Land Rites and Rituals Among The Kukis

Published on February 3, 2009

By Hoineilhing Sitlhou 

Land Rites and Rituals among the Thadou-Kukis: A Narrative on the Chang-Nungah Ritual 

In the past, an interesting agricultural related ritual used to be performed to invoke blessing as also to foresee the fate of a family in terms of prosperity in a given year. Amidst the paddy field, sometimes one or more stalks refused to be pregnant with grains. It remains in that form unfazed with its green leaves intact refusing to change to the tunes of the changing times, unlike its counterpart who had moved on to the next stage by bearing grains of rice.

These stalks were compared to an unmarried woman. They were named chang-nungah, meaning rice-maiden. In the lore of the Kuki people, this chang-nungah has an interesting significance. They were considered as a harbinger of good fortune and harvest. Accordingly, they were revered and adorned as if a woman and the priest or thempu[1] performs a special ritual to appease chang-nungah to bless the harvest and the field owner’s family.  

Legend has it that this practice was due to a story, which involved an old lady and two orphaned siblings. In the story, an old woman visits the village of the two siblings. She begged from door to door but no one was willing to accommodate her. Finally, she knocked on the door of the two children who told her that they had nothing to offer her. The old woman assured them that if they let her in, she would find a way to relieve them from their hapless condition. The children, in return, welcomed the old woman to stay with them. They shared with her whatever little they had and treated her well.  

From that day onwards, the old woman stayed with them for good. When the siblings went to the field, the old lady would close the doors and spread a mat called dop[2] on the floor of the house. She would spread out the mat on the floor everyday for that purpose. She would sit on the mat and then shake her entire body after which a strange thing used to happen. From her body, rice grains would keep dropping until the spread-out mat would be full with grains of rice.  

This ensured an abundant supply of rice and a comfortable living for both the children. The old woman was affectionately called grandmother Chaiching or Pi Chaiching. Their living condition gradually improved and in due course of time, they became very well-to-do and did not have to worry over daily sustenance. During every harvest, they always reaped a bumper crop many times larger than their land holdings. They became very influential within their village. 

One day, grandmother Chaiching told her grandchildren, “My grandchildren, when you are tending the field, do not let any weed grow unattended, because when you do that something sticks in my teeth and I cannot sleep at night due to the pain.” The siblings had meanwhile become vain in their newfound affluence and status. They did not heed their grandmother’s request but mischievously defied it. They intentionally let the weeds grow in the paddy field. Chaiching would groan in pain throughout the night as the siblings would watch her squall and even made fun of her in the morning. 

During the harvesting season, Pi Chaiching requested her grandchildren again, “My grandchildren, until and unless you have gleaned every single stalks of paddy, you should not burn it.” Once again, the children chose to disobey her. They burned the paddy pile before the harvesting was over. Chaiching cried the whole night in pain and could not sleep. She said, “My whole body is burning.” In the morning, Chaiching confronted her grandchildren and told them that, she had enough of the ill-treatment meted to her. She told them, “From this day onwards, you are not going to see me anymore. Nevertheless, I am going to tell you something, which you should always bear in mind and never forget. From now onwards, whenever the harvesting season arrives, I will appear as a chang-nungah or rice-maiden. If you heed my biddings and follow my instructions, then you will always be rich and prosperous but poor otherwise.” Then she told them how to tend the special paddy stalk or chang-nungah 

This is the reason why in the olden days and even in the recent past, there was a belief that whenever a chang-nungah appears in the field, they considered it as the spirit of the paddy and believed that it would bring them fortune and good health if they tend to it according to the instructions given by Pi Chaiching.

Pi Chaiching named the possibilities of her appearing in the form of different types of paddy stalks. They are:

1. Sabolkhum

2. Sa-jam

3. Sakhongma

4. Samuntheh

5. Sabite

6. Sanelkai 

 

In case it appeared as sabolkhum and sanelkai, a pig had to be used in the ritual, whereas in all other conditions, a rooster was sufficient. 

 

Ritual for appeasing the Chang-Nungah

 

For the chang-nungah, a hut is built with length and breath of one foot each and half feet tall from the ground on which it is erected. The hut should have everything that is usually in the possession of any ordinary maiden; spool, thread, spinning wheel, weaving arrangement, bamboo container, comb, and nine sheaves of paddy. Moreover, there should be a ready fire near the threshing mill, and ten coins and ten gongs should be ready among many other things.

 

Each family gets ready for the ritual to appease the chang-nungah. They have to get the materials ready for the ceremony starting with a jar of rice-beer. The lom (youth organisational group) who had come for harvesting will partake in drinking the wine before they start the threshing work. After this, everyone will move towards the place where the already gleaned paddy stalks are kept. Then they will sit silently around the site usually in a circle.

 

The Thempu or the priest would come with a robust rooster meant for the sacrificial ritual. The Tuchapu would come with a big haversack and a walking stick. Both of them will head towards the hut that was built for the chang-nungah. The Bechapu and tuchapu would re-enact the scene between the old woman and the children. The Tuchapu will hold the walking stick, act like an old woman and slowly walk towards the hut. When he reached near the Bechapu, who is sitting near the phol,[3] there will be a dramatic play of interchange of dialogue between the tuchapu and bechapu.

 

Tuchapu–(Tehsepi) Hepi; Na inn a hunglhunging kate

(Acting as the old lady) Will you let me stay in your house?

 

Bechapu–Inn asel-le (Jesung ahi) Koima ka-in na hung lhung theiponte. Jinpha nahim; Jinse nahim? 

(Acting as a villager) It is an inauspicious day and we do not entertain guest. Are you a good guest; are you a bad guest? 

 

Tuchapa–Jinpha kahi-e; Changlha kapoi; mimlha kapoi; mitphat kapoi; hamphat kapoi; Chanu lha kapoi; Chapa lha kapoi; Sumlha kapoi; Sel lha kapoi; Ti-dam kapoi; Lu-dam kapoi; Valpa bunga kon-na kahin vetleh; hilaija hin mei akhu-in; Sihmi lamjot; Khongbai lamjot kahin tho-a; kahin jot ahi.

(Acting as the old lady) I am a good guest; I carry with me the spirit of the paddy, the spirit of job-tears; I bring you blessings; I carry the spirit of the daughter; I carry the spirit of the son; I carry the spirit of wealth and money; I carry the spirit of the mithun; I carry with me good health; when I look down from the sky, I could see smokes coming from this place, so I have come here by imitating the walk of the ants and the grasshoppers. 

 

Bechapu–Hicheng  po chuba kahol ahi; hunglutnin; ati-a lampi-a thingtoi khat; kotkhah ding banga akoi chu alah doh peh a phol la chu alha lutding ahi.

(Acting as a villager) I have been on the look out for such a guest who carries all those traits. Then he will lift a small wooden log meant to be a make-believe door and lead the guest to the barn. 

 

The bechapu would then welcome him into the barn. The Tuchapu would take the three sheaves of rice paddy from his haversack and pour it on the mat, and head back towards the hut of the chang-nungah. This dramatised conversation would be repeated two more time and each time three out of the nine paddy stalks would be used. This would continue until the nine stalks are exhausted. Then, the priest would take the rooster and pull out some of its feathers and plant it in the front lawn of the chang-nungah’s hut. He will mumble some words and start his incantation as part of the ritual. Then the priest will take the cock and the three bundles of paddy stalks and move towards the pile of harvested paddy. 

 

The Thempu will take the rooster and mumbles slowly the following lines of incantation: “if the following year brings forth with it health and wealth for the family, give us a sign by your right leg, if it is not going to bring the family wealth and health, show us by your left leg.” Then the priest would behead the rooster and unleash it inside the barn. The rooster would keep jumping around inside the barn until it eventually dies. If it tries to jump out of the barn, they will drive it inside again and before it dies the priest checks the legs of the rooster. Only the priest knows which hind leg emerges victorious. This decides the fate of the family in the following year. Then the priest would proclaim aloud to the gathering including the landowner’s family, “we shall be prosperous; we shall be healthy.” 

 

The folklore depicts the Kukis’ traditional belief that the rice plant has a spirit or a soul. It can be either appeased or grieved. The symbolic meaning of the rites and rituals performed by the priest is to request the spirits of the rice plant to remain and not loiter from that particular field. The Chang-Nungah is the visible evidence of the existence of the spirits of the paddy. They could communicate to the spirits of rice plant and negotiate with it to be good to them through the medium of the Chang-Nungah.  

 

The narrative reflects the worldview of the Kukis – of the belief that kind deeds never goes unrewarded and that pride goes before a fall. It also runs parallel to the book of Hebrews in the bible, which says; ‘Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it’. The belief in the existence of the spirits of the rice plant that determines whom it should bless not only with a good harvest but also with a prosperous life shows their confidence in the existence of a supernatural power that is stronger than mere labour power or the existential reality. In short, this tale like many others in our vast collection of folklore, is an attempt by our ancestors to make sense of reality as it appeared to them at that particular point of time. 

 

As narrated by: 

 

1. Rev. Satkholal Lhouvum, Joupi Village/ Motbung Village

2. Kailal Lhouvum, Motbung Village

3. S.L.Vumkhopao, Motbung Village

4. Letpao Lhouvum, Motbung Village

5. Helthang Kilong, Motbung Village

6. Tongkholam Singson, Motbung Village

7. S. Tongkholun Haokip, Imphal

8. Mr. &Mrs. Tongpu Kipgen, Imphal 


 

[1] Thempu or village priest are ritual specialist. They have lost their significance with the advent of Christianity.[

2] It is a traditional mat used for drying grains over fire in the traditional fireplace.

[3]  A place where the harvested grains are kept.

 

The writer is a doctoral candidate of Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India.

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