Significance of LAWM in the Contemporary Kuki Society

Published on November 20, 2008

By Ngamjahao Kipgen

Significance and Relevance of ‘LAWM’ (LOM) in the Contemporary Kuki Society 

Pu Thangminlen Kipgen, member of Manipur Legislative Assembly and Chairman of Hill Areas Committee, released an audio cassette entitled ‘Jalen Kanom’e’ that was envisaged/ composed by the ‘Lenlai Lom’ at Kuki-Inn, Imphal (India) on the 28th of October 2008. It is thought provoking and feasible to ask as to why the Lenlai Lom has condensed the socio-cultural heritage of the Kukis in the form of an audio cassette.

The motto of the album Jalen Kanom’e and also Gam Ngai La clearly depicts the romanticism and enchantment of the Kukis ancestral land, Kukiland or Zalengam (pre-colonial period). Rosseau rightly maintains that “Every man is born free….” In the same vein, the very word Jalen Kanom’e vividly indicates the willingness to be freed like that of the eagle flying freely unchained as shown in the cassette cover. All these evocative words reveal that the Kukis are still impregnated with the past ethos. The Kukis by their very nature are freedom loving people.  

LENLAI-LOM adheres to a voluntary and philanthropic organization comprising of like minded peer group, who are energetic and very much enthusiastic to help the poor and the needy. It could be in terms of working for the common cause (issues and matters) vis-à-vis revitalization of the Kuki corporate labour corps. My intention as such however is not to propagate the agenda and ideology of Lenlai Lom, rather is to explain the essence of the Kuki traditional institution, called ‘Lawm’. The state of Manipur being multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, it is imperative to explore the socio-cultural institution which was prevalent in the traditional Kuki Society. 

Lawm (Village labour corps):  

The word LAWM signifies an informal labour organization in a simple and agrarian village life of the Kukis. Unlike the married person, the entire able bodied youth of the village irrespective of age and sex took membership. It is an organization which concerned chiefly with the economic aspect of the Kuki society. It imparts a sense of duty and dignity to the younger ones and also serves as the training centre for leadership. Lawm therefore is a youth organization (like the present day Youth Club) which was predominant in the Kuki society in the days of yore. It was basically a united group of ten or more young boys and girls of more or less the same age group for a common purpose.  

A Kuki village may comprised of three or more Lawm organizations in accordance with the size and population of a particular village, namely Lawm-pi, Lawm-lai, Lawm-neo and Lawm-changpah which are characterized by a particular specific age group or seniority within the family. The motive behind this formation of Lawm was to accomplish the cultivation (jhum) work of each household in a village at the allotted time frame. This can be attributed/ traced to the constrained period of time in Jhum cultivation i.e. individually faced by every Kuki villagers as this peculiar cultivation (jhumming) needs the right manual at the right time.  In this organization, every youth (members of Lawm) would work collectively in every individual’s field reciprocally.

The number of work days, other than his own, attended to by a Lawm member will be credited to his name and the same number of work hours he does shall be repaid to him. They also rendered philanthropic services to the poor and needy villagers (widow) who could not finish their cultivation works on time due to illness or other unavoidable circumstances. Such rendering of free services by the Lawm is known as ‘Lawm Tha-Hu’. Hence, in this way the Lawm members reciprocated in helping each other and thereby keeping the village self-sufficient in the matter of physical labour and work force. 

Lawm Administration:  

For the smooth and proper functioning of the Lawm, the Lawm organization has its own administrative unit operating under various elaborate sets of rules discharged by its official known as ‘Lawm Kai-Ho’ viz. Lawm U’pa (Male Supervisor), Lawm Nu-pi (Female Supervisor), Lawm Tollai Pao (Volunteer/Helper), Lawm Pengkul Mut (Trumpet bearer/ Time Keeper) etc. Violation and disobedience of their prescribed rules were punishable by making them drink several Jugs-full of water known as ‘Taleem Don’.  

Lawm Kivah/Juneh (Celebration):  

The year round agro-based economy of the Kukis revolves within the ambit of earning bread for survival and merry making without much concern for future growth and savings. It was basically based on subsistence economy. They indulged themselves to various activities which were manifested in the form of social celebrations.  Taking into consideration the above syntax, Lawm Kivah is one of its kinds (social celebration) in connection with the cultivation. The celebration is usually held after the seasonal harvest at the residence of the Lawm U’pa with the prior consent and approval of the village chief. In celebrating the festival, it needs a long year preparation.

The indigenous made liquor ‘Vai Zu’ (rice-beer) is also served and sipped by all members throughout the night with singing and dancing. Customary games and sports like Siel-Bon Chou (wrestling with the Mithun) and Siel-Kal (jumping over the Mithun) after which the Mithun is killed and feasted by the entire villagers. With this, ‘Lawm-Kivah’ comes to a close. Though there are changes in the styles and ways of celebration, for those alien to the Kuki culture, the present day ‘CHAVANG-KUT’ is one such harvesting festival. 

Significance of Lawm:               

The institution of Lawm (village labour corps/ youth organization) in the traditional Kuki society occupies an intrinsic part as it helped in the proper functioning of all round village socio-economic development. It is worth mentioning that a society with economic stability would automatically enhance their future growth either politically, socially or militarily. A distinguished scholar has rightly made a remark that “a bankrupt society is a death society’.” In like manner, the Lawm organization in a Kuki village had helped in keeping the village self-sufficient and intact – prosperity of the people. This is evident from the Kukis economic history that poverty was never heard of in the pre-colonial days.  

The members sustained and perpetuated the village society through a uniform code of conduct and discipline for it was the potential source of strength in the proper functioning of a traditional Kuki society. The male Lawm members of a puberty aged groups served as the Kuki warrior (military). They would stay together at the SAWM (bachelor’s dormitory) after their daily chores of works which was constructed adjacent to the Chief’s house/residence. They thus represented the potent force for the Chief’s power and pride.

Politically, they are the backbone and pillar of the village administration. Some of the capable and qualified members in the dormitory served as Gal Lamkai (General) in the Chief’s army and Council of Minister (Semang Pachong) in the later years of their maturity. It was indeed a training ground/centre for leadership.  

The significance of this institution also lies in the fact that the absence of this Lawm in a village would eventually led to a serious drawbacks – dysfunction of the of village machinery. They are the one who acted as a cementing force for the existence of a strong nation. They are readily available in times of emergency and crisis. Life of the Kukis runs round these two sets of cardinal institutions viz. Lawm and Sawm for social control and etiquettes, and this develop a sense of self responsibility and determination. 

Conclusion: 

Lawm is thus an institution which teaches the Kukis a corporate feeling at a very young and tender age. It instills in the Kukis the importance and strength of a united body. The spirit of oneness and the sharing of common goal which he learns from the Lawm make him see the whole society as one with different parts of the same purpose. It helps the members fit in the society and fulfill his parts for the higher objective of the society’s existence. 

To conclude, Lenlai Lom today has stood up to reaffirm by propagating the common interest and issues concerning the Kukis through music (putting anecdotes and folktales in the form of songs and lyrics). It also strongly advocates some sort of revivalism and a yearning for the once established institution i.e. Lawm. The initiative taken by ‘Lenlai Lom’ indicates a renaissance of the erstwhile ‘Lawm’.

They, therefore, deserve appreciation and encouragement from every corner. Currently, the Lenlai Lom theoretically rejuvenates the essence of reviving the past cultural ethos of the Kukis. The past cooperative ethics, loyalty and affinity should be inculcated and imbibed among the present younger generation.  

The author is a Research Scholar at Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, India.