption during the festival is made. Two days after the preparation of wine was initiated, that is on the third day, the festival begins with the day named as ‘Kabak Minwangbou nai’ also popularly called as ‘Chami Malapwangbo nai’, wherein a new fire is kindled for the festival forsaking the old one. The new fire symbolizes a thoroughly cleansed new phase of life. The second day of the festival is called the ‘Npeng Kepbo nai’. This day is also called as ‘Chareng Kepbo nai’ because a symbolic effigy/figurine of a bird called ‘Chareng’, a hornbill is painted with ‘Kiangui’ (a dye made out of black soot/ash collected from Mengkang, a platform above the hearth to dry or hang things) on a flat wooden plank hewed out of Nbahsing (a kind of tree with broad leaves soft/spongy trunk) and a specific kind of reed from a shrub called ‘Ading’ will be thrown by the individual in the form of darts targeting the specific parts of the effigy on that day. The third day of the festival is named as ‘Malong Ponbo nai’, a day on which the menfolk would give what is known as ‘patan paliu kong khaibo’, the giving of cooked rice, meat curry/meat and eatables to the sisters and daughters/womenfolk of one’s clan and lineage. On this day, it is no more a taboo to mix with the women and girls unlike the first two days where it is a taboo to eat food prepared by the womenfolk or drink the water fetched by women. Boys and girls would go to collect firewood on this day. This day is also called as ‘Gadi’, meaning the big chaga feasting day as both men and women would join the festival. The fourth day of the festival is called ‘Chaga Pahbo nai’. It should fall on the day of the full moon night. On this day, before the evening sets in, the feasting and drinking of wine must stop because it is considered a taboo to consume Chaga food and wine after Chaga Pahbo and it was believed that the consumers will be vulnerable to injuries or accidents. So the excess/leftover food and wine will be collected for the old menfolk to feast on it as ‘Chaga Laibo’. This part of the festival which would continue into the fifth day is known as ‘Chaga Laibo’, the eating and feasting of old folks in a separate enclosure made out of ‘Tadong’ (bamboo mat) outside the house as it is a taboo to bring Chaga food and wine inside the house after Chaga Pahbo.
One of the most important activities of the Chaga festival is the Npeng Phenbo/Charengkepbo. It has both religious and secular connotations. For this, the picture of the Chareng (hornbill) is painted on wooden plank hewed out from trees such as Nbahsing or Ntabang (Indian Corel tree/Erythrina) and is tied on a tall, straight and slender tree cut from the forest which in turn is tied to a living tree on a sacred spot earmarked to carry out the activity. The Npeng with the effigy/picture of the hornbill is divided into five parts with symbolic nuances such as the head, neck, chest, stomach, and below the pelvic region. The head is called Charibai which symbolises victory in warfare. The neck symbolises the great hunter and is also called the Tathiubai. The chest is called the Aliubai, representing good luck for finding partner and is considered the favourite target for the unmarried. The stomach epitomizes wealth and bountiful harvest and it is called Chamiubai. The pelvic region is called the Majiubai, and it signifies bad omen of getting dysentery or diarrhea and is not liked by anyone. As all the male members of the Khangchiuky (A dormitory of the folk school for life popularly known as Morung) gathered to perform the symbolic Npeng Phenbo, the priest will perform ceremonial opening. Once the ritual is conducted, all the members of the Khangchiuky take turns to throw their darts of Ading at the effigy with prayers to hit the specific target they want. It is believed that where they hit determines the fate of that year. Meanwhile other related rituals were also performed. The activity of Npeng Phenbo is concluded by prayer of blessing from the priest.
As soon as the moon is sighted to signal as the beginning of the month of Chaga Ngee, the priest would make a cry of public declaration that nobody should be sick, no debts should be asked for and there should be no conflicts and violence of any kind in the society. The Liangmai will be celebrating Chaga Ngee in Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Maharashtra, Delhi NCR etc. Chaga is a celebration of a beautiful and culturally rich festival with true intent and spirit of beautiful traditional attires and melodious folk songs and dances showcasing and promoting the best talents.
The festival affirms this spirit and philosophy to promote understanding and appreciation of a rich cultural heritage, tolerance, and social cohesion, all of which are crucial for building peace and harmony in society. A festival like Chaga can indeed play a significant role in building peace and harmony, understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures, reducing prejudice and promoting harmony among different communities, tolerance and acceptance of different religious cultural practices. Chaga Ngee can be and should be given the status of State Festival and be declared as a general holiday and it can have a huge impact for Manipur and entire Northeast India. After all, experiencing festivals linked to cultures and traditions is the ultimate way to immerse oneself into other’s communities. Chaga Ngee has the potential to be one of the best indigenous festivals that connects people and communities not only at the local level but even at the regional, national and global level by attracting tourists as a state event.
CHAGA NGEE: Age-Old Festival of the Liangmai Naga Tribe
By: Mr. Diphiu Prinmai & Dr. Tasongwi Newmei